This is the second of five articles about the 130 year old Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse, an artist loft building demolished in January 2019 after a fire in November 2018
Saved by the Vats
The artists living in the Citizens Warehouse never understood what the huge vats were in the building’s basement. The illegal artist community was more amazed that anyone would rent the low-ceilinged space, where a grid of channels surrounding pedestal-mounted large redwood columns spaced about 14 feet on centers ran between the thick brick foundation walls. In the warehouse’s center on the area’s south edge the channels ended at the pits. The channels were valleys in which a tall person could stand upright next to flat concrete surfaces that provided only a height of five-plus feet to the ceiling joists. Only short people could occupy this huge space; and this was possible for the artist, his French wife, and their four-year old son, Will. Using big black plastic tarps, the family partitioned off the vats and subdivided the rat-shared space for living and working.
Will in the Basement of the Citizens Warehouse, 1980
The artist was paying three cents per square foot for 4,000 square feet ($120 per month), but the family didn’t last long in the basement. For maybe a year, they toughed it out. The shared inhabitants were noisy and fast, darting across the studio at all hours of the day. The basement didn’t provide light and ventilation for the artist’s fabrication of painted vacuum-formed 5-foot-tall half penguins. The artist, family, and penguins moved to Hollywood. Another artist tried to construct an airplane in the part of the basement next to the bridge, but fire inspectors ended that project when they uncovered flammable paint. The artist and his homemade flying machine were evicted. For most of the Artist in Residence (AIR) history the basement was a place where artists stacked their unsold works.
A building with a basement is a rare phenomenon in Los Angeles. This partially subterranean space with small clerestory windows that provided a soft dull light around the perimeter. I humorously referred to the area as a weird columbarium, where the anonymous were buried beneath the higher platform grids above the valley paths. The brick tubs could have been where the dead were washed. No one in the art community knew these vats were employed to ferment cucumbers into pickles until the LA Conservancy, in its effort to preserve and prevent the south end of this prime example of vanishing Victorian era vernacular industrial architecture with hand hewn redwood square columns and beams covered with milled maple flooring, identified the building as the Pickle Works.
When the first section of the building was constructed in 1888, it was called the “California Vinegar and Pickle Company.” The spot was ideally situated next to the cucumber fields of the Los Angeles pueblo and river, not far from the ocean with its infinite supply of required salty brine for pickling, and conveniently located along the new railroads for transportation of fermented pickles. As the city grew and the railroad expanded, the Pickle Works grew. In 1905 and again in 1909, the building was elongated, a second story was added, and it changed use. Pickle-making ended, and the building became a paper box-making plant employing 200 people.
As the years past, the building then became a storage facility. The Pickle Factory became the Citizens Warehouse. Finally, in the late 1970s the empty structure became artist housing. In 2005, the Pickle Works Building was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as a rare-for-Los-Angeles surviving 117-year old brick industrial building. In 2006, The Library of Congress described and made a photographic survey of the structure. The black and white photographs showed the unique character of the building, then occupied by the downtown art community.
Yet registration as a historic place didn’t take place. The City of Los Angeles bought the building, evicted the artists, and demolished the southern 75 feet for construction of the Gold Line expansion into East Los Angeles, and the widening of the First Street Bridge to accommodate the light rail line down the center of the bridge. The initial proposal called for only 35 feet to be destroyed, but that number was increased to allow for a construction staging area. Pressured by the art community, the City agreed to resurface the lopped-off end and seek a developer to restore what was left. It didn’t happen. For ten years the warehouse remained vacant as the Los Angeles Conservancy and the art community struggled to find an investor to restore and reuse the Citizens Warehouse. Community advocates finally got the reluctant City to fulfill its promise to refinish the eyesore plywood-surfaced south elevation. The effort was a pathetic parody of phony windows and shutters made of thin sheet metal pinned to the façade. The sheet metal distorted and twisted exposed to the sun.
South Wall of the Citizens Warehouse before and after Restoration
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Draft Environment Impact Report (DEIR) released for public comment in March 2018 called for total demolition of the remaining part of the warehouse. The authority’s planners stated the warehouse area was needed for storage of rail cars for the Red and Purple Lines. During the allotted time for public comment, the MTA received 49 comments regarding the project’s plan. The majority of the comments were about the intended destruction of the Pickle Works aka the Citizens Warehouse. The preservationists reiterated the arguments for keeping the building because of its construction character and it long 130-year history. Judith Randall in an email, April 27, 2018 wrote:
“How could anyone even think of demolishing a structure called the Pickle Works Building? From its vintage shutters still proudly adorning the windows after all these years to its rough knobby stucco walls and its floors worn down from the souls of boots of workers who couldn’t possibly conceive of today’s electronic age. And that is why preserving as much of Pickle Works Building is so vital to our connection to the past. Its not just Los Angeles history, it’s hanging onto and protecting the innocence of that period when things were so much more on the human side.”
The importance of the Pickle Works to the culture of Los Angeles was referenced in several comments. Artist George Herms lived in the structure, Paul McCarthy exhibited there, and Michael Blake, the author of “Dances with Wolves,” frequently visited the building to shower, since the abandoned gas station, now gone, where he resided was nearby. Adrian Scott Fine, Director of Advocacy for the LA Conservancy, wrote a long letter in support of saving the building. He states, mentioning the artist and writer of these comments:
“By the 1970s, the building was known as the Citizens Warehouse. As is typical of buildings in this district, this one was left vacant as a manufacturing moved out of the center city. The large, empty spaces were ideal for artists, who bought the building and rented out space to other artists for studios. Citizens Warehouse, … has a particularly noteworthy connection to the Arts District. It was the location of the Art Dock, an ever-changing feature of the neighborhood from 1980 to 1986, in which local artist Carlton Davis used the loading dock of his rented portion of the building as an innovative drive-up gallery space.”
The effort to save the warehouse was successful. The Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) was altered to preserve part of the building, and on October 25, 2018, the report was accepted by the Metro Transportation Authority’s Board. The report’s Mitigation Measure CR-3 was “expanded to not only protect and preserve portions of the building not needed for the proposed project, but to also preserve the opportunity to restore portions that were removed by a prior project.” The qualifiers are important to note in this decision.
The Metro team also concluded that the location of the storage yard and the geometry required to connect the tracks made it infeasible to avoid demolition of the warehouse’s east wall. Metro would saw-cut through the first floor, second floor and roof along the eastern and northern sides of the structure. They would salvage and store the original materials to rebuild the previously-demolished 75 feet of structure, if the reconstruction were proven to be financially viable, and an appropriate use could be found that meets the approval of the local community.
The usable space remaining to this lopped and sliced off building would be minimal compared to what it originally was — just 26, 000 square feet would be left or recreated on three levels: a second floor, first floor, and an uninhabitable basement, which conceivably would still include the vats. Finding an entity to invest in such a bastardized building would be difficult. The preservation and restoration project for the Citizens Warehouse sounded good. Everyone celebrated a community and preservationist victory, but the win was Pyrrhic, more elusive than feasible and more a feel-good political stunt than good faith possibility. Sabrina Nucciarone summarized her take in an email comment dated April 27, 2018 regarding the Pickle Works Building:
“In the words of the writers of the movie La La Land, Los Angeles has the long-suffering personality of being the city that “worships everything and values nothing.” It is a long-standing joke even in commentaries in movies, television, shows, and documentaries. Don’t be the one that says, “Tear it down.”