The Bryson Apartments, via Google Street View.
Considered by many to be one of the most attractive apartment buildings in Los Angeles, the regal Bryson Apartment Building at 2701 Wilshire Blvd. stands as a lovely example of 1910s high end apartment living, a stately survivor reflecting the optimistic, go-getter attitude of early Los Angeles residents. Combining superb construction, elegant looks, and luxurious decoration, the Bryson stands as a glorious monument to its builder, Hugh W. Bryson.
Community leader Bryson believed in constructing affordable large scale residential developments filled with beauty and taste. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, August 1, 1868, ambitious Bryson strove for excellence from a young age. After graduating from high school, he worked as clerk for a cotton brokers, working in banking, and selling real estate, before arriving in Los Angeles in 1902. Bryson joined leading contractor, F. O. Engstrum Co., and within a few years, married the owner’s daughter, Blanche. He was named a general manager and director of the company in 104, focusing on major projects. Recognizing the large migration of East Coast and Midwest residents to sunny LA, Bryson began financing and his own projects under his Concrete Appliances Company.
The Bryson Apartments in Architect and Engineer.
From the beginning, Bryson’s hyperbolic publicity played up the special quality of the proposed building. The first announcement for the project appeared in the May 19, 1912 Los Angeles Times, proclaiming Bryson’s intention to erect a classical style building with dramatic entrance, gardens, and fountain. Conveniences and amenities would include a ground floor power plant, elevators, staff residences, vacuum and telephone hook-ups in every suite, hot/cold water and steam heat for every apartment, along with maid service. The building contained all luxuries and comforts of a personal residence without maintenance, in a way, an early example of a condominium building.
The June 1, 1912, Los Angeles Times reported the construction start on the ten-story reinforced concrete apartment building at 2701 Wilshire Blvd., the largest apartment building yet built in the city. Under the title, “Finest Apartment House West of New York City,” the clip noted the fire-proof, elegant building’s construction and furnishings would cost $750,000, with 320 rooms and 96 apartments available around a central courtyard. Suites as large as twelve rooms could be assembled by opening contiguous apartments. “The building occupies one of the sightliest corners in the fashionable Wilshire residential districts,” available after Bryson purchased four homes on the property and tore them down.
Bryson originally intended to construct a smaller, six-story building right to the street, but after neighbors complained about how this look would disrupt the layout of the residential neighborhood, he set the apartment back 100 feet on the lot at the same distance from the sidewalk as neighboring homes. The builder ended up with a more substantial project possessing a large front lawn, gardens, and room for tennis courts. From higher floors, the building offered unobstructed views of the hills, mountains, and Wilshire and Westlake Districts.
Desiring only the best for his project, Bryson hired leading architects Frederick Noonan and Charles Kysor, designers of attractive new apartments throughout the neighborhood and downtown. Noonan had created plans for upscale homes and an Alhambra school building, and with Kysor, drawn plans for handsome hotels and apartments.
Bryson Apartments in The Architect.
Owner Bryson employed his own company, F. O. Engstrum Co. as contractor, with the business completing construction in record time for a reinforced concrete building, finishing in early January 1913, with a formal opening in the middle of the month. Bryson’s own company, Concrete Appliance Company provided the concrete. A large story in the Los Angeles Times described the luxurious surroundings, which included an interior finished with tile, African mahogany, and Italian marble. Cut glass chandeliers and upholstered mahogany furniture graced the lobby and reception room, with tile floors, stairs, and wainscotting constructed of marble. The top floor included such extras as music room, billiard room, a three-wall, glassed-in loggia, and a 45 x 60 foot ballroom. Suites, elegantly and expensively furnished,” ranged in size from one bedroom to four. Beaux Art exteriors featured classic finishing in various colored tile., with a grand entrance augmented by two regal lions welcoming guests. Final cost for the project equalled $550 a square foot.
A large advertisement in the May 30, 1913 Times proclaimed the building, “not excelled by any apartment in the world,” contained extra large furnished dining, living, and dressing rooms, tile baths with showers for all, tile floored kitchens, hard wood floors, and steam heat, “…constructed for people of refinement and desiring a homelike atmosphere with beautiful surroundings. No extra charge for telephone, gas, electricity, or daily cleaning.” Later ads promoted Marshall and Stearns folding beds in every room, offering both convenience and space.
Making a quick profit, Bryson leased the building October 1, 1913 for ten years, to F. S. Wise and W. H. Millspaugh for $660,000. On November 28, 1913, Bryson sold the building for $950,000 to millionaire O. S. Weston, along with 550 acres just west of Torrance, per the November 29, 1913 Times. In less than a year, Bryson had covered his costs and earned almost $900,000 in profits.
At least one filmmaker recognized the classic beauty of the building not long after opening. Mack Sennett’s Keystone filmed in front of the Bryson sometime during the week of February 1, 1914 for their short, “A Film Johnnie.” The gorgeous building stood in for the Sennett Studio, with star Charlie Chaplin standing in front of the Bryson, with a printed sign placed to the side of the entrance visible behind him. Film historian John Bengtson points out in his blog, Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Film Locations that Chaplin later employed the building as location for his short, “The Rink,” co-starring Edna Purviance.
A postcard showing the entrance to the Bryson Apartments, listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $4.31.
On December 11, 1915, F. W. Braun purchased the apartments from Weston at a cost of $1.25 million, with Wise and Millspaugh’s lease now costing $55,000 a year. Booming growth in Los Angeles brought eager new residents to rent the elegantly furnished rooms.
Proud residents and local organizations rented public space to hold women’s club meetings, society gatherings, afternoon teas, balls benefiting the Red Cross and War Relief, as well as fundraisers benefiting underprivileged children. The Zoellner Quartet performed a Los Angeles recital August 20, 1918, premiering new music. A small art gallery also occupied a small part of the building.
Aspiring new citizens and upper-middle class residents occupied the building. Belgian Count and Countess Jacques de la Lalaing lived in the structure for several months in-between embassy jobs. A young Tina Modotti resided for a short time in the Bryson in 1918, before moving to cheaper quarters. Mr. and Mrs. Bryson also occupied a suite in the apartment building.
By October 1, 1921, Paul Paris acquired a 12 year lease for the building and furnishings totaling $1 million, with intentions to upgrade. The journal, California Real Estate, called it the largest apartment building in Southern California in a 1922 story announcing the $900,000 sale of the lease by Paul Paris to John Hernan, formerly of the Hotel Coronado and Alexandria, including furnishings. They opened space for some commercial activity, with Kramer’s School for Dancing offering lessons in 1923, and Mae Shumway, Harpist, announcing her availability for programs and recitals. New owners and lessees lasted only a short time at the apartment hotel, perhaps unable to cover costs or bringing in only small profits. Newspapers also offer less stories about the building in the 1930s.
Actor Robert Stack notes in his autobiography that he and his mother moved in to the Bryson upon their return from Europe in the 1930s.
Turnover became more frequent after 1940, as newer and fancier apartments replaced the fading glory building. Los Angeles attorney and Director of the Los Angeles Apartment Association, Thomas D. Mercola, purchased the lease for only $500,000 on October 3, 1943 from F. W. Braun. His grand plans failed to materialize, however.
The Bryson Apartments in American Builder.
Daily Variety noted on September 14, 1944, that actor Fred MacMurray bought the Bryson from Herbert Lissner of Chicago for $600,000, but he probably soon began regretting his decision. In 1947, Irving Link, an apparel manufacturer, sued MacMurray for $3024,90, claiming violation of rent ceilings and overcharge from February 1946 through April 1947 on three apartments he rented one at a time in the building. The August 1, 1948 Los Angeles Times reported that Mrs. Mary A. McClosky sued MacMurray for $50,000 for injuries she claimed to have received when an elevator began moving upward before she completely stepped out of it. The newspapers, unfortunately, do not reveal the disposition of the cases. MacMurray asked the city for a reduction in the property’s value around the same time, and later, sold the building.
The Bryson’s dramatic rooftop sign and classic look attracted the attention of writer Raymond Chandler in the mid-1940s. Calling it “a white stucco palace” in his 1943 novel, “The Lady in the Lake,” the author noted that intelligent, lovely Adrienne Fromsett lived in room #716.
Dramatics continued at the Bryson. On March 12, 1964, 25-year-old Evelyn Brown stood on her ninth floor balcony, preparing to jump to her death. A police officer prevented her suicide by leaping from one ledge of another apartment onto her balcony.
Sliding further into genteel poverty, the building saw 121 units become senior housing on March 22, 1974. Some parts set abandoned or unused, with the formerly grand top floor serving as storage by 1977.
Preservation groups worked to gain recognition for the Bryson’s history and lovely classic architecture, seeing it added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 7, 1983. Los Angeles recognized it as #653 on the city’s Historic-Cultural Monuments list in 1992.
The Bryson’s somewhat sad look and reputation at this point served it well for the filming of “The Grifters,” with the apartment complex standing in for a decaying downtown hotel.
A real estate syndicate purchased it in 1985 for $5.5 million, intending to update it, but they entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1988. New owners began renovations in 1999.
Once again standing regally at the intersection of Rampart and Wilshire, the classy Bryson Apartment Building provides a classic representation of early luxurious Los Angeles living.