Sunday, December 27, 2009

When bankers were philanthropic: the Hellman Brothers

Sam Watters, a chronicler of the architecture of Los Angeles, wrote his post-Christmas column on the buildings constructed in the early years of the 20th century by Isaias and Herman Hellman.

Watters tries to draw a parallel between the actions of the Hellmans with  today's bankers:

"Brinks must be stuffing its armored delivery trucks with Goldman Sachs' annual bonuses. The company's compensation and benefit pool for 2009 is expected to top $20 billion, an average of more than $600,000 for each of the 31,700 company employees whose jobs were saved a year ago by a taxpayer bailout. Among the questions raised by this bonanza: What will bankers do with the money? "

As you see, today's bankers come up short. Watters then goes on to talk about how each Hellman brother constructed a building on their old homesteads that still stand today.

Herman Hellman lived in a small house on Fourth and Spring in Los Angeles, and in 1903 he started construction on one of the city's first steel-reinforced concrete buildings. He brought in Albert Rosenheim, an architect from  St. Louis, to design the future home of the Merchants Bank. It is now known as Banco Popular (see photo above) I only learned recently that Rosenheim was related to Herman's wife. The building cost $1 million, a huge amount of money at that time.

A few years later, Isaias Hellman hired the architectural firm Morgan and Wells to design a new headquarters for the Farmers and Merchants Bank, Los Angeles' first successful bank. The building on Fourth and Main streets still stands and is used for commercials and parties. I gave a talk last year there for the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

Watters' piece is nice. He even mentions my name. My only complaint is that much of the information comes from Towers of Gold and he never mentions the title of my book.

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