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The Miracle Mile - Wilshire Boulevard Comes of Age in Los Angeles

The Miracle Mile – Wilshire Blvd. Comes Alive in Los Angeles

A.W. Ross was a visionary, who could see the need for a new retail district set apart from downtown Los Angeles in the early-1920s. With the American public adopting the automobile and the continued growth of the city in all directions, Ross could see the future, but the problem was that no one else could.

In 1921, when he decided to move forward with his plan, Wilshire Boulevard was nothing more than a narrow dirt road that serviced oil wells in the area and gave farmers access to their barley fields. He purchased 18 acres at $3000 each for a total of $54,000, a huge sum at the time.

Ross then tried to sell off or lease lots to retailers, but at the time none were willing to take a chance that it might pay off down the road. Prospective investors had no interest for the same reason. His dream was soon referred to as “Ross’ Folly.”

Exactly what he had envisioned came to pass by 1924, and LA turned into a boom town in the “Roaring Twenties.” With new zoning changes, he was able to get the ball rolling by selling small lots to retailers, who constructed structures to suit their needs. Ross next named his development the Wilshire Boulevard Center as it slowly turned into a retail district that served the new residential subdivisions popping up in the area.

His big break finally came in 1928 when he and investors constructed the Wilshire Tower building, and he renamed the section between Sycamore St. and Fairfax Ave. the Miracle Mile. Desmond’s a fashionable downtown men’s clothing retailer opened a new store in the Tower that put his shopping district on the map. The Ralphs grocery store chain then built and opened a new store.

The lead photo shows the Miracle Mile sign with the May Company building in the background.

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Traffic on Wilshire Blvd. at Vermont Vermont Avenue in the early-1930s.

The landmark E. Clem Wilson building with an imposing tower was built in 1929, along with a bank and other businesses. The vision that Ross had a decade earlier was now in full bloom and began to pay off now that the western side of Los Angeles had expanded. Despite the ongoing Great Depression, retailers that could weather the storm continued with new construction through the 1930s

In a sign that the area had arrived, Coulter’s Department Store, one of the largest and most popular Los Angeles retailer’s closed its downtown store and built a new store on the Miracle Mile. The May Company followed soon afterward and opened a large store at Fairfax Ave. in 1940. More development continued in the postwar era and the area continued to prosper until the arrival of the new shopping malls in the 1960s.

A rapid decline in the viability of the area for retail operations soon resulted in vacant storefronts and blight. Thankfully in the late 1960s a new beginning arrived when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art settled there. It soon became a fashionable area to restore art deco structures for other uses and many other such institutions including the Peterson Automotive Museum found a home there. Today the Miracle Mile is reborn as a mix of museums, magazine publishers and office buildings.

The images are courtesy of the USC Libraries.

This video shows footage of Wilshire Blvd. in nearby Beverly Hills in the mid-1930s. It is worth including here to give you a feeling of what traffic on the Boulevard was like back in time. 

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Wilshire Boulevard west of Western Ave. – Early-1930s

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Green T Cafe and Texaco Gasoline station at Wilshire Blvd. and South New Hampshire Ave. circa 1930.

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Rush hour Traffic on Wilshire Blvd. heading west – Late-1930s.

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Simmons drive-in at Fairfax Ave and Wilshire Blvd. – Late-1930s.

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Wilshire Blvd. and Western Ave. – Late-194os.

7 responses to “The Miracle Mile – Wilshire Blvd. Comes Alive in Los Angeles

  1. My daughter sent me a bunch of pictures from when L.A. was dirt roads and fields, it’s just amazing how that has changed. I enjoyed the movie clip. Not much has changed, traffic wise. It seems, without lines on the road, people went where they pleased. Did you see the wrecked truck on the tow truck at 1:42 ? Does anybody know what the “C” cab tow truck was? Cool stuff, thanks.

  2. Wonderful photos, and I very much liked the film clip. I have a feeling it was made by a movie studio. They did this quite often to rear-project when shooting people “riding” in the back seats of cars. You’d see traffic like this through the rear window.

    In the mid 1960s, my family and I lived on Berendo Street, near Wilshire and Vermont Av., so a lot of the stills still resonate and bring back memories. Thank you, David.

  3. Mr Ross also specified that the signage be clearly visible from the seat of the car, ie thru the windshield. (Zoning reg)

    • As I understand it, he selected that strip of property to be the 5th Avenue of the West. He wanted it to be 5 miles from downtown Los Angeles, 5 miles from Beverly Hills and approx. 5 miles from Santa Monica (I think). It was to be a shopping destination for drivers at a time when everyone did their shopping in a downtown area (Los Angeles, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Long Beach, etc).

      The stores had to have floor to ceiling plate glass windows on the ground floor to show off the goods for sale inside the store to drivers as they passed. The buildings were to be of an architecturally pleasing design – nothing ordinary. The parking lot was to be behind the store and the main entrance was off the parking lot. You could walk in off the sidewalk on the front, but the main entrance of the store was at the rear of the building.

  4. pretty cool stuff. That old May Company Building still stands today. Right across the boulevard used to be a department store and now is the Petersen Automotive museum and that building still stands. However the Petersen Museum is doing a massive facelift to that building. It is noteworthy to say that the picture of the corner of Wilshire and Western Blvd is known for the historic Wiltern Theatre which also stands today and from the photo I have to say it looks pretty close to the way it looked back then. The Simons drive in restaurant, if my memory serves me correct, was bought by Delores’ Restaurant and they kept it pretty close to the way Simons had it. But unfortunately that building was met a bulldozed probably in the late 70’s early 80’s.

    I love the way Los Angeles was before the land developers got a grip on the Los Angeles re-development game. Today there’s still a good amount of historic buildings around thanks to the Los Angeles Conservancy but now the developers cannot keep there hands off building that are 10 to 15 years old.

    • In the 1970s until ? the department store across the street was Ohrbach’s. There was a Tiny Naylor’s (I think) coffee shop across Fairfax and a Thrifty Drug Store on the south side of Wilshire.

  5. Of particular interest in things “Auto related” is the effort that the (oil company owned) Gasoline stations made, — to look very elegant for the huge gas guzzlers of The Miracle Mile’s — Beverly Hills to Los Angeles City “commuters”. My old Fords (that a kid could afford!) were NOT very welcome there — and the “Spiffy Uniformed Attendants” would reluctantly pump my 1$ to 2 $ purchase. The streetlamps of the Miracle Mile are MUCH more elegant than the standard streetlamps of THE REST OF Los Angeles. some of the “magic” was still there, when I began driving and riding, myself, in 1956 . I worked for an older “L.A.” (top notch) candy company, then, while in school. Their 2-story house had the kitchen and sales on the first floor. ALL of the “Miracle Mile” grew up, around them, their “quaint European style” “fitting right in”! The “rich and famous” of the “well – to -do “Carriage Trade” found them — and the rest is history!!!

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