The approximately 100-foot tall cube of concrete and glass in the heart of Echo Park is hard to miss – no matter how hard many might try. What many residents now refer to as the Citibank Building – and before that the Cal Fed Building – is the tallest structure in Echo Park, with its nearly 100,000-square feet of space, eight floors of offices, two floors of parking and a rooftop heliport dwarfing the surrounding Sunset Boulevard storefronts. Earlier this week, Echo Park residents who spoke at a public hearing against a proposed, five-story residential development mentioned that it would still not be as tall as the Citibank Building. For many residents, an office tower like this might be at home in downtown or on Wilshire Boulevard but is out of scale and out of place in Echo Park, where current zoning prohibits the construction of anything as big or as tall.
So, what where people thinking when they decided to build a mid-rise office building in Echo Park 45 years ago? They were thinking big, of course.
The tower was conceived in the early 1960s as the former California Federal Savings & Loan capitalized on the post-war building boom, erecting multistoried office buildings in Hollywood and Miracle Mile as well as Echo Park and Eagle Rock. In a 1961 Los Angeles Times article, Cal Fed was described as a “leader in the current S&L trend toward high-rise office buildings” and was said to generate fatter profits as a developer than as a mortgage lender. These 1960s modernist structures – each topped with a giant California Federal sign (the shadow of which can still be found on the Echo Park tower – were also designed to impress and attract customers. “People have more confidence in affluent-looking institutions,” the story said.
Cal Fed acquired land owned by Echo Park’s Angelus Temple and hired Long Beach architects Francis J. Heusel and Frank Homolka to design the tower. The architects dressed up what was basically a 100-foot wide cube set atop a parking garage with panels of white concrete pierced by slits that frame windows. The chunk of 1960s Modernist architecture would change the skyline of Echo Park and, many hoped, change Echo Park itself. Rolf McPherson, son of Angeles Temple founder Aimee Semple McPherson and President of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, told the Times in a 1963 story:
“California Federal’s decision to build Echo Park’s first major office building in many years ….confirms the belief that our area is ready to embark on a new era of business and residential expansion.”
The structure’s original name was the Sunset Glendale Building but it was also known as the Park Sunset. Most neighbors, however, called it the Cal Fed Building, which officially opened during a week-long celebration in April 1966. An advertisement promoting grand opening said:
“Savers looking for the finest savings service, businessmen looking for luxurious, near-downtown office space, can stop looking now. As savings center or office building, the new California Federal Building has no equal in the Echo Park area.”
But the opening of the Cal Fed Building failed to trigger “a new era of business and residential expansion” that McPherson had envisioned for Echo Park. While Cal Fed’s occupants patronized neighborhood restaurants and shops, no other major developers followed Cal Fed into Echo Park, and the neighborhood’s Sunset Boulevard commercial strip struggled to compete with new malls. In 1977, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, bought the property back for $2.8 million.
Today, the tower that now houses a Citibank branch and offices of Congressman Xavier Becerra is still imposing but a bit worn. The building – like many in Echo Park – bears the scars of frequent tagging. Visitors enter the Sunset Boulevard lobby under a pair of twirling black ceiling fans and a security camera encrusted with plastic anti-bird spikes, which kind of ruins any sense of cool, 1960s Modernism.
The structure’s current official name, by the way, is The Rolf K. McPherson Building. It would be difficult today for anything to top the approximately McPherson Building. City zoning laws currently limit most structures in the flats of Echo Park to 45 feet, with the exception of a nearby block where buildings can rise as tall as 70 feet. That still falls short of the approximately 100-foot-high McPherson Building but who knows when another developer will come along with even bigger ambitions.