The 1920s was an era of unmatched prosperity. High levels of employment in construction and manufacturing had a symbiotic relationship with high levels of consumption of automobiles, radios and other consumer products. The stock market was a force driving the economy by serving as a mechanism for raising capital. As a source of generating private wealth, the stock market was also a symbol of the nation's increasing prosperity. In early 1928, the tension and balance between the stock market's role as a place for individuals to invest and a forum for speculators to gamble, tipped decisively toward speculation. When that happened, optimism and hope, rather than economic sense, shaped the market's future. During the summer of 1929, the inflated value of industrial shares increased by 25%. For many, this phenomenal growth appeared to confirm the nation's economic strength; in reality it was a mask hiding a failed capitalist system.
During the last full week of October 1929, when ground was broken on Spring Street for the new headquarters of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange, the ground was crumbling underneath the nation's stock market. On Tuesday, October 29, 1929, after five days of steady losses, 16 million shares were dumped on the market. The stock market crash, captured for posterity by Variety's irreverent but poignant headline, "Wall Street Lays an Egg", wiped out the value of billions of dollars of stock in a matter of hours.(1) During the following months and years, unemployment and misery soared as the impact of the stock market crash worked its way through the economy. By the time the new Los Angeles Stock Exchange opened its doors in 1931, the United States was mired in the Great Depression.
Three bas-reliefs, carved directly into the granite over the entrance of the building refer to the activities that took place inside the building and portray their beneficial consequences. These panels, organized as a hierarchy, celebrate the disparities of wealth and power in a capitalist society. At the center, the largest panel entitled "Finance", treats capital as the most important factor of a modern economy and elevates capitalists as the economy's most important players. Labor and science are portrayed as having a minor and supporting role by being cast in the two smaller side panels. While women are not depicted as having any active role at all in the capitalist system, a woman, sitting on a throne, is portrayed at the very center of the triptych as a symbol of the impersonal stock exchange. It is ironic, that women, who are stereotypically characterized as emotional, are presented here as impassive. A rising market is symbolized by the bull, and a falling market by the bear carved into the throne's base. Two financiers holding ticker tape stand on each side of the symbolic exchange. Financial institutions are represented by the office buildings behind the human figures, and the wings of the American eagle are a reminder of the role government plays in protecting these institutions with generous tax breaks, subsidies and special laws and regulations denied ordinary Americans. "Production," the panel on the viewer's right, portrays a steel worker pouring molten metal and a worker stirring it. A rotary aircraft engine, representing modern products, is located at the top of this panel. The outline of factories and electric power lines in the background symbolize productive activity. Chemistry represents all the sciences in the "Research and Discovery" panel on the viewer's left. A chemist conducting an experiment depicts the act of discovery, and a kneeling man in his library reading a book signifies the knowledge upon which discovery is based. Representing the results of research and discovery are the factories and oil derricks in the background.(2)
The vertical figures, the angular lines and the geometric forms of the three panels harmonize with the building's "classical modern" style. Together, the relief is composed symmetrically. The central panel is balanced by two men standing on each side of the symbolic exchange. Both of the side panels contain a vertical element in the center as well as comparable figures with similar postures, facing the same direction relative to the center of the building.
In 1956, the Los Angeles Stock Exchange and the San Francisco Stock Exchange merged to become divisions of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange. The organization incorporated in 1973 as the Pacific Stock Exchange. Since 1986, when the Pacific Stock Exchange moved to new quarters west of the Harbor Freeway, the building on Spring Street has been empty except for a brief period when it served as a nightclub. Today, the Exchange operates in an utterly banal office building that lacks both the solid restraint conveyed by the architecture of the abandoned structure on Spring Street as well as artwork that describes and celebrates the building's purpose.
Footnotes:1 The Perils of Prosperity 1914-32, by William E. Leuchtenburg, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1958, pp. 242-244.
2 "The Los Angeles Stock Exchange" by Frederick W. Jones, Architect and Engineer, Vol. 104, No. 3, p. 1-19.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, June, 1998.
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