Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 12, 2018

Helms Bakery: Industrial Scale Streamline Moderne

How does your day begin? Do you walk through an ancient village down toward a sun-kissed harbor and step into the boulangerie for a fresh baguette?

Villefranche Marcy Vincent 1279 (472x640)

Ah, I have. In my world, that’s called “vacation.” It’s the PhotoShop version of real life.

Had you lived in Los Angeles between 1933 and 1969, you might have gotten your bread delivered to the neighborhood by one of these:

Helms Bakery coach Brad Nixon 2676 640

That’s a vintage Helms Bakery “coach.” During those four decades, Helms Bakeries provided much of Los Angeles with bread, cakes, pies, cookies, donuts, brownies and more — about 150 items in all. They baked on an industrial scale, supplying restaurants as well as residents, although their products were never carried in stores. At one time, their fleet of those coaches numbered nearly 500.

Helms Bakery coach Brad Nixon 2677 640

The owner, Paul Helms Sr., declared, “Garbage is delivered in trucks. My bread is delivered in coaches.” The drivers were referred to as “Helmsmen.” The coaches were built by the Divco company.

Helms coaches

All those goodies streamed out of a couple of facilities Helms built and operated, primarily their enormous headquarters in Culver City.

Helms Bakery WS Brad Nixon 2680 640

Designed in Streamline Moderne style by architect E. L. Bruner in 1931, the concrete building still stands, not quite 50 years after Helms stopped baking. In its day, that structure had vast rooms equipped with the machinery for mixing, kneading, proofing, shaping, baking, cooling and packaging the impressive output. It has more than 200,000 square feet under roof.

Helms baking

“By 1965, the bakery consumed 780 train carloads of white and wheat flour on an annual basis. Over 2 million eggs were used in a single month.”*

Despite Helms’ success, which included providing bread on the Apollo 11 moon mission, its business model didn’t match changes in the retail food business. Increasingly, people bought bread and other items at supermarkets, rather than via home delivery, and the fleet of bakery trucks couldn’t continue to cover the growing sprawl of L.A. In 1969, the founder’s son determined to cease operations rather than face unionization. That left the gigantic facility vacant.

The Olympic Baker

Before we get to the building’s present, take a closer look at that sign that towers over Venice Boulevard:

Helms Bakery sign Brad Nixon 2681 640

Hmm. The distinctive rings and the motto of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), “Citius, Altius, Fortius.”

Look, too, at this restored original sign over the present-day main entrance to the building at the northeastern end:

Helms Bakery sign Brad Nixon 2670 640

Other than Disney, Coca-Cola and the National Football League, there may be no fiercer guardians of their name, brand and symbols than the IOC. There, though, was Helms, touting themselves as “Olympic Games Bakers.” Putting together the fact that Helms opened their factory in 1931 and the location — Los Angeles — you’ll correctly deduce that Helms was what today would be called, “The Official Baker of the 1932 Olympic Games,” or a phrase to that effect. Helms also supplied bread to U.S. Olympic teams for the 1948 London and 1952 Helsinki games.

It’s to architect Bruner’s credit that what’s essentially a large, rectangular factory building has some attractive details that put it directly in the mainstream of the Art Deco era.

Helms Bakery Brad Nixon 2672 640

The Building Today

Extremely large industrial structures that outlive their original purpose don’t always prosper. In the case of the Helms Bakery, it’s there by virtue of an ambitious developer who acquired it in 1972, emptied it of its production equipment and established it as a center for furnishings and design. Today, called the Helms Bakery District (there are several structures) it houses a number of stores — some of them quite large — carrying furniture, lamps, housewares, rugs and a wide variety of house-oriented designs.

Helms Bakery Brad Nixon 2673 640

There are also a number of restaurants and even a book store.

There’s not a lot of interior detail to report, although the showrooms are large and open to the roof structure, reflecting the utilitarian nature of the structure; all the decoration was on the exterior. In the pictures of the Helms coach, you can see that model’s surrounded by goods being moved in the store.

The Bakery District is the equivalent of a designs and housewares mall. Calling it a “district” cleverly distinguishes it in a metropolis replete with shopping malls, and associates it with L.A.’s fashion district, jewelry district, etc.

Seeing the Helms Bakery

The building is located at 8800 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, California. Details about the stores, hours and directions are available here at the Helms Bakery District website. While you’re there, click on the “gallery” to see a number of archival photos of the bakery in operation.

There is free parking onsite.

Special Miss Corwin’s Latin I class bonus points if you know the meanings of “Citius, Altius, Fortius.”

The first photo shows Villefranche-sur-Mer, France.

Some photographs of the bakery building in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Shutterstock.com. Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Archival photos from the Helms Bakery District website, helmsbakerydistrict.com, as well as background information, retrieved June 11, 2018. Other information gleaned from this article in the Los Angeles Times, Jan. 7 1993 and another, Sept. 22 2002, both retrieved June 11, 2018.

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Responses

  1. Swell!
    Different bakery, but we were on a bread route on 174th, in Portland, not all that far from where you visited us last time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know there still were such things, even a decade or two ago.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow that is one huge bakery hard Its amazing that it had its own fleet of Trolleys like that. It kind of reminds me of the Five Roses Flour Company in downtown Montreal. It is another one of these warehouse buildings from the past that stands out like a beacon from the past.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for that. I just looked it up. That IS one massive establishment. I’ve been half expecting someone to weigh in with the news that plenty of commercial bakeries rival the size of Helms, and perhaps they do. But it’s one darned big place. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person


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