Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 2, 2020

The Monolith: Los Angeles Municipal Warehouse Number One

Let’s visit a bit of historic Los Angeles architecture. It’s a spot you almost certainly will never see in person, no matter how many times you come here. It’s far from any tourist itinerary, and merely a footnote in L.A. history, although an interesting one.

I’ve written previously about the origin of the Port of Los Angeles: click this link for one story. Approximately 20% of all cargo entering the U.S. now goes through the port of Los Angeles. It’s the busiest container shipping port in the United States.

LA Port Brad Nixon 7180 400 (640x472)

At the beginning of the “contact period” in the 16th century, as Europeans came to North America, they named the port San Pedro Bay. European exploring ships had been arriving there since 1542, when Juan Cabrillo, scouting the coast for Spain, discovered the harbor. Here’s a full-sized replica of his ship, San Salvador, docked for a visit in the Port of Los Angeles. I wrote about Cabrillo’s voyage at this link.

As Los Angeles grew, the harbor became an important base for shipping and fishing. Dredging deepened the channels, and civic leaders built a breakwater to protect it from storms and waves. Here’s the 1890 breakwater, 130 years after its construction. The entrance to the harbor, on the left, is called Angels Gate.

In 1914, L.A.’s civic leaders were aware that the new Panama Canal was due to open. At port cities along the west coast of the U.S., there was anticipation of an upturn in the volume and frequency of trade from around the world.

If there’s a harbor or riverfront in any town you know, from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon; Savannah, Georgia to San Diego, you know that a core element of waterborne commerce was warehouses. Warehouses lined the banks of towns along the Mississippi, the Ohio, and every ocean bay, port or inlet across the continent. Goods came off a ship, were held in warehouses, then were trans-shipped by rail, mule or went back onto another ship.

If Los Angeles was going to compete for a large share of the expected increase in ocean traffic from the new canal, it needed a big warehouse.

They built a very big warehouse: Municipal Warehouse Number One.

Warehouse one Brad Nixon 5735 680

When it opened in 1917, Warehouse One was estimated to be the largest structure on the continent west of Chicago. 480 feet (150 M) long, 150 feet (46 M) wide, six floors, built with 27,000 cubic yards of concrete, reinforced by 1,200 tons of steel.

One construction challenge few non-engineers think about is how much a structure weighs. 27,000 cubic yards of concrete and those tons of steel represent something on the order of 56,000 tons of weight, before any freight went into the warehouse. The land it sits on is rubble fill, placed there to extend the reach of the port’s main channel. Setting that amount of weight on potentially unstable land required 3,000 pilings to be sunk into the fill to support the warehouse. As a testament to the designers’ skill, the warehouse survived the massive Long Beach earthquake that destroyed hundreds of nearby buildings in 1933.

The photographer standing left of center in the photo below gives you some sense of the immense scale of the structure.

Municipal warehouse Brad Nixon 5718 680

Freight Transportation

In 1917, large cargo loads were carried primarily by ship or rail. A huge wharf occupied the edge of the main channel, about 50 meters from the warehouse (to the left of the photo above, although the wharf no longer exists).  Much of the cargo moving in and out of Warehouse One went directly to and from ships at the wharf. Other cargo came and went via rail. Locomotives could pull directly into the warehouse, through the ground-level portal on the left of the photo below. The rails are still there, although no longer used. A locomotive pulled its load straight into the warehouse to be loaded or unloaded. Freight went to the upper floors via a series of hoists and elevators inside.

Warehouse One Brad Nixon 5694 680


As design, a warehouse is simply an extremely large box. The most significant external details of Warehouse One are the four cast concrete fire escapes on each facade.

Warehouse vert Brad Nixon 5739 680

The builders, however, promised the structure would have detailing that would add aesthetic appeal.

The photos above show the classic Doric pilasters, which suggest that they’re holding up the building. They are not. They’re decoration, molded into the formed concrete walls, as are the lines of the cornice, which projects about six feet above the level of the roof.

There’s one interesting bit of detail.

Warehouse gargoyles Brad Nixon 5695 680

Those figures are a page the architect stole from designers of older massive structures. Any building on that scale has to accommodate the amount of water that falls on a roof. Even in dry southern California, seasonal winter rain can fall at the rate of an inch per hour. On a roof of 70,000 square feet, an inch of rain represents 10,000 gallons of water.

If you need to project water off a large structure, add gargoyles to your building. In this case, molded lion heads:

Lion gargoyle 5696 680

Nothing Lasts Forever

Municipal Warehouse Number One is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That status makes it an extremely difficult thing to get rid of, even if it’s outlived its usefulness. You only have to spend 30 seconds looking at the sheer mass of the structure to get a sense of how very seriously one would want to do something else on that spot to start thinking about what’s required to pull it down and cart away 56,000 tons of concrete and steel.

Warehouse west facade 5710 680

That said, Warehouse One has outlived itself. As long as 50 years ago, in the 1970s, the onset of containerized freight and “intermodal” shipping started diminishing the usefulness of Warehouse One, along with countless thousands of other warehouses, from Portland to Portland, Savannah to San Diego, and everywhere in between.

Container operations Brad Nixon 2122 680

Today, enormous gantry cranes lift 40-foot containers off ships at a rate of about one every two minutes.

The containers are loaded onto specially designed trucks or railroad cars, and distributed across the continent. This is the just-in-time world: No warehouses need apply.

Warehouse One is mostly vacant, all but derelict. Below, the photographer contemplates how she’ll capture the immense pile facing her.

Warehouse vertical 5685 680

If your cruise ship enters the Port of Los Angeles, you’ll see Warehouse One, including the water tower atop the building.

MV S7435-LR LA Warehouse No.1 tower-680

That water tower’s an original feature from 1917. It supplies water pressure for the internal fire suppression system — sprinklers — a forward-thinking bit of design from more than a century ago.

Painted on it: “Welcome,” in multiple languages, including Italian, Japanese and Croatian, a nod to the thousands of Italian, Japanese and Croatian immigrants who worked in San Pedro — many of them fishermen — whose descendants still live in the harbor area.

ようこそ. Bienvenidos. Dobro Došli. Welcome to Los Angeles.

Is there an old row of waterfront warehouses in your town? Or are they all gone? Please make a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020 Water tower photo © M. Vincent, 2020, used by generous permission.


  1. Living inland, we don’t have a waterfront but instead a very attractive riverside. I like the way new life has been breathed into old warehouses, repurposed as apartments, galleries etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Dang! Now that is an unknown, impressive structure!
    Thanks! Too bad you couldn’t get inside!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The difficulties involved with the dismantling/destruction of an old and no longer useful building are partly responsible for the Astrodome still squatting in the middle of Houston. Of course, politics has played a role, too. The citizens voted to tear it down; the politicians said, “Never mind your vote. We’re going to keep it.”

    I’m sure there still are warehouses in Houston, but the ones I’m most familiar with are in Galveston. Some, on the Strand, have been converted for other uses: offices, retail space, lofts. The Moody compress and warehouses still serve the cotton industry, particularly growers in Texas, although those warehouses keep a much lower profile.

    I’ve never seen concrete fire escapes before. And one word on the water tank caught my eye: ‘Dobro.’ The first thing that came to mind was the musical instrument, and I wondered about that. I found that the trade name ‘Dobro’ was created by the Gibson Guitar Corporation from Do(pěra) Bro(thers), the name of the Czech-American inventors of the instrument. The word also puns on the Slovak dobro, or ‘good,’ which no doubt is related to the Croatian welcoming phrase.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Amazing! I had dinner less than a mile away from Warehouse One at the Ports O’ Call restaurant (which I sadly learn has been demolished) where I observed many many ships passing by, but did not know about this warehouse at the time. I am reminded of the Hamburg Speicherstadt before it became the more yuppy/tourism place it is today – imposing buildings a bit out of the way, in the early 90’s still transitioning from their original purposes to the more retail/visitor-oriented places we see now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yi. Glad you got to Ports O’ Call.
      Some of the places are still standing, still in operation, although they’re on borrowed time. I didn’t know you’d been there. Two miles or so from our house.
      It’ll all be gone in a year or so, and remade into something new, although the precise definition of what constitutes the “new” is still in the works.
      Waterfronts like San Pedro’s are like waterfronts everywhere, including the Speicherstadt. The environment shifts, and the big threat is when developers attempt to “design” places to appeal to clients. Well, heck, the place is ALREADY thronged with people. What needs to change? We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted. Come back and visit, any time. And hope the fires are nowhere near you, my friend.


      • Thanks Brad – fires are about 20-30 miles from me, and no danger to our place expected this time round. I only learned after I passed through LA just how close I’d been to you – I also visited the Point Fermin lighthouse that time. Next time I’ll look you up for sure! Best wishes, Mark

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mark,
        Scarcely a week passes that we don’t make the walk along the bluffs to Point Fermin. The lighthouse is in great shape. We’ll go see it. Here:


  5. The comment by Shoreacres and the Astrodome reminded me of a similar occurrence in my community about how politicians ignore the express will of the voters, to favor moneyed special interests.

    There’s a veterans cemetery in a nice and rather large community park in my city. The veterans like that location. So do the citizens of our community.

    On the other hand, big real estate developers hate that cemetery occupying valuable land that could be exploited for huge profits.

    Well, word got out that the developers had hatched a scheme to move that cemetery out of the park and stick it next to an existing residential community on the opposite side of town.

    This rather enraged the locals, so they went all “political action,” put an initiative on the ballot NOT to move the cemetery, and passed it overwhelmingly (despite a vigorous disinformation campaign launched by the developers).

    Good ending, right? WRONG! Never underestimate the power of money. The City Council, in open defiance of the initiative, i.e., THE LAW, passed a resolution to move the cemetery out of the park ANYWAY. Ok, game on!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice pictures of the Port of Los Angeles, that was a huge warehouse for 1917!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I much enjoy the architecture in Los Angeles. If I was a billionaire I’d have a warehouse full of gold and diamonts, but I’m not. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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