Now one of the city’s oldest remaining industrial structures on Los Angeles Street, the former Excelsior Laundry is also a rare local exemplar of popular Romanesque Revival commercial architecture. The significant yet often-overlooked building was also the key site of an important episode in the city’s turbulent labor history.
The three-story corner building was completed for the Excelsior steam laundry company in 1893, as the city’s industrial district began to push south of First Street. As typical of 19th-century Romanesque Revival commercial buildings, its well-balanced design is defined by tall arched windows grouped in bays of two and three. The varied brickwork on its façade is punctuated by smoother stone elements with horizontal emphasis, as in its prominent sills and belt courses. In addition to the laundry’s offices, washing, drying, and sorting facilities, the building initially housed a small women’s hat factory at the rear of its third floor. An adjacent building (far left, unpainted in top picture), designed in a similar style with a matching roofline, was completed in 1895 as a boarding house.
As one of Los Angeles’ largest laundries at the turn of the century, Excelsior played a pivotal role in the precipitation of a laundry workers’ strike in 1901. In the spring of that year, several hundred workers among the city’s seven major laundry companies organized to form Local 52 of the Shirt Waist and Laundry Workers’ International Union, spurred by overlong hours and poor working conditions. In May, they submitted a schedule of demands to the city’s Steam Laundry Proprietors’ Association, including calls for a closed shop agreement, enforcement of a ten-hour work week with paid overtime, and equal wages for men and women workers. The Proprietors’ Association, headed by Excelsior owner J. Bonfilio, resolutely refused any recognition of the union, balking in particular at the closed shop provision. On June 29, Bonfilio ordered his workers to either renounce their union membership or not return to work, prompting the union to call an immediate strike.
On July 1, 335 of the city’s roughly 500 steam laundry workers walked out of their jobs, including 75 of the 90 workers employed by Excelsior. Led by the fiercely anti-union Bonfilio, the affected laundries offered no concessions to the union. In the weeks that followed, it quickly became clear that the laundry union had underestimated the laundries’ ability to replace their striking workers with non-union labor; By early August, each of the affected laundries had successfully restaffed their facilities. No settlement was ever reached, and the strike fizzled out in the following months. Despite the laundry union’s defeat, the strike set several precedents for the general labor unrest that would last through the decade, and solidified anti-union cooperation within the city’s business class.
Excelsior eventually succumbed to the precipitous decline of steam laundries that followed the popularization of smaller washing machines, closing its doors around 1946. Some years later, the building’s ground floor was divided into a number of small storefronts, with its upper floors kept for storage use. Like most of its neighbors in what is now known as the Toy District, for the past half-century it has primarily housed retailers of inexpensive toys, novelties, and apparel. Despite several alterations and decades of visible wear, the building and its attached neighbor have miraculously kept most of their original façades.
1.”Before and after laundry strike.” Los Angeles Times. 1 Aug. 1901. 5.
2. “Fire well fought.” Los Angeles Times. 7 Nov. 1896. 10.
3. “Girls shed tears as they quit work.” Los Angeles Times. 2 Jul. 1901. 12.
4. “Happy were Troy people.” Los Angeles Times. 9 Jul. 1901. 10.
5. “He defies the union.” Los Angles Times. 1 Jul. 1901. I2.
6. “Public auction sale: entire plant of the former Excelsior Laundry.” Classified ad. Los Angeles Times. 4. Aug. 1946. 10.
7. Stimson, Grace Heilman. Rise of the Labor Movement in Los Angeles. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1955.
8. Wallis, Eileen. Earning Power: Women and Work in Los Angeles, 1880-1930. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2010.
Original Photo: Dick Whittington Studio. “Exterior, Excelsior Laundry, 422 South Los Angeles Street, Los Angeles, California, 1933.” “Dick” Whittington Photography Collection. USC Digital Library. USC Libraries Special Collections. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll170/id/36118/rec/300.