Pierce Brothers

The Pierce Brothers Mortuary, located at 720 West Washington in Los Angeles, opened in 1923. The architects of the building were Meyer & Holler who were also known as the Milwaukee Building Company. They were solely responsible for the architecture, engineering, decorating and construction of the establishment. A description of the building was released in the press prior to its opening and the style of the building was described as “semi-formal Italian renaissance.” The Los Angeles Conservancy disagrees and deems the style as Spanish Colonial Revival with a Churrigueresque arch over the entrance on Washington Boulevard.

Pierce Brothers Mortuary. Photo courtesy Historic Places LA.

One of the central features of the mortuary was a large lobby which overlooked a garden. It also contained offices, a chapel, numerous reception rooms, and a large garage built at the rear of the building for use by mourners.

This was the Washington Street entrance for the chapel. Photograph used with the permission of UCLA and the Will Connell collection.

The lobby at Pierce Brothers. Photograph used with the permission of UCLA and the Will Connell collection.

The Chapel at Pierce Brothers. Notice the round windows. Photograph used with the permission of UCLA and the Will Connell collection.

The business was founded by Frederick E. Pierce and William H. Pierce. Fred arrived in Los Angeles in 1881 and was listed as a veterinary surgeon in the 1900 census. William went to Sacramento in 1880 first and then moved to Los Angeles in 1884. Before the mortuary business William owned a furniture store and a livery stable in the old plaza district which is the current location of Olvera Street.

This is Pierce from Greater Los Angeles and Southern California’s Portraits and Personal Memoranda published in 1910.

Fred Pierce from Men of California published in 1926.

In 1902 the brothers started their mortuary business when they erected a two story building at 810-812 South Flower Street. This building was 142 x 60 feet and the first floor of this building was dedicated entirely to funeral services. It contained a chapel that could seat up to seventy-five people, reception rooms, show rooms, offices and “two guests’ chambers for the accommodation of those who desire to remain with deceased friends.” The second floor was devoted solely to the “business aspects” of the mortuary and was the location for all the equipment necessary for preparing the deceased for internment.

William H. Pierce

Photo and text from Who’s Who in Los Angeles County 1932-33.

According to city directories a third brother joined the firm in 1930. That year Clarence W. Pierce became the treasurer for the mortuary. Clarence came to Los Angeles in 1894 to attend the University of Southern California and graduated in 1898 with a medical degree. In 1902 when his brothers were opening their first mortuary, Clarence was the police surgeon of Los Angeles. That same year he traveled to Boston to marry Florence Loring Cook who had visited the Southland three years earlier.

Clarence Pierce courtesy Los Angeles Pierce College.

The Pierce Brothers Mortuary on Washington handled many celebrity funerals over the years including Thelma Todd’s. [In coverage of her funeral it was noted that at Todd’s service Todd was dressed in a 2 piece, blue silk, pajama set for her viewing. That would have been something to see.]

The service that caught my eye, though, was for Wyatt Earp. Earp died in January 1929 and was a former U.S. Marshal in both Dodge City and Tombstone. His friends included Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson. At Erp’s funeral, western silent film stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix were pallbearers.

From the 1928 Los Angeles City Directory.

Fred E. Pierce died September 26, 1928. He was survived by his brothers, William and Clarence, along with two other brothers, Marcus and Herbert, and a sister, Catherine. Fred was a past exalted ruler of the ELKS and his service was held at the 99 lodge of the B.P.O.E. — across from Westlake Park. Over 2,500 people showed up for the service but unfortunately the lodge room only held 1,500 so a thousand people didn’t get in. After the service the procession to the cemetery extended for over a mile. Fredrick E. Pierce was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California.

Fred Pierce had his service here — in Claud Beelman’s Elks’ Lodge across from Westlake Park.

William H. Pierce was on the Los Angeles City Council from 1898-1902. He was a member of the City Planning Commission, City Traffic Commission and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. His son, Dr. Sterling Pierce, who was the chief of staff at California Lutheran Hospital died in an automobile accident in December 1938. Three months later William H. Pierce died at Chase Sanatorium. Most newspaper accounts claimed it was the demise of his son that led to William H. Pierce’s death. William H. Pierce was buried at the San Jacinto Valley Cemetery in San Jacinto, California.

At the start of World War II, Clarence ran for the Los Angeles School Board and won. After becoming a board member he urged the city to buy 392 acres in Woodland Hills for a branch of the city’s community college system. Clarence Pierce thought the city’s youth lacked agricultural knowledge so in 1947, in honor of his vision, the Clarence W. Pierce School of Agriculture opened. Pierce died in 1953 and three years later the school’s named was shortened to Los Angeles Pierce College. Clarence Pierce was buried at Valhalla Memorial Park which sits in both North Hollywood and Burbank, California. [It sits on the boundary line.]

Clarence Pierce is buried at Valhalla.

Clarence Pierce courtesy Los Angeles Pierce College.

In 1958 Pierce Brothers Mortuary was the largest funeral home business in the United States. Mark A. Pierce, who was Fredrick Pierce’s son, announced on December 23, 1958 that all of the Pierce Brothers’ businesses including the mortuaries, crematorium, insurance company and Valhalla Memorial Park had been sold to a group headed by Joe L. Allbritton who was a Texas businessman. The price paid was not revealed.

The Washington building was used in recent years as a church. In 2018 a fire engulfed the facility.

The three photos below were taken March 29, 2020.

The building is surrounded by fencing to keep people out.

When I took the three pictures above I knew I wanted to do a blog post on the Pierce Brothers Mortuary. I started writing a post on April 17, 2020 but the proceeding three pictures were dark and rainy and depressing. My professional opinion of those first three photographs that I took was: they’re not very good. I wanted photographs that were bright and sunny and showed off the building in the best light so I went back to take more photographs after I had begun to write the post. When I went back I realized something was wrong. The following photos were taken between April 22 and April 30, 2020.

The Churrigueresque arch over the Washington Street entrance.

I stuck the lens of my camera though a gap in the fence and took this photo. This was the garden area adjacent to the large lobby.

Photo taken from the rear of the building.

It looks like they’re tearing the building down. 😦

After 97 years the tower is almost gone.

The tower is gone.

The following pictures were taken on May 2, 2020.

I stuck my arm through a gap in the fence, pointed the camera west and clicked the shutter button. I couldn’t see what I was taking a picture of but it came out in focus. YAY! To orient yourself with this image look at the first photograph in this post.

From the 1928 Los Angeles City Directory.

R.I.P. Pierce Brothers Mortuary. You were a beautiful Meyer & Holler building.

UPDATE: I emailed Erik Van Breene at the Los Angeles Conservancy and he said, “My understanding is that they are saving a portion of the Chapel and facade that are stabilized.” This is good news! At least part of the building will survive. YAY!

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Thanks!

I want to extend a special thanks to Will Connell (1898-1961) who took the photographs of the Pierce Brothers building. If he hadn’t taken these pictures there would be no record of this building when it was new. Everyone who lives in Los Angeles should be thankful Will Connell was out there taking photographs and documenting Los Angeles and the Southland.

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Sources

Burdette, R. J. (Ed.). 1910. Greater Los Angeles & Southern California portraits & personal memoranda. Los Angeles: The Lewis Publishing Company.

Clarence W. Pierce, founder Pierce College. Accessed 4/19/2020 from

http://www.piercecollege.edu/offices/honorees/pierce.asp

Deaths. (1928, September 29). Los Angeles Times, 16.

Detwiler, J.B. (Ed.). (1929). Who’s who in California 1928-1929. San Francisco: Who’s Who Publishing Company.

Doings of builders and architects. (1902, October 19). Los Angeles Times, A1.

Elks arrange Pierce rites. (1928, September 28). Los Angeles Times, A13.

Earp buried by old west. (1929, January 17). Los Angeles Times, A2.

Friends from all walks of life pay final tribute at Thelma Todd’s funeral. (1935, December 20). Los Angeles Times, 9.

Gone East to marry. (1902, October 10). Los Angeles Times, A3.

Lang, C. J. (Ed.). (1933). Who’s who in Los Angeles county 1932-1933. Los Angeles: Whos Who in Los Angeles County.

Last rites for Pierce conducted. (1928, September 30). Los Angeles Times, B3.

Millions in buildings planned for Southland. (1923, September 16). Los Angeles Times, VI.

Pierce Brothers Mortuary. Los Angeles Conservancy. Accessed April 19, 2020 from:

https://www.laconservancy.org/locations/pierce-brothers-mortuary

Rasmussen, C. (1998, September 20). A lively business in funerals. Los Angeles Times.

Sale announced of all Pierce Bros. companies. (1958, December 24). Los Angeles Times, B3.

Tamer of the wild west dies. (1929, January 14). Los Angeles Times, A1.

W. H. Pierce, mortuary founder, dies. (1939, February 24). Hollywood Citizen News.

Will Connell papers, 1928-1961, at UCLA.

Wolfe, W.C. (Ed.). (1926). Men of California. Los Angeles: Western Press Reporter, Inc.

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My book from The History Press, Architects Who Built Southern California, was released on March 11, 2019. It’s 10 chapters with each chapter devoted to a different architect (or architectural firm) including: Harrison Albright, John Austin, Claud Beelman, Elmer Grey, Hudson & Munsell, A. C. Martin, Meyer & Holler, Julia Morgan, Morgan Walls & Clements and Alfred F. Rosenheim.