Sunset Boulevard is synonymous with Hollywood. It’s home to a plethora of iconic buildings and linked to many legendary people. One such building is Crossroads of the World, a bizarre little 1930s shopping center turned office complex that looks like something out of a Disney theme park, with a steamship style building “sailing” past storefronts inspired by various countries.
The history of Crossroads of the World is just as classic LA as its fanciful architecture – a tale of prostitution, corrupt politicians, and murder on the very grounds where it would be built. Our story begins in the 1890s, up in the rainy city of Seattle, Washington, which became a stop for those looking to get rich during the Klondike gold rush. Here a man by the name of Charles Crawford made his initial fortune with dance halls and saloons, entering the gritty underworld of vice, with gambling, prostitution, and getting chummy with politicians. But when things got heated with the law, Crawford moved to sunny southern California. Here, Crawford didn’t waste time. At 5th Street and Maple Avenue Crawford set up The Maple Bar, not just a place for spirits, the Maple Bar also offered gambling and women of the night, and was frequented by the well-to-do of LA.
During the roaring 20s, Crawford more or less ran LA, becoming close with the police department and even had his very own puppet mayor. His crew became known as the City Hall Gang. Soon Crawford had a vast vice operation, with multiple casinos and bordellos. With so many operations, he needed help and brought in his buddy Marco Albori to look after the brothels. Albori’s stay in the City of Angels ended when he was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to San Quentin, only to later be deported back to Italy.
By the arrival of 1930, Crawford’s vice empire was beginning to shake, and it wasn’t because of an earthquake. He was facing multiple charges, and he fled to Europe, leaving his wife, Ella Crawford, and his cohort, Guy “String Bean” McAfee, a former LAPD officer, in charge.
Oddly, when Crawford was back stateside, all of his charges were dropped, and he claimed to be a “reformed sinner.” He opened up a real estate office, and even financed a radio program hosted by Reverend Gustav Briegleb, and was known to donate to churches. He started a publication “Critic of Critics” with Herbert Spencer at the helm as editor, however the magazine was more a less a place to rage against city officials.
Then on May 20, 1931, it all came crashing down. Crawford and Spencer were shot at their office on the site of what would become Crossroads of the World. Spencer died at the scene, but an unconscious Crawford was rushed to the hospital. Crawford briefly regained consciousness just before entering surgery for his kidneys that were ruptured by the assailant’s bullet, but refused to identify his shooter, passing away moments later. At Crawford’s funeral, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church was filled to its 1000 person capacity with a supposed 6000 more mourners outside, his murderer still unknown.
Weeks later David Clark, a former deputy district attorney, and judicial candidate, turned himself in for the murders. He also happened to be the man that prosecuted Crawford’s Seattle brothel buddy, Albori. Clark, who refused to bow out of the race for judge (and, yes, he later lost), claimed the killings were self defense. In his testimony, Clark said he arrived at Crawford’s office, where Crawford showed his true underworld colors again, attempting to make a deal with Clark, which involved framing the chief of police and winning Clark the election. Clark refused, threatening to expose Crawford, which is when Clark claimed Crawford pulled a gun, and Clark did so in return, firing both at the man known as “The Grey Wolf of Spring Street” and Spencer.
Even though no gun was found in Crawford’s office, Clark was able to charm all but one of member of the jury. That lone juror who voted “guilty” awoke to find a bomb on his front lawn the next day. There is still debate if Clark really did pull the trigger, but he did later plead guilty to murdering the wife of his friend and former law partner in 1953 or 1954 (sources vary) and he soon died of a stroke in prison.
After the drama of her husband’s trial, Ella Crawford set her sights on creating something new, Crossroads of the World. Here, people could find merchandise from all around the globe, and all in appropriately themed storefronts, ranging from English to Middle Eastern. The unique shopping center was designed by Robert V. Derrah and after opening in 1936 it was soon filled with a variety of shops, including Peasant House and Garden, which featured “Imports with a provincial feeling,” John Macsoud ‘Kerchief Bar, where one could find lingerie, handbags, and of course handkerchiefs, a barber shop known as The Barber of Seville, a French parfumerie, a chocolatier, an Oriental arts and gift shop, a marionette theater, and three restaurants that all began with “A Bit of” followed by the country, which included Sweden, England, and Italy. The stationary streamline modern ship in the middle of it all was home to the Continental Cafe, where people could dine on the “upper deck.”
However its life as a shopping center was short lived, and by the 1940s the shops had pretty much left, and the fanciful facades became offices, with the likes of the Screen Actors Guild, Standard Oil, American Airlines, and even the king of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, becoming tenants. As the decades wore on it became a place for recording artists, and eventually landed on the auction block in 1974. The winning bidder planned to demolish it, but thanks to those who love history it was spared, and became a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument. In 1977 Crossroads of the World received a new owner, Morton La Kretz, who lovingly restored it, and in 1980 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The place is so iconic, that a building akin to it, featuring the spire with globe atop was recreated at Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World.
In addition to being a unique piece of the Hollywood landscape, Crossroads of the World made a fitting appearance as Sid Hudgens’ office for his rag Hush-Hush in one of my favorite films, LA Confidential.
But while Crossroads of the World is protected the area around it, including its small parking lot, is not, and will soon feature towering apartments, which is why I’m glad I was able to visit this spot before it changes forever.
Come to the Crossroads of the World at 6671 Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Please keep in mind it is a place of business and to be respectful if you visit.