Los Angeles, CA

A New Era for the Higgins Building in DTLA

David Clark

The abandoning of comfort zones and familiar spaces has been, for our client David Kukoff, the foundation necessary to build a successful writing career. Living in the historical walls of the Higgins Building enhances both his literary career and lifestyle. Perched high on his private patio, the reward of adventure fuels his life with purpose and authenticity.

This week, we got to see the transformation of his space and patio view that overlooks the Los Angeles Times building, City Hall, and the surrounding hills. A new era for the Higgins Building is a journey into the history of Thomas Higgins and the building that shares his name, its architectural elements, and lastly, a glimpse into the life and space of David Kukoff.

History of Thomas Higgins

Thomas Higgins was born on July 12th 1844 in a town called Boyle, in County Roscommon, Ireland. As he grew up, Higgins became disillusioned by his agricultural life in rural Ireland and decided to set sail for America in search of his fortune.  After working in a number of towns alternately as a lumberjack, ship builder, contractor and prospector, he eventually reached Bisbee, Ariz., in 1877, where only five other prospectors had staked copper claims (copper, unlike gold, cannot be extracted by panning in a river). Higgins couldn’t afford mechanical drilling equipment, so he dug a tunnel 650 feet into a hillside by hand, paying his laborers off.

A quarter-century later, he left Bisbee a rich man and, 1902, went to Los Angeles where he invested $750,000 into real estate. His first building was the brick-and-mortar Bisbee Hotel in 1903 (now called the St. George, it is located on 3rd, between Main and Los Angeles streets.) Designed by architect Arthur L. Haley, it was originally named for Higgins’ mining stomping grounds. That same year, Higgins paid $200,000 for a two-story Victorian commercial building on the southwest corner of 2nd and Main. Across the street was–and still is–St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, which anchored the cultural spine of the growing city.

Here, in 1910, Higgins built his eponymous office and retail building for the princely sum of $500,000, or $10.6 million in today’s dollars. New office buildings were going up one block away on Spring Street, which was dubbed the “Wall Street of the West”, but Higgins was confident that Main Street would remain the vibrant commercial and cultural core of the city. The building that still bears his name was unlike any other in the neighborhood: its basement contained a privately owned power plant, six floors were occupied by General Petroleum, and the L.A. Engineering Department called it home for 25 years. 

Architects A.C. Martin, Sr. and Arthur L. Haley made the Higgins Building a reality and created an alley alongside that stretched from 2nd Street south, almost five blocks. In 1917, the alley became known as Harlem Place, and it was the center of L.A.’s early 20th century music scene until, in the 1920s, jazz shifted south to Central Avenue. The elegant Higgins Building, with its marble-lined hallways, zinc-lined doors and window frames, and black and white mosaic tile lobby, towered over the surrounding structures and was said to be “absolutely fire and earthquake proof.” 

Embracing modern technology, Higgins installed one of the city’s first electricity-generating stations in the basement, six years before L.A.’s first power pole was erected in Highland Park. That was far from its only revolutionary piece of engineering, as the building was designed with natural air conditioning, using a ventilation shaft that allowed sunshine and fresh air to pour into offices, and its “wholesome and healthful” water was purified through filters in the sub-basement, which attracted prominent businessmen. 

Architectural Elements

Martin, who would emerge as one of the most successful architects and structural engineers in Southern California, based his company there for 35 years. Other notable tenants included tubercular preacher-turned-socialist labor attorney Job Harriman and legendary Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow. In 1911, the attorneys shared a ninth-floor office while they planned the McNamara brothers’ defense in the bombing of the L.A. Times (The McNamara brothers wound up pleading guilty.).

The Women’s Progressive League held luncheons at the rooftop café, and the Archdiocese put its chancery office on the eighth floor, overlooking St. Vibiana’s. The building’s eclectic clientele also included numerous retail and wholesale liquor dealers, who banded together to do business years before Prohibition, while General Petroleum rented unit 402 and eventually took over almost the entire building.

Higgins, who never married, died in 1920. A quiet philanthropist, he supported Irish and Catholic causes, including the building of Loyola High School and College, now Loyola Marymount University. Deprived of a college education himself, he bankrolled college tuition for those he deemed “deserving young men” and supported his Irish relatives who settled in California.

The Higgins Building today is a 10-story building that exhibits character-defining features of Beaux-Arts style architecture. The building’s rectangular shape is configured around a single lightwell in its interior, and has three primary facades clad in reinforced concrete with decorative elements arranged in a classic base-shaft capital composition.

Pairings of single, one-over-one windows line the facades, and significant interior flourishes include ornamental elevator doors and railings, mosaic tile floors, and a marble-clad lobby. Currently, the building is undergoing an extensive restoration of its exterior façade by Spectra Historic Construction

The building is surrounded by four major parks, and a number of bicycle lanes. With the multimillion dollar expansion of the Caltrans Center’s Regional Connector to the corner of 2nd and Spring, cultural highlights such as the Music Center and Disney Hall a mere blocks away, and numerous grocery and food delivery options nearby, life in the Higgins Building is truly the apex of downtown loft living.

A Glimpse Into The Life And Space Of David Kukoff

At the Shelhamer Group, we are privileged to build relationships with our clients that turn into friendships and lasting partnerships.  Recently, we closed escrow on a loft unit located in the historic Higgins Building for our client, David Kukoff. A man very much in the present, but with an eye for the treasures of the recent past, Kukoff is a visceral collector and powerful writer.

In many ways, he has forged an identity as reinvented as the many incarnations of the Higgins Building itself. He has a photographic mind and is a captivating storyteller, and I listened, rapt, as he guided me through his beautiful space just long enough to get a glimpse into his life, work, history as an Angeleno, and, finally, his vision for the loft, all of which left me hungry for more.

A New Era for the Higgins Building

A graduate of Columbia University and UCLA Film School, Kukoff has eleven produced film and television credits to his name, including the hit Disney movies “Model Behavior” with Justin Timberlake and Kathie Lee Gifford and “Switching Goals” with the Olsen Twins.  Recently, he sold his Black Listed script, The Civil War to FilmNation, where it has Academy Award nominees Dee Rees slated to direct and Carey Mulligan attached to star. FilmNation was also behind the highly acclaimed Amy Adams sci-fi drama Arrival, and Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan.

There is an interesting piece of happenstance involving the space that now occupies Kukoff’s rooftop patio, not only between Thomas Higgins’s Irish roots and The Irish Woman’s Progressive League, which met on that very rooftop patio for lunches, but between the nature of that organization’s work and Kukoff’s. During these lunches, the League discussed their opposition to the 1937 Constitution of Ireland and its potentially regressive consequences for women. Fast-forward to the present, where Kukoff’s script depicts the struggle to ratify the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and history has come full circle.  We often hear the phrase “if these walls could only talk,” but in some ways, these walls are speaking to us right now.

In addition to two books on film and television writing, Kukoff is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Children of the Canyon and the bestselling nonfiction anthology Los Angeles in the 1970s. Children of the Canyon tells the story of a boy growing up in LA’s fabled Laurel Canyon neighborhood as the 1960s counterculture is coming to an end. Through the boy’s eyes, we bear witness to the fallout from the California Dream’s malfunction: the ruined families, failed revolutionaries, curdled musical idealism, and, ultimately, rise of the conservatism that put the country on its present path.

In Los Angeles in the 1970s, LA natives, transplants, and escapees talk about their personal lives intersecting with the city during a decade of struggle. From The Doors‘ John Densmore seeing the titular L.A. Woman on a billboard on Sunset, to Deanne Stillman’s twisting path from Ohioan to New Yorker to finally finding her true home as an Angeleno, to Chip Jacobs’ thrilling retelling of the “snake in the mailbox” attempted murder, to Anthony Davis recounting his time as USC football hero and “Notre Dame Killer,” the book tells stories of the real Los Angeles of the era: everything from families trying to survive the closing of factories, to teens cruising Van Nuys Boulevard, from the Chicano Moratorium that killed three protestors, to the making of an adult film legend. Los Angeles in the 1970s is a love letter to the sprawling and complicated fabric of a Los Angeles often forgotten and mostly overlooked.

The Loft


As Kukoff shared with me, “I found five chairs and a Formica captain’s table online for a take-it-away price. (A hint to any aspiring mid-century collectors: if it’s heavy, chances are it’s authentic. Beware of the cheap, light, knockoff stuff that proliferated in the wake of “Mad Men,” as it’s frequently overpriced and mass-produced).” As he put it, “the chairs were a bit of a wreck, and the bases on everything needed restoration, but it was too good to pass up!” 

Debating whether to make an investment or just offload the set, his curiosity won out. The decision also was helped by hiring Jesse and Lupe of Baywood Furniture, a company in NELA well-known for its consummate craftsmanship and restoration skills.  The resulting piece turned out even better than he had imagined and became his dining room table.

Kukoff’s lounge’s couch set was built for Warner Brothers Studios in the mid-sixties. The story of how he found the set is one of his favorites.  “When I rented my first loft, six years ago, I put out an APB on Facebook. The gist of it was, I’d just gotten divorced, moved into a great new loft, and didn’t want to be that divorced guy with the air mattress and barcalounger, but I was on a budget. Any and all suggestions and recommendations were desperately welcome.

A friend of mine who owns a vintage clothing store in Silverlake messaged me and said that she didn’t want to give away her secrets on my page, but there was a great thrift store out in Van Nuys that had a pair of amazing, almost criminally underpriced chairs.

‘Run,’ she said, ‘don’t walk.’ I did…and not only were they everything she said they were, they had a matching, albeit ripped, sofa which, a few hundred restoration bucks later, was good as new.”.

Kukoff creates another identity inside his lounge space as, under the lights, the orange hue radiates from the movie theatre chairs he purchased at the Hughes Estate Sale, giving the surrounding space (“a challenging one initially,” he told me, “due to its unconventional shape and size”)  a colorful buzz, yet a private, inviting–and deskless–room for him to get his work done.

The mixed media collage of this piece of street art (“literally–I bought this off an artist who was exhibiting in a small, makeshift space on Main Street, five years ago”) tells a unique story mixing surrealism with pop cultural elements, and broken into a matrix of divided colors and textures. 

Kukoff generally favors items that have a utilitarian component to them and are crafted to catch the eye without breaking the loft’s overall flow.  His pieces are positioned in a way that creates separate identities for each room, and moves the still waters of the mind in order to open the creative energies. 

Let’s Head Upstairs!

There is truly no separation from life and art in Kukoff’s space (nor, as I detect, is there in his own life), and each of his items has an energy and presence all its own. As he and I discussed, there is often a misunderstanding of what constitutes value in art and antiques, which tends to be rooted in cost, or market demand. 

The truth, as evidenced by everything in this magnificent space, is that in the vast realm of estate sales and online sites, there are always deals to be found, while other times, as Mike Wolfe of American Pickers would put it, “you have to pay the break-up price.” 

Up the spiral loft staircase, we reach Kukoff’s private rooftop patio, an ideal location from which to admire the skyline, and yet another spot Kukoff uses as a creative gestation space. 

To The Top We Go!

Kukoff turned this blank industrial canvas into an oasis that both reflects and reveals the city and its manifold colors, shapes and sounds. Of the 135 total units, only 15 units on the 10th floor have private rooftop decks (Kukoff’s is nearly 600 square feet), and while several units on the second floor have private patios, a coveted few on the tenth floor enjoy some truly spectacular views.

A Glimpse Into The Life And Space Of David Kukoff

Kukoff’s patio furniture blends effortlessly with the black, wrought-iron fencing, adding a combination of earth tones and sharp colors that really pops off the underlying green artificial turf. The result is nothing short of an urban oasis, a postcard-esque vision of Palm Springs, right in the center of the city’s Historic Core.

There is a freedom I feel from sitting down in one of the orange patio chairs on Kukoff’s patio, a stillness in the air compounded by the crickets (somehow, they live and thrive on the building’s rooftop) that start to chirp come dusk. My eyes pan across the cityscape as though through the lenses of the late director John Ford, uncovering a new layer and dimension to the sights and sounds I have already enjoyed. 

Loft living is a unique lifestyle–no redundancy to the days, rote patterns to fall in or out of, garage doors to fix, or lawns to discuss mowing. Far from suburbia and the rows of hedges and fences, the city has a grit to it that’s consistent with its residents.

They wander the streets, admiring how the sun paints these magnificent historical markers, monoliths of our American identities that have stood the test of bulldozers and spreadsheet architecture. Each day is a forged path, new and invented, and offers one the option to find friends both new and rediscovered as the city bears silent witness to the lives unfolding within its ever-redefined boundaries. 

And yet life itself in the city has no barriers; it’s a community where people come to create a sense of individualism and offer their identities to the collective tribe.  And David Kukoff, through his appreciation for all facets of the city’s past, present, and future–and his place in all of it–exemplifies this to a tee.

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A passion for California history, writing, architectural preservation, and extensive sales background drew me into becoming a residential real estate advisor. Above all else service to the communities I live in and explore.

Los Angeles County, CA

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