Tea at the Mary Louise

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In 1914 the J. W. Robinson department store arrived on West Seventh and Grand, launching a shift in Los Angeles’ shopping district from Broadway. The following year the Brack Shops began leasing specialty shops in an empty loft building nearby. Construction activity boomed as Seventh Street turned into a shopping mecca.

Will and Dolla Harris staked the future of the Mary Louise Tea Room on the prosperity of West Seventh. In 1918 they opened their first tea room on the 12th floor of the Brack Shops. With wide hallways allowing shops to open their doors and let goods spill outside, it resembled a modern-day shopping mall. Shoppers could easily spend the day having their hair done, browsing the latest styles, or enjoying lunch, tea, or a Thursday night chicken dinner at the Mary Louise.

MaryLouiseBarkerBros790Through the 1920s the Mary Louise expanded, opening additional tea rooms on West Seventh — on the mezzanine of the fashionable New York Cloak & Suit House, and on the top floor of the gigantic Barker Brothers home furnishings store [shown here]. In 1922 construction began on what would be the largest of the Mary Louise tea rooms [shown below], a two-story building across from Westlake Park (renamed MacArthur Park in 1942). It opened in 1923 and was soon followed by a Mary Louise in Fullerton, next door to the new Alician Court movie theater owned by Dolla’s brother Charles S. Chapman. The last Mary Louise, whose servers were young Asian-American women dressed in Chinese costumes, opened in 1931 on North Cahuenga in Hollywood.

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Shortly after its debut, the park-side Mary Louise advertised it was “the Center of the City’s Social Life.” Wedding parties and meetings of professional groups were booked regularly. Elaborately decorated on a lavish budget equal to more than half the cost of construction, the capacious building held a large entry hall [shown below] and dining room [shown at top] on the first floor plus an afternoon tea room, a banquet hall, and four smaller dining rooms for private parties on the second. In sync with the fashion of the day, the rooms had themes such as Mah Jong and Italian tea garden.

MaryLouiselobby789As can be seen on postcards from the Mary Louises in Barker Brothers and opposite Westlake Park, the tea rooms were decorated in glamourous movie-set style markedly different than minimalist Eastern tea rooms. Gilded pieces, Oriental rugs, wall tapestries, heavy draperies, and paired ornamental trees abounded.

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The Mary Louise mini-empire was dealt a severe blow just a few months after the Hollywood location opened when Will Harris died suddenly. Three of the tea rooms, including the main one opposite Westlake Park, were quickly sold to the Elite Catering Company owned by the expanding Pig’n Whistle chain. When I acquired the business card shown here opened up, it had Xs penciled over all but the section reading “2 Smart Downtown Tea Rooms,” evidently reflecting the changeover.

Dolla Harris continued to operate the two downtown tea rooms: in Barker Brothers and in the Security Bank Building opposite the Robinson’s store. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, she was forced to reduce prices for lunch and to attract customers with palmists and numerologists. How long she stayed in business is uncertain but I’ve found evidence that there was still a Mary Louise tea room in Barker Brothers in 1952.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

7 Comments

Filed under proprietors & careers, restaurant decor, tea shops

7 responses to “Tea at the Mary Louise

  1. Thomas Thompson

    Hello my name is Thomas Thompson. How surprised I was to see this post on the Mary Louise Tea Room. My mother Mary Jane was raised by Dolla Harris and she worked in the Barker Bros Mary Louise Tea Room for many years. As a young child I would go with my Mother into Los Angeles and stay with her during her working hours. Later my father would come into town and we would have dinner in the Tea Room. I saw pictures of all of the other Tea Rooms. The interior decorations and furnishings were really unbelievable. The service was outstanding and Dolla inspected every meal before it was served. When the Tea Room in Barker Bros closed my mother was able to obtain pots and pans along with dishes and silver items for her use in our home in Fullerton. When Dolla became very elderly she moved to Fullerton where my parents provided her will a small family home to spend the rest of her life with them close by to take care of her. Since Dolla was Charles Chapman’s sister we were always invited to all of the events at the big five story Chapman home in Fullerton. The Harris house was located just off Wilshire Blvd on Rampart Street. I still have the dinning room table and buffet from the Harris house. We still have dishes and silver from the Tea Room with the engraved words on the bottom of each item saying, “Stolen From The Mary Louise Tea Room”. I also have one menu from the Tea Room as well. Dolla never drove a car, but she had a black La Salle 7 passenger sedan with a chauffer driving. My mother would always have us kids practice how to use utensils at the table and not to speak unless Dolla spoke to us first. The Mary Louise Tea Room was the first restaurant to have a ladies fashion show during the lunch hours in Los Angeles.

    • Thomas, how nice of you to write about all this fascinating background to the Mary Louise story! Clever to have the “stolen” message imprinted on the silver and dishes.

  2. relentlesspursuitofhealth

    Thank you so much for this post. I have search the web previously for information on the Barker Brothers Tea Room, but always came up empty. This was a rich and happy surprise! My great grandmother was the pastry chef at the Mary Louise Tea Room at Barker Brothers in the 20s. What I would give for one of the pastry recipes!! But having a photograph of the interior, knowing its location, and seeing the business card, all very precious to me. Thank you so much for the post.

  3. Have wanted to know more about this tea room since I often come across the postcard with that second image on eBay. Thanks for sharing this wonderful bit of tea room history!

  4. Laurie H.

    This is quite exciting! I love when I can dine in a historic building, when the space breathes old stories and the atmosphere is just splendid. Inspired by you, I have researched a bit about my favourite restaurant The Chase in Toronto. Now I know the historic Dineen Building was built already in 1897 and renovated and refurbished by Audax Architecture. Admirable, how they were able to capture the sparkle of the history while making the place so elegant.
    Good post, thank you!

  5. I love your blog and apologize that I don’t share that love with you.

    When I received this, the location of the tea room in Fullerton caught my eye; old stomping grounds for me.

    The theater location referenced is now known as the Fox Theater. It in fact, had a stage hidden behind the silver screen that most would not know of. It is now a historical landmark that was in the first stages of restoration as I moved north to Oregon.
    This link will give some background to the history of the theater you have researched and of the tearoom.
    http://www.fullertonheritage.org/Advocacy_Issues/foxhistory.htm

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