Through the Viewfinder to circa 1870 Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Through the Viewfinder will be a regular series of postings showing some of the amazing photographs in the Homestead Museum collection chronicling greater Los Angeles from the 1870s through the 1920s.

This first offering is one of the earliest published photographs of Los Angeles when it was a small, but growing town on the western American frontier.

Plaza Pico Godfrey 1870

Taken by William M. Godfrey, this half of a stereoscopic (the dual image seen through a stereopticon gave a three-dimensional view of the subject) photograph is from Fort Moore Hill, so called because the invading American forces in early 1847 during the Mexican-American War built a fort named for one of their members killed in a battle near San Diego weeks before.

The circa 1870 image (labeled #19 as observed at the lower left) takes in both old and new.  At the left is about half of the Plaza, the historic center of Mexican-era Los Angeles and behind (east) of it are some of the one-story adobe houses that were built by some of the pueblo’s earliest residents.

Yet, at the center were a couple of the newest, modern brick structures and the only three-story buildings in town at the time.  The smaller of the pair was the Merced Theater, built by William Abbott and named for his wife, Merced, and which housed the theater on the second floor, the family’s home on the third, and a storefront at the ground floor.

The larger structure was the Pico House, built by the last governor of Mexican-era California, Don Pío Pico as an attempt to keep the Plaza area viable as Americans and Europeans built their new commercial structures and homes further south (to the right of the photo.)

Built with money raised from the sale of most of the San Fernando Valley to Isaac Lankershim and Isaac Van Nuys, the Pico House was a well-appointed hotel that, among other amenities, featured gas lighting.  The gas came from the small plan across Main Street and in the foreground of the photo, where the two wooden tanks are located in front of New High Street.

Another noteworthy element of the photo is in the distance, though not much of one.  In other words, while there were some newer structures being built south and east of the Plaza, it still wasn’t far until farm plots and vineyards were reached as the eye roves towards the Los Angeles River.

The town of approximately 6,000 residents was still small enough to keep most of its population within an area roughly bordered on the west by what is now Figueroa Street (once Grasshopper), on the north by the Elysian Hills (where Dodger Stadium is located), on the east by the river, and on the south by not much further south than perhaps 7th Street.

Godfrey, a native of Michigan and a veteran photographer, took many views of the great Los Angeles region during the very late 1860s and early 1870s.  Owner of the Sunbeam Studios, for a time with partner Dudley Flanders, Godfrey sold his business and negatives to Henry T. Payne and moved to San Bernardino where he left the trade and was later a stagecoach driver and a janitor.

Check back regularly for more installments of Through the Viewfinder showing the Homestead’s collection of Los Angeles-area photos.

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