Through the Viewfinder on Main and 2nd, LA, 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Through the Viewfinder has us looking up Main Street north from 2nd Street at a Los Angeles that had been through the great Boom of the Eighties in 1887-88, then went bust for several years during which drought and a national depression kept matters somewhat tempered.

But, further growth booms (and busts) were on the way.  By 1900, Los Angeles boasted over 100,000 persons with the county nearing 175,000.  As noted in the previous post on the 3rd Street tunnel, most of the impetus for development was south and west of the historic Plaza.

The vantage point shown in this image captures much of the change underway, whether it is the relatively recent use of electricity for lighting and motive power for the streetcar running down Main; or buildings that had moved into the fourth and fifth story level; or architectural styles that reflected trends popular at the end of the Victorian era.

Main St LA 1890s
This unattributed cabinet card photograph from the 1890s is taken from 2nd Street looking north on Main Street and captures a growing and transforming Los Angeles pushing the 100,000 mark in population.  From the Homestead Museum collection.

The clock at the west (left) side of Main appears to read 3:15 p.m. and the street isn’t particularly crowded, perhaps because office and retail workers were still squirreled away in the commercial buildings lining the street.

Among these was the first location of Hamburger’s Department Store, just north of the clock–a rooftop sign has the store’s name.  Hamburger’s later moved down to Broadway and 8th and, in the 1920s, became May Company (later Robinson’s-May and then Macy’s).

Further up Main and behind the second light-colored power pole is a bit of the Temple Block, built between 1857 and 1871 by the brothers Jonathan and F.P.F. Temple.  This is now the site of the Civic Center and City Hall.

Even farther down, just past where Main then turned a bit west as it hit what was then the triple intersection with Spring and Temple streets is the distinctive tall central tower of the Baker Block.  This had been the adobe residence, called El Palacio, of Abel Stearns and his wife Arcadia Bandini.  After Stearns’ death, the widow married Robert S. Baker, who razed the adobe and built the palatial business building named for him.

A bit above the Baker Block, but out of view, was the Plaza.  Perhaps the Plaza’s invisibility was unintentionally telling as the unattributed photographer stood in the new core of downtown Los Angeles as it was at the end of 19th century and poised to become one of America’s largest cities during the first few decades of the next.

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