Through the Viewfinder: A Part of Downtown Los Angeles, 1880s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the early 1880s, Los Angeles was still in a moribund economic state after the town’s first boom, from the late 1860s to the mid 1870s, flamed out in spectacular fashion, including the failure of the bank of Temple and Workman.  After the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad’s direct transcontinental line came to the city in 1885, a new and much larger boom ensued, known as the “Boom of the Eighties.”  Visual documentation of the growing city during the period are testaments to just how many changes were underway.

One such document is this excellent example from the Homestead’s collection.  This unattributed and undated, but sometime in the early 1880s, stereoscopic photograph shows a portion of downtown Los Angeles just north of Temple Street behind St. Athanasius’ Episcopal church (a smidgen of which is at the lower right corner) and looking to the northeast.

It takes in some of the city’s prominent buildings, most notably and visually, the Arcadia Block, which is the long structure with the tall central tower flanked by two shorter ones, on the east side of Main Street.  This had been the site of El Palacio, the large adobe home of Abel Stearns, one of the first Americans or Europeans to live in Los Angeles and who was a prominent merchant and landowner from the late 1820s until his death in 1871.

Stearns’ widow, Arcadia Bandini married Robert S. Baker and the adobe was razed and replaced by the Baker Block.  Baker was also a major investor in the seaside resort town of Santa Monica and erected the well-known Arcadia Hotel in honor of his wife.  As to the Baker Block, it was finished in 1877.

Designed in the French Second Empire style of which few local examples remain (one is the Phillips Mansion in Pomona), the structure had steel framing and tiled floors, which were new in town.  For decades it was a prime business address for professionals and its first floor spaces were dedicated to retail uses.  As with the rest of the area, though, the first few decades of the 20th century saw a deterioration of the building and it was purchased by the City of Los Angeles and torn down in 1942.  Today the 101 Freeway runs through the site.

To the left of the Baker Block is the area leading to the Plaza, while to the right and center are several other notable structures.  Farmers and Merchants Bank, which was opened in 1871 by Isaias W. Hellman and ex-governor John G. Downey, is the narrow width and broader length brick building at the center, on the west side of Main Street.  Under Hellman’s brilliant leadership, Farmers and Merchants became the dominant bank in Los Angeles and prospered during the late 1880s boom.

Los Angeles From Moore Hill 2005.349.1.1
Taken probably in the early 1880s, this undated and unattributed stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection was taken from behind St. Athanasius’s Episcopal Church on the south side of Temple Street and looks northeast towards today’s Lincoln Heights (then called “East Los Angeles.”)  The Baker Block, St. Charles and Cosmopolitan hotels, Farmers and Merchants Bank, and Aliso Street (top right) are notable elements in the image.

Next to it is the Cosmopolitan Hotel and, across the street, the St. Charles Hotel, while closer to the foreground is the “Hotel Des Princes.”  Not much is known about the latter, which fronted on New High Street, west of Main, though it seems obvious that it was owned by French-Americans, there being many hotels of that name in the mother country.  Obviously, the word “hotel” is French.  The Des Princes was directly behind the Downey Block, built by the above-mentioned Downey where Main, Spring and Temple street came together at the time.

As to the Cosmopolitan, it began life in the 1850s as the site of the Lafayette (again, another French reference), which was rebuilt as a larger brick structure.  It was then renamed the St. Elmo for a period, before becoming the Cosmopolitan, owned by Henry Hammel and Andrew Denker.  The pair were widely known as the owners of the Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, which later included Beverly Hills (as in Rodeo Drive.)  As a sidenote, William Workman, for several years in the 1860s, owned a portion of the Rodeo de las Aguas.

The St. Charles was originally the one-story adobe hostelry, the Bella Union, the best-known of the town’s hotels.  It went though a succession of owners over the years and the original adobe had a second and then a third floor of brick added by the 1880s.  For a brief time in the mid-1870s it was known as the Clarendon before assuming the St. Charles moniker.  In 1877, the first telephone demonstration was held in town when a line was strung from the St. Charles to the Lafayette.

The two-story building to the left of the St. Charles was built as the Pico Building, erected by former governor Pío Pico for the second bank to open in Los Anglees: Hellman, Temple and Company.  The first bank, Hayward and Company, was established in spring 1868 by a young man whose father was the namesake for the Bay Area city below Oakland and by John G. Downey.  Then Isaias W. Hellman partnered with F.P.F. Temple and William Workman to form Hellman, Temple and Company later in the year.

Hellman, Temple and Company operated in the Pico Building until early 1871 when clashes over operating philosophy between Hellman and Temple led the former to buy out his partners and then joined forces with Downey, who closed Hayward and Company, to open Farmers and Merchants.  Temple and Workman went on to open their own bank in the newly completed final addition to the four-unit Temple Block, which was out of the view of this photo’s right edge.  Temple and Workman failed in early 1876 and, as ntoed above, Farmers and Merchants went on to great success.

The wide dirt road extending off towards the upper right of the image is Aliso Road (aliso is an alder tree in Spanish), which was the main thoroughfare out of town heading northeast and to the San Gabriel Valley.  Imagine the 101 heading out of downtown and Interstate 10 going east and you get the general idea.  Behind the Baker Block and left (north) of Aliso Road was the subdivision of East Los Angeles, created in 1873 and later named Lincoln Heights.

At the left edge with the modest Gothic Revival bell tower is the First Congregational Church on New High Street, parallel to Main on the west.  The church was completed in 1868 and operated in the building for fifteen years.

The “Through the Viewfinder” series continues next time with an 1890s image from Los Angeles.

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