At Our Leisure: The Plaza, The First Park in Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From the founding of Los Angeles in 1781 as a Spanish outpost of Mexico, the town was developed around a central plaza as called for in the Law of the Indies, created in 1573, for colonial city development, specifically Ordinance 112, which stated:

The main plaza is to be the starting point for the town; if the town is situated on the sea coast, it should be placed at the landing place of the port, but inland it should be at the center of the town. The plaza should be square or rectangular, in which case it should have at least one and a half its width for length inasmuch as this shape is best for fiestas in which horses are used and for any other fiestas that should be held.

This 1870s stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection shows a relatively newly landscaped plaza surrounded by the Lugo adobe at its east end (in the background) and the new Pico House hotel at its south (right).

The following ordinance indicated that,

the size of the plaza shall be proportioned to the number of inhabitants . . . [and] shall be not less that two hundred feet wide and three hundred feet long, nor larger than eight hundred feet long and five hundred and thirty feet wide. A good proportion is six hundred feet long and four hundred wide.

The plaza of Los Angeles followed the general concept laid out above, but the problem was that the town’s proximity to the Los Angeles River meant that occasional flooding caused the pueblo to be moved in succeeding decades and further southwest of the original location.

By the 1880s, the Plaza’s landscaping had matured and gave the century-old focal point of pre-American Los Angeles a modern park-like appearance.

The plaza, however, was not a park by our modern conception until after the Civil War years and its major change in the early years of the American era was the installation of a brick water tank for a privately owned water system siphoning water from the river upstream, though the project failed quickly.  The tank grew unsightly and was finally razed.

During the 1870s, the earliest efforts to beautify the plaza as a town park were undertaken.  The property was fenced, a variety of shrubs, bushes and trees were planted, and some of the earliest street lanterns were placed at its corners.  A major reason for these improvements was almost certainly the building of the Pico House hotel at the south end of the Plaza.  An effort by ex-governor Pío Pico to keep the traditional center of Los Angeles alive, the hotel ultimately failed in its purpose, but it did bring some change to the area.

Another circa 1880s image from the east side of the plaza takes in new fencing and trees with older shrubs and other landscaping.  The Pico House is at the left and, in the distance, housing up towards Bunker Hill.

This was attempted even as the impetus for growth in Los Angeles’ first development boom was to the south and west.  On the fringes of downtown, Central Park was established in the late 1860s.  Renamed Pershing Square after World War I, that park will be covered in this blog later.

Still, the ornamental landscaping at the plaza continued and matured.  In the aftermath of the great “Boom of the Eighties” in the last part of that decade, the plaza was very attractive and undoubtedly was heavily used by long-time residents and newcomers.  The boom went bust, but by the turn of the 20th century, as activity continued south and west, the plaza deteriorated and yet survived.

It’s a bit grainy, but this view is from about the 1900s and is from the northeast part of the plaza looking back towards the Pico House and what appears to be the late 1880s city hall on Broadway.

It proved, along with the 1820s Plaza Church on the western side of the plaza, to be an allure to the large migration of Mexicans who came to Los Angeles in the aftermath of the revolution of 1910 in Mexico and during the boom years of the Twenties when Mexican migrants flocked to the region in search of work and new lives.  The romantic and inauthentic efforts of Christine Sterling to remake Olvera Street on the plaza’s north end into a Mexican tourist hub was very successful and the Plaza reaped the benefits.

In the post-World War II years, as regional growth exploded and Los Angeles was gripped with redevelopment fever, the plaza continued to be treated by many as a representative relic of a romanticized Spanish and Mexican past, while retaining its attraction to Latinos who identified with its similarity to plazas in their home towns and states.

This shot of the plaza dates to 1926 and shows many more benches, paved walks and palm trees than in previous years.  There’s quite a bit of grass although a sign just over the bench at the center warns parkgoers to stay off!

By 1970, the plaza area was a California state park and then later was turned over to the City of Los Angeles with the plaza being the centerpiece of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.  Efforts have been made to remake the area, including some controversial remodeling of the Pico House, Merced Theater and Masonic Lodge, the transition of Union Station as a mass transit hub, the addition of monuments of various kinds in the plaza, and new cultural institutions (chiefly, the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes and the Italian-American Museum of Los Angeles), and more.

The plaza has persisted through much change and transformation and is still a busy, active and vibrant element in Los Angeles well into the 21st century.  Long may it continue to do so!



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