by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When John Rowland obtained the grant from Governor Juan B. Alvarado for Rancho La Puente in April 1842 and he and William Workman built their homes and established their cattle ranching business on the property, their eastern neighbors included Ygnacio Palomares and Ricardo Vejar, who were granted by Alvarado the Rancho San José five years earlier.
Palomares took the northern portion of San Jose, building the adobe house which still stands and is known as Casa Primera (First House), just north of Interstate 10 in Pomona. Later, Palomares constructed a larger house to the northeast and a Depression-era reconstruction of the original stands on Arrow Highway.
Vejar and his family occupied the southern section of the ranch and one of the houses built about 1853 and occupied by Ricardo’s son Francisco (Chico) is the two-story adobe structure shown in the accompanying photograph, a stereoscopic view by Henry T. Payne and dating to about 1872, from the Homestead’s collection.
When the home was built, the California Gold Rush was still going strong and ranchers like the Vejars were profiting handsomely from selling cattle from their ranches to markets in the gold country to the north. Having a second story was a relatively rare phenomenon and may have reflected the prosperity of the Vejars.
However, within a decade, the situation was entirely different. The Gold Rush receded, a national depression erupted in 1857 and, in the winter of 1861-62, a devastating flood wiped out many of the cattle in greater Los Angeles. This deluge was followed by a crippling drought.
In addition, owners of Spanish and Mexican era ranchos were forced, by an act of Congress in 1851, to prove their grants were valid by a lengthy claim process that took an average of seventeen years to complete. Paying surveyors for the required detailed maps and hiring attorneys to represent them in court proved to be a significant financial burden for ranchers reeling from the other conditions noted above.
Consequently, during the difficult times, Ricardo Vejar borrowed money from two merchants in Los Angeles, Louis Schlessinger and Hyman Tischler. When he was unable to repay the debt, the pair foreclosed (Schlessinger died in the notorious explosion of Phineas Banning’s steamer Ada Hancock at Wilmington) and took possession of the ranch in early 1864. The merchants did not want to settle on their new possession so they enlisted a friend and fellow Jew, Louis Phillips, to manage the property for them. Within a few years, Phillips bought the ranch for $30,000 from Tischler and remained owner of most of it until his death in 1900.
Born Louis Galewski in Kepno, Poland, then part of Prussia, and changing his surname, along with his brothers, when he came to America as a teen, Phillips lived in Louisiana for seven years and worked in a store. With the onset of the Gold Rush, the young man came to California, tried mining and then briefly owned a store with his brother Fitel.
After migrating to Los Angeles in the early 1850s, he continued in the mercantile trade, but obtained 2,400 acres along the San Gabriel River (today’s Rio Hondo) of the Lugo family’s Rancho San Antonio, where he raised cattle and horses. He doubled his acrage on San Antonio before he made the move to San José, where he settled in to Francisco Vejar’s adobe house.
Phillips registered to vote in 1866 in the San José Township and, as greater Los Angeles underwent its first growth boom in following years, he sold some of his ranch to William W. Rubottom, who created the town of Spadra just west of the Vejar/Phillips house. Soon, a small, but active community, mainly comprised of residents originally from the American South, developed.
As for Phillips, he prospered with raising animals and farming on his ranch, to the extent that his self-declared value in the 1870 census was $113,000, most of it in the value of his land. By mid-decade, he’d decided to raze the Vejar adobe and build a new Second French Empire mansion adjacent to the adobe site. Completed in 1875 and said to cost about $20,000, the brick structure reflected the success of its owner.
The same year, Phillips sold some property to the developers of the new town of Pomona, established to the east, but a financial panic that included the failure of the bank of Temple and Workman, forestalled growth in the new town until a bigger boom erupted in the region after the arrival of a direct transcontinental railroad line to Los Angeles in 1885.
During the Boom of the 1880s, Phillips constructed two commercial buildings in one block in downtown. The main structure of the Phillips Block was completed during the peak boom year of 1888, but was the subject of speculation that it was shoddily built, a charge Phillips publicly denied in an affidavit. The elaborately ornamented four-story structure, which stood at Spring Street near 1st street, did burn in 1912.
Notably, prominent Jewish merchant Harris Newmark was asked in the early 1890s who he thought the wealthiest person was in Los Angeles County and he replied that it was Phillips, who was quietly ensconced at his ranch at the eastern end of the county. In 1900, Phillips died at age 70 and he was buried at the Spadra Cemetery (Spadra was eventually absorbed into the city of Pomona) which is tucked away just west of the mansion.
His wife, Esther Blake, died in 1918 and the house remained in the Phillips family for a while longer. It was divided into apartments during World War II and eventually was purchased by the City of Pomona. Managed for many years by the Historical Society of the Pomona Valley, the mansion has had extensive exterior and some limited interior restoration since its closure after the 1990 Upland earthquake. The structure is not open regularly, but there are occasional events and tours there. For more on the Society, click here.
From April 1993 to October 1997, I was the resident caretaker at the Phillips Mansion. I lived in a small cottage at the back of the property and was responsible for maintaining the grounds and overall watchfulness. It was an interesting experience, including Halloween night vigils at the Spadra Cemetery to keep away the curious and/or the malicious, the latter having done plenty of damage to the burying ground over the years. I also had the privilege of being on the Society’s board and serving as treasurer. When I married, I moved to nearby Chino Hills, but have lots of good memories of living at the Phillips site.