Through the Viewfinder: Panoramic View of Los Angeles North of the Plaza, 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Photographs like the one highlighted here really demonstrate the growth of Los Angeles during the first decades of the 20th century.  It gives the appearance of an aerial photo, which was certainly possible in the 1920s, but it actually looks to have been taken from the top of the county courthouse, which was completed in 1889 and stood near Broadway and Temple, north towards what had been known as “Sonoratown” for much of the 19th century.  By the Twenties, though, there were Latinos, Italians, Chinese and others residing in this locality and railroad yards and manufacturing and industrial facilities were also very prominent.

At the very lower left corner, is a portion of Fort Moore Hill on which the courthouse stood.  This is roughly the area in which the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial, which was the subject of a recent post, was built some thirty years or so later.  At the far center left is Hill Street.  Broadway is the street that curves at the hill and then moves north towards the Elysian Hills and Elysian Park. On the southern slope of those hills was the old Jewish cemetery, where a group of green trees at the base of the hill are located.  Meantime, a community known as Chavez Ravine developed in the Elysian Hills and remained there until the highly controversial decision to raze the neighborhood in favor of the building of Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962.

At the bottom center are two buildings with lettering on the southern sides for the Brunswig Drug Company main office on Main Street where the LA Plaza Cultura y Artes is situated and the annex behind it, which at the time was on New High Street, to the right of Broadway, but which is now where Spring Street runs.  After passing what is now César Chávez Avenue, New High moves north from Spring, while the latter street picks up slightly east.  North of these before the Elysian Hills slope down towards the Los Angeles River is the Southern Pacific railroad’s River Station and yard, now the site of the Los Angeles State Historic Park.  The Capitol Milling Company, which opened in 1883, is at the southern end of this area.

To the lower right is the open courtyard of the Pico House and roof of the Merced Theater, two structures built in 1870 and which are still standing, with the dense stand of trees in the historic Plaza above them.  Across the Plaza is Olvera Street, flanked by sets of buildings between Main and Alameda streets.  Above this, a painted sign reading “Lumber Wholesale and Retail,” is where the immense Kerckhoff and Cuzner lumber yard was located.  Further north is the Western Machinery Company and other areas of an industrial section.  Beyond is the recently renamed Lincoln Heights, developed in the 1870s as East Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Plaza Plaza Area And North 2011.116.1.3
This original 1920s negative from the Homestead’s collection shows the area north of the Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, including residential and industrial sections, the Elysian Hills at center left, and Lincoln Heights at center right.

At the bottom right corner is a piece of the Chinatown neighborhood, marked by the painted sign reading “F.See On Co.” a firm that imported Chinese art, furnishings and curios.  Chinatown moved to the area east of Alameda Street after the earlier community, situated on the Calle de los Negros, was removed with the northern extension of Los Angeles Street up to Alameda.  Above this is another railyard, more industrial sites and other parts of Lincoln Heights.

During the 1920s, planning was underway to bring all of the city’s railroads into one complex, called Union Station. Though the project was approved during the decade, the Great Depression delayed the construction and opening until the late 1930s and the facility opened in 1939.  To make way for Union Station, the Chinatown situated there was razed and a new one established to the northwest of the Plaza area, where it remains today.

In the far distance are the cloud-shrouded San Gabriel Mountains spanning across the San Gabriel Valley at the right, the Crescenta Valley in the center and eastern reaches of the San Fernando Valley at the left.

From its vantage point atop the county courthouse, which was torn down in the early 1930s, this great image shows areas of Los Angeles representing much of its development through almost 150 years.  This includes the Plaza and Plaza Church (which, however, is hidden from view) dating to the 1820s; the “Sonoratown” that followed a couple of decades later; the Chinatown that moved east of Alameda Street in the 1880s and would soon be forcibly relocated to the areas center and left of the photo; and the railyards and industrial sections that developed by the end of the 19th century.

Click here to see a Google Earth view of much of the area shown in the photo.

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