Through the Viewfinder: Main Street, Los Angeles, 1870s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Here is another fantastic early stereoscopic photograph of 1870s Los Angeles from the Homestead’s collection.  Taken about mid-decade by Henry T. Payne, who bought the business and inventory of William M. Godfrey and reissued much of Godfrey’s output in addition to publishing his own photos, the image appears to be taken from the roof of the Merced Theater, which still stands on the east side of Main Street adjacent to the Pico House hotel, and looks south.

What comes to mind is the transition of a remote, frontier town to a emerging small city during the city’s first sustained period of development.  Close to the photographer’s vantage point and across Main are two livery stables and then what looks like a remaining adobe building.

Then, as the eye moves southward to Temple Street and the junction with Spring Street, there are a series of two story commercial buildings.  Towards the upper right, as Temple Street heads up the hills to the west are a couple of early Protestant churches, including the First Congregational Church at the right edge with the small Gothic tower in the front and St. Athanasius’ Episcopal Church with the simple steep two-gabled roofline.  Just above the Congregational church is a sliver of the Los Angeles High School, which opened in 1873.

The three-story structure towards the upper left is the tallest of the several structures comprising the Temple Block.  This area was owned by Jonathan Temple, one of the first extranjeros (foreigners) to come to Mexican-era Los Angeles.  A migrant of 1828, Temple opened the first store in the pueblo in that area and had his townhouse there (this in addition to his ranch home at Los Cerritos in present-day Long Beach.)  In 1857, Temple constructed the first building on the block, a two-story brick structure.

In 1859, Temple used Boston’s Faneuil Hall as an inspiration for the Market House, which stood as an island between Spring and Main.  Though a failure as a commercial building, it was leased by the city and county and became city hall, county administrative offices, and the county courthouse.  In Payne’s photo, the top of the clock tower surmounting the structure and the pole atop the tower are in view.

SV Main Street 2014.1052.1.5

The three-story building that was at the north end of the block and fronted Main, Spring and Temple was the last of three structures erected by Temple’s brother, F.P.F., who purchased the Temple Block from Jonathan’s estate in 1867.  Completed four years later, this last building housed the bank of Temple and Workman, with F.P.F. as president and his father-in-law, William Workman as a silent partner.  Recent posts on this blog have detailed the end of the bank in 1875-76.

It looks like there had been some recent rains in Los Angeles when Payne took this shot, as the remains of large puddles are noticeable in the street.  Running down the middle of the thoroughfare is the track of the town’s first mass transit system, the horse-drawn Spring and Sixth Street Railway, which had Robert M. Widney as president and F.P.F. Temple as its treasurer when the cars began to run in 1874.

Note also toward the lower left one of the gas street lamps that were another recent addition to the city during those years.  A tall striped pole near the gas lamp appears to signify a barber (well, “tonsorial artist” might be another term from the period), who operated on the east side of Main.

Just beyond that was El Palacio, the large adobe house of prominent merchant and rancher Abel Stearns.  Later, his widow Arcadia’s second husband, Robert Baker, built the Baker Block on that spot.  Today, U.S. 101 goes through where these structures once stood and about where the second livery stable and adjacent adobe are in the image.

It can’t be said for sure, but perhaps Payne was showing where Los Angeles was growing during the peak of the boom years that began in the late 1860s.  It was south of the old Plaza that became the focus of most development, commercially and residentially, in that period.  Bunker Hill, part of which is beyond the churches and high school, w0uld be an area of development during the much larger Boom of the 1880s.

In fact, this photo (and many others from this era) depicts a transitional Los Angeles, moving from a sparsely populated hamlet before 1870 to a significant city by 1890.  Look for more images in the “Through the Viewfinder” series that document this transformation.

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