Through the Viewfinder: Pershing Square, Los Angeles, ca. 1885

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This Sunday, the 9th, historian Greg Fischer will present a talk on the history of Pershing Square, as part of the Homestead’s lecture series on World War I-related history in greater Los Angeles.  Renamed in 1918 for General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force in western Europe during “The Great War,” the five-acre park actually was known by several monikers, including Los Angeles Park, Sixth Street Park and then Central Park, for a half-century prior to that.

It was the city’s second park, after La Plaza in the historic core of Mexican and Spanish Los Angeles, and was sited in the mid-1860s in the growing area of town south and west of the pre-American portions of town.  For a time it was known as “La Plaza Abaja” or “The Lower Plaza” to contrast it to its older “sibling.”  George Lehman, whose unusual “Round House” has been featured here before, planted some of the early landscape in the park.  Development in the area around the park was primarily residential for the first few decades, though there were some prominent institutional uses.

The first was the site from which the accompanying photo from the museum’s collection was taken.  This was the Los Angeles Normal School, the subject of a previous post on this blog, and which was established in the early 1880s as a teacher training school.  In the mid-1920s, the school building was razed and the city’s Central Public Library rose there.

Another major institutional presence noted in the center of the photo is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  Located on the west side of Olive Street, between Fifth Street (at the left) and Sixth Street (to the right), the church was originally named St. Athanasius and its first location, from 1864, was at Temple and New High streets near the Plaza.

From Normal School Looking East Los Angeles SV
This stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection, dating to about the mid-1880s, shows Central Park and surrounding areas from the Los Angeles Normal School (now the site of the Central Public Library).

Just shy of twenty years later and probably a couple of years or so before this photograph was taken, the church moved to its new digs across from Central Park and was later renamed St. Paul’s.  As the city’s population skyrocketed with the arrival of a direct transcontinental railroad line to Los Angeles in 1885, precipitating the great “Boom of the Eighties” at the end of the decade, and following years saw continued growth, it was decided that a much larger cathedral would replace the church.

By the 1920s, however, land values had risen so much that the Episcopalian congregation could not resist selling their park-adjacent parcel and heading west over to Sixth and Figueroa.  There, the new St. Paul’s Cathedral was dedicated in summer 1924 and remained standing for over a half-century.  The current cathedral is in the Westlake Park area.

As for the St. Paul’s site across from the park, it became the location of the iconic Biltmore Hotel, which opened in 1923 and featured a renowned orchestra in its early years and was the site of several early Academy Award ceremonies.  At the corner of Fifth and Grand, the Biltmore Theatre stood for over four decades, until it was demolished in the late 1960s.

Above St. Paul’s and slightly to the right is St. Vincent’s College, a Roman Catholic school for boys and young men founded in 1865 in the Vicente Lugo adobe on the east side of the Plaza.  Two years later, the school moved to the site shown in the photo on Sixth Street between Hill and Broadway.  After just over twenty years, in 1887, the campus relocated to Grand Avenue and Washington Boulevard.   Eventually, the college morphed into today’s Loyola Marymount University, situated near Los Angeles International Airport.

Just around the time that St. Vincent’s ended its tenure in the location shown in the photo, two of its older students (in their late teen years) were Walter P. Temple, who owned the Homestead from 1917 to 1932, and his cousin Boyle Workman, whose father, William H., was the founder of Boyle Heights, mayor of Los Angeles in 1887-88 during the great boom period, and city treasurer from 1901-09.  Boyle followed his father into politics, becoming president of the city council during most of the 1920s and losing the mayoral campaign of 1929.

As for Pershing Square, its appearance has changed dramatically over the decades and the lack of greenery has caused no small amount of consternation.  About a year ago, a Pershing Square Renew contest revealed a winning design from the French-based firm Agence Ter, which utilized many local partners and included substantial uses of trees and other softscape in its conception.  If the estimated $50 million can be raised, the plan is to open the redesigned park in 2019.

3 thoughts

  1. St. Paul’s was located on the west side of Olive Street. [temporary comment: could not find an email address for the author].

  2. Thank you, Richard, for the correction, which has been made. We appreciate your spotting the error!

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