Victorian Fair Themes: Architecture of Workman Family Homes

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On the weekend of the 29th and 30th, the Homestead is hosting its Victorian Fair festival with music, presentations, demonstrations, vendors, self-guided tours of the Workman House and La Casa Nueva, and much more.  In the next week, posts will deal with Victorian-era themes and stories as we lead up to the festival.  Today, we start with architecture, as embodied in Workman family houses and related buildings from the Victorian period.

By 1870, the home of William and Nicolasa Workman had been an adobe home for nearly thirty years.  With so many transformations taking place in recent years, as greater Los Angeles entered its first significant boom period, the couple decided to dramatically remodel their residence.

New rooms were added at the four corners of the structure and a second floor built–all of red brick, in juxtaposition to the adobe construction used earlier.  Decorative details reflecting popular architectural styles, including Gothic Revival, Italianate and Greek revival, were utilized.  It has been said that the architect brought in to supervise this remaking of the structure was Ezra F. Kysor, the first trained architect to work in Los Angeles.

WH 1870
This William M. Godfrey photograph from about 1870 shows the Workman House around the time that it was remodeled.  Early Los Angeles architect, Ezra F. Kysor, was credited with the redesign, which incorporated Gothic Revival (the steeply pitched roof and stucco quoins on the end of the wing rooms), Greek Revival (columns and capitals in the wing windows) and Italianate (porch detailing) influences.

It is perhaps noteworthy that the makeover of the Workman House occurred almost exactly at the mid-point of the Victorian era, which spanned from 1837 to 1901.  The architecture of the building what was going on throughout the region and Kysor encapsulated much of the visual changes through his architecture.

For example, at the same time he completed the redesign of the house (assuming, of course, that it was Kysor who did this work), the architect drew up plans for two of Los Angeles’ few remaining 19th century structures and, therefore, among its best-known historic buildings.  These neighboring edifices were the Pico House and the Merced Theater.

4362 Pico House Los Angeles 2009.301.1.1
This Carleton Watkins stereoscopic photo from the Homestead collection was taken about a decade after both the Pico House hotel (left) and Merced Theater (adjacent and with the added portico in front), but it is a great, clear view of the two Ezra Kysor-designed structures, which still stand just south of the Plaza on the east side of Main Street.

Having sold off the massive Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando to raise funds for the project, former governor Pío Pico, who was a close friend and neighbor of the Workman and Temple families (his Rancho Paso de Bartolo bordered Workman’s Rancho La Puente and the Temple’s Rancho La Merced), sought to keep the historic Mexican-era Plaza viable and dynamic by erecting a fine hotel on its south end.

Meanwhile, William Abbott, whose Latina wife was named Merced, decided to build Los Angeles’ second true theater (the first was a short-lived one built by Jonathan Temple in what became the city and county courthouse, city hall and county administration building), the Merced Theater.  A store was on the ground floor, the theater occupied the middle level and the Abbott residence was on the third and top floor.

St Vibianas Cathedral 2004.217.1.1
Taken by Alexander C. Varela about 1878, this stereoscopic photo from the museum collection, shows St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, designed by Kysor, and completed in 1876.  The building still stands at the corner of Main and 2nd streets, but has been superseded by the Our Lady of Angeles Cathedral, finished in 2002.

Looking at photographs of the Pico House and Merced Theater, as well as the Workman House, it is easy to see the Italianate architecture that is a hallmark of Kysor’s early work.  It carried on to an 1876 design for the Boyle Heights residence of lumberyard owner William H. Perry, which was moved many years later to the Heritage Square Museum in Lincoln Heights.  Kysor also designed the Church of Our Savior, an Episcopal church that still stands in San Gabriel and the Foy House, which is on the well-known Carroll Avenue in the Angelino Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.

That same year, the nation’s bicentennial, another surviving Kysor project was completed–this being St. Vibiana’s Cathedral at Main and Second streets.  The Roman Catholic cathedral reflected a major step up from the 1822 Plaza Church and it still stands, though the Our Lady of Angels Cathedral completed in 2002 replaced St. Vibiana’s, which suffered significant damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Joseph Workman home ca. 1885
Another Homestead-owned photo, this cabinet card image taken by Ellis and Son about 1885 shows the Kysor-designed residence of Joseph M. and Josephine Belt Workman, which stood on Boyle Avenue in Boyle Heights.  The house was razed within about 20 years, however.

Kysor, with his partner Octavius Morgan, designed another residence associated with the Workman family.  This was the Boyle Heights home of William and Nicolasa’s son Joseph, who moved his family from his 800-plus acre portion of Rancho La Puente to the relatively new and fashionable eastside neighborhood developed by his cousin, William H. Workman.  In fact, Joseph and his wife Josephine Belt bought a little more than an acre from William H. so they could establish the home.

Torn down by the early years of the 20th century, the 1882 residence reflected changing architectural styles as Victorian era architecture entered into its exuberant “Queen Anne” stage.  A steeply pitched roof with a central tower and shingles painted in different colors in stripes; wrought-iron fencing on the flat part of the mansard roof; prominent carved roof brackets; colored glass windows; and other details stand out.

As for Kysor, he retired not long after the Joseph and Josephine Workman house was completed and died in 1907.  His firm morphed into Morgan and Walls and then Morgan, Walls and Clements, which was a well-known firm in the first decades of the 20th century.

Check back here in coming days for more Victorian Fair-inspired posts!

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