Through the Viewfinder: The Pico House, Merced Theater, and Masonic Lodge, Los Angeles, ca. 1876-1880

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tonight’s “Through the Viewfinder” entry highlights a photograph from the Homestead collection with an unusual angle of a familiar scene, the trio of brick structures, the Pico House, Merced Theater and Masonic Lodge, at the south end of the historic Plaza of Los Angeles that were usually photographed from either Fort Moore Hill on the west or from the Plaza area to the northwest or northeast.

The creator of the image was Carleton Watkins, one of California’s most famous photographs.  Born in 1829 in Oneonta, New York, Watkins journeyed to Gold Rush California with a fellow townsman, hardware merchant Collis P. Huntington, uncle of Los Angeles streetcar and real estate titan, Henry E. Huntington.

Watkins made his living initially in Sacramento ferrying mining supplies from Collis Huntington’s store to the gold mines.  After a massive fire in November 1852 that leveled most of the city, including the store of William Workman’s brother David, Watkins decided to embark on a career as a photographer in San Francisco.

In 1861, he hauled his camera outfit to a natural wonder in the Sierra Nevada Mountains still little known outside of California called Yosemite.  His many striking views of the sublime landscape there made Watkins a known name in the world of landscape photography and he won a prize at the 1867 Paris International Exposition in that genre.

Carleton Watkins
Carleton Watkins from the Wikipedia page about the photographer.

When Collis Huntington and his “Big Four” associates (Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker) completed the western half of the transcontinental railroad through their Central Pacific Railroad company, Watkins acquired the negatives of the firm’s official photographer, A.A. Hart, and republished them as his own.

Yet, Watkins, though a superb master photographer was not much of a businessman and, in 1875, lost his “Yosemite Art Gallery” to Isaiah W. Taber, of San Francisco, and a partner.  Despite this blow, Watkins went back to the location of his previous photographs and reissued them in a “New Series” edition with identification numbers starting with 3000.

So, it was after 1876 that Watkins first photographed in greater Los Angeles, just after the stupendous economic crash that included the failure of the bank of Temple and Workman.  He worked in the area in that year and the following one and then returned in spring 1880.  The highlighted image, number 4362, might well be from the later visit.

Working steadily into the last decade of the 19th century, Watkins confronted another major blow: the loss of his eyesight.  The problems were compounded mightily by the loss of his studio and negatives—representing his life’s work—in the horrific earthquake and fire at San Francisco in 1906.  The photographer lived another decade beyond the disaster and died at age 87 in 1916.

Watkins Yosemite
A Watkins view of Yosemite from the website.

The preceding images to this one in the “New Series,” photographed in 1876-77 and in spring 1880, were of the Pico House and nearby areas from more traditional locales to the west and north.  This view, however, is taken from about the northwest corner of Main and Aliso streets at the edge of today’s El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.

The image shows the Pico House hotel at the left.  Built by the last governor of Mexican-era California, who financed the project by selling off the massive Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando in 1869, the hotel was an impressive and modern hostelry for a frontier town in the early stages of its first growth and development boom.

It has been said that Pico built the hotel to try and keep the Plaza a viable area while most development was moving south where newer structures like his own Pico Building, on the east side of Main just north of Temple and Commercial streets, and the Temple Block represented the new downtown.  Despite the significant effort, the Pico House was never entirely a financial success, though it remained a hotel for many years.

4362 Pico House Los Angeles 2009.301.1.1
The Watkins “New Series” view of the Pico House (left), Merced Theater (center) and Masonic Lodge (right), ca. 1876-1880, with all three structures still standing as part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.

Next to the hotel is the Merced Theater, built by William Abbott and named for his wife, María Merced García.  Though it is often described as being the first theater in the Los Angeles, this is only true if the primary purpose of a building was to house the theater.  In fact, in 1859, when Jonathan Temple built the Market House to the south as a commercial structure with leased stores on the ground floor, the second level was built as the Temple Theater and this was the first theater built for the purpose in town, though it was short-lived because the city and county of Los Angeles took over the Market House and the theater space became the county courthouse.

In any case, the Merced Theater briefly had the distinction of being the tallest building in Los Angeles, thanks to the slightly elevated false front Abbott added to make his structure just a bit higher than the adjacent Pico House.  The projecting portico was added not long after the building was finished.  The success the Merced Theater enjoyed in its early years waned quickly, though, when the economy collapsed and other factors led to the closure of the facility in 1877.

The two-story building fully in view to the right (the one partially at the extreme right edge is now a parking lot) is actually much older than its neighbors.  In 1858, Lodge 42 of the Free and Associated Masons, which formed several years earlier, built the structure, making it one of the early examples of brick commercial structures in town.

Among the lodge members were William Workman and F. P. F. Temple, though both later changed lodges when one arose in El Monte.  The Los Angeles lodge used this structure as their meeting place for about a decade, though when that first economic boom that led to the Pico House and Merced Theater took place, the lodge moved to a building further south in the new, developing commercial core of the emerging city.

Despite all the changes to downtown, this trio of buildings still stands and, though Watkins could obviously not have known that, it is remarkable that he captured in his image those survivors of the ravages of time!

To learn more about Carleton Watkins check out this very informative website.


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