by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Joseph Mesmer is a forgotten name in Los Angeles history, but there was a time decades ago when he was a “go-to” pioneer present at seemingly every event dealing with some aspect of the city’s not-so-distant past.
Born in 1855 in Tippecanoe, Ohio, a hamlet (population today of about 120), west of Pittsburgh roughly half way to Columbus, Joseph came with his family to Los Angeles in 1859. His parents, Louis Mesmer and Katherine Forst, were Germans from the heavily contested Alsace-Lorraine region, now part of France. Louis, born in Surbourg, learned to be a baker in the larger city of Haguenau, not far from Strasbourg.
Louis then migrated to America and lived briefly in New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo, working as a laborer, before migrating to Tippecanoe and reverting back to his vocation as a baker. In 1858, he sailed for California to try his hand at gold mining, but, finding little success, he went to Victoria, British Columbia and got back into baking. After a brief sojourn at San Francisco, he sent for his wife and young son, Joseph, who joined him and then the family settled in the City of Angels.
Louis owned several bakeries in Los Angeles and, during the Civil War, supplied goods to the Union Army’s Camp Latham, situated along Ballona Creek in what is now a corner of Culver City near today’s West Los Angeles College. The camp, moved to a spot in what became Highland Park in northeast Los Angeles, was established to bolster the presence of federal troops in an area that was heavily sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Louis briefly plied his trade in the Arizona Territory before returning to Los Angeles to try his hand at another career.
This was the purchase of the United States Hotel on Main Street, which Louis subsequently expanded, and with his acquisition of the hostelry coming as Los Angeles’ first sustained growth period began in the late 1860s, he did well enough that he retained the ownership of the building, but sold the operation of the hotel.
He and his family, which grew with another son, Louis, and a daughter, Mary Christina, then traveled to Europe for nearly two years to visit the Mesmers’ home towns. Louis also invested in real estate, including a fine property where Ballona Creek emptied into the ocean at Playa del Rey and a large tract in northeastern Orange County. Louis died in 1900, nine years after his wife, having achieved a significant measure of success.
Joseph grew up in a rapidly changing Los Angeles, a community deluged by floods and devastated by drought in the first half of the 1860s and which then rode a wave of prosperity and growth for several years into the mid-1870s. While his family was on its extended stay in Europe, he went to a school in Strasbourg. Upon returning home, Louis embarked on another new venture, selling wine, including being the exclusive vendor for product from the Rancho Cucamonga and Joseph assisted his father for most of the decade.
In 1878, Joseph established the Queen Shoe Store in a store in his father’s hotel building and ran a well-patronized and prosperous business for nearly thirty years. The year after he opened the store he married Rose Bushard, a native of California whose family had been in Canada (her brother is the namesake of Bushard Street in Orange County).
Their nuptials were the first to take place in the newly completed St. Vibiana’s Cathdral on Main and Second, designed by architect Ezra F. Kysor, who also designed the Pico House hotel, Merced Theater and, it is said, the remodeling of the Workman House. The couple raised five children as Joseph’s business and political prospects rose. Sadly, a son, visiting Louis Mesmer at Ballona in the mid-1890s, drowned in a boating accident in the Pacific.
The latter was manifested through his involvement in Democratic Party politics, at a time when the once-dominant party in the region had largely lost its powerful perch to the Republicans. During the great Boom of the 1880s, he was a member of the Board of Freeholders, which created the city’s charter. He followed that with a position on the Parks Commission, when the creation of beautiful city parks (Westlake, Eastlake, Elysian, Hollenbeck, and others) was at its peak.
The biggest of all city parks was donated during Mesmer’s tenure by his brother-in-law, Griffith Jenkins Griffith, who’d married Mary Christina Mesmer in 1887. Nine years later, Griffith deeded 3,000 acres of Rancho Los Feliz, which he acquired in 1882, to the city as a park and it became a crown jewel in the park system. Yet, Griffith’s drinking and paranoia joined forces with his wife the subject of his alcoholic delusions.
A Protestant, Griffith was convinced his Catholic wife and the Pope were out to get him, so in a drunken fog in September 1903, he shot his wife in the eye in their room at the posh Hotel Arcadia. Though badly wounded, Mary Christina was able to jump through a window, land on a lower roof and crawl to safety.
Griffith was convicted of the attack on his wife and spent two years in San Quentin. His wife divorced him, but Griffith returned to Los Angeles bent on atoning for his grievous sin. He donated money for the famed Griffith Observatory and the Greek Theater, both finished in the Great Depression long after his death in 1919.
Joseph Mesmer, meanwhile, decided to sell his successful shoe store in 1906 and, after a long vacation in the U.S. and abroad with his family, returned to Los Angeles and became president of a brick and clay company and vice-president of a lock and hardware firm. His prosperity was also supplemented by his increasing public presence.
Long a resident of what was first called East Los Angeles and changed to Lincoln Heights on an estate just north of Eastlake/Lincoln Park, Mesmer was active in promoting the interests of that community. He was particularly interested in infrastructure, including the widening and paving of city streets, improving sewage systems (he fought long to prevent sewage dumping at the Ballona wetlands, at least partially because of his family’s ownership of land there).
He took on the role of securing subscriptions from locals to buy property for a federal postoffice and courthouse and for a building for the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. He was very active in securing the site for the public market (produce, flowers, etc.) near the Los Angeles River and advocated heavily for the civic center built where the Temple Block had been situated and for Union Station.
Mesmer also inherited his father’s United States Hotel building and kept the hotel operating for almost another forty years, until, in 1939, the property was sold for new development. A lot of coverage in the press attended the closure of the hotel, which had changed little over the years, as a remnant of “early days” in Los Angeles. He also gradually sold off pieces of the Ballona and Orange County landholdings to great profit during boom years of the early 20th century.
Living longer than most of his contemporaries, Mesmer easily assumed the role of the hale and hearty representative “pioneer” of pre-urban Los Angeles. He was a longtime president of the Los Angeles County Pioneer Society, which included William H. Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman and a Boom of the 1880s-era mayor and city treasurer in the first decade of the 20th century, as another prominent member.
Invariably, when there was a groundbreaking, dedication, opening of a time capsule or some other event touching upon history (or an approximation of it), Mesmer could be counted on to be there to offer a speech and reminisce about the good old days of yore. This was especially true in the 1930s and 1940s, when he was about the last of his generation. He remained active until he was about 90, though after his wife’s death in 1946, his health deteriorated rapidly and he passed away late the following year, having just passed his 92nd birthday. Both were interred in a family plot with a tall impressive marker at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.
There were many accolades afforded the venerable “pioneer” and his body lay in state at St. Vibiana’s, but the extraordinarily rapid growth of post-World War II Los Angeles and the wholesale destruction of much of the historic landscape of the city also left Mesmer and others forgotten figures.
Yet, there was at least one remnant of the Mesmer family that managed to survive “progress.” This was a very tall wooden flag pole presented about 1866 to Louis Mesmer by Phineas Banning, the developer of Wilmington Harbor and much else in the South Bay region. Installed at the front of the United States Hotel, it was a bit of a local landmark and remained on that spot for over seventy years.
When Joseph Mesmer sold the property in 1939, the pole was given to the city and, in a heavily attended ceremony, was reinstalled in front of City Hall. There it remained for another seventy-five years, having attained a lifespan of nearly 110 years when, in 2014, it unceremoniously was removed. This blog post from the time discusses the mystery of its disappearance.
As to the photos of Joseph and Rose Mesmer, they could well have been taken as engagement pictures. They were produced by the Elite Gallery, operated by Payne, Stanton and Company. The principal figure in the photograph studio was Henry T. Payne, a veteran of the early professional photography scene in Los Angeles.
Payne began work in the city in the early 1870s and purchased the gallery of William M. Godfrey, republishing Godfrey’s views and taking many of his own images that document this critical era of a nascent city in its first significant growth period. Payne’s brother, Daniel, was another member of the firm. The other main figure in the Elite Gallery enterprise was Thomas E. Stanton, who went to operate his own studio and, during the Boom of the 1880s, took on Chester Burdick as a partner.
What’s striking about Joseph’s image is the incredible handlebar mustache he sported, which may have intended to portray a maturity to his boyish, youthful mien. Note his wide necktie with tie pin, as well.
But, Rose’s portrait is also quite interesting as she wore a small spray of flowers in her curly hair with its notable multi-part bun. She also had a nice pair of what looks like black pearl drop earrings. Over the fine tasseled lace collar on her dress is a necklace with a pretty brooch, which may be a locket. These are fine head-and-shoulder portraits of two young adults embarking on what wound up being a 66-year marriage.