La La Landscapes: Early Beautification of the Los Angeles Plaza, 1870s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Plaza, the historic core of Los Angeles, was, despite its centrality to the pueblo in the Spanish and Mexican periods, not landscaped until well into the American era.  This is neither a surprise or a judgment–the town was a remote community in what has been called the “Siberia of Mexico.”  It is not expected that the Plaza would have ornamental landscaping when most residents had little of it at a time when the area was largely surviving on subsistence cattle ranching and agriculture.

By the early 1870s, however, that began to change and it is interesting to consider the changes underfoot in the emerging city as it was in the midst of its first significant and sustained growth and development boom, which lasted from after the Civil War to the middle years of the following decade.

A short plea issued by the Los Angeles Herald on 3 October 1873 asked for something to be done to give the Plaza “a respectable appearance.”  Note the other notes, including for the city’s first fire company, all volunteers; for Luther M. Holt, who was two years later a founder of Pomona; for the addition of Arthur Bullock as a cashier at the bank of Temple and Workman; and for the paper’s ban of “quack medical advertisements”!

The commercial core of the growing town was moving south and centered around the Temple Block, situated at what was then the triple intersection of Main, Spring and Temple streets.  Residential areas were further south and it is notable that the second public park (after the Plaza) was Central Park, established in 1866 and which is now Pershing Square.

Yet, there were some who were hoping to retain the viability of the Plaza and central among these figures was Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, who sold his interests in the massive Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando, encompassing much of the valley of that name to invest in building the Pico House.  This three-story, Italianate hotel represented Pico’s ambitions as a business owner, given that the hostelry sported amenities far superior to its rivals, as well as his desire to keep the Plaza relevant in the new Los Angeles.

SV Part Of Los Angeles From Fort Hill 2005.440.1.3
This ca. 1870 stereoscopic photograph in the Homestead’s collection by early Los Angeles photographer William M. Godfrey shows the Plaza area from nearby Fort Moore Hill.  At the right are the newly completed Pico House hotel and Merced Theater.  Note that the Plaza has a circular wood rail fence and a concrete fountain, but little else in the way of landscaping.

It is not surprising, then, to find that, not long after the hotel was finished in 1870, that efforts were made to provide a pleasing pallette of plant materials in the landscape of the Plaza so that guests staying in the modern Pico House had something more to look at  than fencing, the unused brick reservoir from a short-lived water delivery project, and dirt and weeds.

Two stereoscopic photographs from the 1870s in the Homestead’s collection document the transition of the Plaza from a largely barren landscape to an attractive park.  The first of the views, though published by Henry T. Payne about 1872 or so, was actually taken by William M. Godfrey, about two or so years earlier.

A call for improvements at the Plaza by Mayor Prudent Beaudry, Herald. 22 December 1874.

Godfrey, an early practitioner of photography in Los Angeles, took many fine shots of the region, including the earliest known view of the Workman House (an original of which has not yet been located—these were made in few quantities, according to Phil Nathanson, a collector of early Los Angeles photos who’ll be speaking on the subject at the museum on 8 April).

Photographers on the frontier found it hard to keep their businesses going and often moved rapidly from place to place or gave up and went to other vocations.  Godfrey gave it a go for a few years and then sold his business, including existing equipment and inventory of unmounted prints, mounts and negatives, to Payne.  As was commonplace, Payne reissued Godfrey’s views under his own name and the first photo shown here is emblematic of this practice.

Reference to the Plaza as “now a thing of beauty” thanks to the efforts of council member William H. Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, owners of the Homestead, Herald. 20 June 1875.

The Godfrey view taken from the lower portion of Fort Moore Hill to the south and west shows the newly completed Pico House and its neighbor the Merced Theater, also finished in 1870, with the Plaza to the left.

William Estrada, in his study of the Plaza, noted that the shape of the Plaza was changed in 1871 from square to round, which it retains to this day, and that a board fence was erected.  He also wrote that a cement fountain was placed in the center and that it included a metal sculpture of a boy riding a dolphin, from the mouth of which water spurted.

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Another museum holding is this ca. 1877 stereoview by Francis Parker, taken from the north end of the Plaza, including landscaping done in late 1875, and looking toward the Plaza Church and Fort Moore Hill.

The fountain was a tribute to Governor Felipe de Neve, founder of the town in 1781.  Incidentally, to the upper left behind the Plaza and to the left of a single-story adobe with a porch along its front elevation is Wine Street, better known to us as Olvera Street.  The property left of that with a white picket fence was once owned by F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman, who was deeded the lot in 1847, but sold it within several years.

The second photo was taken by Francis Parker, who operated briefly in Los Angeles in the later 1870s.  Labeled “Los Angeles No. 17” (the Homestead has his No. 9, as well, with Parker photos being very rare, according to Phil Nathanson), the view is from the northern edge of the Plaza, close to Wine (Olvera) Street and looks west toward Fort Moore Hill.

The 22 September 1875 edition of the Herald included this tidbit about the improvements at the Plaza, rendering it “a thing of beauty instead of the disgrace it has been.”

Obviously, the focal point of the image was the Plaza Church, dating to 1822 and which was significantly remodeled during the Civil War years, including the painted block front, the open wooden tower at the left and other features.  While the old church was essential to keeping the Plaza area busy and active (and still is), St. Vibiana Cathedral, designed by the town’s first trained architect, Ezra F. Kysor (said to have designed the remodeling of the Workman House by 1870 and who also was the architect for the Pico House and Merced Theater), was completed at Main and Second streets about the time the photo was taken.

As for the landscaping, note the closely planted evergreen trees, possibly deodars, that ringed the Plaza.  There is also a relatively newly planted tree in the grassy (weedy?) area off the dirt paths.  Much of this work appears to have been done in 1875 under the supervision of William H. Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, and a member of the city council.  The local economy collapsed within months, including the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, and further improvements at the Plaza highly unlikely in the depression that followed.

More reference in the 14 October 1875 issue of the Herald to the “skillful manipulations” of the council’s park committee rendering the Plaza “an attractive place” with an anticipated summer season that “will make it a pleasant resort.”  Angelenos of the future were expected “to bless the unexpected good taste of our Councilmen”!

Estrada wrote that these were planted in 1880 after the common (city) council appropriated $5,000 for improvements, but it is clear from the photo that the trees were placed in the Plaza quite a bit earlier, unless the ones shown here were replaced.  Estrada went on to identify other changes made to the Plaza during the Eighties, but we’ll save that for a later post on the evolution of the landscape of this vital public space in a later edition of the La La Landscapes series.

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