by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In a recent post under the series of “Victorian Fair Themes,” a stereoscopic photo by Payne, Stanton and Company from the Homestead’s collection of an area off Temple Street in downtown Los Angeles was highlighted. Among the features of the image was a large wooden structure atop a hill on the north side of Temple and it was guessed that it might have been a school under construction.
A comment from Mike D., however, cleared that up. Mike wrote:
I’d guess that this photo was taken from atop the old Los Angeles High School building on Poundcake Hill. The large, dark building with the two unfinished towers at upper right is the Horticultural Pavilion, built by the Southern California Horticultural Society and opened in October 1878. The Pavilion was torn down in March 1882 because a mortgage on the property was not paid. Material from the Pavilion was used to build residences on the site.
This information stimulated a little searching into the short-lived structure and the organization which built it and, thanks to Mike’s observations, this post touches upon an interesting aspect of greater Los Angeles history.
The Southern California Horticultural Society was founded in late April 1877 by a group of men dedicated to the topic and included Luther M. Holt and Thomas A. Garey, founders of the town of Pomona, established two years before; Daniel M. Berry and Dr. O.H. Congar of another recently established town, Pasadena; prominent nurseryman Ozro W. Childs and long-time district attorney Cameron E. Thom of Los Angeles; and James de Barth Shorb, whose father-in-law was Benjamin D. Wilson of Lake Vineyard, near San Gabriel (both were the developers of Alhambra.)
With these founders on board, the organization was put into shape and quickly organized a joint fair at the Southern Pacific depot on Alameda Street with the Southern District Agricultural Society, organizers of a fair at Agricultural Park, now Exposition Park. After the combined event was held in fall 1877, however, the Horticulture Society moved largely on two fronts. The first was to host its own fair and the second was to build a pavilion for exhibits for that event. The organization also published a monthly magazine, the Southern California Horticulturist, edited by Holt.
Fundraising for the $30,000 needed to build the pavilion, however, proved tough to fulfill, but by taking out a mortgage, as Mike noted, the building was completed in time for the Society’s first independently produced fair in October 1878. Exhibits and prizes were handed out for a wide range of products, including displays of fruit, agricultural products (including wine) and flowers, but also for agricultural implements; textiles and clothing; carriages and other vehicles; manufactured leather and metal; musical instruments and furnishings; chemicals; fossils; brick and stone work; fine arts of all kinds and more.
The Society managed to hold four of these events until its precarious financial position finally revealed a fundamental inability to keep the pavilion in operation, even as membership grew modestly. As Mike noted, despite earnest pleas for a financial rescue from members and the community ar large, the pavilion was demolished in March 1882. It seems almost certain that Payne, Stanton and Company’s photo shows the building in the process of being dismantled (not a school in the course of construction as supposed in the prior post.)
While greater Los Angeles was dominated by an agricultural economy and continued to be a powerhouse in this general area for many decades afterward (roughly until World War II), the late 1870s was not a propitious time to launch a Horticultural Society and, especially, to take on the financial burden of constructing the pavilion.
The collapse of the state’s economy in late summer 1875, two years after the Depression of 1873 hit the nation broadly, led to the conditions that exposed the weak financial structure of the Temple and Workman bank, one of two commercial institutions in Los Angeles. Its failure early in 1876 indicated the depths of the doldrums that remained in place for essentially the next decade. Among the many indicators of the depressed state of the local economy was the stagnation of the development of Pomona, Alhambra, and Pasadena, towns founded by leading lights of the Society.
As much as boosters and the founders of the Society wanted to believe that a turnaround was just around the corner, it would not be until the completion of a direct transcontinental railroad to Los Angeles in 1885 and the subsequent Boom of the Eighties that conditions changed. The boom went bust, however, by 1890 and another national depression in 1893 and several drought years during that decade kept the local economy down until the first year of the new century.
The story of the Southern California Horticultural Society’s pavilion is an example of a nascent city’s ambitions overmatching its resources. While greater Los Angeles remained an agricultural powerhouse for decades and hosted or participated in many fairs locally and nationally, the efforts of the Society in the late 1870s and early 1880s were not quite enough to be sustainable, but did serve as a precursor to later promotion and boosterism.