Through the Viewfinder: La Fiesta de Los Angeles Decoration Contest Prize Winner, 1905

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the more curious aspects of late 19th and early 20th century greater Los Angeles was the romanticizing of pre-American California, sometimes called Spanish Fantasy Heritage, that not only engulfed the region, but spread beyond it.  The most popular form of this movement was the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona (1884), which was written primarily to raise attention to the injustices committed against native Indians in California, but which was best known for its love story between the title character and her Indian beau, Alessandro.

Jackson’s novel happened to be published the year before a direct transcontinental railroad link reached Los Angeles, ushering in the famed Boom of the 1880s.  That boom not only meant more residents and business growth for the region, but led to an explosion in tourism.  While many visitors came for the delightful weather, the beautiful beaches, and hikes in the local mountains, the history (accurate or otherwise) of the area also became a draw . . . and a potent promotional tool.

The boom era also brought about the formation of the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, which, along with the railroad companies (chiefly, the Southern Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe), streetcar systems (like the Pacific Electric Railway) and the major tour companies, spread the word far and wide about southern California.  Another major impetus for tourism and the romanticizing of Spanish and Mexican California was the World’s Fair at Chicago in 1893, at which the publicizing of greater Los Angeles was at full strength.

By then, the boom went bust and a national depression that broke out the year of the fair, coupled with several drought years during the decade, hampered the region’s development.  Still, tourism continued to be heavily promoted and, with the new century came a new era of growth.

RPPC La Fiesta De Los Angeles 2014.407.1.2
This real photo postcard from the Homestead’s collection shows a decorative Mission Revival structure built for a La Fiesta de Las Flores contest in 1905 in front of the stationery and book store of Cunningham, Curtis and Welch, formerly Stoll & Thayer at 252 S. Spring Street in Los Angeles.

Another facet of the romanticizing of the region was a new interest in the California missions.  Much of this was led by new Anglo arrivals to the area, including the formation of the Landmarks Club, spearheaded by Charles Fletcher Lummis, a migrant from the east to Los Angeles the same year Ramona was published.

The “restoration” of the missions was a major part of that group’s work and the Chamber of Commerce, the railroad companies, the streetcar companies, the touring companies and other interested parties supported these projects.  Tourists visited the local missions, including San Gabriel, San Fernando and San Juan Capistrano in droves, but what they were told of the history of these institutions and their relationships with native Indians was decidedly one-sided.

This culmination of this interest in the missions was the writing and staging of The Mission Play by John Steven McGroarty, a work modeled after a European passion play, the Oberammergau in Germany.  The work, however, put the work of Catholic missionaries on a pedestal, while casting aside the irreparable damage done to the native peoples through policies, well-intended or not, that destroyed indigenous practices.

Finally, there was the significant popularity of architectural styles that evoked, superficially and cosmetically, aesthetic concepts based very loosely on pre-American California.  By the turn of the century, as the Victorian era came to an end and Queen Anne, Romanesque and other popular styles waned, Mission Revival rose to ascendance.  Hallmarks of the style typically included lots of arched openings, smooth stucco and plaster walls, large overhung roof eaves, tiled roofs, and large pillars.

Many homes and commercial buildings were built in the Mission Revival style, with probably the best-known example in the region being the extravagant and eclectic Mission Inn in Riverside, and it was soon superseded by the onset of Spanish Colonial Revival.

Spanish Colonial adapted many elements from the earlier Mission Revival and this is best seen at the Homestead by the surrounding of La Casa Nueva (built between 1922 and 1927) with the Mission Walkway, which has an adobe wall with wide arched openings and trellis work of grapevines complementing a cement walk with the names of the 21 California missions and the Pala sub-mission and their founding dates inscribed in it.

When the Fiesta was cancelled due to insufficient fundraising, a flower festival was held at the Temple Auditorium, just completed on Fifth Street across from Central Park (later renamed Pershing Square.)

Today’s highlighted post features a real photo postcard from the museum’s holdings of the prize winning entry in a decoration contest for downtown buildings during La Fiesta de Los Angeles (a.k.a., La Fiesta de las Flores), a festival that ran for about a quarter century and which played on the more superficial and shallow aspects of the romanticizing of Spanish and Mexican California.  Organized by business interests and merchants looking to promote their enterprises during the down times of the 1890s, the festival was heavily publicized and attended, included a popular parade downtown.

So, the contest was initiated as part of the festivities and gave the entrant added visibility and promotion for its business.  The first prize winner was the San Francisco stationery firm of Cunningham, Curtis and Welch and its Los Angeles branch at 252 S. Spring Street.

Haivng purchased the landmark book seller and stationery business of Stoll and Thayer (both names are visible on the sign behind the decorative element), Cunningham, Curtis and Welch erected an impressive portico that extended out to just beyond the sidewalk and curb and had matching belfry ends with six openings and bells, pilasters surmounted with three-part steeply gabled caps, a two-gabled roof, and painted walls with trailing vines, palm trees and exposed brick.

Note also the steamship office to the north, the two convertible “horseless carriages” parked on either side and the jaywalkers and other pedestrians.  The juxtaposition of the temporary and romantic nod to the missions and the trio of American flags projecting from the second floor of the building is also a bit ironic.

It turned out that the La Fiesta de Las Flores event was cancelled for 1905 because of a lack of financial support from local businesses and individuals.  Instead, a flower festival was held the last week of March at Temple Auditorium, recently constructed by Temple Baptist Church on Fifth Street across from Central Park (later renamed Pershing Square).  The Fiesta returned in full swing in 1906, just weeks after the San Francisco earthquake and fire, and timed for the national Shriners convention held in Los Angeles.

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