by Paul R. Spitzzeri
During the 1880s, Los Angeles transitioned from a larger town trapped in a long economic recession after its first sustained growth period collapsed in the mid-1870s to a booming small city thanks to the famed Boom of the Eighties, which peaked from 1886 to 1888.
One of the best ways to see the changes underway during the decade is through photographs of the area and there were corresponding transformations taking place in the world of photography, as well.
Specifically, the stereoscopic image, consisting of two slightly different views of the same subject and viewed through a stereopticon to get a three-dimensional perspective, was entering a long, slow decline. This was thanks to the rise of the cabinet card, a larger image available because of improvements with cameras, and this format gradually supplanted the earlier types.
Naturally, these larger photographs, aided by better equipment and negatives, provided more details and clarity than the older ones, so we can get a better indication of the dramatic changes that took place in greater Los Angeles through images produced in the last twenty or so years of the nineteenth century.
Today’s “Through the Viewfinder” artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a stereoscopic photograph from the earlier part of the 1880s and before the dominance of the cabinet card. The view shows a portion of Los Angeles from Fort Moore Hill and an ink inscription on the reverse reads: “Panoramic View of the City of Los Angeles Cal. from Old Fort Hill looking E / No. 4.” Notably, this area combined old and new and was not the part of town that was the focus of recent growth. This was to the south or to the right. Still, the image is reflective of a portion of Los Angeles just a few years before the Boom of the Eighties transformed the city and region.
The area captured in the image is just north of the Plaza, with much of the area in the foreground comprising what was then called Sonoratown. There are a number of adobe houses as well as newer wooden and brick structures, with almost all being single story structures save a couple at the left center. The larger of these looks to be the Sisters of Charity school on Alameda Street and Macy Street (formerly Upper Aliso and now César Chavez Avenue).
At the right edge toward the bottom is a large building with a steep two-gabled roof and four gable windows. This was the rectory for the Plaza Church, which was to the right out of view as was the Plaza just above. What is in view at that right edge above the rectory, though, is the area at the north edge of the Plaza, including what had been called Wine Street until just several years before the photo was taken. In 1877, the Los Angeles City Council renamed the thoroughfare Olvera Street, after longtime lawyer and judge Agustín Olvera. Almost dead center, to the right of the dark mass which is a tree or clump of them, looks to be the Avila Adobe, built in 1818 and still standing.
Just past the buildings is a swath of undeveloped land lying along the west bank of the Los Angeles River. This soon became the Chinese quarter of town after the earlier one at the southeast corner of the Plaza along Calle de los Negros (recast by racist Americans as “Nigger Alley”) was removed by the city. Decades later, in the late 1930s, Union Station was built on the south end of the site and the Chinese community moved to a new location beyond the left edge of the photo.
At the upper right, in the distance, as Macy Street crossed the river, is the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, developed in the mid-1870s by William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman. In 1870, the only covered bridge in greater Los Angeles was built at the crossing and the Homestead happens to have a very rare photograph of that bridge in its collection (you can see and read about it in this Boyle Heights Historical Society blog post.)
The photographer was a recent migrant to Los Angeles. Ormond Eugene Tyler was born in New Berlin (the old Berlin was not the one in Germany, but a town in Connecticut), New York in 1844 to a farming family. By his mid-teens, however, he left and was working as a farm laborer in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He remained there for over twenty years, married Mary A. Bancroft (the couple had one child, Bernice), and worked in photography.
In February 1882, the Tylers arrived in Los Angeles, perhaps to tour the city and see if it was to their liking, because, a little more than a year later, Tyler opened a photo studio on Main Street, advertising that taking images of babies was a specialty. Though the city was still in the economic doldrums from the financial disaster of the mid-Seventies and the photography business was particularly competitive, Tyler did arrive at a good time to buy property.
During the resulting boom towards the end of the decade, Tyler was somewhat busy buying and selling land in the growing city, as well as pursuing his photographic profession. By the mid-1890s, he decided to make a change, perhaps because of a new period of economic depression, worsened by the national Panic of 1893, and took up life insurance.
Though, by 1900, he was back working in photography, he spent much of his later years as a hotel clerk. In 1916, Tyler died at age 72 and he is not among the better known of regional photographers of the late 19th and early 20th century. The photo here is one of only three of his in the museum’s holdings.
Still, the view is a fascinating look at one of the older sections of Los Angeles in the years just before the massive Boom of the 1880s and is one of dozens of images that form a record of documentation of the city in the late 19th century.