Through the Viewfinder: Main Street Between 4th and 5th Streets, Los Angeles, early 1900s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s entry in the “Through the Viewfinder” series highlights a fine unmounted cabinet card photograph by Fred E. Munsey showing a section of downtown Los Angeles on Main Street from between 4th and 5th streets in the first years of the 20th century.  The image is titled “#18 Post Office MAIN ST. North, L.A. CAL.”

Unmounted Cabinet Photo #18 Post Office Main St North LA Cal 201
This unmounted cabinet card photograph from the Homestead’s collection, taken by Fred E. Munsey between 1897 and 1905, is of Main Street between 4th and 5th streets in Los Angeles.  The main subject is the Romanesque Post Office building at the center behind the streetcar.

Taken from the west side of the thoroughfare, the image shows the Romanesque style post office at the right behind the Los Angeles Railway streetcar (the system was purchased by Henry E. Huntington in 1898, roughly about the time of the image and was later incorporated into his Pacific Electric Railway system) and shows some of the building’s distinctive architectural features, including the steeply pitched roof, crosses atop the rooflines and on conical elements, a projecting front entrance at the building’s south end, and others.

On the same east side of Main and up past Winston Street, on which the post office also faced, and towards 4th are a hotel with an unusual open tower surmounted by a flag pole and another four-story structure with two corner towers that has what looks like a French Second Empire style.

An early ad for Munsey’s photo supply business, Los Angeles Times, 27 May 1900.

Because Munsey stood on the west side of the street, very little of that side, naturally, can be discerned.  The rooftop sign for the Hotel Van Nuys, which was completed in 1897, and a bit of the upper portion of the structure can be glimpsed above the only greenery on the street.  This structure, which recently housed the 165-room Hotel Barclay, was sold this past May for $21 million, about half the asking price when the building was listed two years ago.

The greenery mentioned above could well be trees in the yard of the residence of Isaias W. Hellman, president of Farmers and Merchants Bank and former banking partner of William Workman and F. P. F. Temple.  Because the home was razed for the building of a new Farmers and Merchants structure, finished in 1905, and other commercial structures, this gives a rough date for the photo of between 1897 and 1905.

Times, 8 April 1900.

The street is relatively deserted, with the streetcar joined on Main by just a few horse-drawn conveyances and one gent heading north on a bicycle, while there are some pedestrians on the sidewalks.  One vehicle, parked on the east side near the streetcar, looks to be loaded with furniture, including some tall pieces, while other pieces are on the sidewalk.

Perhaps the structure adjacent to the vehicle was a furniture store (there is a furniture store directly across on the west side), although there may be a house between that building and the post office, so the pieces may be from the residence.  Another point of interest are the white power poles on both sides of Main and the wires that run from them across and along the street.

During those first years of the 20th century, Los Angeles and its vicinity was in its third major boom period, following that of the late 1860s and the first half of the 1870s in which F.P.F. Temple and William Workman were business figures and the Boom of the 1880s, during which William H. Workman (William’s nephew) was mayor.  The growth period of the early 1900s took place when William H. was city treasurer.

This brief description of the Munsey firm mentions “they make a specialty of selling beautiful California views” for tourists and visitors.  From the Los Angeles Herald, 3 September 1905.

As for the photographer, Frederick Edwin Munsey was born in June 1874 in Rhode Island to Edwin Munsey and Annette Weeks.  The family lived in New Hampshire and Massachusetts until 1886 when they relocated to Los Angeles, then entering that famed Boom of the Eighties.  Edwin Munsey worked as a farmer in the east and then as a businessman in Los Angeles, specifically in what was then East Los Angeles, later renamed Lincoln Heights.

By the late 1890s, Edwin opened a photographic supplies and camera store and was joined by his son Fred.  After a few years, Edwin retired and the business was reorganized as Fred E. Munsey and Company.  Newspaper articles and advertisements indicate the firm was in operation until 1911 when it was disincorporated. Fred Munsey then moved into real estate (Edwin had been active in this area at one time, as well) and lived in the vicinity of today’s Los Angeles Convention Center until his death in 1936.

A fun cartoon-filled Christmas holiday ad from the Times, 16 December 1906.

The Homestead collection has twenty-seven Munsey photographs with a wide range of subjects, including views of downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Mount Lowe, Mission San Gabriel, Catalina Island, the Hotel Green in Pasadena, the early Chinatown where Union Station now is situated, and more.

Fred Munsey is not a particularly well-known photographer, but his work does provide excellent documentation of a rapidly growing greater Los Angeles during the first years of the 20th century.

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