Through the Viewfinder: A Stereoscopic Photograph of Commercial Street, Los Angeles, 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In 1872, greater Los Angeles was in the midst of its first sustained period of growth, which began not long after the conclusion of the Civil War and the end of a terrible period of flood and drought that wracked the regional economy.  From about 1868, thousands of migrants came to the area, agriculture overtook cattle ranching as the backbone of the economy, the first railroad was built in the region, banks appeared in town, and other signs of development appeared.

Stereoview Commercial St 2014.608.1.1
This stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection, taken by William M. Godfrey (possibly in partnership with Dudley P. Flanders) in 1872, shows Commercial Street, looking east from Main Street, in a growing Los Angeles.

Another new element to pop up was the use of photography to document the transformations underway.  As Los Angeles grew, local photographers captured these changes with panoramic views, images of the town’s streets, photos of new buildings (the Pico House, the first high school, commercial buildings, recently built houses), and others.

Today’s entry in the “Through the Viewfinder” series of historic photographs from the Homestead’s collection is a remarkable stereoscopic image titled “46. Commercial st., Los Angeles (1872).”  The orange mount and labeling indicate, because there is no identification, that the image was taken by William M. Godfrey, who was among the earliest of the city’s photographers and likely when he was in partnership with Dudley P. Flanders.  The earliest known photograph of the Workman House at the Homestead was taken by Godfrey and is said to date to 1872.

This and the several following images are advertisements from the first Los Angeles City Directory, issued in 1872 and taken from a 1963 reproduction published by The Ward Ritchie Press.

The view is taken from Main Street just north of Temple Street and the Temple Block, owned by F.P.F. Temple, and looks east down Commercial Street, also known as “New Commercial Street” in some sources.  Commercial Street was an apt name because the length of this section was devoted exclusively to businesses and shops located in a variety of structures along the thoroughfare.

In the foreground left is the location of the hardware and jewelry store of Charles Ducommun, who settled in Gold Rush Los Angeles and who, within a couple of years, expanded his business with a two-story building and had frontage on both Commercial and Main streets.  Today, Ducommun, Inc., provides electronic and structural manufacturing systems for aerospace, defense and general industry.


At the foreground right is the Polaski and Goodwin general store, formerly the site of stores owned by Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to Los Angeles in 1841 with John Rowland and William Workman, and then Isaias W. Hellman, partner in a bank with Workman and F.P.F. Temple until about a year prior to when this photo was taken.  When Hellman went into banking with Workman and Temple in 1868, Polaski and Goodwin took over the store.

In the middle of the first block on the left, past Ducommun’s store, were the former locations of the store of Irish-native Mathew Keller, who’d moved into wine-making by the early 1870s, and the drug store of James P. McFarland and John G. Downey.  After McFarland moved to Tennessee around 1856, Downey closed the business and later served as California’s governor and went into business, including real estate, banking (first with James Hayward and then, in 1871, with Hellman, after the latter dissolved his bank with Temple and Workman.)


By the time this photo was taken there were a number of merchants, including tailors, shoemakers (note the sign on the left for a man named Dillard and one other on the right at the end of the block), and others on both sides of the first block between Main and Los Angeles streets.  At the left, on the northwest corner of Commercial and Los Angeles, is the two-story brick building constructed by Hellman and known, naturally, as the Hellman Block.

Cater corner to that, on the southeast corner, and identified by a sign at the top of the building, is the “White House,” which looks to have been a commercial building, based on the fact that a variety of businesses and stores operated there.  These included a wool market, a fish and poultry market, a dentist, a restaurant, a cigar manufacturer, among others.  The structure appears to have been newly constructed when the photo was taken, because it doesn’t show on a lithograph of the area done in 1871.


There were also a few restaurants located on Commercial Street, including Johnny Moore’s San Francisco Restaurant, where, according to the Los Angeles Herald of 26 November 1873, “the best meats and vegetables are used and cooked in the most palatable manner” in meals that cost a quarter.  Another was McDonald’s (not a precursor to the worldwide fast food chain), where a notice in the Herald began with a paean to the region:

Los Angeles county, wherever known, is acknowledged to be an earthly paradise.  Here we have perpetual summer.  Fruits ripen, and flowers bloom the year round.  But chief among its many advantages is cheap living.  McDonald’s Restaurant, on Commercial Street, is the best.  One trial of the nice Coffee, Tea, Tenderloin Steak, Fresh Eggs and Ranch Butter, proves it is the best place in town.  Single meals, 25 cents.

Owner John McDonald, however, was convicted of second degree murder in the death of his wife, Louisa, and was sentenced to life imprisonment at San Quentin.  After a couple of years, an appeal to the state supreme court resulted in a ruling that a new trial be held, though it is not known what the outcome of that was.


At the furthest end of the part of Commercial Street, about where Alameda Street is now,  that is visible looks to be a long two-gabled structure, which could be the lumber yard of Perry, Woodworth and Company, a major firm in that line for many years.

This was also near the depot of the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad, which was at the southwest corner of Alameda and Commercial, which curved to the northeast just past San Pedro, so the building could be part of the depot.  Later in 1872, Los Angeles County’s voters approved a subsidy package for the Southern Pacific Railroad that included the transfer of the Los Angeles and San Pedro to the Southern Pacific, including the depot.


Finally, of note are the several horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians on Commercial or on the walks on either side of the street.  While on the right are two gents in a buggy, there is a commercial vehicle, or perhaps two, on the north side, with a flat bed laded with what looks to be fruit or vegetables.  Stacked at the edge of the walk are several wooden boxes.  On the south side, closer to Los Angeles Street, are two groups of wooden barrels on the edge of the street and walk.  People, including what look to be a couple of children or teens, are in the street or on the walks with some at the doorways of shops.

The same year this image was taken, the first Los Angeles City Directory was published, reflecting the growing changes in the city.  While there were people listed as residing on the street, there are also a number of advertisements for businesses on the street.

Los Angeles Herald, 31 October 1873.

These included S. Goldstein and Company, proprietors of The White House; S. Nordlinger’s shop (featuring watches, clocks, jewelry, and silverware); Samuel Prager’s general store; the Los Angeles Carpet Warehouse; Samuel Meyer’s store; the restaurants of Moore and McDonald; and the office in the Hellman Block of Los Angeles’ first architect Ezra F. Kysor, designer of the Pico House hotel, St. Vibiana Cathedral and, it is said, the remodeling of the Workman House, completed about 1870.

Also listed in the directory are Godfrey and Flanders and their “new, spacious, and elegant art and photographic parlors,” located in the Downey Block on Main Street “opposite Commercial Street.”  In other words, whoever took this photo stood on Main Street directly in front of the parlor.  In the directory, it was noted that clients were “called to our New and Elegant Establishment, now complete in all its appointments. possessing every requisite for excellence in the Photographic Art.”

Herald, 26 November 1873.

A comic reference to Commercial Street came at the end of 1873 in the Herald newspaper.  In what, on first glance, looked like a criticism about the narrowness of the street, the short piece addressed the wanderings of what appeared to be a drunk navigating the intersection shown in the foreground of the photo:

Commercial street should be widened immediately.  Last night we noticed a man, on foot, make three attempts to enter it from Main street.  His first effort culminated with a violent collission [sic] with the lamp-post in front of Polaski & Goodwin’s; the second, in a half promenade around the flag pole near by; and the third, in a semi-circle, melo-dramatic meander toward the gutter of Ducommun’s corner, into which, after a few preliminary movements, he finally settled, wondering, doubtless, at the stupidity of the founders of our city in laying out such a narrow street.

Not surprisingly, Commercial Street is much changed from what it was nearly 150 years ago.  For one thing the stretch shown in this photo is gone, as the section from Main to Alameda is now taken up with commercial and government buildings, including the regional office of the Internal Revenue Service, the Edward Roybal Federal Building and Metropolitan Detention Center.

What remains are several blocks paralleling the 101 Freeway, built through the area in the 1950s, from Alameda (where the Gold Line runs over the intersection from Union Station south and then east into Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles ) east to the Los Angeles River.  Parking structures and commercial buildings are along this largely non-descript portion of the roadway.

Herald, 31 December 1873.

The photo, however, is one of many images in the museum’s holdings that provide visual documentation of Los Angeles as it transformed during its first boom period lasting from the late 1860s to the mid 1870s, especially with the newer brick structures (the Hellman Block, White House, and the like) that were in vogue, while the smaller single-story buildings were representative of the earlier commercial structures in town.  The photo certainly makes for a great contrast with what is there today and it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the area.


One thought

  1. Very cool and interesting write-up.

    Could you possible post the other frame of the stereoscopic photo?

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