The Fire at the Belmont Hotel, Los Angeles, 16 December 1887

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This is a story that embraces many notable elements of late 19th century Los Angeles, including the city’s westward growth; the famed Boom of the 1880s; transportation; leisure and travel; developments in higher education; real estate development and speculation; urban planning; religion; water supply; firefighting; and photography as a tool for documenting real-time events.

Ellis Villa College open ad Los_Angeles_Herald_Sep_13__1884_
Los Angeles Herald, 13 September 1884.

In 1884, greater Los Angeles was still seeking recovery from the economic malaise that set in nearly a decade later, punctuated by the failure of the Temple and Workman bank.  There was, however, some growth, and the completion the following year of a direct transcontinental railroad line by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe provided much of the impetus for the boom that transformed the region.

Development in Los Angeles was pushing westward from downtown over the steep hills to the west and one area of concentration by the middle eighties was Crown Hill, a district now to the west of Interstate 110.  One of the early notable figures in the development of the district was the Reverend John Wesley Ellis.

Belmont 1st mention Herald_May_4__1886_
Herald, 4 May 1886.

Born in 1842 in Cedarville, Ohio, east of Dayton, Ellis served in the Union Army during the Civil War and became a Presbyterian minister, first working in a pastorate in Lincoln, Nebraska.  He came west to California and was pastor in Chico, north of Sacramento, but the Pacific Coast synod of the church appointed him to open the first church of the denomination in Los Angeles.

Ellis supervised the opening of the First Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles at Broadway (then called Fort Street) and Second Street.  Later moving to Figueroa and Twentieth, the church remained under his stewardship for about a decade.  In the meantime, Ellis also got involved in the newly created Crown Hill neighborhood, starting with the creation of the Ellis Villa College for women, which opened on land he acquired at the western extension of Second Street from downtown.

Ellis Villa College came along at a time when colleges were starting to grow in the region, with all of these being affiliated with a religious denomination, such as St. Vincent’s College, a Catholic institution and Wilson College in Wilmington and the University of Southern California, which were both Methodist schools.  The school began operation in September 1884, but after a short time it was decided to construct a new campus just a few hundred yards away.

Belmont ad Herald Jul_1__1886_
Herald, 1 July 1886.

With the building of the new college facilities, the former one was converted into the Belmont Hotel.  There was a five-year lease arrangement made with R.H. Bryant, who was involved in the furnishing of the well-known Raymond Hotel in South Pasadena and the prominent Hotel Arcadia in Santa Monica, and was making his first foray into operating his own hostelry.  The manager was M.E. Clark and he had the facility readied for a “soft” opening on 1 July 1886, with a formal one eight days later with a banquet and ball for 150 guests.  Later Clark was joined by Walter Patrick as proprietor.

Among the amenities described in advertising for the 17-acre property were the access to cable cars, the views, ocean breezes, the abundant landscaping, all rooms facing out to those views, a women’s parlor, a men’s reading room [as if women didn’t read], lawn tennis and croquet, and more.

The hotel’s opening was greeted by a brief comment in the Los Angeles Times that “its beautiful location on the hills, and its superb view should make it a favorite.”  In fact, that view mainly showed undeveloped land to the north to the Hollywood Hills portion of the Santa Monica Mountains, the area west toward the ocean, and south over the broader coastal plain.  As the city and region were now fully enmeshed in the excitement of the great boom, there were high expectations for the hotel.

Belmont formal opening Times_Jul_9__1886_
Los Angeles Times, 9 July 1886.

With regard to the college and hotel during the boom, Ellis asked a trustee, Edward A. Hall, to take out an ad in the Los Angeles Herald late in October that “he will advance the prices of all unsold lots surrounding the college and hotel grounds twenty-five per cent.”  The Ellis Tract was, after all, a commercial endeavor and the reverend minister undoubtedly planned for the college and hotel to be instrumental in boosting interest and, therefore, prices in the endeavor.

In fact, in August 1886, the “West End,” as the area was known was highlighted by an unnamed booster in a Times article.  Notably, the piece began with reference to a gas well that was in the area before it went into some of the improvements at Crown Hill, including the newly laid-out 17-acre Second Street Park, including a reservoir doubling as a lake, playground, dancing platform, and a full array of landscaping.  There was even mention of a “zoo” of sorts with birds like parrots and cockatoos and monkeys already there and reports that a black bear and deer to be introduced.

The park was just thirty feet from the recently completed Second Street Cable Railway (a photo showing the line has been featured on this blog), which ascended a nearly 28% grade through a cut in Bunker Hill to get to Crown Hill.  At the end of the road was “the Belmont Hotel, the new Ellis Villa College, built to take the place of the old college” and other structures.  These latter included a grocery store, refreshment stand, and, of course, a real estate office, while a few houses were already built.

West End article Times Aug_12__1886_
Times, 12 August 1886.

Naturally, it was added that “the price of real estate is advancing rapidly,” but which were favorable compared to those in the burgeoning south side of Los Angeles, which at that time meant the region leading toward the Exposition Park and U.S.C. area.  With a second cable railway planned and the beauty of the hills being removed by a mile from the hectic activity of downtown, it was concluded that “we shall out on aristocratic airs and look down on our neighbors in the flats below us.”

Unfortunately, “the best laid plans . . .” scenario ran into the reality of a major threat to areas that were predominantly populated by wood-frame structures.  About 10 a.m. on 16 December 1887, a fire broke out in the kitchen in which a Chinese cook was working.  The kitchen was located under the water tank immediately behind the two handsomely designed and appointed three-story structures and spread very rapidly.

In fact, while a call was phoned in to the city’s police department and an alarm was sounded at a box at Spring and Second streets, the responding crew from the Los Angeles Fire Department (only created a few years prior to replace the volunteer department that served the city) could not take their equipment up the steep Bunker Hill, but had to take a roundabout route through Sixth Street to the south.  This delay cost valuable time that was not available to waste.

Belmont fire article headline Times_Dec_17__1887_
Times, 17 December 1886.

An engine stopped at the lake/reservoir at the park and another a short distance away, but “before they could get to work, the fire had gained such a headway that it was impossible to stay its progress.”  In fact, the first responders were nearby workers, who rushed to try and stop the fire from spreading from the kitchen and tank-house, but were unable to do so.  Attention then turned by all on hand to evacuating some sixty guests as well as the staff and saving whatever personal possession and hotel furnishings they could.

The highlighted photograph from the Homestead’s collection, said by the informative Water and Power Associates website to be the first to document a fire in progress in Los Angeles, is a vivid and powerful visual record of that rescue effort.  Taken from across  what looks like a newly created dirt road, the image shows flames and smoke consuming the twin structures, while a crew sprays water on the one at the left in a vain effort to contain the conflagration.

Several dozen people mill about on the expansive grounds, stand to watch the spectacle or, in the case of a few persons on the road, strolling by.  At the road side and in the yard are beds, tables, chairs and other furnishings and items, a reflection of the effort to preserve what possessions could be done in the chaotic situation.  An embossed stamp, difficult to discern unless held under light or magnification, is from the photographer, “J. Smith.”

This cabinet card by J. Smith, a Los Angeles photographer, in the Homestead’s collection is reputed to be the first image of a fire in-progress in the city, and dramatically shows the rapid burning of the Belmont Hotel in the Crown Hill neighborhood west of downtown on 16 December 1887.

The hotel was a total loss of about $50,000 and there was in-depth coverage in papers like the Times and Herald, but those publications also raised awareness of a significant problem.  The latter, for instance, editorialized:

there is no water near, no engine within two miles of where the fire broke out.  These things are getting to be somewhat monotonous in the city.  Time was when Los Angeles had a most enviable record in this matter of disastrous fires.  We have changed all that with a vengeance.  Has there been a fire got under control in this city in the last six months? . . . What is the matter?  Nothing?  Then are we to go on and let the whole city be consumed?

The Times lamented the loss of what it called one of the few truly fine suburban hotels, especially at a time when tourism was rapidly rising in the region and stating that, with its excellent location, beautiful appointments, and attractive grounds, “the Belmont was an object of universal pride and satisfaction.”

In a partial list of guests registered at the hotel, some were from Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and New York, and they were likely well-to-do vacations escaping the harsh Midwest and East winters.  Patrick told the paper that “our prospects for the winter were very good” and that “the house was on a paying basis.”

BElmont fire headline Herald_Dec_17__1887_
Herald, 17 December 1887.

Observing that it took only an hour to destroy the hotel, the paper called the “public calamity” and example of the fact that “the western portions of the city are practically denied of protection from fire.”  It alluded to the route firefighters were forced to take, eight blocks out of the way, but added that it was the question of water supply that was the real problem:

All through this rapidly-developed section of the city there is noticeable the most glaring neglect of the simplest precautions against fire, and even if engines were afforded, it is doubtful whether they could be rendered very serviceable . . . the plain duty of the city government is to see that such unpardonable neglect of the hill section of Los Angeles is not longer continued.

More adequate water pipes and the addition of more fire hydrants, as well as a fire station in the Crown Hill neighborhood were called for, especially because, in the latter, “the steep and ungraded streets of the hills are not promotive of quick communication.”  Observing that the quickly growing southern areas of the city also were lacking in supply and amenities for fire protection, the paper called upon the Committee on Fire and Water of the City Council to address the glaring deficiencies promptly.

Belmont Fire editorial headline Times_Dec_17__1887_
Times, 17 December 1887.

Amazingly, the newer campus of the Ellis Villa College, which was spared damage from the fire, was consumed in another conflagration not six months later.  On the morning of 2 July 1888, a kitchen fire erupted.  A quick call by Ellis’ wife was made, but it took a half-hour for crews to arrive for the same reasons that were involved with the hotel fire.  It was the third fire in the building and this time it involved another total loss for the unfortunate man of the cloth.

Ellis, who was a founder of another short-lived college in the area, the Sierra Madre College in South Pasadena, had a history of heart trouble and the dual disasters of the hotel and college fires likely didn’t make matters better for his health.  He lived for a period in Oakland and then returned to Los Angeles, where, in October 1903, he died of a heart attack in his apartment at Grand Avenue and 20th Street.

Belmont fire editorial Herald_Dec_17__1887_
Herald, 17 December 1887.

Notably, his obituary stated that he’d been “retired from active life” and that “for the past eighteen months had been a constant sufferer from an ailment of the heart, which caused his death.”  It was stated that he’d been at work on a book, Between Two Worlds, that examined such areas a diving healing and “new thought,” a concept of mind-healing utilizing “constructive thought” through a divine presence and that he’d been ready to work on the final chapter.  Ellis was interred at Rosedale Cemetery, having lived an extraordinary life largely forgotten in Los Angeles.

The pleas from the press for city officials to improve water supply, fire protection and response and like issues are part of a gradual movement to implement a professionalized form of urban planning that saw significant improvements in subsequent decades.

J.W. Ellis obit Times_Oct_16__1903_
Times, 16 October 1903.

Meanwhile, though there was talk of rebuilding the hotel, noting materialized, though the references in the summer 1886 “West End” article about the presence of gas in the area led several years later, after the boom subsided, to the opening of the Los Angeles Oil Field by Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield.  The hotel and college sites were used for petroleum prospecting as part of that field.

In 1923, the Los Angeles School District opened Belmont High School on the property.  For many years as the surrounding population surged, Belmont was the largest school in terms of attendance in the state, until newer campuses were built.  As it approached its centennial, few know that the site’s history includes the Ellis Villa College and Belmont Hotel elements.



Leave a Reply