Through the Viewfinder: The Los Angeles County Court House, ca. 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Among the Homestead’s collection of rare 1870s stereoscopic photographs of greater Los Angeles, the most represented of the early photographers at work in the city is Henry T. Payne.

Part of this is because Payne purchased the Sunbeam Gallery of William M. Godfrey and then reissued Godfrey’s views under his own name.  It is also, however, because Payne diligently and avidly traveled through the city and county taking photos, including those published through his “Southern California Series.”

Tonight’s highlighted image from the museum’s holdings is a Payne stereoview titled “No. 20, Court House, Los Angeles.  It is a fine view taken from the hills at the west edge of town and looking east.  The subject, naturally,  takes center stage in the photographer’s framing of the view, though it is also notable that there are signs of major change in Los Angeles.

jonathan temple & wife & son in
Jonathan Temple (1796-1866) with wife Rafaela Cota and son-in-law Gregorio de Ajuria, ca. early 1850s.

For one thing, the foreground shows a single-story brick structure, on the west side of Spring Street in the midst of construction.  The commercial building had two stores as indicated by dividing center wall with a rear entrance and three windows on the back wall.  The structure was to join kindred brick buildings on both sides, including a two-story one.  Note that immediately below the hill are some wood sheds and lean-tos, including, most likely, an outhouse or two.

Behind the courthouse is Main Street, along with other commercial buildings, including a couple of two-story brick ones, though it appears there were probably some adobe structures, as well, remnants of the Mexican era of the city.  To the west and south were residential and farming portions, in areas that are now older, industrial zones west of the Los Angeles River.

To the left of the courthouse is part of a two-story brick building with a rounded southwest corner.  This is the Temple Building, completed in 1857 by Jonathan Temple.  Born in 1796 in Reading, Massachusetts, Temple spent several years in the kingdom of Hawaii, not long after Americans, including missionaries from Temple’s Congregational faith, “opened up” the remote island archipelago to outside influence.

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This stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection and taken about 1872 by Henry T. Payne shows the Market House, built in 1859 by Jonathan Temple, but soon after leased to the city and county and known as the Court House.  To its left is a portion of the second story of a commercial structure built by Temple two years before the Market House.

In 1827, Temple sailed to San Diego and was baptized a Roman Catholic there.  If his original idea was to start there, he quickly changed his mind and migrated north to Los Angeles the following year.  He was just the second extranjero, or foreigner, to live in the pueblo—the first, Joseph Chapman, was a merchant sailor who settled in the city several years prior.

Temple had the distinction of being the first merchant in Los Angeles and operated his store for nearly thirty years.  He acquired several choice lots in the pueblo, as well as the Rancho Los Cerritos, over 27,000 acres in the Long Beach area and which he purchased from relatives of his wife, Rafaela Cota, a native of Santa Barbara.

Los Cerritos was, as all ranches were, a commercial cattle enterprise and the two-story home Temple built there in 1844 was a “country house.”  He, Rafaela, and their only child, Francisca, born in 1831, lived full-time in Los Angeles.

Letter on Market House Star 29Oct59
A letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Star, 29 October 1859, wondering why more attention was paid to “the interest of John Temple and the Market House” than “the necessity of a police force in this city.”

Temple’s mercantile activity including trading throughout Alta California and in Mexico and he was so successful that he was able, through his son-in-law Gregorio de Ajuria, a native of Spain with important political connections in Mexico City, to acquire the lease to the national mint of Mexico.  These kinds of enterprises allowed Temple to close his store by 1856 and the following year he built the Temple Building, a particularly upgraded commercial structure for the city.

He followed this with a more ambitious structure, modeled after Faneuil Hall, a famous commercial market house in Boston that is a major tourist attraction today.  The idea was the same, a central hallway running the length of the building with small shops and stalls along either side.

Temple then built, on the second floor, the first purpose-built theater in Los Angeles.  Whereas plays, concerts, lectures and other events were held in houses or other structures, the Temple Theater was the first specifically for those purposes.

Adobe court house Star 26Nov59
A portion of the county Grand Jury report from the Star, 26 November 1859, noting the inadequacy of the “old adobe building” used for the county courthouse and clerk’s office and exposed to theft and “fire and other means of destruction.”

Surmounting the structure was a distinctive clock tower with the clock facing north and south and a pole with a large ball atop it adding a bit of height to the building.  Because the Market House, as Temple christened it, was in a large open area, it was something of an island, with Main and Spring on the east and west and short and wide lanes, Court and Market streets, to the north and south.

The Market House was completed in 1859, but the regional economy was in a doldrums.  The California Gold Rush, up to the middle part of the decade, was a boon to local cattle ranchers and others who made significant money while the rush was on.  Then, as gold production declined and imported cattle were in more demand, greater Los Angeles’ growing economy ground to a near halt.   Moreover, in 1857, a national depression broke out, further complicating the situation.

The Market House, consequently, had high vacancy rates and low prospects, especially because the economic malaise spread into the first half of the 1860s, which included floods and droughts that brought the cattle economy to its knees (hooves?).  Fortunately, there was a solution that helped Temple and gave the city and Los Angeles County something both badly needed, even in the poor economic climate.

Court House Star 31Dec59
Star editorial of 31 December 1859 noting that “the Court House . . . is in a dilapidated condition” and that “water was pouring down each side of the Judge on the Bench” when an order was issued by District Court Judge Benjamin Hayes to the County Sheriff to immediately find suitable quarters.  It was added that voters refused to fund a new Court House.

Both the city and county lacked proper courtrooms and related spaces and administrative quarters, relying on cheaply rented, but terribly insufficient adobe houses for both purposes.  The town’s newspapers often reported, generally through grand jury inspections, on the poor condition of the court house and other municipal and county offices.

In 1858 and 1859, the state legislature approved resolutions allowing the county’s voters to decide whether to approve initiatives to borrow $25,000 to build a proper courthouse.  While the first year the vote was close, but negative, the second year was a near total rejection of the idea.  Voters were in no mood, during tough times, to spend money on a temple of justice, so a Temple had a building well-suited for the purpose.

By 1861, the Market House was leased to the city and county for a courthouse, with courtrooms occupying the shuttered theater space on the second floor.  City and county administrative and legal offices occupied the ground level spaces.  This was a vast improvement on earlier iterations and the county acquired the building in 1871, but it was not until the 1880s that a courthouse and a city hall were built specifically for those purposes.

Temple F P F Portrait ca 1870
A portrait of F.P.F. Temple, who purchased his half-brother’s Temple Block in 1867 and added three structures to it in the next several years.

Meanwhile, Temple, likely deciding that Los Angeles, plagued with floods and droughts, as well as smallpox, locust infestations and other conditions that seemed straight out of Revelations, left the city and moved to San Francisco.  He sold Rancho Los Cerritos for about a quarter an acre, a stunningly low sum, though he kept much of his Los Angeles property, including the pie-shaped parcel with the Temple Building at the south end and adobe buildings leading up to a point at the north.

Temple died in San Francisco on the last day of May 1866, just as Los Angeles was poised to finally emerge from years of stagnation and enjoy its first, major sustained period of growth.  When his widow and estate administrator decided to sell the Temple Building and adjoining structures, they did so to Temple’s half-brother, F.P.F., who came to Los Angeles in 1841 to meet Jonathan, who was twenty-six years older.

F.P.F. worked in Jonathan’s store until the end of the 1840s, by which time he’d married Antonia Margarita Workman, whose parents, William and Nicolasa, owned half of Rancho La Puente, and started a family of eleven children, eight of whom lived to adulthood.

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The Los Angeles County Court House, completed in the late 1880s, and which used the clock face and hands from the prior court house.

After trying his hand briefly in the gold fields, F.P.F. was given half of Rancho La Merced, adjacent to La Puente, by his father-in-law, and successfully engaged in ranching and farming there and on other properties acquired in the area over the years.  He also owned large properties in the southern gold fields in Tuolumne County, thousands of acres in Fresno County, and other holdings.

What became known as the Temple Block, however, was particularly important.  From 1868 to 1871, he added three more structures next to the Temple Building, one facing Main, another facing Spring and the third at the apex where those two streets met Temple Street in a triple intersection.

This last building housed the Temple and Workman bank, an institution that was planned to be a major financial power in the emerging city.  Poor management and loose loaning policies, however, created a dangerous situation that was only realized when the state economy went into a tailspin in the last part of 1875.

Market House Courthouse sold Herald_Dec_28__1890_
Los Angeles Herald, 28 December 1890.  Bidding for the Market House/Court House building reached $100,000 when Pomona rancher Louis Phillips hit that landmark, but Silas Holman of Anaheim offered $500 more and won the auction.

A loan from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, fashioned “on rather hard terms,” as Temple wrote Workman from San Francisco when the one-sided deal was inked, failed to stanch the flow of depositors itching to withdraw their money in the last weeks of 1875 and first days of the following year.  The bank failed, Temple and Workman were all but wiped out financially, and the Temple Block was purchased by merchant Harris Newmark.

The Court House was vacated in the 1880s and the building lasted through the decade, before it was razed and the area redeveloped.  The Temple Block, however, survived a few more decades, until a new Civic Center project was launched by the mid-1920s.  The last of the buildings on the block, where the bank was located, was flattened in 1926.  Los Angeles City Hall built on the Temple Block site was completed in spring 1928.

F.P.F. Temple’s son, Walter, owner of the Homestead, managed to acquire some bricks, window frames, and the vault from the bank quarters (though the vault was from a successor bank which opened in the late 1870s) and used them for a Tepee-shaped home office and for a storage closet in the basement of La Casa Nueva.

Market House Court House Herald_Dec_28__1890_ (1)
The Herald observed that Phillips was acting for a syndicate of prominent Angelenos, but Holman was the agent for John A. Bullard of Boston, who tore down the Market House/Court House and built the Bullard Block on the site.

The clock components from the Court House were reinstalled in its successor building, opened nearby in 1889.  When that building was torn down, the clock pieces were donated to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.  Apparently, they are still there as the only surviving remnants of one of Los Angeles’ first significant commercial buildings.


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