Victorian Fair Preview: Connecting With Nature at Eastlake Park

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This coming weekend, the 27th and 28th, is the Homestead’s annual spring festival, the Victorian Fair of the Far West, with music, presentations and talks, house tours, vendors and other elements that bring a sense of the Victorian era, ranging roughly from 1840 to 1900, to life 120 years after the end of the period.

This free event will have something to entertain and enlighten just about anyone, including exhibits in the Workman House that will focus on concepts regarding greater Los Angeles and its connections with the natural environment. My colleagues in our collections and public programs areas are working hard to put together a display that will utilize the Homestead’s collection in exploring that broad topic.

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A gent rides his bicycle on a wide curving path lined by closely planted trees in Eastlake Park, ca. 1900.

This includes a steadily growing interest in the undeveloped natural areas such as our local mountains and forests, as well as developed environments that sought to reflect elements of nature, including private gardens and public parks.  Over the next several days, posts here will give a preview for some of what will be included in those exhibits.

As Los Angeles grew from a small, remote frontier town into a bustling metropolis as the hub of Southern California, there was both great enthusiasm for development and growth and a sense of trying to create areas of beauty to mitigate the driving forces of urbanization, industrialization and commercialization.

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This stereoscopic photograph, perhaps from the late 1890s or early 1900s, is titled “Nature’s Mirror.”

One way for the latter to come to the fore was through a boom in public park development that basically followed the enormously important Boom of the 1880s.  This period of massive growth in greater Los Angeles was largely ushered in by the completion of a transcontinental railroad directly from the east.  As tens of thousands of migrants flooded in and new subdivisions in the city and towns in the county sprung up, there was also an interest in providing adequate park space—at least for a while.

From the late 1880s through the turn of the century, Los Angeles had a number of beautiful public parks created.  Westlake Park, for example, west of downtown, was created on land not deemed of high enough value for residential subdivision.  Yet, this fine public space proved to be a boon for local developers who could publicize this amenity for those looking for a home in a surrounding subdivision.

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This 1900s stereoscopic image shows a woman enjoying the lush landscape and lily-pad laden water features of Eastlake.

Meanwhile, northeast of downtown, the community of East Los Angeles was actually the first city suburb, laid out in 1873.  At that time, however, there was no plan for a substantial public space, though some fifty acres was set aside for the Southern Pacific Railroad for a maintenance yard.  When the railroad decided not to make use of the land, which had some tricky topography because of an arroyo that ran into the property, it was turned back over to the city, which had a nursery established there.

As the great boom developed, plans were finally made for a park.  By the early 1890s, enough funds, despite a bust that followed the boom and some trying times throughout the decade, including a national depression in 1893, were marshaled that Eastlake Park became a reality.  Some $15,000 were expended and parts of the nursery were retained as the park was improved over the period of 1889-1892.

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This expansive real photo postcard, perhaps from the 1910s, shows the wide expanse of the eight-acre man-made lake filled with boaters, while the boathouse is on the opposite shore.

As with its western counterpart, it became a point of local neighborhood and broader civic pride.  With a large lake, including a well-appointed boathouse; a pretty music pavilion; wide walks, plenty of bushes, shrubs, flowering plants and trees; and other elements, Eastlake proved to be very popular.

Over time, other amenities were added, including an alligator farm, an ostrich farm, a sulfur bath house, an Indian village (though more of the Plains Indian rather than local tribal type) and a zoo established by film studio owner William Selig.  These further added to the appeal of the park and visitation continued to grow through the first decades of the 20th century.

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A snapshot, perhaps from the 1920s, of more of the broad lanes and diverse landscape elements of the renamed Lincoln Park.

In 1917, the City of Los Angeles renamed the community Lincoln Heights, with the name “East Los Angeles” repurposed for a new neighborhood in unincorporated Los Angeles County just over the eastern city limits from Boyle Heights.  The park, obviously, was renamed Lincoln Park and it became more of an oasis as growing industrial development from downtown meant more working-class residents in the area.

As was the case throughout Los Angeles, especially in the post-World War II years when the march of suburbia continued in full force, the aging public parks in the city were not given the attention they were allotted during their creation decades before especially as the neighborhood changed socio-economically and ethnically.  The alligator farm, ostrich farm and zoo closed down and Lincoln Park lost much of the care and consideration provided in former years.

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Another early 20th century shot showing a trio of well-dressed visitors hopping a rock path across the lake, with a “tow line” of sorts if needed to keep balance.  Note the bridge in the background along with the diverse landscaping.

The park, however, is still very much a focal point of Lincoln Heights and is heavily used by its residents, who are majority Latino with many recent immigrants.  The park may not look the way it did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it remains a key component of a vibrant area.  Notably, the boathouse has been used, since 1970, as the Plaza de la Raza Cultural Center for the Arts and Education, offering after school education at low cost to Eastside residents—this is perhaps the most obvious reflection of how the park has been adapted to changing times.

The half-dozen photos from the Homestead’s collection highlighted here date from the 1890s to the 1920s and show several elements of Eastlake (Lincoln) Park, including the variety of landscaping, the lake and boathouse, and people enjoying the environment.  Check back tomorrow for another Eastside park that also became and remains a cornerstone of its community: Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights.

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