Victorian Fair Preview: The Garden of Joseph M. Workman, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, ca. 1885

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Just a couple of days more and the Victorian Fair of the Far West will be here, with music, dancing, vendors, presentations, house tours and more over the course of the weekend of the 27th and 28th.  The weather looks favorable, so come on out and enjoy the festivities and the flavor of life from roughly 1840 to 1900.

Posts this week in this series under the rubric of “Victorian Fair Preview” have focused on a theme of urban gardens for a display in the Workman House during the event.  The first two posts highlighted photographs from the Homestead’s collection spotlighting two of the parks established by the City of Los Angeles in the early 1890s at the end of the Victorian era: Eastlake in East Los Angeles (now Lincoln Park in Lincoln Heights) and Hollenbeck in Boyle Heights.

Then we switched gears to take a gander at some images from the museum’s holdings showing private gardens just a few years prior to the creation of those still-existing parks.  Yesterday, we looked at the front garden of the Main Street home of Cameron E. Thom and discussed his remarkable life over sixty years in the City of Angels as a district attorney, mayor, and businessman.

Tonight, we head back to Boyle Heights to see another mid-1880s photograph of the front garden of a contemporary of Thom, José Manuel Workman (1833-1901), the son of Homestead owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste.  The photograph was taken by Lemuel S. Ellis, whose stamp on the reverse is unusual in that it specifically identifies him as a “Landscape Photographer.”  Tomorrow, we’ll end the preview posts by showing more of the work of Ellis and his namesake son with Los Angeles landscape photography.

JM Workman 1880 census
The family of Joseph M. Workman and Josephine Belt enumerated in the 1880 federal census at his 800-acre spread on Rancho La Puente, just before the family moved to the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.

As for Joseph (as he was more commonly known) Workman’s home, we see quite a bit more of it in this view than we did in Frederick H. Rogers’ stereoscopic image of Thom’s place.  It is an eclectic structure, for sure, with Italianate (the roof brackets, porch details, etc.) and French Second Empire (the steeply pitched mansard roof, for example) elements and a striking central tower with a witch’s hat perched atop it for extra drama and interest.

The architects were Kysor and Morgan, comprising Octavius Morgan and the principal member of the firm, Ezra F. Kysor, the first known professional in his field to practice in Los Angeles.  Kysor seems to have arrived in the city in the late 1860s and his best-known surviving structures include the Pico House hotel, St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, and the William H. Perry Mansion, formerly in Boyle Heights and now at Heritage Square Museum.

It has been passed down through the last 150 years that the Workman House remodeling, completed about 1870, was overseen by Kysor and that certainly makes sense given that much of the architectural work done is very reminiscent of the Pico House, including the Italianate elements, as well as some Greek Revival and Gothic Revival components.  So, it’s not surprising that Joseph hired Kysor to build this very impressive home in Boyle Heights, which was complemented by a striking garden.

Note, for example, the plethora of plantings from tall and medium sized trees to many shrubs and bushes do show an impressive variety of heights, widths, textures, color (at least the dark and light greenery, though there was likely quite a bit of color in flowering plants, too) and other elements.  Note the line tied across the two trees towards the front–it’d be interesting to know what that was used for.

This Lemuel S. Ellis cabinet card photograph of the Workman home on Boyle Avenue in Los Angeles.

There are some unusual and strange elements that you may have noticed.  For example, look at the two rough wood barrel-like planters on either side of the front walk as it means another walkway that branches off toward the porch.  Then, there is a small dog near the planter on the left and there seems no question that this is a stuffed animal!  We have close to 10,000 photographs and I don’t think there is another that comes to mind with that as part of the shot!

As to Joseph Workman, we know far less about him and his life than that of his sister, Antonia Margarita, who married F.P.F. Temple and whose son Walter built La Casa Nueva adjacent to the Workman House.  In fact, we have so little information on him, there hasn’t yet been found a documented photo of him.

While his sister remained at home and in greater Los Angeles from the time the Workmans migrated to California from New Mexico in late 1841, Joseph appears to have been sent back to Baltimore to live with his father’s sister, Agnes Workman Vickers, not long afterward.  Other than his aunt publishing a newspaper ad for the return of the young runaway when he was about 10 years old, his life in Maryland is a mystery.

In 1848, Agnes Vickers died and it seems that Joseph was then sent to central Missouri to live with his uncle David Workman, his wife Nancy Hook and their three sons, Thomas, Elijah, and William Henry.  When the family accepted an invitation from Joseph’s father to migrate west in 1854, Joseph came with them on an adventurous wagon train trip through Salt Lake City, over the Great Basin, through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into Northern California, before they headed down to Rancho La Puente.  Joseph probably had not seen his family for well over a decade.

JM Workman house Times_Aug_19__1882_
Los Angeles Times, 19 August 1882.

He didn’t remain long at La Puente, either.  He was sent to work on a ranch near Tejon Pass where his father and brother-in-law kept herds of cattle and also sent animals from the Los Angeles-area ranches to the gold country.  Joseph stayed in this area for over 15 years, much of that time living with David W. Alexander, a close friend of William Workman (Alexander later named one of his sons, Joseph Workman Alexander.)

Joseph must have spent some time in Stockton, the Central Valley city near the gold fields, because he married Josephine Belt, a half-American, half-Chilean woman whose father was an early resident in that town.  Upon their marriage in 1870, the couple came down to La Puente, where William Workman gave his son over 800 acres on the western edge of the ranch to live and raise his family.

Over the next decade, Joseph farmed and raised sheep on his La Puente property, while he and Josephine had five of their six surviving children there, including three daughters and two sons.  Even when his father lost the vast majority of his half of the ranch to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin to a foreclosure on a loan for the failed Temple and Workman bank, Joseph kept his ranch.

By 1881, however, he decided to relocate to Los Angeles, apparently because of the better educational opportunities for his children, or at least that’s what a biographical sketch of him stated.  Because his cousin, William Henry Workman, was the main founder of Boyle Heights, Joseph and his wife purchased a piece of property next door and this is where the house depicted in the photo was built in 1882.

JM Workman house Times_Sep_15__1882_
Times, 15 September 1882.

Joseph leased out his La Puente ranch and likely used the rental income as the basis for his lifestyle in the upper middle class enclave along Boyle Avenue on the bluff overlooking the Los Angeles River and downtown.  A few years after the house was completed, the Boom of the 1880s erupted bringing tens of thousands of new emigrants amid a surging economy.  Joseph’s cousin and neighbor happened to be mayor of Los Angeles during that time.

Booms, of course, go bust.  By 1890, the heady days were gone and in 1893, a national depression broke out, and, locally, several years of drought.  As happened to his nephew, John H. Temple, owner of the 75-acre Workman Homestead, salvaged after the Baldwin foreclosure, Joseph experienced financial distress quickly in the first half of the decade.

By 1894, he’d contracted debts that could not be repaid.  The La Puente ranch was lost and became the property of El Paso businessman Oscar T. Bassett, for whom the area is now known as an unincorporated community of Los Angeles County.  By the end of the decade, John Temple lost the Homestead.  This, unfortunately, was the reality for many people in the region at the end of the Victorian period.

As to the Joseph Workman house, it was sold and wound up being razed early in the new century with a charitable organization, the Volunteers of America, occupying the property for some years.  Now, the parcel is part of a community center across from Hollenbeck Park.

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