Victorian Fair Preview: Lemuel S. Ellis and Son, Landscape Photographers of 1880s Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Well, tomorrow is almost here and our Victorian Fair of the Far West comes to the Homestead for a weekend of music, dancing, presentations, house tours, vendors, crafts, pie-eating contests and more.  In the lead-up to the event, we’ve posted this week under the heading of “Victorian Fair Preview” with emphasis on photographs from the museum’s collection dealing with urban gardens as a way to connect with nature.

The posts began with a look at two of the Victorian era parks in Los Angeles that epitomized growing movements for more parks in urban areas as well as for city beautification—these being Eastlake and Hollenbeck parks in the east-side neighborhoods of East Los Angeles (renamed in 1917 Lincoln Heights, while its park bore that name, as well) and Boyle Heights.

Lemuel Ellis 1850 census Bangor ME
In the 1850 federal census at Bangor, Maine, Lemuel S. Ellis, Sr., worked as a “daguerian artist” with daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography.

We then looked at some examples of private gardens through the landscape of the homes of former Los Angeles district attorney and mayor Cameron E. Thom and of Joseph M. Workman, son of Homestead owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste and cousin of the founder of Boyle Heights, William H. Workman.)

Tonight’s final preview post takes a look at some of the work of a photographer who branded himself specifically as a “landscape photographer,” Lemuel S. Ellis, who worked with his namesake son in Los Angeles during the 1880s with Ellis, Jr. continuing in the profession until his death in 1902, the year after the Victorian era came to a close.

Lemuel Ellis 1880 census Woodland CA
By 1873, Ellis Sr. and Jr. were living at Woodland in Yolo County, west of Sacramento, where, seven years later, the elder was a watch maker and the younger a “picture maker,” probably a photographer.  Shortly afterward, father and son resettled in Los Angeles and took up photography together.

The Ellis family hailed from Bangor, Maine, where the elder Lemuel was listed in the 1850 census as a “daguerian artist,” working with the earliest form of photography, daguerreotypes.  Later, however, Ellis, Sr. worked as a watchmaker, perhaps his original profession, while Lemuel, Jr. assisted.

By 1873, the two, with Mrs. Ellis having died, relocated west to California and father and son settled and worked in Woodland in Yolo County.  The census seven years later, though, showed the younger Ellis’ profession as “picture maker,” probably meaning photographer.

SV Cactus Mrs Longstreet Grounds Los Angeles 2014.843.1.1
These several Ellis and Son photographs all date from the 1880s, including this stereoscopic view of a cactus in the well-known garden of Charles and Lucy Longstreet on Adams Street, where Orthopaedic Hospital is today.

Within a short time, sometime in the early 1880s, the Ellises migrated down to Los Angeles and opened a partnership as “L.S. Ellis and Son,” though it appears the younger Lemuel worked solo for a time, as well.  As noted above, stamps on the reverse of photos produced by the pair indicated that they were specialists in landscape photography.

Among several dozen specimens of the work of one or both of the Ellises are some striking photographs of Los Angeles-area gardens, mainly private ones.  By the end of the 1880s, a prime area to take views at these locations was the newly developed higher-end tracts southwest of downtown along Figueroa Street and such cross-streets as Adams Street.

SV Man Reading Under Umbrella Tree 2016.119.1.2
The location is not known, but this is a fantastic view of a bearded gent, with his straw hat, cane and paper umbrella nearby, reading a newspaper under an umbrella tree in a large garden.

This fashionable district was situated in and around Agricultural Park, renamed Exposition Park, and a Methodist college founded in 1880 and which was obscure at the time, the University of Southern California.  Yet, many of the well-to-do built substantial residences in the section and had large, lush gardens for photographers like the Ellises to document.

Some of the images in the Homestead collection taken by the two are in the stereoscopic format with two images printed in such a way that when seen through a stereoscope viewer, the twin images merged into one with a 3D effect.  Most of the Ellis photos in the museum’s holdings are in the newer and larger cabinet card type.  Samples of both are provided here.

Ellis SPRR Arcade Grounds_20190426_0001
The gorgeously ornamented landscape of the grounds of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Arcade Station is partially captured in this fine Ellis image. The site is now a gritty industrial area on Alameda Street between 5th and 6th streets, a far cry from the bucolic oasis shown here.

One of the two stereoscopic views shows a cactus in the massive and very impressive garden established by clothier Charles A. Longstreet and his wife Lucy on their Adams Street estate east of Figueroa in the 1870s after they left New York and settled in Los Angeles during its first development boom.  Charles died not long afterward (perhaps the reason for coming west was because of his health) and the property was long known in reference to Mrs. Longstreet.

Other photos of the estate have been shown on this blog in the “La-La-Landscapes” series.  Later, the Longstreet parcel was subdivided and Orthopaedic Hospital (now the Orthopaedic Institute for Children) was built there.  A well-known “avenue of palms” was the original drive to the Longstreet house lined with stately palm trees and much of this survives as part of the hospital complex.

Ellis House Barn Grounds_20190426_0001
Another impressive Ellis image of a substantial Italianate residence, a tall tower (perhaps for water?) and what may be a carriage house, surrounded by lush landscaping of great variety.

The second view is an interesting one of a middle-aged bearded gent sitting in a chair and reading a newspaper under the ample shade of an umbrella tree.  His straw hat, cane and a paper umbrella are carefully positioned nearby.  A pair of long boards lead to the spot, indicating that access was across a muddy section of a garden, of which other trees and plants, including an orchard in the background, are in view.

Of the several cabinet card photos, there are some excellent examples of landscapes.  The one that was public shows the beautifully maintained grounds of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Arcade Depot on Alameda Street between 5th and 6th streets in downtown Los Angeles.  A curving walk flows amid a substantial lawn with a sago palm, cacti and many other bushes, trees, and shrubs in evidence.  It was clearly a very pleasant place to ambulate while at the train station and it’s hard to imagine such a locale in the gritty industrial area that is there today!

Ellis Landscaped Grounds_20190426_0001
The home, tower and carriage building in the photo above are off in the distance in this view of another wide expanse of substantial gardens, with a large pepper tree in the foreground, a massive lawn and many plants in evidence.  Whether this is the same property as above or an adjacent one is not known.

Another notable photo is of an unidentified property of size with a large two-story Italianate house, a tall tower near it that might have been a water tower, and what may be a carriage house to the right.  A hedge-lined drive is where one of the Ellises stood, while an impressive array of trees fill the yard between the driveway and hedge and the house.  Perhaps someone out there knows the location of this beautiful property?

A spreading pepper tree is a focal point of another Ellis cabinet, showing another expansive garden with a massive lawn.  In the distance, it turns out, appears to be the tower, house and carriage house shown in the photo mentioned in the previous photograph.  Whether this large open area is part of the same estate or a neighboring one is also not known.  Again, can anyone reading this identify the locale?

Ellis Lawns on Figueroa_20190426_0001
Stately residences of the well-to-do lined Figueroa Street near a newly minted and obscure Methodist college called the University of Southern California.  Two palms and a very distinctive tree to their right are among the notable landscape elements of this impressive estate.

Another stunning photo is identified as being along Figueroa Street near U.S.C.  Here there are large parcels with substantial and impressive residences.  Pepper trees line the median along the street with wide sidewalks, as well.  The focused property’s large house is partially hidden by one of a pair of palm trees standing on a huge lawn.  To the right is a very unusual and tall tree, trimmed almost as Christmas trees were then when candles were hung from the branches, which needed to be separated to accommodate the lighting.  Around that tree on the other side of a driveway are a multitude of bushes and shrubs at the front of the dwelling.

These are just some of the interesting and notable photos taken by the Ellises in their guise as landscape photographers, a specialization only made possible by the growth of Los Angeles shortly before and during the famed Boom of the Eighties that propelled it into a substantial city.  Clearly, taking images of the gardens of the well-to-do was a financially feasible way of establishing a market niche for the father-and-son team.  Check out our Victorian Fair exhibit dealing with urban gardens and landscapes, on view at the Workman House over the weekend.

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