Through the Viewfinder: A Stereographic Photograph From Central Park to the Normal School, Los Angeles, April 1883

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the continuing “Through the Viewfinder” series of posts, tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a remarkable stereoscopic photograph taken from Central Park to the Normal School in downtown Los Angeles.

Inscribed with a date of April 1883, but unattributed, with no indication as to the photographer, the image is taken from the center of the public park first laid out in 1866 as la plaza abajo, or the lower plaza in contrast to the Plaza in the historic center of the pueblo.

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Los Angeles Herald, 25 January 1881.

During the 1870s, as the earliest examples of development reached the area, the park was fenced and plants were laid out, including some by Elijah H. Workman, nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman and who was mentioned recently for his planting of Moreton Bay fig trees at the Plaza, one of which fell recently.

Workman was an enthusiastic horticulturist and, at the time, lived on a substantial property out “in the suburbs” on Main Street near 10th Street.  He was known to experiment with many exotic and unusual plantings and his exuberance extended to his work on the two downtown parks.

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Herald, 8 March 1881.

Workman’s brother, William Henry, also took a pronounced interest in public parks, as a private citizen, as mayor in 1887-88 during the city’s famed Boom of the Eighties, and as an inaugural member of the city’s parks commission.  He had a leading role, as mentioned in posts last week before our Victorian Fair of the Far West, in developing Westlake and Hollenbeck parks.

This view shows wide dirt walks with planted areas appearing to be demarcated by low dirt berms.  There is quite a variety of trees, shrubs, bushes and other plants in the camera’s eye, a marked contrast to what is contained in today’s Pershing Square, which is what the park (also known as Sixth Street Park and St. Vincent’s Park [because of the Catholic school that was at one end]) was renamed a century ago this year in honor of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force during the recently concluded First World War.

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Herald, 18 December 1881.

Across Olive Street and peeking through some of the plantings is at least one residence where, in the early 1920s, the Biltmore Hotel was built and still stands today.  Behind that dwelling and up on the hill to the west of the park is the newly finished and opened Normal School, a state-operated teacher training institute that was a branch of the original in San Jose.

The imposing edifice was in the works for several years, when the California legislature passed a bill creating the school and appropriating $50,000 for its construction in early March 1881.  After the selection of the site in the Bellevue Terrace tract, some controversy involving the selection of architects, because locals wanted the Los Angeles firm of Kysor and Morgan (mentioned recently in a post about the Boyle Heights residence of Joseph M. Workman, son of William and Nicolasa and cousin of Elijah and William H., which the firm designed at the same time) but trustees, in September, hired the San Francisco firm of William Curlett and Theodore Eisen (he later came to Los Angeles and his son Percy Eisen was a principal in the firm of Walker and Eisen, which worked on La Casa Nueva, other Walter P. Temple commercial projects and many downtown business buildings), though work began towards the end of the year.

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Herald, 25 June 1882.

Notably, though many sources indicate that the five-story structure’s architect was Los Angeles-born Abram M. Edelman, he was only 18 when Curlett and Eisen were chosen to design the school.  Edelman was known to be an apprentice, however, “for various architects in San Francisco,” according to the Pacific Coast Architecture Database, so it is possible he had a hand in the design in that role.

In any case, early stages of construction were mentioned in the first issue of the Los Angeles Times, when that paper published its inaugural edition on 4 December 1881 and briefly reported, “the new Normal School building is progressing.  Brick laying was commenced last Monday [28 November].”

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This unattributed stereoscopic photograph from the museum’s holdings and dated April 1883 shows the recently completed and opened Normal School for teacher training as seen west of Central Park, now Pershing Square.

On 17 December, the dedication of the cornerstone was held and a time capsule of sorts was placed in the stone containing issues of local newspapers, autographs of principal figures involved in the development of the building, and a variety of ephemeral material including coins, documents relating to community organizations, and much more.  The main orator was state senator Reginaldo F. del Valle, a noted speaker, who spoke fairly briefly because of the unusually warm weather.

Work continued through much of 1882 and a detailed description was published in the Los Angeles Herald of 25 June, excerpted from the first issue of the school’s newspaper, the Los Angeles Normal.  For example, it was stated that the building’s front elevation off Charity Street (soon renamed Grand Avenue) was 131 1/2 feet with a depth of 104 feet, including an addition behind the main building.

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Los Angeles Times, 24 February 1882.

Heights of the floors and dimensions of rooms were given in great detail, including the “janitor’s parlor” in the basement, the offices of the principal and female “preceptress,” the classrooms, a sick room, a large assembly room of over 3,000 square feet, a museum in the attic, and more.

The exterior walls were brick, with the interior ones of wood frame and floors made of rough lumber between joists and then covered with mortar to reduce sound.  The basement used painted redwood, while the remainder of the structure had varnished Port Orford cedar.  Clearly, there was a great deal of civic pride in the school, which followed the opening of Los Angeles’ high school by about a decade, reflecting how rapidly education was being developed in the growing city.

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Times, 25 August 1882.

While the Normal School officially opened on 29 August 1882, a dedication ceremony was held on 9 September, which happens to be California’s Admission Day.  The state’s governor, George C. Perkins, spoke, as did former governor George Stoneman (also a Union Army general during the Civil War and an orange grower in Pasadena), del Valle, and others.

The teacher training school operated without charging tuition for the three-year program.  One graduate in the late 1890s was Mary Julia Workman, daughter of William Henry and his wife Maria [pronounced Mah-rye-ah] Boyle who went on to teach kindergarten in addition to being very active in social work and charitable causes over a long career.

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Times, 10 September 1882.

In 1914, the school moved to a campus on Vermont Avenue and, by the mid-1920s morphed into the Southern Branch of the University of California, known by the end of the decade as the University of California, Los Angeles, or U.C.L.A.  What was called Normal Hill was reconfigured to accommodate more automobile traffic and the structure was razed for the construction of the Central Public Library, which opened in 1926 and remains there today nearing a century later.

This photo is a fascinating representation of two key components of a newly developing residential and commercial area in 1880s Los Angeles in Central Park (Pershing Square) and the State Normal School.  Anyone standing in the square today and looking in that direction would, of course, be surprised by the changes that have taken place in the 136 years since the image was taken!

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