Sharing History at the Phillips Mansion in Pomona

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was a beautiful early summer evening and I wasn’t far into my talk when I stopped and asked the 50-60 people listening to my presentation at the Phillips Mansion in Pomona to turn around and enjoy the bright orange colors of the sunset.

It’s one thing to hear a presentation indoors, but quite another to be outside, especially when the weather is good and we were next to the 1875 French Second Empire home of rancher and real estate developer Louis Phillips and talk about the history of him and the area in which he lived.

The Historical Society of the Pomona Valley asked me to give the presentation and this was particularly personal and meaningful because I was the resident caretaker at the Phillips Mansion historic site for 4 1/2 years between 1993 and 1997.  During that period, money was obtained, principally from federal Community Development Block Grant funds to the City of Pomona, for a very important seismic strengthening project.

WS0774-^Louis Phillips ^Los Angeles,CA
An early photo of Louis Phillips (1829-1900)

After I left, improvements were made to the exterior of the structure and eventually limited public events were held, including summer Ice Cream Social programs, that I occasionally attended.  But, as I told the audience when I started my talk, this was something I’d dreamed about when I was living at the site: to be able to give a public presentation on its history.

As I frequently do, though, I started by reminding us of the need to remember, whenever we can, that history doesn’t just start with those who could and did write. The indigenous people of the area were here for thousands of years (some say the native peoples were always here) and the major local village of Toibingna was located a couple of miles north near Ganesha Park.

For decades, Rancho San José was one of many ranchos under the auspices of Mission San Gabriel and stock raising and farming were conducted on the ranch, with forced Indian labor as core to that enterprise.  In the 1830s, the missions were secularized and the ranch lands controlled by them were made available for private ownership.

1860 census
Phillips owned some 5,000 acres of Rancho San Antonio near modern Bell Gardens when he was enumerated in the 1860 census (see the bottom of the sheet).

Ricardo Vejar (1805-1884) and Ygnacio Palomares (1811-1864), whose families came to Los Angeles in the Spanish era were raising cattle on the Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, where Beverly Hills is now, awaiting for a chance to acquire their own property when San José was granted to them by Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado in 1837.

The two men very soon divided the ranch, with Palomares taking the upper, or northern, portion and Vejar occupying the southern section, known as San Jose de Abajo.  The two men worked during the era of the hide-and-tallow trade when it was the backbone of the regional economy.  In 1848, the Gold Rush burst forth and the men soon enjoyed the financial rewards of providing fresh beef to the tide of miners and settlers which poured into California in succeeding years.

The boom soon went bust and the end of the rush meant too much inventory of cattle at San José and other ranches.  Additionally, the importation of longhorns, which were a better breed for meat, had an impact.  A national depression in 1857 also had an effect.  Locally, massive floods in the extraordinarily wet winter of 1861-62, during which an estimated 50 inches of rain fell, were followed by two years of devastating drought, with some 4 inches of rain in each.  This was the death knell for much of the cattle industry.

Voter reg 1866
Phillips had just acquired the Rancho San José de Abajo when he registered to vote, on 31 July 1866, as a resident of the San José Township.  Note that the native of Prussia (modern Poland) was naturalized as an American citizen on 13 October 1852, one of the first European Jews in the region to do so.

By 1863, Vejar’s financial circumstances were in distress and he took out a loan from Los Angeles merchants Louis Schlessinger and Hyman Tischler, Jews who emigrated from the Pale of Settlement in modern Poland (then Prussia) and arrived in the City of Angels in the early 1850s.  Unable to repay the loan, which had the usual high interest rates of the day, Vejar lost San José de Abajo by foreclosure to Schlessinger and Tischler.

That year, Schlessinger was killed in a terrible explosion aboard the steamer Ada Hancock, owned by Phineas Banning, the “Port Admiral” at Wilmington.  Tischler became full owner of the ranch and, in the first week of 1864, was riding through the ranch when shots rang out and his companion, Edward Newman, was killed.

While there was some speculation that Tischler was earmarked because of his taking over the ranch, it is more likely the intended target was Robert S. Carlisle, owner of the adjacent Chino Ranch because of his alleged role in the murder of his brother-in-law, Rancho Cucamonga owner John Rains.

1880 ag census pt 1
Productions of Agriculture sheets from the 1870 and 1880 censuses, like this one from the latter, give good information about Phillips’ output at San José de Abajo.

Whatever the case, Tischler soon sold San José de Abajo to the man who’d been managing the ranch since it was acquired from Vejar.  He was a fellow native of Kempen, Prussia (now Kepno, Poland), Louis Phillips.

Born Louis Galefsky in April 1829, Phillips and older brother Fitel left Poland in 1848 and headed for America, landing in New Orleans and working as merchants there before moving to San Francisco.  Incidentally, my maternal great-great-great grandfather, Robert Levy, had a very similar story.  His family was from Breslau, Prussia (now Wroclaw, Poland), an hour’s drive now from Kepno.  They, too, migrated to New Orleans in the late 1840s and stayed for a period (Robert was born in the Crescent City) before going to San Francisco, probably in the early Fifties.  Robert, though, headed for Hawaii in 1880 and there his story diverges.

As for Phillips, he and his brother opened a store on the Long Wharf of San Francisco, now an inland part of downtown because of infill, but his stay was short.  In 1851, he came, as one of the first Jews to live in Los Angeles and opened a store, but the venture failed.  Yet, Phillips also became one of the first Jews in Los Angeles to become a naturalized citizen, securing this in October 1852.  He also made his first purchases of property in Los Angeles.

Spadra 31Mar74
An early description of the community of Spadra, developed around the Phillips Mansion, largely due to the work of William W. Rubottom, Los Angeles Herald, 31 March 1874.

He then made a decision to turn to ranching and farming, something he may have had experience with in his hometown and for which his brother Fitel, whose success in business in San Francisco was pronounced, may have provided financial assistance.  In 1853, Phillips bought 2,400 acres along the San Gabriel River (our Rio Hondo) in the Rancho San Antonio, then owned by the prominent Lugo family.  Seven years later, he added 2,400 more acres on the rancho and did very well.

He was hired to operate the San José de Abajo until Tischler sold him, on credit, the ranch in April 1866.  Phillips promptly took cattle and horses from the ranch, drove them to Utah to sell to the Mormons, and returned with enough money, by some accounts, to pay the purchase price of the property.

That year, another momentous decision was made. Phillips, who like my great-great-great grandfather was not an observant Jew and who married a gentile Roman Catholic Hawaiian, married Protestant Esther Blake, a recent arrival from Missouri (she was born west of Chicago in 1849).  The couple had four children, Isabella (Belle), Charles, Louis and George, as well as an adopted daughter, Katherine Cecil, and were married for 34 years.

Marriage record 18Oct66
The marriage record of Phillips, who was not an observant Jew, with Gentile Protestant Esther Blake, on 18 October 1866, several months after he purchased the San José de Abajo.  The couple had a daughter and three sons and also adopted a young woman from the Spadra area.

In 1867, not long after acquiring San José de Abajo, Phillips, who sold portions of the ranch almost certainly for working capital, dealt some of his land to William W. Rubottom, who led a migrant group from the South in 1852 and was among the early settlers of the El Monte area.  Rubottom then ran a hotel and tavern on the Rancho Cucamonga, where the landmark Sycamore Inn is today.

Once Rubottom moved to his new property near Phillips, he became the prominent figure of a new community named for his previous place of residence, Spadra (pronounced Spay-dra), Arkansas.  Soon, others, many from El Monte, came to the town, which was best known at the time for being the original terminus of a Southern Pacific railroad line east from Los Angeles.  This line also went through the Rancho La Puente just north of the Homestead.  Rubottom and F.P.F. Temple also created a cut-off road from Los Angeles to Cucamonga that passed through La Puente and Spadra.

Phillips’ prosperity at San José de Abajo can be documented through sources like agricultural statistics from the 1870 and 1880 censuses, which show the number of livestock and production of such products as wine grapes, hay, wheat and barley.  The 1870 census, which had self-declared values for real estate and other property, listed Phillips as worth well over $100,000–a handsome estate for the era.

1870 census
The Phillips family enumerated in the 1870 census at Spadra, with Louis’ declared estate value at some $112,000, a princely sum for the period.

Not unlike William Workman, who underwent a major renovation of his adobe home with brick additions by 1870, Phillips decided to undergo a major upgrade in his residence.  For nearly a decade after acquiring the ranch, he and his family lived in the adobe house of Francisco “Chico” Vejar, son of Ricardo.

But, in 1875, he had a mansion built in the French Second Empire style, said to have cost $20,000, a substantial sum, and of red brick made on site by Joseph Mulally, who also built the 1855 brick Greek Revival home of John Rowland, which still stands just east of the Homestead.

That year, Phillips also sold over 2,500 acres of his ranch to the Los Angeles Immigration and Land Cooperative Association, headed by such names as Garey, Holt, Town, Thomas, and others.  These men and their company founded Artesia in 1874 and set their sights on new town, initially called Palomares.  When a name was suggested by Solomon Gates, his wise (get it?) recommendation was Pomona, a Roman goddess of fruitful abundance.

Pomona ad Los_Angeles_Herald_Sun__Feb_6__1876_
Herald, 6 February 1876.  The first iteration of Pomona was founded by a development company building on land acquired from Phillips and financed in large measure by the Temple and Workman bank.  When the economy crashed in 1875-76 and the bank fell to mismanagement and the poor conditions of the time, Phillips bought back most of the property.  In 1882, a new development firm came in and bought the same land from Phillips.  During the Boom of the Eighties that followed five years later, the revived town prospered.

Unfortunately, the summer of 1875 also included the collapse of the Bank of California in San Francisco because of a silver mine stock bubble bursting in Virginia City, Nevada.  The news hit Los Angeles like a thunderbolt and the bank of Temple and Workman, which loaned money to Pomona’s developers, was crippled, in large measure due to poor management, and then shut down during the disaster.

Phillips had to buy back much of the land sold to the Pomona developers, but a new company was formed in the early 1880s to revive the town.  At that time, Phillips also began to invest again in downtown Los Angeles property.  He bought an existing business block on Main Street and adjacent property on Los Angeles Street and, a few years later, bought the former city and county courthouse and jail, on Spring Street.

On the latter, in 1887, he built the second four-story structure in the city (the first was the Baker Block, where the 101 crosses under Main Street now) and called it the Phillips Block.  Also in the French Second Empire style, the building was, for almost twenty years, the home of the People’s Store, later Hamburger’s, which then morphed into the May Company.  The project was plagued by accusations of shoddy workmanship and Phillips took the unusual step of having a notarized affidavit by the builders and contractors published in the press to defend the work and allay fears for potential lessees.

Cabinet Photo Spring Street Near First Los Angeles 2012.676.1.1
This cabinet photo from the Homestead’s collection and dating to probably the 1890s shows the Phillips Block at the center, with its exuberant French Second Empire architecture.  Though there were accusations of shoddy workmanship, the block was home for a quarter century to the People’s Store, later Hamburger’s (which then evolved into May Company), but it was gutted by a fire in 1912 and was razed.  The site, across from City Hall, is now the east end of Grand Park with government buildings to the west.

Though the great Boom of the Eighties soon went bust, Phillips continued to maintain a strong financial position.  Articles in newspapers in 1892 and 1897 referred to him as the wealthiest individual in Los Angeles County and, whether this was hyperbole or not, he certainly had attained the status of one of the few millionaires in the region and built up a considerable empire in the nearly half-century since he came to Los Angeles.

After a bout of pneumonia, Phillips died in March 1900.  His widow took on active management of his estate, an unusual position for a woman at the time, and a Phillips Estate was incorporated the following year, comprised of Esther and her four children.  Over nearly two decades, the Estate managed the Los Angeles and Pomona/Spadra properties, though there were occasional difficulties, including the gutting of the Phillips Block by fire in 1912.

Esther Blake died in 1918 and her children decided to shutter the Estate firm and divide the assets.  Sadly, all four of her children died before the age of 55 and much of the property was sold off by the late 1920s.  Belle Phillips George had a son, Cecil, who took over some of the ranch and also owned the Phillips Mansion.  But, in 1931, he sold the home to Paul Doyle, ending the family’s ownership of home after over fifty years.

Death record 1900
The death record for Phillips, showing he died of pneumonia on 16 March 1900 and giving his age in years, months, and days.  Though his tombstone at the Spadra Cemetery, west of his house, indicates he was born in 1830, it was actually the year before.

Despite a series of owners who made substantial changes, including a conversion to apartments, the Phillips Mansion survived, though it was slated for a paint factory as the old Spadra area, annexed to Pomona, became industrial.  The Historical Society worked hard to preserve the home, a rare surviving example of French Second Empire architecture, and it was finally acquired by the City and opened to the public.

As often the case, earthquakes caused substantial damage.  In 1990, Homestead paid and volunteer staff took one of the last public tours of the building before the Upland quake of that year caused further problems and led to a closure.  As mentioned above, there was no public access when I lived there, though there have been occasional events since, including tonight’s wonderful event.

Phillips photo
Phillips, probably in his peak years of success in the 1880s.

The story of the Phillips Mansion site is an interesting contemporary one with the Homestead in many ways, including stories of immigration, ranching and farming, real estate investment, changes in residences, and many more.  It was especially meaningful for me to share some history of the site, because it was something I’d hoped to do a quarter century ago.  I look forward to continuing the relationship with the Historical Society at the Phillips Mansion because of the common bonds with the Homestead.

3 thoughts

  1. Such a great read. History comes alive when recounted by such a good writer as Paul. Thank you

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