Through the Viewfinder: Views from the Nadeau Block, Los Angeles, ca. 1885

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Homestead’s collection of approximately 30,000 artifacts has to do with the roughly quarter of that comprised of photographs, including many that visually document that transformation of greater Los Angeles in so many ways between about 1870 and 1930.

Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the museum’s holdings comprise three stereoscopic photographs taken about 1885 by Frederick H. Rogers and showing the Nadeau Block and views of the growing residential districts in the hills to the west.  These images are representative of the importance of this structure, as well as the rapidly expanding city to the south and west of its historic origins at the Plaza.

Nadeau Block construction The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Jul_24__1883_
Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1883.

Remi Nadeau (1821-1887) was from Quebec, Canada and lived in New Hampshire and then Minnesota with his family and working as a carpenter and a miller before migrating to Los Angeles in the late 1860s.  With a loan from fellow Quebecois Canadian Prudent Beaudry, Nadeau began a freighting business using oxen teams from Los Angeles to the harbor at San Pedro and Wilmington.  This was soon expanded to routes  through the harsh terrain into Nevada and Utah (he’d spent a brief period in Salt Lake City where he built a mill).

When a silver mining boom developed in Inyo County in eastern California, Nadeau formed a partnership, the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company, with Egbert Judson and Mortimer W. Belshaw of San Francisco to haul silver bullion with a 20-mule team system from Cerro Gordo, a mining town high in the mountains east of Owens Lake, to Los Angeles.

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The Nadeau House at the southwest corner of Spring and First streets, photographed by Frederick H. Rogers, ca. 1885.  Notice at the far left and right small portions of the hills to the west.

The business proved very lucrative and enriched Nadeau, though there was some potential competition when F.P.F. Temple and others proposed building the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad to, in large part, transport silver by train and bypass the Nadeau freighting business.

Temple, who was heavily invested in Cerro Gordo, was the first president of the line, but, when Nevada Senator John P. Jones became the majority investor and assumed the presidency (Temple was relegated to treasurer), he directed the first portion of the line to his new seaside resort development of Santa Monica.  That section was opened in late 1875 and the L.A. & I. after a successful battle with the mighty Southern Pacific to secure the rights to use Cajon Pass never got further than preliminary work towards Inyo County.

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Another Rogers image taken from the top of the Nadeau House and looking to the hills to the west

Meanwhile, Temple’s Cerro Gordo Water and Mining Company suffered a catastrophic failure when a spring feeding an eleven-mile pipeline to the mining town suddenly dried up.  This was coupled with a silver mining stock speculation bubble in Virginia City that brought down the Bank of California in San Francisco and then toppled the poorly managed Temple and Workman bank, the failure of which was a major factor in greater Los Angeles’ substandard economy for about a decade.  When the Southern Pacific built its rail line directly to Los Angeles, completing work in September 1876, the writing was on the wall for Nadeau’s freighting company, which ceased operation six years later.

Nadeau, meanwhile, used his wealth from his freighting business to buy, in the mid-1870s, substantial property in Los Angeles, especially in what became the Florence district south of town.  There, he raised mainly grains initially, unsuccessfully tried sugar beets (later done with great success in Chino, the area near modern Paramount, and in Oxnard), and then did well with vineyards.  It was said his 2,400-acre vineyard was among the largest in the world.

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The third Rogers photo showing another section of the hills to the west in the Bunker Hill section.

Though the regional economy was still marginal in the early 1880s, Nadeau built the first four-story building in Los Angeles, the Nadeau House, a $165,000 structure designed by the prominent architectural firm of Morgan and Walls at the southwest corner of Spring and First streets.  Largely devoted to use as one of the most fashionable hotels, along with that of John E. Hollenbeck a block south at Spring and Second, the Nadeau, which was completed in August 1883, marked a new phase in the city’s development south and west of the old center of town at the Plaza.  The first floor of the building was let out to small shops and the structure boasted the first electric elevator in town.

Also of importance was that the Nadeau, being the tallest building in town for a few years, afforded fine views for the benefit of local photographers who could take images showing broad swaths of the growing city.  One of these was Frederick H. Rogers, who has been discussed here before.

Nadeau obit The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Jan_16__1887_
Times, 16 January 1887.

The trio of images includes a fine one of the Nadeau House, taken from the northeast, north of First and east of Spring, while the others show the hills to the west and, perhaps, southwest.  Houses, some looking quite impressive, dot the hillsides showing the increasing use of Bunker and other hills for the higher-end residential districts that were rapidly developing.

As for the Nadeau House, it remained a prominent structure and the hotel a leading one in town through much of the remaining years of the 19th century.  Later hostelries like the Van Nuys, built in the mid-1890s, and the Angelus and Alexandria, both built in the first years of the 20th century, eclipsed the Nadeau and the Hollenbeck, both of which were razed in 1932.

Nadeau demolition ad The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Feb_21__1932_
Times, 21 February 1932.

The Rogers photographs document an important commercial building and the expanding residential sections to the west just about the time the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway completed its direct transcontinental rail line to Los Angeles in 1885, ushering in the famed Boom of the Eighties.

The Nadeau House accommodated a great many of the new arrivals who settled in the city and region. When Remi Nadeau died early in 1887 at age 65 as the boom reached a fever pitch, it was reported that the building was said to be valued at well over $1 million.  This, stated the Los Angeles Times was “all accumulated by honest hard work, energy and intelligent foresight” by its builder.


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