by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Though they tend to be hidden away in the midst of our ever-expanding metropolitan area, pre-American era adobe houses can still be found here and there in greater Los Angeles. Some are privately owned, while others are historic sites like those at Rancho Los Cerritos and Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach, the Casa Primera and reconstructed Palomares Adobe in Pomona, the Andrés Pico Adobe in Mission Hills, and the Workman House at the Homestead, to give a few examples.
Naturally, a great many of these houses have been lost over the years and, because they required regular and frequent maintenance, it was easy for adobe structures to rapidly decay and disintegrate. If roofs were not properly cared for and plaster walls allowed to deteriorate, so that rainwater penetrated the adobe bricks, it did not take long for damage to accelerate.
In addition, scavengers frequently descended on these buildings, hauling off doors, windows, flooring, roof tiles and other elements, contributing to their further degradation. In some cases, treasure hunters, beguiled by tales of hidden treasure by once-wealthy ranch owners, roving bandits, or others, ripped these houses apart in search of the elusive hidden gold.
The Homestead’s collection has several photographs of adobe houses in various states of deterioration, dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some were taken by professional photographers and published for public sale, while others are snapshots, presumably by locals or visiting tourists.
Why these were done were not stated, obviously, on the reverses of these images, but we can speculate that one major reason was to document these remaining relics of the Spanish and Mexican eras, or out of curiosity of the exotic quality that seemed to exude from the decaying walls of the buildings, or, perhaps, other motivations.
One wonders, though, whether many of the Anglo visitors thought much of the deeper history embodied in these structures. This would include consideration of the Latino or Indian residents or employees at these structures or pondering the complex nature of the clash of cultures that took place more broadly before, during and after the American invasion and seizure of Mexican Alta California in the 1840s.
With the publication in the 1880s of Helen Hunt Jackson’s popular novel Ramona, coming as it did just before a direct transcontinental railroad line was completed to the region, ushering in the famed Boom of the Eighties, and playing a leading role in the tourist boom that took place at the same time, visiting pre-American sites became a widely popular pastime.
The three local missions, at San Fernando, San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano, were major attractions, as was the Plaza Church in downtown Los Angeles and some of the remaining adobe houses of yesteryear. Streetcar lines, horse-drawn carriages and other vehicles and, later, automobiles and buses, brought visitors to these sites.
Invariably, references to the pre-American regional past emphasized the “Spanish” heritage of greater Los Angeles, the insinuation being that such an identification was more European and, therefore, more relatable and identifable to those visitors whose origins were more likely to be northers and western European. That identifer minimized, if not eliminated, references to Mexican, native and African ethnicities, which many early Californios had in their ancestry.
Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the museum’s holdings concern three adobe houses from San Gabriel, two ruins and relics and the third a structure that is stil standing and remains a private residence.
The first is a real photo postcard and, because it was printed on Kodak’s VELOX paper and does not have a photographer or publisher’s name, it appears to be a snapshot and dates from the 1920s. It shows a building with a typical layout, being I-shaped with three rooms, likely a center living and dining area and adjoining bedrooms, with their own entrance doors and two windows. There appears to be something of an attic, also made of adobe, though whether this was added after the lower part was built or not cannot be known. Typically, adobe houses were single story with flat roofs, though, often, gabled and shingled roofs, including for a portico supported by wood posts, like on this building, came during the American period.
The structure appears to have been unoccupied when the photo was taken, given the dilapidated condition of the plaster and damage to the exposed adobe walls, especially at the lower part of the front and much of the back at the foreground. The roof looks to have been in somewhat better condition, though there are bent shingles, bowing at the street end, and some losses there, as well.
A small placard is attached the front wall at the right corner and a much larger poster is on the side facing the photographer. On closer inspection, there is a racist caricature of black Africans dancing, but the produce name cannot be made out other than the first word “Gold” and perhaps the word “dishes” below that. It was not uncommon for unoccupied adobe buildings to have broadsheets, flyers and announcements pasted to the walls for ad hoc promotion.
Notably, a streetcar track runs down the middle of the unpaved street, so it seems almost certain that the adobe structure was in close proximity to the Mission San Gabriel. So, visitors going to and from that landmark would have seen this building during their excursions. For those that were organized trips, there may even have been a guide who would have pointed out this structure to the passengers.
The second image is a snapshot with an inscription bearing the date 29 November 1908, though there are is no other information than that and the location of San Gabriel. A well-dressed woman sits under a wide spreading pepper tree with a small white dog, perhaps a poodle, on her lap. To her left, sitting in profile on a wood box is a boy, maybe 10-12 years old, and wearing a dark suit and dark hat—presumably this is the woman’s son and maybe the husband was the photographer.
Behind the couple and largely obscured by the impressive tree is the remains of the adobe house, clearly in a much more advanced stay of decay and destruction than the building in the first photo. While a good deal of plaster is gone from the exterior walls, windows are missing and the expanded doorway at the right is partially open and debris is piled in front of it.
A rudimentary ladder, comprised of what looks like a 2×4 piece of wood with rough rungs attached to it, is propped up against the building. Behind the boy it looks like there are some exposed wood posts for framing, maybe for another widened doorway. At the right foreground is another wood box and a tin washtub.
It is almost as if a family got dressed in their best outfits, went to church, and then took an afternoon Sunday drive in the country and stopped at the decrepit adobe building for a quick photo. Whether there was any awareness of what the structure was, who owned it, or what it meant historically, of course, remains a mystery.
Interspersed with the images of these relics are photographs of another San Gabriel adobe house, the Ortega-Vigare Adobe, which was a registered California historical landmark in 1949. Said to have been built in 1792 and used by a soldier stationed at the mission, which is just a short distance north on Ramona Street, the house was long occupied by the Vigare family, headed by French native Jean Vigare and his wife María de la Luz Gonzalez, whose half-sister was Laura Gonzalez, wife of Walter P. Temple and owner of the Homestead from 1917 to 1932. It was used as a bakery for a period as well as a residence.
After the Vigares left, the structure deteriorated much as the other two adobe buildings shown here were, but, in the early 1990s, the house was saved from destruction and completely renovated and is about double the original size. The historic designation noted that the structure was originally L-shaped, a configuration that the adobe house of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple, Walter’s parents, had for their residence at Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows. It also states that the property was separated from the mission’s lime orchard by a tall cactus wall, that plant being extensively used for that purpose.
Not only was Laura Gonzalez Temple close with her sister (they shared a father, but different mothers,) but after the former’s death in 1922, her husband and children maintained close ties with the Vigares. When Walter Temple’s fortune was dissipated by the Great Depression years, his eldest child, Thomas, who’d abandoned plans to become an attorney after getting his degree from Harvard Law School and decided to be a professional historian and genealogist, moved in with his aunt and cousins.
Thomas was especially enamored of the history of the Mission San Gabriel as well as pre-American California and spent decades as the historian of both the mission and the City of San Gabriel. He was engaged to Gabriela Quiroz, who grew up in the area, while he lived in the Vigare adobe and, after marrying her in 1938, he and his wife lived mainly in San Gabriel, with a few years in Alhambra, until his death in 1972.
It is fortunate that the adobe was saved and remodeled, whereas the other two structures shown here evidently crumbled away and were razed. I had the opportunity years ago to tour the Vigare Adobe when it was being sold and the realtor held an open house. Though there are obviously many modern amenities, there are still two-foot thick walls and the center living room retains the high ceilings and old wood beams to maintain much of the historic character of the landmark.
There are probably more of these surviving adobe houses as private residences than we realize and let’s hope that as many of them as possible can be preserved.