Through the Viewfinder: A Photo of a Portion of Main Street, Los Angeles, ca. 1882

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tonight’s entry in the “Through the Viewfinder” series of historic photographs from the Homestead’s collection is an excellent close-up view of the east side of the 300 block of Main Street showing some of the notable commercial structures in the downtown area.

The stereoscopic image is not attributed by the number of “3131” matches the series published by the prominent photographic firm of Payne, Stanton and Company, which began business in 1880 and operated as the Elite Gallery for several years.  By 1885, Stanton took over the gallery and then sold it shortly afterward to E.W. Pierce.

Backman House Los_Angeles_Herald_Tue__Nov_24__1874_
Los Angeles Herald, 24 November 1874.

One of the partners Henry T. Payne, who acquired the pioneer Sunbeam Gallery of William M. Godfrey in the early Seventies and took many important views of Los Angeles and its environs.  Payne’s brother, Daniel, who otherwise is not well-known as a photographer was also involved and appears to have been the “Company” part of the enterprise.  Finally, there was Thomas E. Stanton, who was a new arrival in the area, but went on to be a photographer through the end of the century, taking many images in other partnerships and on his own.

This view takes in five structures, built over a period of decades.  At the far right is the oldest, the St. Charles Hotel.  The three-story building actually began as a single-story adobe, built in the late 1840s, and known for much of its history as the Bella Union Hotel.

Backman House ad Evening_Express_Tue__Nov_24__1874_
Los Angeles Express, 24 November 1874.

The hostelry has been written about in several posts on this blog, including one in this series focused on an elevated view of downtown during the 1880s.  Four other posts mention the Bella Union in connection with one of its more colorful owners, John Rains, who was invested in the structure in two time periods, including the very early 1850s and the later part of that decade and until his unsolved murder in November 1862.  In fact, there was a spectacular daytime gun battle in July 1865 in the hotel involving Rains’ brother-in-law, Robert Carlisle and Frank and Houston King of El Monte that was also tied to Rains.

A second story, comprised of red brick, was added to the Bella Union and this was followed by a third level, also of brick, before the name was changed a couple of times, including the Clarendon, in 1873, and then the St. Charles two years later.

Grand Central Hotel The_Daily_Evening_Express_Thu__Dec_23__1875_
Los Angeles Express, 23 December 1875.

To the left of the St. Charles is the Pico Building, constructed by Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, in 1868.  Pico, who built the Pico House hotel just a short distance north at the southwest edge of the Plaza, leased out the first floor of the two-story brick building, erected as Los Angeles underwent its first period of significant and sustained growth, to the second bank in Los Angeles.

This was Hellman, Temple and Company, which opened in September 1868, a few months after ex-governor John G. Downey and James Hayward (whose father was the namesake of the city near Oakland) opened their short-lived institution.  Isaias W. Hellman, a young and brilliant merchant who operated an informal banking business in his store, joined forces with William Workman, founder of the Homestead, and his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple to launch the bank.

Grand Central Hotel ad Los_Angeles_Herald_Fri__Dec_24__1875_
Herald, 24 December 1875.

While, by any reasonable standard, this institution should have succeeded wildly had Temple, in particular, let Hellman work his financial magic, disagreements about such fundamental matters as how loans were to be secured, led to fissures.  By early 1871, just over two years after the bank opened, Hellman decided to sever his ties with Temple and Workman.

While Temple and Workman opened their own bank in November 1871 in the newly completed final addition to the Temple Block, just down and across Main Street, Hellman and Downey formed a partnership and launched the Farmers and Merchants Bank earlier that year in the former Hellman, Temple and Company quarters in the Pico Building.

Grand Central sale ad The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Nov_17__1912_
Los Angeles Times, 17 November 1912.

While Temple and Workman collapsed in a spectacular fashion during an economic panic in 1875-76, Farmers and Merchants, under Hellman’s unerring guidance, prospered and became the dominant financial institution in the emerging city.  Note that the phrase “Bank of Los Angeles” is emblazoned on a sign at the top of the Pico Building.

Dwarfing the other structures in the photo is the three-story Baker Block with its distinctive triple rooftop towers.  Designed by Buchanan and Herbert and completed in 1878, the building replaced the famous El Palacio, a spacious single-story adobe house built by Abel Stearns, one of the first Americans to live in Los Angeles (he arrived not long after Jonathan Temple became the second Anglo and first merchant in the Mexican pueblo).

Baker Block The_Evening_Express_Tue__Aug_27__1878_
Express, 27 August 1878.

Stearns was married to Arcadia Bandini, of a prominent Californio family, until his death in 1871.  She later married Robert S. Baker, who razed the Stearns adobe and built his namesake block, but Baker was also a major investor in the new seaside resort town of Santa Monica and built that community’s landmark Hotel Arcadia, named for his wife.  The Baker Block was torn down in the early 1940s and the site is now in the path of U.S. 101.

While there is a narrow three-story building to the right of the Baker Block that has not been identified or researched (UPDATE, 13 February: thanks to blog commenter Mike D, who found this reference from the 14 January 1878 edition of the Los Angeles Herald:  “Gov. Downey last night submitted to the Council the plan of a building he proposes to erect on the lot between the Baker Block and the Grand Central Hotel. The edifice will be three stories in height, with bay windows on the second and third floors. It will be built of brick, stone and iron and in a style of architecture which will contrast handsomely with the magnificence of the Baker Block. Work will be commenced immediately.”)

The larger three-level structure next to that was the Grand Central Hotel.  The edifice was built in 1874 as the Perry-Riley Building and the first floor housed the People’s Palace clothing store, a cigar shop, and a Western Union telegraph office and a tobacconist’s shop.

2684SV 3131 St Charles And Grand Central Hotels LA 2006.280.1.1 single
This stereoscopic photograph from the museum’s holdings has the identification number of “3131” likely from Payne, Stanton and Company and dates to about 1882.

While the upper level was first leased to the proprietor of the Clarendon Hotel next door, a real estate broker took over that arrangement and advertised for the rent of rooms in the upper two floors with rents ranging from $15 to $50 per month.  By Thanksgiving, a Mrs. Backman took over the lease and reopened the hostelry as the “Backman House.”

Her tenure lasted just over a year and E.E. Fisher took over the operation and rechristened it as the “Grand Central Hotel.”  Despite the frequent changes in ownership and names, the Grand Central did remain in business for about forty years.  After a sale in 1912, the name was located a few years later, but not after the mid-teens.

Express, 14 June 1880.

The photo has some interesting little details, such as the ladder leaning against the St. Charles and the door-less arched openings indicate some remodeling was going on.  There are a few signs of note, including C.R. Bush’s watch and jewelry in the Pico Building, the Grand Central Saloon, a “candy factory” in that same building (Gardiner’s was there in 1882), and a “dry goods” establishment at the south end of the Baker Block.  A sharp eye can detect a steep stair through the opening of the main roof tower in the block.

Herald, 20 May 1884.

This image is one of many in the Homestead’s collection that documents the growth of Los Angeles and its environs from 1870 to 1930, including an expanding downtown business district centered, in the early Eighties, in the area shown in the Payne, Stanton and Company view.


2 thoughts

  1. Great photo! The narrow building between the Baker Block and the Grand Central Hotel may have been built by former Governor John Downey in 1878. The June 14, 1878, Los Angeles Herald states on page 3, “Gov. Downey last night submitted to the Council the plan of a building he proposes to erect on the lot between the Baker Block and the Grand Central Hotel. The edifice will be three stories in height, with bay windows on the second and third floors. It will be built of brick, stone and iron and in a style of architecture which will contrast handsomely with the magnificence of the Baker Block. Work will be commenced immediately.”

  2. Hi Mike D., thanks for the further information. That will be added to the post with a thanks to you for unearthing that info!

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