Through the Viewfinder: “North Main St. From Temple Block,” Los Angeles, ca. 1885

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

During the last thirty or so years of the 19th century, the Temple Block was at the center of the business district of a rapidly transforming Los Angeles.  The property, acquired in the Mexican era by Jonathan Temple, was quite a distance, for those days, south of the center of activity at the pueblo’s Plaza.  In succeeding decades, however, the tract’s location at the junction of Main and Spring, with a short, little side street named for Temple heading to the west added in the mid-1850s, became increasingly more important.

In the late 1840s, Temple constructed a two-story adobe building at the north end of the block, where Main and Spring met.  About a decade later, he added a two-story brick structure at the south end and the pair could be viewed as emblematic of the changes taking place architecturally in the town, one representing the decline of adobe construction and the other representing the growing use of red brick, introduced just a few years prior.

In an island of sorts just south of the block, Temple built a two-story brick structure called the Market House, said to have been influenced by Faneuil Hall, the famed Boston landmark (Temple hailed from Reading, northwest of that city).  Completed in 1859, the Market House contained small stores with a long central hallway, while the second floor became the Temple Theater, the first purpose-built venue of its kind in Los Angeles.

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Here are several details and close-ups and, lastly, the full view of the Ellis and Son cabinet card photograph of Main Street north from the Temple Block in Los Angeles, ca. 1885, and which is from the museum’s holdings.

The timing for the building, however, could not have been worse.  The end of the Gold Rush, a glut in the regional cattle market, and a national depression that burst forth in 1857 were among the factors that created a poor local economy and did not augur well for the success of the Market House.  Within a couple of years, the building was leased to the city and county and repurposed so that, the second floor, for example, was renovated into the county courthouse and first floor spaces became civic offices.

Temple’s local building projects came to a halt and, after terrible flooding in the winter of 1861-1862 and a horrific drought the following two seasons, he left Los Angeles for San Francisco, where he died at the end of May 1866.  The Temple Block was purchased from the estate in 1867 by Temple’s half-brother, F.P.F.  Over the next four years, he added three buildings to the block, including the three-story one replacing his brother’s adobe structure mentioned above and which housed the Temple and Workman bank, which F.P.F. owned with his father-in-law, Homestead owner William Workman.

The bank’s collapse and financial failure in early 1876 brought ruin to the two men and the Temple Block was sold.  Tonight’s highlighted photo from the Homestead’s collection is one that provided a common view in late 19th century Los Angeles photography, a look north from the block up Main Street and taking in what long remained the core of the city’s small, but growing commercial center.

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The photographers were Lemuel Ellis, Senior and Junior, who, during the 1880s largely specialized and advertised themselves as landscape photographers.  Most of the images, stereoscopic and cabinet card photos, in the museum’s holdings and attributed to the Ellises are of the gardens of the homes of Angelenos or street scenes that emphasized landscape elements.  There were, however, occasional representations like this that provided broader city scenes.

Titled “North Main St. from Temple Block,” the photo does not have any other inscriptions to tell us what was going on, or what going to be happening, as there are plenty of folks crowded on the sidewalks of both sides of Main Street (we can obviously see more of the east side) as well as on the roof of the portico at the front of the Downey Block at the lower left, that building constructed by former California governor John G. Downey (the site was where Jonathan Temple’s home was once stood.)

While the street is pretty crowded with quite a few horse-drawn conveyances and pedestrians, it does appear that, whatever was in the offing as far as a parade or other event, that was yet to come.  In the distance to the north, past the buildings in view, is the Plaza, so it seems likely that the historic center of the city was the staging area for what was to come.

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As for the several structures in view, the vantage point of the image does not allow for viewing much of the west side of Main, other than the Downey Block and its northern neighbor, the building housing the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Los Angeles, opened in 1871 by Downey and Isaias W. Hellman, the brilliant young merchant who was previously partners with Temple and Workman in Hellman, Temple and Company until he dissolved that partnership (fearing that continuing to work with Temple would be financially ruinous—which was true enough) and joined forces with Downey.

The building at the far right, situated at the corner of Main and Commercial streets included the long-standing hardware store of Charles Ducommun, a Swiss emigrant whose business was highly successful.  The Ducommun Building also was once the home of the dry goods store of Samuel Prager and a furniture store.  Notably, it does appear that the south wall on Commercial Street had a painted mural on it, though we can only see a small portion of it.

To the left of Ducommun was the two-story addition and the three-story older portion of the St. Charles Hotel.  That structure began life in the Mexican era as a single story adobe building, which remained once the Bella Union Hotel was established there and a second story of brick added.  Even later, the third level was constructed and then there was a name change in the early Seventies to the Clarendon before it was renamed the St. Charles after a couple of years.

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Moving further up Main is the two-story Pico Building, though it is partially obscured by one of the tall arc lights that ushered in the era of electricity to Los Angeles in the early 1880s.  There were several of these built in the city and which replaced the gas lamps that were put up previously.  The building, constructed in 1868 by Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican-era California and a close friend of the Temples and Workmans, housed the Hellman, Temple and Company and Farmers and Merchants banks in succession.

The three-story structure past the Pico Building was the Grand Central Hotel, in which was the Perry-Riley Building when it was finished in 1874.  The first floor was devoted to store space (a clothing store, a Western Union telegraph office, and a cigar shop were among some early tenants.)  The hotel was first called the Backman House, but, after about a year, it was rechristened the Grand Central and it retained that name well into the early 20th century.

With its exuberant architecture and its dominating roof towers, the Baker Block was finished in 1878 with its owner Robert S. Baker building it where El Palacio, the substantial single-story adobe home of Abel Stearns, first husband of Baker’s wife, Arcadia Bandini, long stood.  Baker was also a founder of Santa Monica and his building was very popular with professionals in town as it was a commanding presence in Los Angeles’ emerging business district.

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U.S. Highway 101 runs through the block and some of the land just to the north today, so further up Main in the photo are a few other structures of note, where the painted sign on the south side of one of the brick buildings can easily be made out.  This is the locale of a trio of some of the oldest surviving commercial structures in modern Los Angeles—including the two-story Masonic Lodge building, which long was the quarters of Lodge 42 of the Free and Associated Masons, which included Temple and Workman as members; the Merced Theater, which sported the painted sign advertising furniture, carpets, wallpaper and bedding; and, finally, the Pico House hotel, also built by the former governor.

This image is a great representation of the core of Los Angeles’ commercial section in the first half or so of the 1880s.  Around that time, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad completed the first direct transcontinental line to the city, which allowed for the massive growth of the subsequent Boom of the Eighties, peaking in 1887-1888 during the mayoral administration of William Workman’s nephew, William Henry.   During that boom, downtown expansion continued further south and west of the area shown here, though the Temple Block and surrounding area were still important parts of the business district in subsequent years.


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