Through the Viewfinder: Fifth Street Looking East, Los Angeles, ca. late 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The amazing cabinet card photograph, taken by Garden City Foto (yup, Foto!] Company, probably in the latter part of the 1890s, is titled “Fifth Street Looking East,” and it would have been helpful if the firm’s owners, John T. and Anna Pollock, could have added from where the view was taken as in “Fifth Street Looking East From ———“. It does appear from the approximate number of blocks going down 5th and the slight bend where the photographer stood that this was the intersection of Fifth and San Pedro streets (if someone could verify that, it would be much appreciated.)

If this is correct and the guess could well be off by a block or two, but likely not much more, it shows an area that was still largely residential, but with a mix of commercial properties and a few vacant lots to boot. On the right at the corner is a tavern, advertising beer on draft produced by local brewers Maier and Zobelein as well as native wines and cigars, with what may be a restaurant next door. Across Fifth is a lumber yard, or, more likely, a storage yard for lumber, and toward the upper left is a church. Toward the upper right is a three-story building that looks like a boarding house.

Otherwise, there are quite a few single-family residences in view, though that would change, especially during the next major boom, which began in the first year of the new century. More commercial buildings sprung up in this area as residents headed out for more suburban neighborhoods. Also of note are the American flags hung from wires connected to the power poles lining both sides of Fifth down towards the depot. Why is not known, though it may well have been for the Fourth of July holiday.

The tall pole at the right at the intersection of Fifth and, if this is the case, San Pedro is one of several dozen 150-foot tall arc lights that provided illumination for city areas during the last couple of decades of the 19th century. Just to the left of the pole a couple blocks to the east is a painted sign on the side of a building that looks to have been for the Pollocks’ studio, a neat bit of self-referential advertising. Farther east is a sign that appears to read “Hotel Tremont” and which was situated near the very long structure in the distance.

That cavernous buildings, which was 500 feet long and 90 feet wide was the Arcade Depot, which opened in September 1888 on the former orange orchard of William Wolfskill, the first commercial grove in California, and which was the second station for the Southern Pacific Railroad in the City of the Angels. The first, known as the River Station, operated for a dozen years from 1876 north of downtown in what became known as the Cornfield and which is now Los Angeles State Historic Park. The Arcade was razed in 1914 when the first Union Station, serving the Southern Pacific and, after a decade, the Union Pacific, in the city was opened at Central and Fifth.

In the distance to the left of the Arcade Depot is a large structure in the Boyle Heights neighborhood that looks like it could have been the Los Angeles Orphan Asylum, which opened in 1891, though the angle is a little tough to determine along with the distance, as that building stood at the corner of Boyle Avenue and Stephenson Avenue, later renamed Whittier Boulevard.

Fifth Street is largely emptied, though there are a few pedestrians at the intersection in the foreground and the next block east, but it is apparent that the photographer captured the trio of streetcars, especially the pair in the foreground for a reason, perhaps to show them in concert with the depot, where the cars stopped. In fact, the one on the right in the foreground has a sign on the front reading “Arcade Depot.”

These were trolleys operated by the Los Angeles Railway Company, which had extensive lines of service within the boundaries of the city. It was around this time, in 1898, that the company was acquired by the Southern Pacific, specifically because of the agency of its Vice-President, Henry E. Huntington, nephew of the firm’s president, Collis P. Huntington. Two years later, the elder Huntington died and a hostile takeover of the Southern Pacific and its parent company, the Central Pacific, by eastern railroad titan E.H. Harriman left Henry cut loose from the situation, though he was allowed to take the Los Angeles Railway with him.

By the turn of the century, Huntington relocated to Los Angeles, expanded the LARY, as it was known, and then engaged in a spectacular project, during that boom mentioned above, to develop his streetcar system through a huge section of greater Los Angeles. In 1911, there was a consolidation under the general name of the Pacific Electric Railway.

As for Huntington, he retired from active business affairs in 1910 and dedicated himself to his personal passion, his remarkable collection of rare books and manuscripts, soon augmented by the fine art holdings of his second wife, and widow of his uncle Collis, Arabella Archer Huntington. Later, these were stored and exhibited at his San Marino estate, now the Huntington Library, Art Galleries and Botanical Gardens.

This photo is a great document of an area of downtown Los Angeles that was in transition, moving gradually from a residential section to a commercial district as the 19th century ended and the new one began. Over the course of subsequent decades, especially in the area around the Arcade Depot, the industrial corridor of the city grew significantly. As the city center began to age and industrial and commercial development left for nearby areas, this section of town became Skid Row.

Sadly, in the terrible rise in homelessness in recent years, this area has become the core of this population and it is striking to see just how many more people are living on the streets. Just a short distance from where the photographer stood to take this photo, the Los Angeles and Union Rescue missions are situated, doing what they can to serve the homeless. Comparing this image to what is there today is jarring, to say the least.

One thought

  1. See similar photo at Cal State Library (digital image # 2003-0378), “No. 93. Looking East from Parker House, Los Angeles, Cal”. The photos appears to have been taken on 5th Street, just west of San Pedro Street. Also see Library of Congress map, Los Angeles, California, 1894 (, for view of three-story building at approximate location from which photo was taken.

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