by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is likely one of the more notable signs of the growing importance of Los Angeles as a “hub of the American Southwest” that, while there were two visits by presidents of the United States to Los Angeles in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, that of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 and of Benjamin Harrison in 1891, there were four such visits in the first decade of the twentieth.
William McKinley came to the Angel City in 1901, not long before his assassination, and was followed by his vice-president and successor, Theodore Roosevelt, two years later. In turn, Roosevelt’s Secretary of WAr and protege, William Howard Taft, victor in the 1908 presidential campaign, came to Los Angeles in October 1909. Though he was believed to be primed to continue the progressive policies of his predecessor, Taft decided to forge his own, more conservative, path during his presidency.
By fall 1911, though the presidential campaign of the following year had not begun in earnest, Taft could see the difficulties he would face in the run for his reelection, especially because Roosevelt was soon to launch his own alternative campaign under the banner of the Progressive Party, known popularly as the Bull Moose Party. It made sense, therefore, for Taft to take to the road, greet the American people, explain his policies, and shore up support for the 1912 election.
On 16 October, the president became the first chief executive to visit the City of Angels twice, and the keystone of his brief stay in the city was an address he gave at a dinner held in his honor at the Hotel Alexandria, the finest in town. A program for the event is tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings. It comes in a wrapper embossed with the hotel’s name but without any other markings. Inside, the document is held together with a long royal blue ribbon, while the city seal is in gold at the top right of the front cover. Pasted down below that in elegant script is text about the banquet tendered “by the Citizens of Los Angeles” to Taft.
Inside is the menu, featuring such delicacies as a “California Oyster Cocktail,” locally grown olives, crab legs (a la President), a rack of lamb, a “Breast of Chicken, White House,” and other menu items, including an “Alligator Pear, Los Angeles,” this being a popular name for avocados, which were becoming a notable regional product, including, within a few years, at the new subdivision south of the Homestead called North Whittier Heights, now Hacienda Heights.
It was several years yet before Prohibition attempted to ban almost all manufacturing, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, but the presidential banquet included a variety of offerings including sherry, a sauterne, champagne, and cognac, along with cigars and cigarettes to aid in the digestion of the sumptuous repast. Also listed was the speakers’ roster, including toasts offered by the evening’s chair, Henry Z. Osborne, who went on to be a member of the House of Representatives, and toastmaster Frank P. Flint, who earlier in the year completed a single term as a senator from the Golden State and later founded the community of Flintridge, now La Cañada-Flintridge.
There were three addresses to end the event, including from current Senator John D. Works, who won election in 1910 and also served a sole term and who orated on the state; capitalist Oscar Mueller, who delivered a speech about the president; and Taft. Also listed was the Banquet Committee, including Flint’s attorney brother Motley and a roster of prominent Angelenos including developer William May Garland, merchant Moses A. Hamburger, manufacturer William Lacy, banker Stoddard Jess, and federal attorney Oscar Lawler. The Arrangements Committee included Walter Raymond, owner of the famous hotel of that name in South Pasadena, as chair.
As an evening paper, the Los Angeles Express covered the visit of President Taft during the day and prior to the dinner. It noted that “typical Western hospitality was extended to the chief executive of the nation” upon his arrival by train “and Los Angeles demonstrated conclusively that it knows how to receive the nation’s head and to entertain him as no other city can.” It was a sunny day, the streets were festooned with red, white and blue decorations of varied kinds, and well-wishers lined the streets as the presidential caravan made its way through the city.
The paper was compelled to say that the reception tendered to Taft was non-partisan and those “of the mighty progressive wave” were as supportive of the president as were “ardent supporters of Taft’s policies.” It was added that the visit was something of a homecoming, as the president’s sister lived on West Adams Boulevard, west of the University of Southern California and Taft spent his one evening in the city at her home.
Taft disembarked from his train just after 9:30 in the morning and, notably, it was not reported until the next day’s papers were issued, including the Los Angeles Times, that an attempt to blow up a bridge near Santa Barbara as the train passed along it four hours prior was foiled by luck. Given that the McNamara brothers were still on trial in Los Angeles for the bombing of the Times building a year before, concerns about domestic terrorism were still on the minds of many locals.
From the Southern Pacific’s Arcade Depot, the president, with Mayor George Alexander in the car with him, passed through downtown to cheering throngs and made his way to Washington Park at Main Street and Washington Boulevard. There he was greeted at the baseball stadium where the Los Angeles Angels played by some 13,000 school children and many thousands of others before returning to downtown where he gave an address at the Temple Auditorium across from Central Park, renamed Pershing Square at the end of the decade. Finishing his speech, Taft headed out of the city, stopping to christen the Buena Vista Street bridge, now known as the North Broadway Viaduct, with a bottle of Owens River water, a nod to the soon-to-be-completed Los Angeles Aqueduct that would provide for much of the city’s future growth.
Taft then traveled to the northeastern limits of the city to give a speech at Occidental College, which was made non-sectarian in 1910 having been a Presbyterian school since its 1887 founding and which was still in its Highland Park location with the move to Eagle Rock initiated soon after the president’s visit. He then went to Pasadena for a Board of Trade-sponsored lunch at the Hotel Maryland and a review with school children and others at Carmelita Park, where the Norton Simon Museum is situated now.
Returning to Los Angeles in the later afternoon, the president went to a “meeting of the negroes of Los Angeles in Blanchard hall” where, at 4 p.m., he was presented “a gold plate from the Afro-American council, inscribed in appreciation of his recognition of negro progress. After a whirlwind day, Taft retired to his sister’s house for a break before heading to the Alexandria, situated at the southwest corner of Spring and Fifth streets.
While the coverage of the Express was extensive, it was generally matter-of-fact, but its rival the Times added its own brand of purple prose to the published proceedings by titling its article about the banquet, “A Feast of Love and a Message of Peace.” It began with “if ever there was a love feast in Los Angeles it was the banquet, superb in the forgetfulness of all parties, magnificent in the magnanimity of opposing political factions, that was the crowning feature in the entertainment of President Taft during his stay in Los Angeles.” The event was characterized as “harmonious, peaceable and at times verged on the extreme of hilarious uproar,” especially when the chief executive spoke in a manner that was “as a conscientious, hard-working and loyal citizen.”
It was reported that, when Taft rose after dinner to give his address, the crowd of some 500 men, comprising “the leaders of every line of activity in Los Angeles,” gave him a standing ovation lasting a minute and including the tossing of napkins, the stamping of feet, “and any possible mode of approbation.” The menu, as shown in the program, was reprinted in the paper, which observed that the banquet was the first held in the new “DuBarry—Parthenique” dining hall which was “a wonderful artistry of soft colors, subdued shading, concealed lights, and flowers of rarest kind, particularly the ferns” as well as chrysanthemums, lillies and roses, while a pair of fountains were “spraying delicately scented water” over illuminated glass.
Osborne rattled off statistics to show the growing importance of Los Angeles and mentioned the harbor and the aqueduct as vital to the development of the Angel City. As Flint stood to speak, applause lasted a minute, punctuated by shouts of “lemons,” the reference of which will be mentioned below. He alluded to the presence of Governor Hiram Johnson, nearing the end of his first year in office when progressive issues, including the right of women to vote, as well as the passage of the referendum, the recall and the initiative, marked dramatic changes to the Golden State’s political landscape. The former senator in nodding to Johnson joked that “his element [was] growing les radical and on the other had, the old-time party followers[were becoming] more progressive.” Flint then referred to the pressing matter of tariffs, which roiled the Taft administration, and offered that having high tariffs on California products would not work if duties were lowered for those of other states.
Works spoke very briefly, but made reference to the above-mentioned changes to legislating in the Golden State, adding that “they will make better citizenship, and ultimately result in a greater republic than is now in existence.” Mueller then offered his fulsome praise of the chief executive and foresaw the time when Taft would be recognized as “the greatest leader in the world in an endeavor to bring about peace, be it national or international.” In fact, the president would be seen as the greatest advocate for “universal peace,” though Mueller also highlighted the trust-busting of tobacco giants and the Standard Oil Company as major achievements. Taft’s navigating through the midst of progressives and “reactionists” should also stemmed the growing tide of criticism heaped upon the president recently.
When Taft began his oration, he noted that there were many burdens in having a president as a guest and thanked local officials and citizens for their hospitality. He noted that he’d last been in the City of Angels in 1890 and joked that he remembered a competition between Los Angeles and San Diego at that time, slyly recognizing just how much the former grew in comparison with the latter. The president also displayed his humorous side in talking about the political machinations of working with the Department of the Interior on water projects like the Aqueduct noting “there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with butter.”
Taft also expressed his appreciation of the dramatic growth experienced in greater Los Angeles in recent years and made reference to the increasing urbanization of the region while noting the economic importance of its agricultural base, a balance that would be tested in decades to come. The chief executive also discussed his intensive work on international treaties that he hoped would lead to the “abolishing and getting rid of war.” He spoke of an “arbitral court” that would adjudicate disputes between nations, a precursor of sorts to the League of Nations and then the United Nations, though he noted the difficulties in getting such a plan to fruition and practical operation.
The aforementioned reference to shouts of “lemons” by dinner guests was due to what Flint briefly mentioned, the contentious nature of tariffs. A common practice of protectionism by governments for the products of their nations, the concept was being increasingly reexamined and fund wanting, but conservatives in America still favored their heavy application, while progressives looked to lower them. With Taft succeeding Roosevelt, it was expected that he would follow the line of lowering tariffs, but, instead, Taft embraced them, setting him at odds with Roosevelt and the progressive wing of the Republican Party.
Taft’s speech at the Temple Auditorium earlier on the day was basically about the tariff question and this controversy was one of the main reasons why Roosevelt took up his third-party run, with Governor Johnson as his running mate, in 1912. In fact, Roosevelt fared much better than Taft in the election, though Democrat Woodrow Wilson took advantage of the rift among conservatives to win the campaign. Wilson emerged victorious without a plurality, taking 42% of the popular vote, to Roosevelt’s 27% and Taft’s 23%, though Wilson garnered 435 electoral votes, to 88 for Roosevelt and only 8 for the incumbent.
Never very comfortable in the role as chief executive, Taft returned to private life as a law professor at his alma mater, Yale University, though when Republican Warren Harding won the presidency in 1920, he installed the form president as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, the only instance in American history in which a president also served on the highest judicial body in the land. Taft remained in that role, which he considered the pinnacle of his life until ill health led him to retire early in 130, a month before his death at age 72.
As for the remainder of his sojourn in the area, Taft stayed the night at his sister’s house and left the next morning by car to Long Beach, with stops at the University of Southern California, where he addressed students and faculty from his car, Watts, and Compton. At the rapidly growing coastal city, another large reception of school children greeted him, followed by lunch at the Hotel Virginia. Once that event ended, a San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad train met him outside the hotel and took him north to Los Angeles and then east through the San Gabriel Valley, including just south of the Homestead, with a 45-minute stop at Pomona. There Taft was presented a key to the city by school children and the bestowing of gifts of flowers and fruit before his journey continued on.