Through the Viewfinder: A Stereoscopic Photograph of the Plaza and Sonoratown, Los Angeles, ca. 1870-75

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After a short while collecting early Los Angeles stereoscopic photographs, getting contacted by the very knowledgeable collector Phil Nathanson included his admonition to watch for images that were taken by one photographer and later republished by another. There were at least two notable examples of this locally, with one being the work of Arthur C. Varela, who left his profession of federal government clerk in Washington, D.C. to pursue his passion for photography including a short stay in late 1870s Los Angeles, which was then purchased by Isaac W. Taber of San Francisco and often reissued by him.

The second example, exemplified with tonight’s highlighted historic artifact from the museum’s collection, involves Henry T. Payne, who took plenty of his own photos during the 1870s and into the 1880s in greater Los Angeles, but who acquired the studio and inventory of William M. Godfrey, active in this area in the very late Sixties and early Seventies. The photo featured here, titled “6. Sonora, Los Angeles, from Pico House” is a great shot of part of the historic center of the town, the Plaza, and part of what was then known as Sonoratown to the north.

This early ad for Henry T. Payne refers to competition for the limited market for photographers in Los Angeles, as he puns on the name of his contemporary Alfred S. Addis. Los Angeles Express, 5 May 1874.

Although the stereoview was issued, probably in mid-1870s, as part of Payne’s “Southern California Landscapes” series, it is almost certainly the work of Godfrey. This is assumed because the latter used a white label with the caption typed on it and the numbering system appears to be his. Moreover, the scene shown in the photo looks to be from several years prior to its reissue, especially as the state of the Plaza was as it was before the early Seventies. This is embodied in the mostly bare landscape, surrounded by a simple wooden fence, that was dramatically changed by the middle part of the decade after an old brick water storage tank, which would have been just out of view to the right. was removed and plantings were introduced, including some by Elijah H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, and who had a strong horticultural interest. Massive Moreton Bay fig trees that are still there today, for example, were planted by Workman. Another reason why this looks to be from around 1870 is that the pile of material at the center of the bottom edge appears to be the same found in another photo attributed to 1869.

What was pretty new at the time was the location from which the photo was taken–one of the upper stories of the Pico House hotel, completed in 1870 by Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California and who sold much of the San Fernando Valley to raise the capital to build the finest lodging place in town and which was an effort to revitalize the Plaza area as most new construction was being done to the south around where the Temple Block, owned by F.P.F. Temple, was situated where Main, Spring and Temple streets then converged. Also a new element to the local landscape were street lamps, such as the one at the northwest corner of the Plaza. These were installed shortly after the newly created Los Angeles Gas Company secured a contract from the city to place over forty such lamps along Main Street. They were connected to pipes laid from the gas works built directly across from the hotel on the west side of Main Street to the south of the Plaza Church, just beyond the frame at the left (in fact, the shadow at the center of the edge is likely of the upper portion of that building.)

Los Angeles Herald, 6 April 1875.

There are three streets in the image, with the one at the far left being Upper Main Street, the one at the center being Bath Street, and the one running left to right along the north edge being Marchessault Street. This last, was named for Damien Marchessault, a former mayor of the town who committed suicide in the chambers of the Common [City] Council in 1868. In the mid-1880s, Bath Street, which some sources erroneously state became Olvera Street, which is out of view to the right and which was still known as Wine Street until it was changed by the council in 1877 to honor the recently deceased Agustín Olvera, a prominent judge, became part of the rerouted Main Street, which goes through the section at center where the adobe building facing the Plaza and with two large signboards at the ends and the structures behind it were situated.

At the right above the north end of the Plaza, where some dark green trees are behind a picket fence, is a lot that was granted in 1847, just after the American seizure of California during the Mexican-American War, to F.P.F. Temple. The property was later owned by John Jones and John G. Downey, the latter becoming California’s governor in the early 1860s and a prominent banker and founder of the city of that name. As for that large L-shaped adobe at the center and left, it was once owned by Olvera and, after it became a commercial structure, it housed, as the sign at the left or west end of the building reads, a grocery. There is also a tall pole in front at the center of the structure, which might have been a flag pole.

Los Angeles Express, 20 April 1875.

In the mid-Seventies, Jeremiah M. Redding, a native of New York and one of the early black residents of Los Angeles, having settled there before 1860, and Jamaican-born Horatio Marteen, opened the Barnum Restaurant and Chop House in that part of the adobe where the grocery was located when this photo was snapped several years earlier. A newspaper ad from August 1875, when it appears the eatery was newly opened, stated that its “caterer-in-chief is an old Mississippi-river steward” and “the best French cooks [are] employed,” while “game [is] served up every day” when the place was “open day and night.” Also offered were “the best wines, liquors and cigars” while there were “private rooms for ladies.” It appears the restaurant, as most did, had a short life-span and closed as the city fell into an economic panic later that month that included, later, the failure of the Temple and Workman bank.

The Sonoratown area north of the Plaza was so named because of the number of migrants who came from that northern Mexican state during the Gold Rush years and afterward and it extended towards the Elysian Hills, where are the gently sloping bare low outgrowths in the distance. At the base of the hills with the distinctive white fencing enclosing it is the original Calvary Cemetery, established in 1844 once the original cemetery to the south of the Plaza Church was closed (though many remains were discovered in recent construction work there). Calvary, which functioned as the Catholic burial ground in the city until the end of the century after which it was closed and the current Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles was established, partially became the site of Cathedral High School. In the hills above it, Dodger Stadium was built in the late 1950s.

0816017Stereoview Sonora Los Angeles 2014.760.1.1 (002)

This remarkable photo is one of several dozen stereoscopic images from the 1870s, including several by Godfrey and many by Payne (whether his own or republished from Godfrey’s negatives that he acquired), in greater Los Angeles, so look for more in future editions of “Through the Viewfinder.”

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