An Exciting New Acquisition: A Photograph of The Workman House by William M. Godfrey, ca. 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For years, the earliest known photograph of the Workman House to which we had access was a copy of an early 1870s image of the north or front of the structure not long after it was extensively remodeled. What was previously a single-story U-shaped adobe house with a northern three-room core and 150-foot long wings projecting toward the south was radically remade by William and Nicolasa Workman into an H-shaped building with new rooms at the corners and a second floor made of brick.

Moreover, there were elements of popular architectural styles of the time incorporated into the design. These included Gothic Revival, reflected through the steeply pitched multi-gabled roof and stucco quoins at the corners; Greek Revival, including columns in triptych windows; and Italianate, best depicted through brackets under the projecting roof edges and the rails and balusters of the porches and stairs. Four tall brick chimney stacks also stood out with this distinctive dwelling, the remodeling of which was said to have been the work of the first professional architect in Los Angeles, Ezra F. Kysor, whose surviving bulldings include the Pico House hotel and St. Vibiana’s Cathedral.

A copy of William M. Godfrey’s ca. 1872 photo of family members posed in front of the recently remodeled house. Note the inscription of “Godfrey Photo” is on the coping of the wall at the lower left.

At the lower left of that photo is the name “Godfrey,” this being William M. Godfrey, one of the earliest photographers in the Angel City. Born in Michigan in 1825, he operated his studio for a few years and took a good many images that are among the first visual documents of the growing town, which, from the late 1860s through mid 1870s, was undergoing its first significant and sustained period of growth. The Homestead has several Godfrey stereoscopic photographs, these being the format found at the time and which were comprised of a pair of the same image, but one slightly offset from the other so that, when viewed through a stereopticon, a three-dimensional effect was provided.

Original Godfrey photographs are very hard to come by and the Homestead has several, but the view of the front of the house is not one of those and an original still has not surfaced. In the last week, however, a surprise revealed itself, thanks to a heads-up from Roger Genser, a friend of the Homestead and an avid collector of early Los Angeles photos, when a different view of the Workman House became available. Although I thought initially that I’d seen this image once before years ago in an early 20th century book, I’m not sure now that this is the case.

WH Godfrey 1872 300 dpi
The stereoscopic (stereoview) photo, also ca. 1872 and probably taken the same day as the above image, just acquired by the Homestead and of a view of the house from the southwest that had not previously been seen by our staff.

In any event, the newly acquired photograph, featured here, is a true find. Godfrey used a white typed label for many of his images, placing the caption at the bottom margin of the orange-colored mount, and this one reads “127. Workman’s Residence.” On the reverse is the printed maker’s mark, reading “From Godfrey’s Photographic View Rooms Los Angeles, Cal.,” though he also operated a studio under the name of Sunbeam.

The number “127” suggests that the photo was taken about 1872, not long before before Godfrey sold his business to Henry T. Payne. As was typical of the very competitive business, Payne simply reissued Godfrey’s images on his own mount along with his own originals. Fortunately, he retained the older numbering system and so it can often be known which Payne photos were originally published by Godfrey, especially when there are surviving examples of the latter for confirmation.

WH Godfrey 1872 verso 300 dpi
Godfrey’s “maker’s mark” on the reverse of the mount.

This view is taken from the southwest on a dirt road leading to the house and associated buildings and which went out to El Campo Santo Cemetery further to the east. This road, later known as Evergreen Lane for the trees planted along it by the Workmans’ grandson, Walter P. Temple. Traces of it survive on the Homestead site today through the Pío Pico Memorial Walkway, while just to the south is Don Julian Road. Moreover, Godfrey stood just a bit south and perhaps west of where La Casa Nueva was built by the Temples a half-century or so later.

Among the notable details discerned in the photo is the presence of the white doors that led from the west side of the house to the basement—this is under the narrow window to the right of the triptych at the center of the building (or, if you prefer, the second window from the right on that side of the building.) That entrance has long been removed, however. Also of interest is the grape arbor on a trelllis extending from the south porch to the right of the photo. Travelers as early as the late 1850s described just such an arbor and we have a replica of it today, though we can only assume that the oldest of the vines growing on it goes back to the Workman era.

WH Godfrey 1872 closeup 600 dpi
A detail of the dwelling, including the side entrance door to the basement beneath the window that is second to the right and part of the grape arbor at the right.

The white fencing is also of interest, as it appears that Workman had a pretty good portion of his property in an around the house enclosed, just as his daughter and son-in-law, Margarita and F.P.F. Temple did at their homestead at the Rancho La Merced several miles to the west in Whittier Narrows. We actually have some correspondence that has survived from 1870 mentioning that pickets had arrived at Anaheim Landing (where the San Gabriel River empties into the Pacific) and were to be delivered to the ranch.

In fact, information like that, as well as the fact that a map of the Workman-owned southwest portion of Rancho La Puente commissioned in October 1870 has an inset drawing of the house, has been our basis for determining when the remodeling took place. So, it was apparently within a couple of years after the project was completed that Godfrey took his photos, though how many copies of “127” were made and then sold is not known—presumably it was a small run.

WH Godfrey 1872 left side 600 dpi
The left image on the view with some enhancements in clarity and darkening to better bring out details.

Notably, another photo collector, Phil Nathanson, who gave a talk on early Los Angeles photography for the Homestead several years ago, has speculated that the front view of the Workman House was actually done in a larger 8″x10″ format as a special order. Phil observed, for example, when sent the copy to review that Godfrey’s signature is not found on the smaller stereoviews. Moreover, having Workman in profile on the front steps with, presumably, family members standing on the ground in front and to the right side, might indicate a custom photo done especially for the Workmans.

In any case, being able to acquire this very rare Godfrey stereoview is really something special, especially as it is a view that we did not know existed. Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer that we can reveal another special acquisition of family-related historic artifacts, so stay tuned for that!

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