Portrait Gallery (and a La La Landscapes Bonus): Dr. William A. Hammel, ca. 1875

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It has been oft-stated that when it comes to so many of the historic artifacts in the Homestead’s collection, there are unexpected and surprising stories that deviate from the obvious subject of these objects. Tonight’s featured item is no exception because, while it is a relatively earlier studio portrait from Los Angeles, probably by Francis Parker of the Photographic Parlors in the Downey Block (at the northwest corner of Main and Temple streets where Jonathan Temple’s house once stood), of Dr. William A. Hammel, there is certainly more than meets the eye.

Hammel was born about 1824 in Prussia and it was reported on several occasions that, after settling in Washington, D.C., he became the family physician of President James K. Polk. Polk’s single term was from 1845-1849 and he died just a couple of months after leaving office, so Hammel was about in his mid-twenties at that time. In 1851, he married Barbara Vanderloehr, a native of the nation’s capital but apparently of German parentage, and the couple had their first two children, Catherine and George, while living in Washington.

Why the Hammels moved west to Los Angeles in 1856 is not known, but William’s occupation in the 1860 census was “shopkeeper.” Perhaps the town had enough physicians, though during the following decade, he did resume his prior vocation and was shown as a doctor in the 1870 census. The couple had three children in Los Angeles, Clara, William, Jr. and Vincent, though the latter died as a toddler in 1874.

While it was later said of him that “in the days of his youth and activity he was one of the leading physicians” in the Angel City, he did not have much of a public presence, hardly appearing in Los Angeles newspapers or otherwise leaving much of a record behind. For a short time around 1880, the Hammels lived in San Jose, but soon returned south, though health problems dogged the doctor and he died in October 1889 at about the age of 65. Hammel was paid a brief tribute by the Los Angeles Herald as “a gentleman who always commanded the highest respect of his fellow men” and he was said to have left behind “a great many friends to mourn his loss.”

His namesake son (1865-1932) achieved much more local renown because he was one of two men to serve both as the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, holding this position in 1904-1905, and Los Angeles County sheriff, serving in two phases from 1899-1902 and 1907-1914. The only other figure to have this distinction was George E. Gard, who happened to be married to Catherine Hammel, the doctor’s daughter. The Gards were also early settlers of Alosta, a community now in the Azusa area north of the Homestead, and they were joined for a time by another Hammel sibling, eldest child George, who was a printer with Los Angeles newspapers like the Star and Express as a young man.

The unanticipated historical connection to this portrait of Dr. Hammel, though, had to do with his long-time residence at San Pedro and Second streets in what is now Little Tokyo. Hammel built one of the early brick houses on the property, soon after his arrival, but what became the real survivor of the Hammel family, to put it one way, is that he planted a series of fan palm trees on his property, one of which has managed to remain with us to this day, almost 170 years later.

Not only this, but the Homestead happens to have several photos of this tree, though it was not until the post was being put together that the pieces of the puzzle confirming that one of these Hammel palm trees was the common denominator. It also helped, as so often is the case, that other sharp-eyed sleuths made these connections and then shared them online.

The Hammel property included several fan palm trees, evidently brought in from a natural, though unknown, location and, given their exotic nature to those outside of the American Southwest, they were photographed several times in the 1870s and 1880s, though none of them identified the Hammels, while some did mention the scene was San Pedro Street, so that certainly helped our modern-day photo detectives.

Of the half-dozen photos in the museum’s holdings that show this roving palm what appears to be the earliest shows it and another flanking a well on the Hammel property. The second looks to have been taken from a slightly different angle and within a short time after the first, as the trees and well are in front of a wood fence, behind which is a brick structure, which may be a neighboring dwelling, with long sloping gables and a pair of fireplaces.

The third photo is taken from the middle of San Pedro Street and takes in much of the property, including a brick wall along the street frontage with a half-dozen palms behind it. That structure noted above is between the two palms that are furthest to the right, while, along the street and just to the right of that last tree is a small brick structure with a central dormer window at the attic level and a fireplace next to that. One wonders if that was the Hammel residence.

It turns out that there was an 1893 lawsuit over a brick wall built on the property as the contractor sought full payment for the work but widow Hammel refused to forward the money alleging “the work was not performed in accordance with the terms of said contract.” She, in fact, prevailed in Los Angeles Superior Court and did not have to yield the remaining $680 due.

Much of the story in some sources of the wandering fan palm, though, only dealt with its replanting at the recently built Arcade Depot, which was used by the Southern Pacific from 1888, and nothing in these versions mentioned anything about the Hammels. Yet, the eagle-eyed researchers posting in the “noirish Los Angeles” thread on SkyscraperPage.com (one even discovered that the well-known popular songwriter Buddy DeSylva was a grandson of Catherine Hammel and George Gard–he was mentioned in a post here in this blog) established that connection by finding photos of the tree being moved, though attribution stated this was in 1888, just prior to the doctor’s death (and it does seem odd that lawsuit wasn’t adjudicated until some five years later.)

In any case, there are several photos showing the tree being moved, using a big wooden container and involving the digging of a rather substantial home to uproot the palm, to its new home in front of the station, which was just a few blocks away on Alameda Street between Fourth and Sixth streets.

The Homestead has a pair of snapshots of the tree, with one showing it in front of the terminal entrance, while a Los Angeles Railway Company streetcar is to the right and horse-drawn hacks are parked in front of the depot at the left. There is a sign next to the tree, which is enclosed by a short wire fence to keep people away.

The other photo is the distinctive round-framed product of the first Kodak personal camera, the #1, which made its debut the year the Arcade Depot was built, though it is not known when the image was taken. Because these cameras were held low due to the viewfinder being on top of the box and the photographer stood close to the palm, only the lower part of the tree is in view behind the little fence, though there is no sign, indicating this is the earlier of the two images. A gent stands behind the tree looking back at the photographer, while a horse-drawn conveyance is partially in view at the right, along with the north end of the station and its corner tower.

By 1914, the Arcade Station was abandoned as the Southern Pacific moved to the nearby Central Station at Fifth Street and Central Avenue at the end of that year. The palm tree then underwent its final relocation, a few miles to the southwest at what was established decades prior as Agricultural Park several years before the University of Southern California was opened in 1880 to its north.

Just before the tree was replanted there, the venue was rechristened Exposition Park and it is not apparently known whether it has always occupied its site at the east end of the park along Figueroa Street or if it was again moved within the site due to the construction of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which opened in 1923. In any case, it has remained at its spot for at least that period of time, though the plaque that accompanies it says nothing about the Hammels and its long-time home on San Pedro Street, only that it was moved to the park from the Arcade Depot site. The last photo from the museum’s holdings shown here is a great 1920s aerial of the Coliseum with the palm visible in the “island” at the bottom center.

In any case, the tree has been known as the oldest palm tree in Los Angeles and has been written about by, in addition to the history hunters at “noir Los Angeles,” by such well-known chroniclers of the region as Nathan Masters and D.J. Waldie, among others. When the portrait of Dr. Hammel was acquired for the Homestead some fifteen years ago, this connection to the palm was not known, so this example, one of many, of unexpected stories lurking behind the surface is particularly interesting and notable.

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