Sharing the History of Late 19th Century Boyle Heights with Boyle Heights Community Partners

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The fourth of five presentations in a series for Boyle Heights Community Partners about the history of the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles has just wrapped up and it’s always great to be able to use artifacts, mainly photographs, from the Homestead’s collection and other sources, such as newspaper articles, to share the history of our region.

The series began in March with a discussion of the area known as Paredon Blanco (White Bluff), referring to that area to the east overlooking the Los Angeles River and pre-American era settlers like Esteban López and his descendants and the Rubio family. The second talk, in April, brought in the arrival of Irish immigrant Andrew Boyle, who came to Los Angeles by way of San Francisco after having lived in New Orleans and Mexican-era Texas, and the twelve years he lived on former López property making wine and raising other crops.

Los Angeles Herald, 23 April 1884.

Last month turned to the establishment, in the mid-1870s, of Boyle Heights after Boyle’s death by his son-in-law William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, banker Isaias W. Hellman, and John Lazzarovich, who married into the López family. When the community was created it was the end of the first boom period in the Angel City, but, just as the subdivision was coming together with a water system being laid and the early sales of some lots, the economy crashed, including the failure of the Temple and Workman bank.

What followed was largely a period of economic stagnation, though Workman and the others continuing the management of their property and the development what they could with Boyle Heights. An early institutional element was the establishment, in 1877, of Evergreen Cemetery, placed at the eastern boundary of city limits. Still, development was largely stunted for several years, though it looked there was a small surge of activity by 1884.

The 1882 house of William H. Workman and family in Boyle Heights.

At the end of the following year, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe completed a direct transcontinental railroad link to Los Angeles and what resulted was the famed Boom of the Eighties, which peaked during the mayoral term of William H. Workman in 1887 and 1888. Boyle Heights, as with other areas of the city, experienced a dramatic explosion in growth during those last years of the decade as it was generally marketed as a residential district with emphasis placed on “fashionable” houses, especially those along Boyle Avenue overlooking the city.

Among those shown in the presentation were the Boyle Avenue houses of William H. and Joseph (son of William and Nicolasa) Workman as well as John E. Hollenbeck, a banker and real estate developer, and the house, at the north end of the community, of Robert Wirsching, who served on the city council. It was mentioned that, before the advent of affordable personal cameras, photos of the houses of those who were not wealthy are hard to come by, so there were certainly middle and working class residents of Boyle Heights—just not visually represented like the well-to-do.

Los Angeles Times, 14 February 1886.

When it comes to the demographics of the denizens of the district, it is also hard to find references, such as in newspapers, to people of color living and working in the community at the time. Here and there, an occasional article would be located, such as an early 1880s petition to have a Chinese laundry closed down under the pretense that it was not sanitary or material related to whether William H. Workman, as he was running for mayor, hired Chinese laborers in preference to white men or pressured contractors who worked for him to secure votes for him—two of five men who published a denial of this latter were Macario Mendoza, who had a long association with Workman, and J.L. Cruz.

Though Boyle Heights was not established to include much of a commercial component, apparently because it was so close to downtown that it was not considered necessary, George Cummings, who was married into the López family and was a brother-in-law of fellow European Lazzarovich, built, in 1889, the impressive Cummings Block, which contained a hotel and retail space and which still stands, having been recently renovated, at the corner of Boyle Avenue and First Street. William H. Workman’s brother, Elijah, built the Boyle Heights Hotel five years prior to that, but it did not survive long.

The residence of John and Elizabeth Hollenbeck after it was opened in 1886 as the Hollenbeck Home for the Aged.

Critical to any community’s development are core features like adequate schools, good transportation, and amenities like churches and parks. Some of these came to Boyle Heights more easily than others with it being noted during the talk that residents often complained, as did others in various districts of the city, that schools were inadequate and clamored for quick improvement.

When it came to higher education, a prestige factor was undoubtedly at work as Workman and others of prominence in the community lobbied and offered property in the early Eighties for the new State Normal School for teacher education (the first was in San Jose, which happened to be the first pueblo established in Spanish-era California, four years before Los Angeles was founded).

Los Angeles Express, 10 February 1890.

Workman offered five acres and a pair of developers also were prepared to donate land for the institution. It wound up being built in what was then the southwest part of downtown on a hill overlooking Central Park (later Pershing Square) and which is now the site of the Central Public Library, with the Normal School morphing into U.C.L.A.

Several years later, however, leaders in the Presbyterian Church, following the Methodists who established U.S.C. in 1880, chose a site in what became East Los Angeles, but which was identified as Boyle Heights because the latter was the closest neighborhood, for a new institution of higher learning. Dubbed Occidental College, the campus opened to students in fall 1888, with its first graduates being a pair of women who matriculated five years later.

Students and faculty from Occidental College when it was Boyle Heights-adjacent in what later became East Los Angeles.

The Homestead happens to have several great photos of college buildings, students and faculty during those early years, but the college burned to the ground in an 1896 fire. After a brief period in temporary quarters downtown, a new site was acquired in Highland Park, where the college operated until it was moved to its current Eagle Rock campus.

With respect to transportation, a particular challenge for the growth of Boyle Heights was adequate access to downtown through well-built river crossings. The earliest was a covered bridge, completed in 1873, crossing over Aliso Street, this is now where César Chávez Avenue runs today. After it washed out in a flood in the winter of 1883-84, an iron bridge was built there.

Los Angeles Herald, 14 May 1890.

A major celebration ensued when, in summer 1889, the Los Angeles Cable Railway (yes, the city did have cable cars!) was completed by crossing the river via First Street. Photos show a banner hung over that thoroughfare showing how much had changed in a decade from the unreliable and slow horse-drawn lines of the late Seventies to the smooth, efficient and modern cable system. Later efforts brought river crossing along southern streets like Fourth and Seventh.

A transportation tidbit mentioned during the talk and which few know about was that the first automobile to appear in the Angel City was that of J. Phillip Erie, who came from New York where he was a succesful civil engineer and inventor. Settling in a unique house situated near Hollenbeck Park (and which realtor David Silvas, vice-president of Boyle Heights Community Partners, pointed out still stands), Erie built his “horseless carriage” and his inaugural passenger was William H. Workman. One obvious feature that needed to be added to this early auto was a windshield!

An early view of the lake at Hollenbeck Park.

By the 1890s, Boyle Heights became a desired site for large community institutions. A major one was the Orphans’ Asylum, operated by Roman Catholic nuns, and the new facility, completed in November 1891 at Boyle and 9th (now Whittier Boulevard), remained in the community for decades. It is now the Maryvale institution in Rosemead.

Several years after John Hollenbeck’s death in 1885, his widow, Elizabeth Hatsfeldt, decided to transform their mansion and estate into the Hollenbeck Home for the Aged. With the renovations completed in fall 1896, the institution went into operation and remains so today under the name of Hollenbeck Palms.

Los Angeles Express, 22 July 1897.

A couple of years before, she and William H. Workman, the latter owning two-thirds of the site, donated Hollenbeck Park to the City of Los Angeles. It helped that the Workman Park subdivision was being developed and the park undoubtedly helped with property values and sales.

Though there was a national depression that burst forth in 1893 and there were several drought years during the decade, the 1890s included continued growth of the community and promotion of it as a “desirable” residential district. A variety of factors, including a major expansion of the downtown industrial core, migrants from Mexico and eastern and southern Europe, the migration of the well-to-do to newer exclusive enclaves near U.S.C. and then the Westside, and restrictive covenants in most of the city limiting ownership and residency to Caucasians, brought about a major transformation in Boyle Heights with more working and middle class residents of a widening ethnic diversity (including Asians, Blacks, and Jews.)

The opening of the Los Angeles Cable Railway to Boyle Heights, summer 1889. The cartoons on the banner compared the primitive and inefficient horse-drawn streetcars of a decade before with the up-to-date cable line (soon replaced, however, by electric railways.)

More of this will be related in the fifth and final part of the series exploring Boyle Heights from 1900-1930, with this presentation to be given on Sunday, 11 July.

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