Through the Viewfinder: A Photograph Positioning the Past and Present at the Plaza, Los Angeles, ca. 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This Sunday, the fifth in a series of presentations on the history of the Workman and Temple families takes the story to the 1870s, when there were the extremes of significant wealth and high social and political standing experienced in the first half of the decade countered by the dramatic disaster that befell the Temple and Workman bank when it collapsed early in 1876 sending its owners, William Workman and F. P. F. Temple, and their families into near financial ruin.

Today’s entry in the “Through the Viewfinder” series featuring historic photographs of greater Los Angeles from the Homestead’s collection is from about 1872 when this remarkable view was captured from the Plaza, the center of town during the Spanish and Mexican eras, but increasingly being eclipsed during the first quarter century of the American period as business and social activity shifted southward, including the area around the Temple Block, a series of several brick buildings constructed between 1857 and 1871 by F.P.F. and his brother Jonathan.

Los Angeles Star, 18 June 1870.

The stereoscopic (meaning that the dual image, when viewed through specially constructed lenses in a stereopticon, takes on a three-dimensional aspect) image was issued by Henry T. Payne, one of the more prolific of the early photographers in the Angel City and, while he acquired the inventory of William M. Godfrey, who took quite a few photos in the very late Sixties and early Seventies, and then reissued a number of those views, this appears to be a Payne original.

The photographer was on Main Street, which at that time curved to the west and then north and became Upper Main, while straight ahead at the eastern side was Bath Street, which is generally where the current Main Street runs as it heads northward—see the last 1870s entry in “Through the Viewfinder” for a view of how that area looked at the time. To the left is just a small part of the western edge of the Plaza, which had fencing in the circular city-owned park, such as it was, though, within a few years, there would be some major changes in landscaping, including a quartet of Moreton Bay fig trees planted by Elijah H. Workman, nephew of William Workman, and of which three still stand (the fourth fell a little over two years ago).

Across from this, to the right, is the main facade of the Plaza Church, built in the early 1820s just after Alta California became part of the new Mexican republic. Note the fenced area in front of the entrance, as well as a bit of wooden open tower that was added when a major remodel of the church was conducted in the mid-Sixties. This sacred site is, of course, still with us, much as the area has transfomed in the last 150 years since this photo was taken.

Los Angeles News, 11 December 1870.

It seems likely that Payne composed his image to juxtapose the church, then a half-century old, with the recently completed Pico House, the three-story Italianate-style brick hotel erected at great cost by Don Pío Pico, who sold his vast holdings comprising much of the former ranch lands of Mission San Fernando to finance the project. He undoubtedly hoped that this first-class hostelry, opened in June 1870, would keep the Plaza area viable, even as commercial activity was shifting southward and, unfortunately, the enterprise did not work out as intended.

The contrast of old and new continued with the structure immediately to the south of the hotel, this being the Merced Theatre, completed by William Abbott and name for his wife, María Merced Garcia, and also of brick and three stories, though its facade was just a shade taller than its neighbor so that it could be highlighted as the tallest edifice in town. It, too, was hailed as a watershed venue for the performing arts and its grand opening, featuring a concert of instrumental and vocal selections, took place on 30 December 1870 with a grand ball set for New Year’s Eve. Among the committee members organizing the event were Pico, District Court Judge Ygnacio Sepúlveda, former governor John G. Downey, and F.P.F. Temple. When the economy went south by 1876, the theatre suffered and closed the following year.

The Los Angeles Southern News, 20 June 1860.

There is a two-story building next to the theater and that was built in 1858 for the first Masonic lodge, that being #42 of the Free and Associated Masons, organized four years prior and which counted F.P.F. Temple and William Workman as founding members (they later withdrew to join a new lodge in El Monte in the 1860s). The first floor was retail space, while the mysterious rituals and rites of the lodge took place in the upstairs space generally called the Lodge Hall until a new lodge was built a decade later.

Below the Masonic Lodge building is a tuft of green, comprising trees that were in front of or at least just off the northern edge of El Palacio, the substantial single-story adobe dwelling long owned by merchant Abel Stearns, who died in 1871 not long before the photo was taken. Stearns, who came to the pueblo in the 1820s just after Jonathan Temple, a fellow Massachusetts native, settled there, was one of Temple’s mercantile competitors and he long owned Rancho Los Alamitos, adjacent to Temple’s Rancho Los Cerritos, both in modern Long Beach and surrounding areas. In the late Seventies, Robert S. Baker, the husband of Stearns’ widow, Arcadia (born into the prominent Bandini family), built an imposing business structure on the site.

Beyond El Palacio (two three-story structures would be built to the south in 1874 and 1878) are a couple of two-story brick structures, with one being the Pico Building, which Don Pío, clearly cognizant of the move to the south by the business and commercial element, finished in 1868 and which housed the newly opened bank of Hellman, Temple and Company. The second bank in town, after Hayward and Company, launched earlier that year by James Hayward (whose father, Alvinza, was a San Francisco capitalist) and ex-governor Downey, it was founded by William Workman and his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple in collaboration with the brilliant young merchant Isaias W. Hellman, who was managing cashier. Unfortunately, Temple couldn’t resist trying to control key operations and this led Hellman to buy out his partners in early 1871 and join Downey in opening Farmers and Merchants Bank of Los Angeles, which started out in the Pico Building.

Los Angeles News, 7 February 1868.

South of that was the Bella Union Hotel, which started off very simply as a single-story adobe with obvious modest accommodations for travelers coming to Gold Rush-era Los Angeles from the very late Forties onward. A second story of brick was added, with the projecting portico seen in the photo, though, a third level was later built. Not long after this image was snapped, the name changed to the Clarendon and then, in 1875, it became the St. Charles. There were plenty of colorful characters and notable events that occurred there, of which you can learn some by perusing this post, which also discussed the Baker Block, Pico Building and others.

Going back to the east side of Main Street, it’s tough to make out too many details of structures there, because of where Payne stood. One can discern the dark green growth of trees in the courtyard to the south of the Plaza Church, where the original Catholic cemetery was located before it moved to the base of the Elysian Hills (the second link above actually shows that Calvary Cemetery with its white picket fence) and then to East Los Angeles. Otherwise, there were a series of mostly adobe and brick single-story buildings down that side of the thoroughfare, including livery stables and other small businesses.

Finally, in the distance at the right is the recently erected fourth and final addition to the Temple Block, situated at the triple intersection of Main, Spring and Temple streets. Cater corner to that, at the northwest corner of that junction was the business block of former governor Downey where Hayward and Company was situated and where the Los Angeles Public Library began its life in 1872 (with F.P.F. Temple’s son, Thomas, as a founding trustee). A portion of that structure may be visible in front of the Temple Block, as the Downey curved to the southwest, as can be seen in the last link just above this one.

Los Angeles Star, 23 November 1871.

With respect to the Temple Block, its southernmost structure was finished by Jonathan Temple in 1857 and, a decade later after his death, his brother F.P.F. acquired the property, which contained adobe buildings, from the estate. From 1868 to 1871, the younger Temple razed these older edifices to build new brick business blocks, culminating with the three-story one visible in this image. The structure was completed in fall 1871, just prior to the horrific Chinese Massacre in which eighteen men and a teenage boy were killed by a mob of Anglos and Latinos at the Calle de los Negros, just southeast of the Plaza.

Just shy of a month after that heinous blot on the already shaky reputation of the so-called City of Angels, the Temple and Workman bank opened on the first floor of the new building. It seemed to herald a new age for the city, its little financial sector, and the families. There was a boom underway, beginning at the end of the prior decade and which accelerated for the next few years, peaking in 1875. The population of Los Angeles grew from roughly 6,000 to as many as 15,000 people during that first half of the decade and business activity was growing apace with the Temple Block at the core, along with the Downey Block, of the new commercial center of downtown.

Whether it was Payne’s intention to show these contrasts by aiming his camera down Main and showing the old (Plaza Church and the Plaza area generally) compared to the new (Pico House, Merced Theater and the Temple Block) cannot be known, but it is certainly an excellent image showing a town transitioning into a small city. No one then could have known that, within just several years, a national depression, bursting forth in 1873, would be followed by the collapse of the California economy (and with it, the poorly managed Temple and Workman bank) two years later. The local financial situation would remain largely moribund until well into the next decade.

This Sunday’s presentation will cover the wild ups and downs experienced by the Workman and Temple families during this fascinating period, which including the dramatic fall of F.P.F. Temple and William Workman, but also the growing successes of Workman’s nephews, Elijah and, particualrly, his namesake William Henry, whose salad days were to come in the 1880s and afterward—though that takes us into the future of the series beyond next weekend!

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