Through the Viewfinder: A Stereoscopic Photograph of the Plaza, Los Angeles, early 1880s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While it was not the first in the pueblo, the Los Angeles Plaza is the historic center of a city of 4 million people that began 240 years ago with just 44 settlers of Spanish, indigenous Mexican and African origins—this on the site, it must be added, of the native village of Yangna, which was occupied for an untold number of years before 1781.

By the time photography came consistently to the City of Angels, by 1870, there was already a significant demographic shift underway in the community, with Americans and Europeans outnumbering Spanish-speaking Californios, natives of México and others from Central and South America. Beyond sheer numbers, the political and economic realms were firmly within the control of Americans and Europeans, with Latinos rapidly losing what little remained in their grasp.

Alameda visitor Plaza The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__May_4__1882_
A romantic and often strange (dreary spell?) description of the Plaza and Los Angeles by a visitor from Alameda near Oakland, Los Angeles Times, 4 May 1882.

While the business center of town was moving south, where Main and Spring streets intersected and such thoroughfares as Temple and Commercial streets went east and west from there and where the Temple Block (owned by Jonathan Temple from about 1830 and built up by him and his half-brother, F.P.F., through the early Seventies) was among the principal commercial blocks, the Plaza languished.

Don Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican-era California, sought to keep the Plaza viable by selling, for some $115,000 a large acreage in the San Fernando Valley and building, at a cost of well over $70,000, the Pico House hotel, which, when opened in June 1870, was the town’s first three-story structure, and was easily the finest of its several hostelries—an article in the newly published summer issue of the Southern California Quarterly by D. Michael Henderson features the building, its builder and owner, and its first manager, Professor Antonio Cuyas.

An ad by one of the several proprietors of the Pico House hotel during its first decade or so of operation, Los Angeles Herald, 2 June 1881.

At the end of that year, William Abbott slightly topped the Pico House, thanks to a little maneuver to make the roof just a bit taller, with his Merced Theatre (named for his wife María Merced García) completed adjacent to the south of the hotel (there was originally a connecting passage between the two.) With these two modern structures, the earnest effort to have the Plaza maintain standing in the growing city, which experienced its first boom from the late Sixties through the mid Seventies, looked promising.

Unfortunately, there was too much momentum southward and then, as is, of course, always the case, that boom went bust in 1875-76, capped off by Los Angeles’ first large-scale business failure as the Temple and Workman bank, owned by F.P.F. Temple and Homestead founder William Workman, cratered. The dire economic situation lasted for about a decade and it was not until the mid-1880s, during which time a direct transcontinental railroad link reached the city, that a much larger period of growth, known as the Boom of the Eighties, erupted.

Another ad from the period of this photo, Times, 8 June 1883.

For the Pico House, the partnership between the ex-governor and Cuyas was short-lived and ended in acrimony and court tussles. Other lessees and managers, like Charles Knowlton, the brothers P.N. and Ed Roth, Pico’s nephew Francisco, and John Whitney, ran the hotel through the end of the Seventies, while Cuyas returned to run the facility with a Canadian partner for about two years between 1875 and 1877. There were also compaints by Pico and others about smells and smoke from the Los Angeles Gas Works, which opened directly across Main Street and next to the Plaza Church, even though gas was supplied to the hotel by pipes running under the thoroughfare.

By the early 1880s, when tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection, showing a stereoscopic (two images slightly offset on a card to give a three-dimensional view when seen through a stereopticon) the Plaza from a typical vantage point on the hills to the west, was taken by the Elite Gallery of Payne, Stanton and Company, Don Pío lost the building following tax issues and the foreclosure of a loan in June 1880. After several months of closure, the hotel reopened under the management of Norman Griswold, who took on a partner, but then gave way, in early 1882, to the team of Dunham and Schiefflein, who ran the facility for a few years (Cuyas, meanwhile, briefly operated the Plaza House and advertised, in 1884, that he was a founder and first manager of the Pico House.)


With respect to the photo, it shows just the northern end of the hotel along with, in the lower section, the basic wood frame of the gas tanks as the company had moved its operations by then. At the center left is much of the Plaza Church, which dates to 1822, including its distinctive upper-level gazebo at the north end. Portions of a few residences (one of which has smoke emerging from a chimney) off New High Street and Buena Vista Street, which is about where the photographer stood, are also of note.

The Plaza, in terms of its landscaping, was much improved from what it had been when some of the earliest photos were taken, and some of this work, which included dense stands of cypress trees around the circumference of the park, a fountain with a large basin (in 1883, a four-year old tumbled in while hanging over a low rail and was fished out by a bystander), paths radiating from and circling round the water feature, was undertaken by Elijah H. Workman (nephew of the Homestead’s William and Nicolasa Workman).

The father-and-son team of Frank and Ed Adams operated their real estate business out of a top floor room at the Pico House in 1883-1884. Herald, 4 January 1884.

An avid horticulturist at his ranch south of town, Workman planted extensively at Sixth Street, or Central, Park (renamed Pershing Square after the end of World War I to honor the general, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force that turned the tide to the Allies) as well as at the Plaza. Among his lasting contributions at the latter was the planting of a quartet of Moreton Bay fig trees, though one of them toppled over a coulple of years ago.

To the left above the church can be discerned, with a lone tree in front, the adobe house built in the early 1840s by Tiburcio Tapia (also the grantee of Rancho Cucamonga, some forty miles or so east of Los Angeles) and later owned by former county judge Agustín Olvera. Almost none of it is visible, but the street that ran north from the Plaza and past the adobe was then called Wine Street, because of the number of vintners, including early Italian and French winemakers, who operated in that area, but, after Olvera’s death in 1876, the Common (City) Council renamed the street in his honor.

Lugo Adobe razed The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__Feb_7__1951_
Times, 7 February 1951.

A main feature of the east side of the pueblo for over a century was an early two-story adobe dwelling, constructed in the 1840s, by Don Vicente Lugo, son of María Dolores Dominga Ruiz and Antonio María Lugo of the Rancho San Antonio, southwest of the city. The hipped roof and dormer windows were a later American-era addition, perhaps after Lugo donated the structure to Roman Catholic priests who, in 1865, founded St. Vincent’s College, the first institution of higher learning (though it took students as young as elementary school age through high school and did not grant bachelor’s degrees until the late 1880s—Walter P. Temple attended the school from the early to late 1880 after it moved near Sixth Street/Central Park and perhaps when it relocated to Grand Avenue and Washington Boulevard.)

The stay at the Lugo Adobe by the college was brief, just a matter of a couple of years, and for most of the rest of its history, some eighty years or so, it was often used by Chinese merchants and residents. After World War II, as the city underwent yet another of its incessant booms and “urban renewal” was a watchword of the day, with U.S. 101 cutting through downtown and other “improvements” introduced, the Lugo Adobe was targeted for demolition. While groups like the Historical Society of Southern California lobbied to preserve the historic structure, which was designed a state historic landmark in 1939, the building was leveled in early 1951.

LA Gas Co Los_Angeles_Herald_Sat__Jan_6__1883_
Note the reference to the Los Angeles Gas Company as being opposite the Pico House, Herald, 6 January 1883.

To the south of the Lugo Adobe, is a long, one-story and float-roofed adobe building, built in the late 1850s by Ygnacio del Valle, another of the prominet Californios of the era, but who soon moved full-time to his Rancho Camulos north of Los Angeles. The del Valle adobe later was occupied by Chinese residents in the city’s first “Chinatown” centered on the Calle de los Negros, named for a dark-skinned Latino, and which began behind the small portion of the Pico House in the photo. At the south end of that street, which became notorious for its taverns and gambling dens but which also housed many Chinese trying to make a living in a very hostile environment, the horrific masscare of eighteen Chinese men and a teenage boy took place on 24 October 1871.

It is remarkable to look just past the Lugo and del Valle adobes and across Alameda Street, which ran behind those buildings, and see fields, some groves and occasional houses where Union Station and nearby sections are now. Oranges and grapes were raised in these areas and to the upper right was where prominent viniculturists like Jean Louis Vignes and others, residing along Aliso Street, were situated. Towards the upper right and upper left, there are clusters of houses, while it may be possible to discern the channel of the Los Angeles River at the former.

The_Evening_Express_Mon__Jun_14__1880_ (1)
The partnership certificate of Harry and Daniel Payne and Thomas Stanton (the 1879 date may have been in error), Los Angeles Express, 14 June 1880.

Further out in the distance are the low hills where Boyle Heights was laid out by William H. Workman (Elijah’s brother and mayor of Los Angeles in 1887-1888 during the peak of the famous boom and then city treasurer from 1901-1907) and his partners, banker Isaias W. Hellman and John Lazzarovich. It may be that the tall, sloping hill at the upper left is where the City Terrace neighborhood is now.

As for the photographers, Henry “Harry” T. Payne (1844-1933), came to Los Angeles in the early 1870s and purchased the Sunbeam Gallery of William M. Godfrey, another prominent early shutterbug in the Angel City. Payne, his mother Mary and brother Daniel (1847-1931) were residents of the city for years afterward and, in 1878, Harry married Aurilla Dewalt who, like him, had an avid interest and a good deal of talent as a painter (Daniel, too, followed that avocation at points during his life.)

Herald, 8 April 1884. Earlier ads noted that painting was also done, a speciality of both Payne brothers, as well as Harry’s wife, Aurilla.

Payne, later a miner and a journalist with the Los Angeles Tribune, established the firm with this brother and Thomas E. Stanton (1854-1940) in the spring of 1879 and it appears that the partnership lasted about five years. Stanton first worked as a photographer in Santa Barbara before migrating to Los Angeles and he remained in the business for years after ending his connection with the Paynes, working alone and with partners, such as Chester W. Burdick.

This is a great image showing the Los Angeles Plaza (check out this great 1873 map from the Library of Congress) after major work had been done in the 1870s to improve it, including the building of the Pico House and the significant amount of landscaping introduced and before the enormous Boom of the 1880s further transformed it and the burgeoning city and region. The next installment of the “Through the Viewfinder” series takes us into the 1890s, so check back next month to see what is highlighted.

Leave a Reply