by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was in a far-flung location, subject to swamp-like conditions, when the Los Angeles Common [City] Council passed an ordinance, signed by Mayor Cristóbal Aguilar, on 11 December 1866 setting aside certain lots “for the use of said city and the residents thereof, as a Public Square, and the same is hereby declared to be a Public Square or Plaza, for the use and benefit of the citizens in common.” After the Plaza, the historic center of pre-American Los Angeles, this was the second plaza in town.
This public space, measuring some 600 feet along Olive and Hill streets and about 330 feet on Fourth and Fifth Streets, was sometimes said to have been a gift to the City by “Round House George” Lehman, the proprietor of the fantastical Garden of Paradise on Main Street, but the ordinance made clear that the lots were owned by the City and set aside for that public use, though Lehman was credited with planting some of the earliest trees in the plaza.
It took about two decades for what was first known as Sixth Street Park to get the attention and care needed to make it a public space of which the city could be proud and it was probably no accident that the greatest improvements were made during the famed Boom of the 1880s when people were flocking to the city, including this still-predominantly residential area, expecting the kinds of parks they had in their former hometowns.
It also helped that there were city leaders dedicated to turning the park into a showplace including the brothers Elijah and William Henry Workman, both members of the Common Council and the latter being the city’s chief executive during that aforementioned boom. In fact, Elijah was on the council when the 1866 ordinance was passed and was chair of the Committee on Parks in September 1875 when he took out an ad asking anyone wishing to donate evergreen trees to let him know of their intention.
By April 1876, the Los Angeles Herald reported that “a great deal of money has been spent in laying out walks, flower beds, etc. and planting shrubbery and trees in the Sixth street park,” thanks in no small part to Elijah’s efforts, but also lamented that “at present it looks like a neglected briar patch.” Requesting that an investigation be conducted, the paper added that “malva [mallow] and pigweed [amaranth] will choke the deciduous and evergreen trees which have been planted and the state of that park will be worse than the first if the city dads don’t see to it. Wherefore take down the shovel and take up the hoe and fix things.”
Yet, in June, the Herald did report that the park was “in apple pie order and the trees and shrubs all in a thrifty condition” and the city’s gardener, Francis Tamiet, who was elected to the Common Council later that year, was lionized for his efforts, including “great taste and skill in laying out the grounds in walks and drives” at what was called “the lower park.” It was added that a great many trees and shrubs were planted there in the spring and most were expected to survive.
By the next year, however, there was talk of having an exposition building for the county fair and other events constructed on the property—in fact, over the following fifteen or so years, the park site was considered for the Normal School for teacher education (that was put just west on the hill where the Central Public Library now stads), a new Los Angeles High School campus, a new city hall, a natural history museum, and a new library.
In February 1879, the Los Angeles Express opined that, since the City was looking to plant more trees at Sixth Street Park that it dispense with “the little straight, stiff evergreens” in favor of “large forest trees, with their massive trunks and high, spreading branches” providing not just beauty but “affording the most grateful shade through the long Summer days.” By the early Eighties, the park began to find more use at public events, such as the celebration of Independence Day and a staging ground or terminus for parades and processions.
Meanwhile, though the area was largely devoted to residential uses, aside from St. Vincent’s College being cater corner to the southeast entrance to the park, it was decided in spring 1882 that lumberman John M. Griffith’s offer of a lot on Olive across from the park was to be gratefully accepted for a new Episcopal church replacing the St. Athanasius’, situated since 1864 at the southwest corner of Temple and New High streets. The new church, renamed St. Paul’s, was completed by 1884 and remained a conspicuous spiritual presence adjacent to the park for decades to come.
Returning to the park, it often went from well maintained to shamefully neglected, sometimes in fairly short order. In April 1882, the recently established Los Angeles Times observed that “the shrubbery in the Sixth Street Park is making fine growth, and soon will be a very attractive place of resort, not only as a play-ground for children, but as . . . a roosting place for spoony lovers in particular.”
Yet, in November 1883, the Herald demanded “to know why it is that the Sixth street Park is being so shamefully neglected as of late” and “being allowed to go to rack and ruin.” Noting recent developments in the city after a long economic malaise since the panic of 1875-76, which included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, the paper bemoaned the lack of support for the two parks in town as well as having a city jail, still in the part adobe-part brick structure behind an old adobe that once served as the courthouse, that was “a gross satire upon the modern civilization.
Just as the great boom was underway, following the December 1885 direct transcontinental railroad connection made to the Angel City by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad, a major transformation of the park was inaugurated as City Surveyor (and later City Engineer and Mayor) Frederick Eaton “presented a beautiful plan,” in February 1886, “for laying out the Sixth street park.” The only criticism leveled by the Herald was that Eaton had not provided for the use of the property as a pedestrian shortcut from the southeast to the northwest entrances and these users, it was averred, “won’t attain their object by deviously winding in and out of a forest.”
By April, the City was taking bids on a water distribution and drainage system and, while the Herald of the 21st castigated city fathers for having “fallen lamentably short of what she ought to have” in terms of adequate public park space, including the Plaza and Sixth Street Park “with their few neglected trees,” it followed eight days later with the report that “good work is being done [at the latter, as] the trees and shrubs have been trimmed up in a shapely fashion.” Soon to come were improved walks and that water system that would be “doing away with the big zanja [irrigation ditch] running through the center.”
In its 25 November edition, the paper called the park “A Place of Which Los Angeles Has Reason to Be Proud.” It began its paean by noting,
For a number of years the so-called park at Sixth and Hill streets was the laughing stock of the people living in the vicinity. It was generally called the malva patch and that was not a misnomer; for malva and wild mustard were about the only verdure to be seen in it after the spring rains. An ugly whitewashed lath fence did not enhance the general appearance of this “oasis.”
It was stated that work to clear the mallow and mustard was undertaken and trees infested with scale were cut down and burned, while grass would be sown when conditions were right and “exotic and domestic flowers and shrubs will be planted in it.” When the work was completed, “the park from a wilderness will become a pride to the fine part of the city in which it is situated.” The paper also called for an ornamental iron fence to replace the board enclosure.
In April 1887, the Herald reported that the sown grass was doing well and beautifying the park considerably and added that “the credit of transforming this public place from a deserted sheep pasture to a bower of loveliness” was due to Levi N. Breed of the City Council (Breed Street in Boyle Heights is named after him) and chair of the parks committee. It should be noted that the era included a park boom, as well, with Westlake, Eastlake, Elysian and, a little later, Hollenbeck being among the city parks that were launched.
Shortly afterward, the paper reported that James F. Crank, a capitalist and street railroad builder whose Fair Oaks Ranch house, built in 1882 in Altadena, still stands, donated $10,000 to the City andhic was appropriated for parks with “the largest portion . . . devoted to the improvement of the Sixth-street Park.” Crank handed the check to Mayor William H. Workman, who, probably not coincidentally, also delivered a franchise to Crank and Herman Silver [of Silver Lake fame] for a cable car system, the Los Angeles Cable Railway, to go from downtown to Boyle Heights, which Workman developed and where he was making a handsome profit during the boom.
With sidewalks, the new fencing, a fountain, and a large bandstand, which regularly was the venue for band concerts for several years, Sixth Street Park became a particular point of pride for Angelenos. The Times of 12 June 1887 included a column by “The Stroller” that noted it was gratifying to “hear strangers say, ‘What a lovely little park that is, and how well kept.'” Indeed, the writer continued, “that little park is a beauty now. I do not know that it can be made very much more inviting with the space allowed it. It is a cool and restful place, where it is always pleasant to stop for a little while.”
There were also frequent baseball games at the park and the occasional balloon ascension and the praise continued with the Express of 29 December 1888 boasting that it, along with the Plaza and some private parks “are fine examples . . . of what may be done [in beautifying the city and providing public recreation] and beautiful specimens of the horticulturist’s taste and skill.” For the following year, the City expended a little over $1,100 on the park, mainly for planting more trees and grass while preparing for sidewalks.
In November 1892, a Times writer idyll rhapsodized that,
I was down on Hill street the other day and took in the splendor of the Sixth Street Park, where the tall and shimmering poplars have put on the golden colors of Eastern forests and stand majestic and shapely like blazing tapers in the sunlight of these perfect November days.
The piece described the beauty of the grass, flowers, the choruses of birds, and other elements of the site and the writer, being a native of the East, found the scene to be reminiscent of home.
That month, the Express reported that a young man named John Goldsworthy left, by accident or design, a description of the park that stated “this park was donated to the city by an old crank known as ‘Round House George'” while noting that, “in former days of prosperity [the boom inevitably went bust by the end of the prior decade and a national depression burst forth the following year]” band concerts were heard there.
After discussing how popular the park was for the weary and for those enjoying the company of others, young Goldsworthy added that “a boy who had not seen a park before said they [patrons] were spoony” while another purportedly remarked that “this looks like it was the mashing ground of the city.” The description ended with the observation that the care of the park “costs the city a big pile of money.”
Shortly afterward, by 1894, it was decided to change the name of the park. The idea was floated as early as fall 1891, with such names bandied about as Ramona, Frémont, Angeleno, Floral, Union, Columbia, and Central. While the Express hoped for a Spanish-language moniker, a letter writer to that paper perferred something in English, but allowed that “any name would be better than Sixth Street Park.”
The new name was Central Park, which remained in use for about a quarter century until it was renamed for General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force that turned the tide of battle in the First World War. One wonders, though, if another name change might be in the offing?
As for tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, it is a fine cabinet card photograph by James B. Blanchard, dating likely before the name change as it refers to Sixth Street Park, and showing the finely mancured park, including a planter profuse with calla lillies at the lower left, with the church in the background, and a pair of ladies strolling on a path at the right. It is truly a far cry from the site today and there have long been plans for yet another remaking of Pershing Square, hopefully with more of the plant life that made the park such a point of pride nearly 140 years ago.