Through the Viewfinder: A Panoramic Negative of Main and First Streets, Los Angeles, 1901

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the 20th century dawned, Los Angeles experienced another of its many growth booms, this one coming after some challenging years during the 1890s when the region experienced several years of drought and the effects of the national depression of 1893 after the enormous transformation of the Boom of the Eighties occurring late in that decade.

The 1900 federal census, technically enumerated in the last year of the 19th century, tallied just north of 102,000 persons in the Angel City (censuses are generally undercounts, as it is), but, by the time the next count was taken in 1910, the population more than tripled to about 320,000 as Los Angeles climbed the ranks from 36th to 17th largest municipality in a rapidly growing United States.

Los Angeles Herald, 5 October 1890.

Among the notable events of 1901, the first year of the new century, was the opening of the Angels Flight funicular railway which ascended and descended Bunker Hill and the visit of President William McKinley, who attended the city’s La Fiesta de los Angeles festival several months before he was assassinated.

Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is a great panoramic negative taken at the intersection of Main and First streets with decided emphasis on focusing on the neoclassical two-story building at the northeast corner, though there are plenty of other interesting details and elements to the image, which was shot in 1901.

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Los Angeles Express, 6 October 1890.

For example, there are a pair of gentlemen standing in the middle of the intersection and one wonders if one may be an employee of the Los Angeles Railway with the other asking him a question about car service, while there was a streetcar heading west on First and apparently stopped to allow passengers to get on and off (it also looks as if there is one fellow hunched over the street). Another streetcar was making its way south on Main and the usual web of electric wires over the streets for the system standout along with the poles and lines for electric power to the structures and those occupying them, whether busineses or residents.

It bears noting that the Los Angeles Railway was acquired by Henry E. Huntington just three years before as part of the Southern Pacific railroad empire led by his uncle Collis. When Collis died in 1900 and the SP was taken over by E.H. Harriman and associates, Henry was cut loose and took his company stock and control of the LARY with him. Settling in Los Angeles the year this photo was taken, Huntington began a rapid and spectacular rise to prominence and power in the Angel City and environs in building a streetcar empire that culminated by the end of the decade in an increase in his personal wealth from about $1 million to some $55 million and the creation, in 1911, of the Pacific Electric system, the nation’s largest interurban rapid transit system in terms of track mileage.

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Los Angeles Record, 8 November 1901.

Huntington, who, in 1903, purchased the San Marino ranch of James deBarth Shorb on what had been his father-in-law Benjamin D. Wilson’s Lake Vineyard estate, also began the amassing of a significant real estate portfolio, as well, and his dramatic income growth during the 1900s allowed him to retire and devote himself more to his passion for collecting rare books and manuscripts and, through his aunt (that is, Collis’ widow) and second wife, Arabella, art—leading eventually to the creation of the Huntington Library, Art Gallery [now plural] and Botanical Gardens.

The first automobile was introduced in Los Angeles four years before this photo was taken and there is nary a sign of a “horseless carriage” but plenty of the equine-drawn variety, including one for the California Laundry, which looked ready to make the turn from Main to First. A bicycle is by the two men at the center of the intersection and there are a fair number of pedestrians on the sidewalks of or crossing the thoroughfares.

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Los Angeles Times, 22 November 1901.

As for structures, we can’t see very much of East First, aside from the much longer elevation of the building at that northeast corner and its neighbor. With respect to the Main Street portion of the image, we can see quite a few one and two-story buildings on the east side leading up to Commercial Street, about where the closest rooftop flag is in the distance. Beyond that are the distinctive towers of the Baker Block, completed in the late 1870s on the site of Abel Stearns’ El Palacio adobe and where U.S. 101 wends its way through downtown. Further north and beyond our view was the Plaza, the historic center of Los Angeles.

Because the unidentified photographer stood on the west side of Main in front of the southwest corner with First, we don’t get much of a view of the buildings on that side of the street, although jeweler Walter T. Harris had prominent signage at that northwest corner. Incidentally, in September 1902, the British-born Harris was involved in a sensational shooting at the house of his friend, Thomas Morris, who hailed from same area of London. The two enjoyed some refreshments at the Mineral Saloon at that corner and then headed to the house on West 21st Street near Figueroa and kept the party going. When Harris got too friendly with his friend’s wife, Morris retrieved a gun and in the ensuing tussle the weapon went off, hitting the jeweler (who died in 1911) in the groin, though not seriously.

Monkeys on the loose in the GASB The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Jul_14__1901_
A comical reference to the bank in the Los Angeles Times of 14 July 1901.

Not too far up that side of Main are some three-story buildings, although almost not detail can be made out, and the Temple Block comprised a large part of that section up to what was long the triple intersection of Main, Spring and Temple streets. That group of several structures was built by the brothers, Jonathan (who owned the parcel from about the 1830s until his death in 1866) and F.P.F. (who acquired the tract from his brother’s widow and then built three buildings on it between 1868 and 1871, the last housing his Temple and Workman bank, which failed in 1876.)

The Temple Block was sold to the prominent merchant Harris Newmark and remained a central part of the business section of the city for a time, though the commercial core of the city quickly expanded to the south. A quarter of a century after this image was captured, the Temple Block was razed and Spring Street extended further north as part of the remaking of the area for the construction of City Hall, which was completed in 1928.

The strange story of the shooting of jeweler Walter T. Harris, Times, 17 September 1902.

We now return to the presumed center of attention in this photograph, the German-American Savings Bank Building at the northeast corner. The bank was launched in summer 1890, just after the Boom of the Eighties went bust and the incorporation, involving $100,000 of stock, was carried out by five men, including carriage-maker and real estate promoter Louis Lichtenberger, a native of Germany, Charles Flint, William Sheldon, Edward McDonald and Moses N. Avery, the latter a doctor who was a prime mover in the bank through its history.

Among the several dozen stockholders in the institution were such prominent figures as Pomona rancher Louis Phillips (who built the substantial Phillips Block on Spring Street a block to the west), the Belgian cabinet and coffin maker with real estatee holdings of substance Victor Ponet, merchant Hans Jevne, attorney William Bordwell, utility executive William G. Kerckhoff, former sheriff and oilman William R. Rowland, ex-governor and capitalist John G. Downey, and a number of prominent German-Americans such as John P. Zeyn, August Schultz, Jacob Kuhrts, and Theodore Schmidt. Four women were also among those who owned shares.

GASB building sold Los_Angeles_Herald_Sun__Sep_15__1907_
Herald, 15 September 1907.

The Los Angeles Herald of 5 October 1890 hailed the opening of the institution, observing that the bank

is composed of some of our strongest and most reliable German citizens, together with a strong sprinkling of persons of other nationalities. German financial institutions have been noted in the United States, and especially in California, for their reliability and sagacious management. The officers of the new bank are all well known for their integrity and financial skill . . . The new bank cannot fail to be a great success.

This was certainly the case as, by 1901, the institution, having survived the depression of 1893, had assets in the neighborhood of $2 million. An ad in the Los Angeles Record of 8 November noted that “the value of a Savings Bank to a community is in proportion to the use made of it by the people. People who understand the power of interest and the wisdom of letting their savings work for them while they sleep, patronize the Savings Bank.”

GASTB statement The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Jun_30__1912_ (3)
Times, 30 June 1912.

Having “the little leather covered book” was a tangible sign that the slow, steady accumulation of health, instilled by the healthy habit of saving, meant that “the little book with its growing figures is a friend indeed, because often a friend in need.” It was noted that the German-American Savings Bank paid out some $50,000 in interest annually to depositors and the growth of assets, principally those of wage earners in the city, was a testament to the institution’s success. Smart management and sage investments meant that “the officers . . . are justly very proud of this record” of steady and sure growth and photos of the sturdy vault and impressive wood counters denoted stability and permanence.

Two weeks later, in a short piece, the Los Angeles Times noted that “the German-American Savings Bank and the Security [Savings Bank], one on the corner of Main and First streets, the other Main and Second, are prospering amain, as is in evidence in the fact that both are doubling the area of their counting-rooms and offices. Money is plenty, and the demand is active with all these institutions.”

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Record, 19 March 1917.

Not long after, the bank moved its main location to a leased space in the Union Trust Building at Fourth and Spring streets, while retaining its original quarters in this structure, which it owned. With the execution of a long-term lease at the newer location, which was in the midst of the new financial district of the Angel City, it was decided to sell the building at Main and First to Wyoming cattle rancher Newton Cramer, who’d recently settled in Los Angeles.

The structure, which had 40 feet of frontage on Main and over 110 feet on First, fetched $100,000 and it was reported by the Los Angeles Herald of 15 September 1907 that “the corner banking room in the building” was used by the institution “and that bank desires to continue occupying the premises with which it has so long been identified, and so has secured a lease on this banking room for a period of ten years.”

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Express, 24 April 1917.

There were thirteen other tenants, including what looked to be several substantial ground-floor stores as well as offices on the second level and it was noted that the walls and foundation were such that Cramer anticipated adding at least three more stories in the near future. In 1912, the institution was renamed the German-American Savings and Trust Bank, expanding its services into the latter area and a statement in the Times of 30 June of some three dozen instutitions showed that it was the third largest in total resources at $21.5 million, trailing only First National Bank of Los Angeles ($23 million) and Security Trust and Savings Bank ($47 million.)

Just prior to the expiration of that ten-year lease for the Main and First structure, the institution, located at Spring and Seventh, decided to change its name to the Guaranty Trust and Savings Bank, while the capital stock was also raised from $1 million to $1.5 million. As explained in the Record of 19 March 1917,

the name . . . is deemed to be more suitable for the bank’s purposes, especially for the trust feature of the bank’s service, and less liable to be misconstrued by the public as to its significance. [President Avery explained] uninformed persons, however, are apt to be misled by the present title, believing either that the bank is organized under authority of a foreign government, or that it does business solely with German people.

Avery continued that, in 1890, no one coud have assumed that “German-American” would pose a problem as there were many banks with ethnic hyphenated names and the title symbolized, as noted above, the “thrift for which the German people were noted.” The word “Guaranty” was denoted to be easy to understand and symbolic of “of faith and trust.” Not openly stated was the fact that the United States was on the brink of war with Germany as World War I was in its fourth grueling year and a declaration was made just 17 days later. In 1921, the institution’s name changed again to Security Trust and Savings Bank and then to Security-First National Bank.

GASB foreclosure JM Workman The_Evening_Express_Wed__Jan_23__1895_
Express, 23 January 1895.

Finally, there is a connection to the Workman family and the German-American Savings Bank. Not long after the institution opened, Joseph M. Workman, son of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, was the owner of some 825 acres deeded to him by his father in 1870. This tract was exempt from the Temple and Workman bank loan mortgage to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, which he foreclosed on in 1879, taking more than 18,000 acres of Rancho La Puente.

Joseph farmed and raised sheep on his holdings for about a decade, but then leased out the ranch and moved with his wife, Josephine Belt, and their several children to the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, established by his cousin, William H. Workman, who was his neighbor. When times were good, such as during the Boom of the 1880s, Joseph and his family prospered, but they began to amass debts by the early 1890s.

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This led him and Josephine to take out loans from the bank that they could not repay and, in January 1895, the institution foreclosed on almost $28,000 of loans taken out by the couple. Shortly afterward, the debt was satisfied by Oscar T. Bassett, an El Paso capitalist, who ran the property until his death, after which his son managed the ranch and the unincorporated community of Bassett, situated betwen La Puente and El Monte, is situated on the ranch and beyond it.

This photo is a great document of Los Angeles as it was at the turn of the 20th century and as it was poised to enter another of its long series of fabled growth and development booms, while the center of attention in the image was an important financial institution during that period, with a connection to the Workman family and Rancho La Puente.

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