Through the Viewfinder: A Traffic Jam Outside the Downey Block, Los Angeles, 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tonight’s featured artifact and latest feature in the “Through the Viewfinder” series of historic photographs of greater Los Angeles from the Homestead’s collection is a bit unusual in that it doesn’t show a panoramic view of the Angel City, but, rather, is focused on the assemblage of horse-drawn conveyances outside the Downey Block.

This 1872 stereoscopic image was likely taken by William M. Godfrey or Dudley P. Flanders, his partner in the Sunbeam Gallery through late March, and reissued by Henry T. Payne, one of the early photographers of note in Los Angeles and who purchased Godfrey’s business, and was taken from the Temple Block looking roughly north. The Downey Block was a substantial two-story brick building at the northwest corner of Main and Temple streets and, as this photo amply shows, had a section facing on Main, an angled portion looking onto the intersection with both Temple and Spring, and a small part along Temple.

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Los Angeles Semi-Weekly News, 7 February 1868.

The structure was built by John G. Downey (1827-1894), a native of Ireland who migrated to Los Angeles in 1850 and owned a successful drug business with James McFarland, though the two also did well in real estate and loans. Downey was elected lieutenant governor in late 1860 and, when Governor Milton Latham resigned to take a suddenly available United States Senate seat, Downey moved into the chief executive role.

He completed his term without securing reelection and returned to Los Angeles and, within about five years, built his commercial edifice, formerly the site of the adobe building constructed by Jonathan Temple and which housed the first store in the Angel City. That same year, 1868, he and James Hayward opened the Angel City’s first bank, Hayward and Company, in the new structure, though the enterprise only lasted a few years.

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Los Angeles Star, 31 October 1868.

In 1871, Downey joined forces with the brilliant merchant Isaias W. Hellman, who terminated his banking partnership with William Workman and F.P.F. Temple, to launch the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank of Los Angeles in the spring. Temple and Workman were unfazed by the dissolution of their arrangement with Hellman and opened their own namesake bank in the newly completed final addition to the Temple Block.

When Downey agreed to suspend operations of that institution in September 1875 along with the closure of the Temple and Workman bank in an attempt to calm the waters after a financial panic roiled California, Hellman, furious at his partner’s actions, took control of Farmers’ and Merchants’ and reduced Downey’s role to a purely ceremonial one.

Star, 29 April 1872.

Later, after losing his wife María Guirado in a horrific 1883 train crash, the ex-governor was embroiled in a scandal involving a reputed promise of marriage by the much-older ex-governor to the talented, though troubled, writer Yda Addis. Once the controversy died down, Downey spent much of his later years in generally quiet circumstances.

We can date this photo pretty easily by noting that the hardware store of James H. Wright and Company, which advertised on the awning at the upper left, seems to have opened in the early days of 1872, a few months after Wright bowed out of a partnership with Samuel B. Caswell and John F. Ellis, whose hardware business was highlighted in a previous post on this blog. The retail sales world is always a challenge and very competitive and, while Los Angeles was well into its first boom, starting about 1868 and lasting through most of 1875, Wright was unable to make a go of it. He closed in summer 1873 and appears to have left the Angel City.

Los Angeles News, 17 June 1871.

At the bottom right of the image is a freestanding display panel for Victor Ponet, who was born in 1836 in Ulbeek, a town in eastern Belgium and came to the United States in 1865. After a couple of years in San Francisco, he migrated to Los Angeles in 1869 and opened up a shop the following year specializing in the manufacturing of picture frames along with importing of pictures, mirrors and window glass.

In June 1871, Ponet moved to new quarters in the Downey Block and advertised that he was a dealer and importer in chromographs, lithographs, engravings, picture frames, showcases and mirrors. Because he moved by the first of 1873 across Main Street to the Lanfranco Building, where the brothers Elijah and William H. Workman had their saddlery, we know that this photo was taken sometime the prior year.

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Star, 7 January 1873.

By late spring 1873, Ponet turned to a new enterprise with his “Los Angeles Coffin Manufactory” along with offering his services as an undertaker. Later in the decade, he became a partner with Benjamin F. Orr (the pair provided undertaking services for William Workman, in 1876, and F.P.F. Temple, four years later) and the two also offered picture frames as a part of the operation. A savvy real estate investor, Ponet bought the block bordered by Hope Street, Grand Avenue, Pico Boulevard and Twelfth Street, where Fiesta Park, the staging grounds for the long-running La Fiesta de Los Angeles parade, was situated.

In 1907, the area was known as Ponet Square and it long featured a landmark hotel, which, however, burned in 1970 and the loss of 19 lives led to a change in fire codes for buildings built prior to the early Forties. Another area bearing his name is the Los Feliz community of Ponet Terrace, where Western Avenue meets Los Feliz Boulevard. Having prospered handsomely as Los Angeles grew by leaps and bounds, Ponet owned a 230-acre ranch in Sherman, now West Hollywood.

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Star, 22 May 1873.

He became the Belgian consul in Los Angeles; a founder and first president of the German-American Savings Bank (which loaned money to Joseph Workman, son of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa, and then foreclosed in 1895 on his 800+-acre portion of Rancho La Puente); was knighted by Belgium’s notorious King Leopold II (owner of the Congo Free State in Africa, known for its staggeringly inhumane treatment of natives); and was extensively involved with the Roman Catholic Church, including donating the land for St. Victor’s Church at Sherman and for a home for the Carmelite Sisters.

The other business advertised in the photo, thanks to the painting of the name on the facie board of the portico (note what appears to have been a telegraph pole in front) running along Main was the wholesale liquor and tobacco store of Michel Levy and Joseph Coblentz. Among the significant cadre of Jewish merchants that came to Los Angeles in the Gold Rush period and afterward, Levy and Coblentz opened their business when the Downey Block was finished in 1868. They advertised their stock of wine, brandy, whiskey, beer, as well as varieties of the “soothing weed.”

Michel Levy Los_Angeles_Herald_Mon__Jun_2__1890_

Coblentz (1840-1897), a native of France, who’d lived and worked in San Francisco before moving south to Los Angeles, remained with Levy for just under a decade and retired from the business on the last day of 1877. He then returned to the Bay Area and operated a cigar factory.

Levy (1833-1905) was born in Prussia (some accounts say France), which became part of a unified Germany in 1871, but migrated to America when he was 18 years old. After a short sojourn in San Francisco, he was a merchant in Benicia, Placerville, Diamond Springs (between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe), Cloverdale (in Sonoma County) and in northwestern Nevada, before he settled in Los Angeles in 1868 and went into business with Coblentz.

Levy & Coblentz Los_Angeles_Daily_Star_Wed__Jan_3__1872_
Star, 3 January 1872

When the latter departed, Levy operated on his own for a time before taking on Louis Lewin (known for publishing the 1876 history of Los Angeles County) and Lesser Hirshfeld as partners in M. Levy and Company and its sister firm, the Los Angeles Vintage Company. A former president of the Wholesale Liquor Dealers’ Association, Levy was in business nearly forty years when he died.

At the upper right are a series of notable historic structures on the east side of Main Street. The three-story building at the right was the St. Charles Hotel, which began as a single-story adobe building and became the Bella Union Hotel. The second story followed and the third level was added much later—both were constructed of brick—and the hostelry was briefly known as the Clarendon before it was renamed the St. Charles. Check out the gas lamp in front of the structure along with small trees denuded of leaves (indicating perhaps that this was taken in the winter.)

Star, 17 December 1872

Next to the hotel was the Pico Building, erected by ex-Governor Pío Pico in 1868 and which included the Hellman, Temple and Company bank, forerunner to both Farmers’ and Merchants’ and Temple and Workman, with the former operating in it for some years after Isaias Hellman, F.P.F. Temple and William Workman went their separate ways and after Downey partnered with Hellman. It appears the barber’s pole in front advertised a business in this building.

Adjoining the Pico Building is a one-story structure with a portico and, in 1874, this became the Perry-Riley Building, including the Backman House hotel, later known, well into the twentieth century, as the Grand Central. Beyond that is the distinctive El Palacio, the substantial adobe house, in a C-shape with something of an open courtyard fronting Main, of Abel Stearns, one of the earliest Anglo residents of the Angel City and who died in 1871.

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The Tidings, 13 February 1914.

His much-younger widow, Arcadia Bandini, married Robert S. Baker, best known for his ownership of large areas of Santa Monica (including the famed Hotel Arcadia) and Westwood, and, in 1878, the adobe was razed to give way to the impressive Baker Block—the 101 Freeway runs right through that site now.

Partially obscured by the Downey Block portico and what looks to be a curved fence on the south end of the balcony atop it are the landmark buildings including the Free and Associated Masons Lodge #42 (built in 1854), the Merced Theatre and the Pico House hotel—these latter completed in 1870. Not much can be made out in terms of detail for these buildings, which are still with us, and it is notable that there is a wooden pole with support beams angling from near the top. Perhaps this, too, was for telegraph service?

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Los Angeles Herald, 15 May 1905.

Then, there are the half-dozen or so vehicles parked or in motion in front of the Downey Block, as well as the gents posing in the center, perhaps for the opening of the Wright and Company hardware store. To the left of what looks to be a Surrey carriage (“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” as the old song had it) look to be a tiller and other farm machinery in front of that store. Under the portico, there may be a shoe-shine stand or, maybe, goods from a store next to Levy & Coblentz.

Another important item to mention with respect to the Downey Block in 1872 was the establishment of the Los Angeles Public Library, the 150th anniversary of which will be at the end of this year. An attempt to start a library in 1859, led by Jonathan Temple, who offered space in his Temple Block for the institution, foundered, but this second effort did, of course, succeed.

SV Main Street 2016.187.1.1

Downey served as president, while Thomas W. Temple, eldest child of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple and who was a cashier at the recently opened (November 1871) Temple and Workman bank, served as the first treasurer of the Los Angeles Library Association. In the Los Angeles Central Library, opened in 1926, is a plaque commemorating the founders of the institution.

This image is certainly a very interesting one dealing with a landmark commercial building, a prominent Angeleno of the era, several notable businesses, and the tangential view of other important structures in a rapidly growing Los Angeles. The Downey Block only lasted, however, for under 40 years, as it was torn down in May 1905 to make way for the Federal Building and, later, the Federal Courthouse. Today, the Spring Street Courthouse of the Los Angeles Superior Court is on the site.

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