Through the Viewfinder: A Section of a Panoramic Photograph of Los Angeles, Henry T. Payne, ca. 1875

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The featured object from the Museum’s collection for this post is an interesting one, being part of a series of panoramic photographs taken by Henry T. Payne, a prominent early Los Angeles shutterbug, of the downtown portion of the Angel City about 1875. This second section doesn’t appear to have an obvious focal point, as Payne stood on a leveled section of hillside and took in an area with several structures and what looks like a residential property with a barn and a substantial open yard.

It took some poking around to get the location down, but, once that was determined, a few of the structures in the image helped to narrow the timeframe in addition to the fact that Payne’s “Semi-Tropical California Scenery” series was known to have been taken about 1875. There are also some major Los Angeles landmarks in the photo, though they are somewhat hidden. Once identified, however, it made determining where Payne’s position was a whole lot easier.

Los Angeles Express, 1 April 1875.

So, we’ll start with these latter. Look just to the left of the bell tower/steeple of the little church and you can see, in the distance, a curved front of a structure, as well as much of its south wall extending to the right of that church tower. The building in the background is the Merced Theatre, built by undertaker and cabinet-maker William Abbott and named for his wife Merced García. To the left of that is the very top of the flat roof of the adjoining edifice, the Pico House hotel—both of them built in 1870 and adjoining the Plaza, the historic center of Spanish and Mexican Los Angeles, on its south.

Once that is known, it stands to reason that Payne, positioned to the southwest, could not have been that far away. The next clue, fortunately, is the partial sign on the building at the right edge with the words “Hotel Des . . .” on it. Not only was it fairly quickly learned that this was the Hotel Des Princes, obviously operated by French proprietors at the Downey Block, which was at the northwest corner of Main and Temple streets, at the triple intersection where Spring angled in and met the other two, but the hostelry only operated for a short time between 1874 and 1876.

Express, 24 August 1876.

Knowing the location of the hotel made it clear that the street running from left to right in the foreground was Temple Street, established by Jonathan Temple, whose store was located on the Downey Block site and who petitioned the Common (City) Council for permission to build the then one-block lane in the 1850s.

In turn, it was obvious that the street on which the portion of the Block with the hotel sign faced was New High Street, west of Main and which, when Spring Street was realigned with the construction of City Hall in the late 1920s, became part of North Spring. The dark fence with part of a brick structure within it at the lower right corner was just behind or may have been part of St. Athanasius’ Episcopal Church, which was on the southwest corner of Temple and New High.

Los Angeles News, 11 February 1868.

Returning, then, to that church with the bell tower and steeple, and which was on the west side of New High, this was the First Congregational Church, an early Protestant church in the City of the Angels and which was dedicated at the end of June 1868. It remained at that location for fifteen years and then moved to Hill and 3rd streets in 1883, but after just five years, the Congregationalists (F.P.F. Temple, by the way, was born into that denomination but became a Roman Catholic when he married Antonia Margarita Workman in 1845) relocated to Hill and 6th.

In under fifteen years, there was yet another move as the church took up quarters on Hope Street between 8th and 9th, and the stay there was much longer than the rest. Still, the city’s relentless expansion meant a substantial relocation to the west to a large site on the corner of 6th and Commonwealth, cater corner to Lafayette Park, where the church was dedicated in 1932 and has remained for nine decades.

Los Angeles Star, 1 February 1871. This was almost nine months before the horrific Chinese Massacre of late October.

The neighboring structure to the north of the Congregational church is another one that can be dated with precision and relates to that of the photo. In 1874, Eliza and Myron Kimball came to Los Angeles from New York City, where Myron, a native of Oneida County in the Empire State, long ran a photography studio, having learned the craft in Ohio in the Fifties. It is said he took photos of Abraham Lincoln prior to his becoming president and Kimball then became an official Union Army photographer and it was said he was “frequently working between the firing lines of the two armies.” A 2014 exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art featured a Kimball photo of freed slaves.

In Los Angeles, however, Kimball got into real estate, which was a bustling industry as the city and environs were undergoing the first significant and sustained boom in their history, but one of his first projects was to build the Kimball Mansion next to the church. Designed by Ezra F. Kysor, the Angel City’s first trained architect and who worked on the Merced Theater and Pico House and was said to have designed the remodeling of the Workman House, the two-story structure with its mansard roof became a hotel.

Express, 17 April 1874.

An early ad from late November 1874, shortly after it opened, touted the “fine, large, well furnished suites and single rooms, with all modern improvements and a first-class table” the latter meaning for meals. Moreover, “the house is beautifully situated on high ground and commands a charming view of mountain and valley,” which can be gleaned from Payne’s photo.

After eight years, Myron decided to step away from active management of the Mansion, but Eliza, who hailed from Scotland, became its proprietor and an 1882 ad called the establishment “the most elegant private boarding mansion in Southern California.” Shortly afterward, one of the guests was Helen Hunt Jackson, who wrote portions of her famous novel, Ramona, at the hotel. A transcription of her 1882 diary entries, for example, shows that she was a guest at the Kimball Mansion on the last day in April.

Los Angeles Herald, 29 November 1874.

The Kimballs bought a place at Santa Monica and retired there with Eliza dying first and Myron, who was secretary of horticulture and agricultural societies locally, dying in 1912. Their house, which became part of the extensive holdings of French-Canadian real estate developer and former Ange City mayor Prudent Beaudry, was sold in 1899, several years after his death, and soon torn down. Later, the federal building was constructed on the site.

At the upper right above the Downey Block and Hotel Des Princes was the Arcadia Block, built by prominent merchant and rancher Abel Stearns, with the several windows on its western elevation easily noted. This structure was at the southwest corner of Arcadia and Los Angeles streets and contained Stearns Hall, which was often used for theatricals and concerts.

Herald, 14 July 1875.

To the west of the Arcadia Block where the green mass of trees is at the center to the right of the church sat El Palacio, Stearns’ capacious adobe house. After his death in 1871, Stearns’ widow Arcadia Bandini, for whom the adjoining street was named, took possession of the house and the Block and both were torn down after she married Robert S. Baker, who built the imposing Baker Block on the site. Today, U.S. 101 runs through this location.

Behind the Arcadia Block was the infamous Calle de los Negros, where the horrific Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871 took place. The photo also shows a location that was prominent with the Massacre and with prior vigilante events that were representative of the devilish side of the Angel City.

Los Angeles Times, 15 August 1882.

On the north side of Temple behind the dark wood fence was property owned by Jonathan Temple and on which Phineas Banning had a corral and lumberyard. The tract then was occupied by John M. Griffith and John J. Tomlinson and, following the latter’s death, the former continued the lumber operation and was joined in 1871 by Sedgwick Lynch, a lumber baron of Santa Cruz and its nearby redwood forests.

The first documentation of use of a massive gate beam on Temple Street where the fence is shown in this photo for lynching was in 1863 when Banning’s brother-in-law, John Sanford, was killed by Charles Wilkins, who, in turn, was hung at the yard. Seven years later, Michel Lachenais, who’d murdered his neighbor Jacob Bell, was pulled from the jail nearby on Spring Street, and hung at the yard—there is a well-known photo of the execution.

Times, 17 May 1899.

Finally, during the terror of the Chinese Massacre, several victims were dragged from the Calle de los Negros to the Griffith and Lynch yard and hung there, prompting the owners to immediately take down the gate and beam. They also sold the property, which was assessed to “Daniel Sterns” by the mid-Seventies, though the large barn and the long structure along New High and the structure partially at the right edge all remained.

“Daniel Sterns” might have been David A. Stern, known as “D.A..” Born in 1824 in Vacha, between Frankfurt and Leipzig in what later became a united Germany, Stern was a sign painter in the Angel City by 1870 and, while was apparently somewhat eccentric, amassed an impressive real estate portfolio, including the Stern Block on Spring between 1st and 2nd, and estate by the time he died in September 1889 while visiting relatives in his home country.

He left instructions for a monument for his grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights and the shaft, made of granite by William Declez (make of at least one grave marker at the Homestead’s El Campo Santo), stands 7 feet 6 inches high and weights 36 tons. While it is not certain, unless someone out there knows, if the “Daniel Sterns” from the assessment record is the David A. Stern mentioned here, it does seem likely. In any case, the association of what looked like a typical old farm with what was a site of horror with vigilantism in the 1860s and early 1870s, is certainly striking.

It is also worth noting that behind where Payne stood to take his photo was the site of Los Angeles High School, which was fairly new, having opened in 1873. Also interesting is that, not too far to the northeast is open land possibly where Lincoln Heights (then called East Los Angeles) was established, also in 1873. Off in the distance is a range of hills, as well, and, while the Angel City was certainly growing quite a bit, it was still a small city of maybe 15,000 persons in a region that was mostly rural and that does show in the photo.

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