Through the Viewfinder: A Stereoscopic Photograph of the Los Angeles County Courthouse, ca. early 1880s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was not until the Boom of the Eighties came to greater Los Angeles and growth was such that it required determined action that a purpose-built county courthouse was erected, just shy of forty years after the formation of the county. The Romanesque structure at Broadway and Temple streets, which stood until the 1933 Long Beach earthquake revealed significant damage, was an impressive landmark and a “temple of justice” befitting a city that came into its own in the late 19th century.

Speaking of “temple,” the building replaced what was originally built by Jonathan Temple in 1859 as a market house, modeled after Fanueil Hall in Boston. Temple, the first merchant in Los Angeles and a thirty-year resident of the Angel city by then, completed, two years prior, the first large brick commercial edifice in town at the south end of what became known as the Temple Block, a pie-shape tract south of what was then the triple intersection of Main, Spring and Temple streets.

Los Angeles Times, 9 June 1883.

The Market House was constructed in a large open area just below the 1857 structure and Temple’s intention was have the city lease stalls for grocers and others on the first floor and keep the revenue, while he built the town’s first true performing arts venue, the Temple Theater, on the second floor. The problem, which goes to the time-honored real estate mantra, was the timing was poor as the local economy was in a weakened state and it did not get better as the 1860s dawned.

In fact, even before the region was ravaged by the dual disaster of floods and drought between the end of 1861 and the end of 1864, it was decided that the county would lease the Market House for officials’ offices and as the courthouse, with the latter moving from a wholly inadequate adobe house, built by the Rocha family of Rancho La Brea, on the west side of Spring Street just to the south where the Phillips Block was later constructed.

After Temple died in spring 1866, the Market House was purchased by the prominent doctor and real estate investor, John S. Griffin, who sold an interest to former governor John G Downey. The two, within a short time, began negotiating with the county for its purchase of the building and the deal was finally consummated by summer 1871. At this time, greater Los Angeles was undergoing its first significant and sustained period of growth and the courthouse generally met the needs of the community.

Los Angeles Herald, 5 April 1887.

A decade or so later, however, that began to change and agitation slowly built momentum for a new courthouse. In its edition of 9 June 1883, the Los Angeles Times asked a cadre of the city’s elite business men and local officials for their views on where to put a new courthouse, as it was pointed out that the old Market House as well as the jail, still located behind the Rocha Adobe, properties could be sold to raise funds to go towards the construction of the structure.

Stephen H. Mott, of the lumber company of Perry, Mott and Company, advocated for the corner Temple and New High streets, close to where the 1889 courthouse was constructed, while postmaster Isaac R. Dunkelberger suggested the site of the first city schoolhouse, at the northwest corner of Spring and Second.

Times, 1 January 1888.

Isaac N. Van Nuys, owner of the substantial ranch in the San Fernando Valley where the namesake community of Van Nuys is now, thought there should be some spare land around a courthouse and mentioned the Temple and New High spot as well as one at Main and Fourth and the Sixth Street Park (now Pershing Square,) thought that was remote from where the lawyers were congregated at the Temple Block.

His partner and son-in-law, James B. Lankershim liked the park locale, noting that many cities had courthouses removed from the business centers and former Judge Robert M. Widney agreed about that site. Lastly, Phineas Banning, the so-called “Port Admiral” of Wilmington and a father of the Port of Los Angeles advocated for the jail site and “was opposed to paying out money for grounds when the county owned such a good site,” something the Times indicated was true of most of those interviewed.

In May 1886, business figure Walter S. Maxwell suggested a combined city and county building on “High School Hill” facing Temple Street, with the city selling the land where a city hall was slated at the Spring and Second location and the county selling the courthouse and another property for this join administrative structure. It was not clear in the Times article of the 19th if the courthouse was to be included, but it was mentioned that lawyers would use it for searching records.

Los Angeles Express, 14 February 1888.

In any case, quite a few of the city elite were asked about the proposal, with real estate developer Ralph Rogers (among whose current projects was Garvanza in what became the northeast corner of the city adjacent to Pasadena) saying that Maxwell’s proposal was “one of the grandest public projects that has yet been brought forward.” Former state treasurer José G. Estudillo, one of the very few Latinos in a public position of note at that time, seconded the idea, while City Attorney J.W. McKinley liked the concept, as well.

City Auditor W.W. Robinson had reservations, saying “it is a very good plan, but impossible to carry out” adding that, thirty years prior, the city and county squabbled over the jail that wound up being occupied by each and that was for a much smaller project. He spoke plainly about his view that the two could not work together for a common objective like unified building. Sheriff George E. Gard was even more blunt, proclaiming, “the scheme is a humbug” because of a lack of room, while Under-Sheriff A.M. Thornton added, “it’s no good—it’s ridiculous.”

Times, 19 January 1889.

The Boom of the Eighties was already underway and there was also a plan for a federal building for the rapidly growing metropolis and the Los Angeles Herald of 5 April 1887 reported that former representative and future governor Henry H. Markham told the paper that a federal official would soon be in the Angel City to select a site. Several locations, including where the Pico House hotel stood, a Main Street spot further south, and the courthouse, were bandied about as potential spaces. The Times two weeks later noted that “the location of the courthouse is an admittedly eligible site.”

Meanwhile, a decision was made to put a new courthouse on the Broadway and Temple location long eyed for public buildings as noted above and the New Year’s 1888 issue of the Times went into some detail about the edifice, though we’ll devote a future post to it separately.” The paper did observe that “the old courthouse is a relic of the old village era—out of place in a city, and entirely inadequate to house the county officials.”

By mid-February, another proposal for the old courthouse building and site was presented, this time by Louis Mesmer, an old-time business figure in Los Angeles, who called for the new post office to be installed in the structure. The Times of Valentine’s Day loved the idea, saying that “certainly no better location than this could possibly be found” because of its central location, access to streetcars, frontage on all four sides in that “island” between Spring and Main, and the ease in which it could be remodeled to suite the purpose.

Times, 23 January 1889.

The Los Angeles Express of the same day wholeheartedly concurred with its competitor, adding that the question was a “chief topic that appears to agitate the minds of the residents of Los Angeles.” It opined that “the latest and by long odds the best site that has been mentioned is the courthouse,” while it reported that Mesmer was offering to acquire the building and then hand it over to the federal government. Moreover, William S. Rosecrans, former Civil War general and member of Congress, was said to be favorable towards the idea, though what influence he had was not stated, while another report was that a Broadway (still called Fort Street) and 6th Street site was in the running.

In January 1889, the Times reported that “the old Courthouse is becoming a little unsteady” and added that “a general tumble” was in the offing if work was not conducted “to brace the old shell up.” Actually, it noted that “to all appearances the walls are perfectly solid, but the floors are cutting up all kinds of antics,” jesting that “you will have to climb over five or six little mountains to cross the room” in one office. Those in the sheriff’s office were not sure “whether the place is haunted, or whether some Democrat, who is jealous of their success, crawls under the floor and props it up.”

Times, 9 August 1891.

Just days later, a table of county assets and liabilities stated that the courthouse, for all of its purported imperfections, was worth $150,000, with only the new courthouse and property worth more, at $200,000. Early in February, the county supervisors and auditor relocated to office space in the second floor (the old theater space) of the building, so whether that was because of problems with the floors or not isn’t known, though the news mentioned more “elbow room,” so it appears to have been more the size of the areas.

In September, it was decided to repaint the town clock, one of the landmarks of the city for many years and it was reported by the Times that a painter used sandpaper to prepare the face, after having removed the hour and minute hands after the clock was stopped. After he mixed the paint and went off to lunch, a well-known attorney looked out his office window to check the time (what, no pocket watch in his vest?) and was astounded by not seeing the hands and called out to his partner that he was losing his sight. His fellow lawyer called him “the biggest fool I know” and pointed out that the clock was merely being repaired “and the pair adjourned to the nearest saloon.”

By May 1890, the county supervisors decided it was time to sell the courthouse and other property to raise funds to help complete the new courthouse (which opened in 1891.) As an illustration (literally) of how the old building was viewed, the Times noted that artist Charles Sumner Ward had a painting in his studio that showed the structure “with its quaint gray walls and broad stone steps” as the scene of “an old Mexican, clad in the costume of his people” seated on the steps and “musing on the days that are gone.” The piece concluded with the statement that “it was painted from life, and it is a history full of the pathos of change.”

Times, 8 October 1891.

The building was purchased by Boston capitalist John A. Bullard, who allowed the county ample time to vacate the structure, with the supervisors having their last meeting there on 8 August 1891, “the same being the time appointed for quitting and abandoning this venerable pile, that for so many years our respected [respective?] constituencies have so fondly designated ‘The Robbers’ Roost.'”

Another resolution was,

that with deep regret at bidding adieu to the old Courthouse, so rich with historical memories, that we do now adjourn to our new quarters in the finest Courthouse west of the Rocky Mountains.

While Bullard mulled over his plans for the structure, it was leased to the firm of Hawley, King and Company, which sold buggies, carriages, phaetons and surreys at their branch “carriage repository” in the building. The new owner, however, took his time deciding on what to do with the property.

Herald, 28 October 1894.

In late August 1894, he told the Express that he removed the cupola where the clock was located because it leaked, but said that he was going to remodel the building, having already removed the wall that divided the basement into two sections, while light shafts were to be added there, as well. The paper added that “the foundation is a fine piece of masonry for smoothness and solidity, showing no cracks or breaks” and Bullard “pointed to it with pride and said it was difficult to get such good work as that in these days.”

By the end of October, however, the decision was made to raze the structure, to be replaced by a four-story building costing some $75,000 and designed by the prominent architectural firm of Morgan and Walls. The Herald of the 28th recorded that the edifice, when finished in 1859, “was then counted as the finest building in this part of the country, and was the pride of the ciudad [city] in those days.”

Herald, 11 February 1895

In anticipation of its imminent demise, Henry D. Barrows, a long-time resident and historian of the city and region, read a paper to the Historical Society of Southern California on 3 December with it published verbatim in the Herald several days later as well as in the HSSC’s annual publication. We will look to focus on Barrows’ account this December as it is full of interesting anecdotes about the structure and Jonathan Temple.

Yet, early in 1895, the Times acidly recorded that the razing of the building was proceeding at the rate of just 20 bricks an hour and these hauled to Wilmington Avenue where Bullard repurposed them for a warehouse. It stated that, at the rate of demolition, the new Bullard Block would not begin until the next year and lamented that the site was not acquire for the federal building or post office instead.

The Herald of 11 February referred to “A Silurian Improvement,” which seemed to deal with the early, but slow evolution of life in geologic time. In any case, it lambasted Bullard for his tardiness in taking down the old courthouse, as well as for the unsightly fence he built around it which restricted public access on the little streets, Market and Court, on either side between Main and Spring.

Express, 18 February 1895.

Only a few workers were used to “save every brick, every lath and every pretty piece of material in his purchase,” with Bullard taken to task for “such dilly-dallying” that affected so many in a busy area of the Angel City. It concluded by imploring that

The city officials should see to it that this man does not abuse the privilege granted to him, and he should be made to say whether there is any prospect that his old bone-yard and his inartistic fence will disappear during the present generation.

While the council tried to push Bullard along and then got into a dispute with him about the status of Court and Market streets, which he claimed were his private property while the city asserted they were public thoroughfares (in the end, both were preserved, at least for a while), he took his sweet time.

By summer 1895, however, the razing finally was finished and he began construction of the Bullard Block, a handsome structure that only survived thirty years until it was destroyed, with the rest of the Temple Block, for the construction of Los Angeles City Hall. The photo here is unattributed and appears to be from the early 1880s, showing the courthouse from Los Angeles High School on the hill to the west. A bit of the Temple Block is at the left, while just past Los Angeles Street, one block east of Main where at least one adobe house still stood, the territory is decidedly rural with a lot of space between much of the houses north and south of First Street, while in the distance is the reflected waters the Los Angeles River.

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