Through the Viewfinder: A Trio of Views of the Los Angeles County Courthouse, 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The rapid growth of greater Los Angeles during the Boom of the 1880s involved many important elements, including a direct transcontinental railroad link, the expansion of agriculture as the dominant economic engine of the region, and much more. For the City of Los Angeles, just one visual example of how much the municipality was changing was the completion, in 1888, as the boom peaked, of a new city hall.

With respect to the County of Los Angeles, its counterpart in terms of a new public building reflective of changing times was much grander—this being the construction of a new courthouse. The project began in spring 1888 with the laying of the cornerstone and it took more than three years to finish the sandstone Romanesque Revival edifice. Situated on an eminence at the southeast corner of Fort (renamed Broadway in 1890) Street and Temple Street, the imposing structure reflected the pride of growth when it was completed in summer 1891, though there were a couple of controversies that subsequently cropped up.

Los Angeles Express, 26 April 1888.

The featured artifacts from the Museum’s holdings for this post are three photographs from the last decade of the 19th century and showing the impressive community structure. One view is from the Temperance Temple looking southeast to the front elevation of the courthouse with its central tower from which visitors could get excellent panoramic views of the Angel city and the flanking large blocks on the north and south ends.

The other two images are from the northeast corner of New High, now Spring, and Temple, about where the former Jonathan Temple property was that became the Phineas Banning and then the Tomlinson and Griffith corral, where quite a number of lynchings took place in the 1860s and 1870s, including that of the Chinese Massacre of 1871 that will be the subject of a virtual presentation for the Homestead next weekend by Scott Zesch, author of The Chinatown War.

Express, 6 August 1891.

These views better show the placement of the structure atop Poundcake Hill with the substantial use of stone walls along New High and the steps at the corner leading up to the building. What looks to be the older of the pair has the identification of “149. County Court House, Los Angeles, Calif.” and the name of photographer Frederick H. Maude” and the slopes are comprised entirely of grass. The second shot appears to be later and has what seems to be sago palms just behind the wall on either side of the steps, while sprinklers attached to hoses are watering the landscaping to the right of the stairs. Note, as well, the lion statues on the bottom of the rails.

There had long been calls for a new purpose-built courthouse to replace the 1859 Market House, constructed by Jonathan Temple in large open area south of his 1857 brick Temple Block, between Main and Spring and Temple and 1st streets. While the Market House, reminiscent of Faneuil Hall in Boston, was obviously built for commercial purposes with market stalls to be rented by the city while the first true theater was on the second floor, a worsening local economy led to, from 1861, the renting of the building for the court house and county offices, with a public hall replacing the theater upstairs.

Los Angeles Herald, 7 August 1891.

After Temple’s death in 1866, the structure was acquired by Dr. John S. Griffin, who continued renting it until it was acquired by the county several years later. Even though the region’s first boom took place in the late Sixties through mid Seventies, the building sufficed for its purposes, though there were increasing suggestions for a new courthouse. It was not until the Boom of the Eighties that the decision was made to erect the structure with bonds being sold to raise the funding.

The 26 April 1888 laying of the cornerstone took place during the administration of Mayor William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, and the event was dominated by the enactment of the rites of Masonic fraternities, a nod to the purportedly ancient connection of these societies to the masons who built Solomon’s Temple in ancient times. Aside from the rituals conducted by the Masons, there was an oration by District Attorney James R. DuPuy, a native of Kentucky who’d only lived in Los Angeles a few years before being a rare Democrat (Workman was another) to win elective office as Republicans ruled the local political roost.

DuPuy noted that ancients like the Greeks built their loftiest temples on higher ground and that the location of the courthouse was something in line with that tradition. He reviewed the previous iterations including one on Main Street where the St. Charles Hotel (previously the Bella Union, the oldest of the town’s hostelries) later stood and the Market House, with the DA wryly adding that, for years past, “your judges have been expounding the law from an old meat-market. He continued,

Now a new era has dawned upon us. Now, that the stone is laid, let us lay the past behind us, except for the lesson it teaches, and look to the future. The present is ours; let us grasp it. The past is worthless save for the experience it brings. It can benefit us only in that way.

After a review of the rapid rise of America to its present greatness, DuPuy observed that the construction of public buildings was as important in 1888 as it was to the ancients and concluded that, “the Supervisors have furnished the means by taxation upon the county,” while he thanked the Masons for laying the symbolic tools of the square, level and plumb.” When the structure was finished, he ended, “the Board of Supervisors will deserve and receive the proud plaudit, ‘Well done, good and faithful servants.'”

Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1891.

After three years of work, the new building was readied for occupancy on 10 August 1891, with the supervisors and a half-dozen county officers (sheriff, clerk, tax collector, auditor, recorder and surveyor), five days prior, informing the public that, as the supervisors ordered officers to be ready to move from the old courthouse to the new, it was asked that “attorneys and others having business with the various departments” hold off for a few days until the move was complete unless business was absolutely necessary.

On the 7th, the Los Angeles Herald reported that the county clerk was the first to open an office in the new structure the prior day and the inaugural business comprised the issuance of a couple of marriage licenses. It was added that “the new building is rapidly assuming a homelike aspect” with trial runs of the elevator conducted, rooms swept, carpets placed, “and a large number of visitors called to inspect the county’s handsome new structure.” Yet, it concluded,

There will be a great deal of difficulty in reaching the courthouse for those who have business there until the supervisors plane off the slopes and construct steps to the entrances. As it is, the building is reached only after a dusty and tiresome climb narrow paths which have been worn in the steep inclines. The supervisors will doubtless use all possible haste in constructing proper approaches.

On the 8th, the supervisors formally adopted a resolution noting that the time had come “for quitting and abandoning this venerable pile, that for so many years our respected constituencies have so fondly designated the ‘Robbers’ Roost.'” As the auditor, clerk, recorder and sheriff “have already forsaken this old building,” the board stated that it was “with deep regret at bidding adieu to the old Courthouse, so rich in historical memories, that we do now adjourn to our new quarters in the finest courthouse west of the Rocky Mountains.” The clerk was told to let the old building‘s new owner, John A. Bullard, that he could take possession, as negotiated on the 11th—he later built the Bullard Building on that site.

Times, 10 August 1891.

Two days later, the Los Angeles Times ran a lengthy feature on the new courthouse, observing “no better illustration of the phenomenal growth of this county could possibly be furnished than a comparison of the two buildings known as the old and new County Courthouses.” it reviewed the 1859 structure, adding that, at the time it was leased for county purposes, it was centrally located and “the most desirable building for that purpose in the city.”

As the Angel City and county grew, however, “the quarters provided for the various county officers were becoming somewhat cramped.” When it was at last decided to build a new facility, $300,000 in bonds were voted by citizens and contractor O.E. Brady hired to construct it. The work was slow and interest was minimal until the past few months “when it began to dawn upon the public that the new Courthouse was not a myth, but a reality.”

Herald, 14 August 1891.

Reiterating the idea that it was the finest example of its kind west of the Rockies, the paper continued that the building “is a remarkably handsome stone structure, four stories high, the base of which is built of granite, and the rest of yellow and red sandstone. The center of the building is surmounted by a massive clock tower, which rears itself to a height of 200 feet.” The edifice was considered fireproof, utilizing iron girders, fired brick tiles, cement, interior walls of stone and brick and iron staircases with wood used in a “superficial” way.

The main entrance, facing west onto Broadway was approached by a set of shallow granite steps leading to a tiled vestibule with a large arch supported by polished granite pillars. Inside was the main hall running through the entirety of the first floor where it was flanked by the earliest occupied of county offices were situated. Described in some detail were the offices of the assessor and tax collector, the hall of records (a building devoted to this purpose was built adjacent to the south in the early years of the 20th century) and recorder.

The rotunda at the building’s core was the location of the finest rooms in the structure and were, of course, for the use of the supervisors, with more detail provided for that space. At the corner facing Temple and New High (where the pair of photos looks upon) was the offices of the county clerk. As with the recorder’s space where copyists toiled, the clerk’s offices had a staircase down to the basement where marriage licenses, naturalization documents and other material was generated under the supervision of a pair of deputy clerks.

At the Broadway and Temple corner was the county treasurer’s office, considered “one of the most handsomely-fitted offices in the building.” A hallway divided that space from that of the auditor. Back in the basement were the quarters of the sheriff, “his offices occupying three rooms in the corner of the building adjoining the County Jail,” while the sheriff and his under-sheriff had spaces that were “handsomely furnished and can be reached by a private hallway without going through the main office.”

Times, 20 September 1891.

Other spaces were as yet not assigned but were temporarily used for storage, but plans were underway for the accommodation of the coroner, public administrator and surveyor, Oak fittings were installed by workers from a Toledo, Ohio firm, metal files and book racks came from New York and the furniture was from the Los Angeles Furniture Company.

Courtrooms on the second floor were being readied for completion before the next term and it was stated that, for all five departments of the Superior Court, “the benches are magnificent pieces of furniture” and 72 opera chairs were for the public, though one room in the rotunda had some modifications from the others. Finally, the upper floor was to be ready within about 2 1/2 months, as contracts were just finalized, and these were to be offices for the district attorney and the justice court for Los Angeles Township. Offices were, for some years, also provided to the Historical Society of Southern California, formed eight years before and still with us today.

Herald, 4 October 1891.

On 19 September, the courthouse was officially accepted by the county after a report was filed by the architects, Theodore Eisen (whose son, Percy, was, with Albert H. Walker, a prominent architect decades later) and William F. Curlett, assisted by Walter J. Cuthbertson and William S. Hebbard. It was noted that the original contract amount was $410,000, while the third-story contract was almost $66,000 more because the first plan was for two stories plus the basemen.

With granite and stone work, ventilation and plumbing, heaters, main drains and other additions, the total finished cost was just shy of $519,000, while Brady was owned just under $75,000 to date. Yet, because of some issues with the elevator and clock, it was recommended to hold back more than $5,000 until those questions were resolved. Still, the architects were pleased with his overall work and Brady wound up being hired to complete the surrounding walls and walks, as well.

Times, 9 January 1892.

Through the rest of 1891, there were some lingering problems with the clock, which, it was noted, was of the latest electric technology and was tied in to the other timepieces in the building, as well as with the acoustics in the courtrooms. The main controversy, however, concerned the Los Angeles Furniture Company contract, which the Herald claimed was originally $40,000, though its rival, the Express, stated was actually $70,000, but which ballooned to $95,000.

This led to an investigation by the Grand Jury and, after a few months of poring over the matter, that body decided that, while nothing illegal was determined (media reports observed that an investor in the furniture company was Governor Henry H. Markham), the bidding process left quite a bit to be desired and the jury reported, “we believe many thousand[s of] dollars could and would have been saved to the taxpayers of this county” if the supervisors had insisted on requiring designs, plans and specifications from contractors before accepting bids, so that each would have placed these for exactly the same items.

The grand jury did state that the furniture purchased and installed was of very high quality and it praised the edifice as “an elegant and commodious building, made of good material and apparently well constructed.” It did note that the cost of the structure was going to be around $641,000, inclusive of furniture and the exterior walks and retaining walls.

As for the construction quality, it was just over 40 years later that the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, the largest local tremor at 6.4 on the Richter scale since the 1857 shaker that was an estimated 7.9, caused enough damage that the courthouse was deemed unsafe. As with the construction, it took a few years to raze the building, though the clock face was preserved and deposited at the Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County), while some sandstone relics, for an unknown reason, were placed at a park in the City Terrace neighborhood next to Boyle Heights, and the cornerstone is next to the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, where the old courthouse once stood.

2 thoughts

  1. Great article! Are there any existing photographs of the interior of the building?

  2. Hi Dana, thanks for the kind words and we haven’t seen any interior photos of the 1891 courthouse, though maybe someone out there will see this and know of any?

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