No Place Like Home: Celebrating California State Parks Week with Don Pío Pico’s Adobe House, Whittier

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the second annual California State Parks Week begins today and continues through Sunday, this seemed like an opportune time to highlight one of our favorite kindred historic sites, the Pío Pico State Historic Park in Whittier. Located on five acres on the western edge of Whittier, just west of Interstate 605, the park includes the adobe residence built (and rebuilt) by the last governor of Mexican California on the south side of Whittier Boulevard, which was part of the famous El Camino Real, the main roadway through the region.

Designated California Historic Landmark #127, the dwelling also been known as the Pío Pico Mansion or El Ranchito, though the latter is generally considered to apply to the nearly 9,000-acre majority of Rancho Paso de Bartolo, comprising just over 10,000 acres granted in 1835 to Juan Crispín Pérez. His father Juan Crispín Pérez Nieto and uncle Manuel Pérez Nieto were owners of the massive Rancho Los Nietos of some 167,000 acres (divided in 1834 into smaller ones by their heirs, including Las Bolsas, Los Alamitos, Los Cerritos, Los Coyotes, and Santa Gertrudes.

From the December 1882 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

Paso de Bartolo (though who Bartolo is seems to be a mystery) was a former ranch of the Mission San Gabriel, where Pérez was a mayordomo before it was secularized just prior to the grant. In 1847, he died and the property was left to his heirs, but, within a short time, Pico acquired the lion’s share of it and, while it was not one of the smallest ranches, he likely called it El Ranchito because he had enormous ranches in the San Fernando Valley and in southern Orange/northern San Diego counties. Smaller shares were purchased in the 1840s from Pérez by Bernardino Guirado (876 acres) and Joaquina Sepúlveda (208 acres).

What is unclear is just when Don Pío, who was just a few years removed from being governor while California was recently seized by the United States during the Mexican-American War, built his adobe edifice at the ranch. Some sources suggest he began building in 1848, though others state that it was completed in 1852 or 1853, while there are those who avoid the question altogether—including the state landmark plaque which does not provide a date. It should also be noted that, for an unknown period, Pico had a residence in Los Angeles in addition to his “country house” at Whittier—in fact, he was enumerated at both in the federal census, as he obviously shuttled regularly from one to the other!

An excerpt from the article.

Don Pío was one of the few Californios to retain a strong financial position as well as some influence in post-Mexican-era Los Angeles and he seems to have benefitted handsomely, as most ranchers did, from the Gold Rush beef trade that flourished in the first half of the 1850s. After that, however, there were severe challenges, including the ending of the rush, competition from better breeds of imported beef cattle, a national depression in 1857 and the dual disaster of flooding in the winter of 1861-1862 and drought in 1863 and 1864.

On top of that, floods in 1867-1868 were such that the San Gabriel River, which formerly ran in the channel that is now the Río Hondo, followed an irrigation ditch used by Pico and others and developed a new course that remains the current one. Being that much closer to his house, the repositioned watercourse appears to have washed away a substantial part of the structure and this was repeated again during the flood of 1883-1884 with a large portion destroyed.

An early 1900s snapshot from the Museum’s collection of the Pío Pico house before it was restored by Harriet Russell Strong at the end of the decade.

By this time, though, Pico’s economic situation was substantially strained. Part of the problem was that he sold half of the large Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando to finance the construction of his ornate (for the place and period) Pico House hotel, which he completed in 1869 and intended to keep the historic Plaza viable as the core of Los Angeles’ commercial section was moving southward toward the Temple Block and nearby areas. The hotel, however, failed to meet expectations and became a financial drain.

Another substantial issue for the former governor was his propensity to pursue litigation or to be the target of lawsuits, as his biographer Carlos Salomon has noted. At about the time the 1880s flood happened and Pico expended large sums to rebuild at El Ranchito, adding rooms to the east, away from the river, the octogenarian was badly in need of funds and sought a loan to stabilize his situation.

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times of 12 February 1891 lamenting his fate after the California Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Pico vs. Cohn.

It is interesting, in this context, to read about Don Pío in the December 1882 issue of the widely popular publication, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The unattributed piece was the third in a series on southern California and had some very interesting material on greater Los Angeles. In fact, we’ll look to feature the article in its entirety at the end of the year, but, for now, we’ll focus on its coverage of the aged ex-governor.

The piece observed that the Californios and Latinos, said to comprise about a third of the city’s populace, generally were “a people which has gone to the wall” even as Los Angeles had recently begun to emerge from the economic doldrums that began with the crash of 1875 (including the failure of the Temple and Workman bank). Adding, though, that Latinos in the Angel City “were no very pathetic aspect in their adversity,” the unknown author observed that only a few figures, from the Estudillo, Pacheco and Sepúlveda families, were still in “prominence in the State of which they were once owners.” Counter to that, however,

Old Don Pio Pico, the last of the Spanish Governors [actually, last governor of the Mexican era], resides here, impoverished, in a little cottage, in sight of property of much value which was formerly his, and of the plaza which was once the centre of his authority.

Don Pio is on of the picturesque sights of Los Angeles. With his history and circumstances, he would be esteemed an interesting figure anywhere. Above eighty now, with his stocky figure, square head, and bright eye, contrasting with his bronzed skin and close-cropped white hair and beard, he has a certain resemblance to Victor Hugo [the famed French author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame]. He has a rather florid taste in jewelry, and carries himself about town, in his short overcoat with velvet collar and cuffs, with a bearing still erect and stately.

The description continued that it was a sight to see “evidence of the conservatism and lack of adaptability in his peculiar race, that the old gentleman,” though a former chief executive and resident for 35 years of the American era, “does not speak a syllable of anything but his own language.”

Los Angeles Herald, 20 March 1909.

It was commented that “talk of this historic personage suggests but a rude picture of the advantages to be enjoyed in the state of society” when Pico was a young man and it was asked, “was there anything in the world so remote as the California of the years 1810-30, or thereabouts.

In demurring from discussing the end of his governorship and the invasion of the Americans, Pico offered that there were others who knew more and could better explain the condition of that period, and told the writer, “I am a plain person who had the chance to learn but little from books.” Adding that his father, José María, “did not leave me a mule nor a vara of ground,” the proud figure did assert, “I was a just man, however . . . when it was asked who should be Governor, who was lo mas justo y honrado—most just and honest man—for that place, it was answered that it was I, Don Pio Pico.”

A postcard from the Homestead’s collection of the house.

The author continued that “there are differences of opinion about these old Spanish officials” and there efficiency and trustworthiness, though it was averred that the ideas was far from “disparaging Don Pio,” even as it was stated that there was “a wholesale issue of patents to lands after the American occupation, which patents apparently belonged to the periods of their respective administrations.”

In fact, there was an established date of 7 July 1846 that was considered when grants ceased to be considered legitimate. In some cases, though, such as Pico’s grants to William Workman of Alcatraz and San Clemente islands (the latter jointly to the governor’s brother, Andrés), the American military asserted its power to take these for purposes of national defense, while his grant to Workman and Hugo Reid of the lands of the secularized Mission San Gabriel was, in 1864, invalidated by the United States Supreme Court.

Another early 20th century postcard from the Museum’s holdings of the site.

The reference to the former governor as “one of the picturesque sights of Los Angeles” is notable, as it appears that Don Pío was frequently referred to or pointed out, as the Angel City and environs increasingly became a popular tourist destination, aided by direct transcontinental railroad connections after 1885 and such touchstones as Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona, to visitors as if he was something of a relic of pre-American California.

Moreover, the statement that he lived in poverty was also striking, as, about the time of the magazine article, Pico entered into a contract with merchant Bernard Cohn. This was a very lengthy and complicated legal issue, but, fundamentally, Pico argued that he borrowed $62,000 from Cohn as a mortgage to secure a loan and that he paid $65,000 back, while Cohn maintained that the funds he remitted to the ex-governor constituted a sale of his property, including El Ranchito, while he paid out another $41,000 relating to settlements and additional claims by others on Pico’s property.

A view from the Museum’s holdings of the house’s courtyard, ca. 1920s.

While the Superior Court ruled that, with $103,000 remitted to Cohn, Pico was to receive a reconveyance of the property in question, it, after Cohn’s protests, added $35,000 for Pico to get that reconveyance, but he refused to agree. A new trial before a different judge was then ordered and Cohn (and his successors, he having died in 1889) emerged victorious. In appealing to the state Supreme Court, Pico’s attorneys argued that Cohn committed fraud and it argued that

At the date of the original transaction with Cohn, Pico was an old man over eighty years of age, unable to speak or understand the English language, unused to complicated statements or accounts, easily deceived, and in great distress and trouble regarding his business affairs. He confided in Cohn, relied upon him implicitly, and at his solicitation abstained from consulting his usual legal advisers.

Beyond this, the lawyers noted that Francisco “Pancho” Johnson was there as an interpreter when Pico (for whom Johnson was said to be a friend and adviser) and Cohn made their initial agreement and, while he was said to have concurred in the presence of the former’s attorneys that the transaction was a loan and mortgage, Johnson testified at trial that it was a sale. Pico’s counsel claimed that Cohn bribed Johnson with $2,000 to change his story, but the latter, as with Cohn, died before the appeal was heard, so the testimony transcript was introduced in the second trial, but the judge believed Johnson’s story.

An early 1930s snapshot of Thomas W. Temple II and Arvella Temple, wife of his cousin, Charles P., Jr., at the house.

While the higher court allowed that “upon proof of these facts there is a reasonable certainty that plaintiff would, upon another trial, gain his cause,” it still denied Pico’s mention to vacate and set aside the second trail verdict because “it must be a fraud extrinsic or collateral to the questions examined and determined in the action” and this standard was, apparently, not met in the matter as “we think it is settled beyond controversy that a decree will not be vacated merely because it was obtained by forged documents or perjured testimony.”

Further, the justices determined that “endless litigation, in which nothing was ever finally determined, would be worse than occasional miscarriages of justice; and so the rule is, that a final judgment cannot be annulled merely because it can be shown to have been based on perjured testimony; for if this could be done once, it could be done again and again ad infinitum.” While Pico insisted that Johnson’s perjury was “extrinsic or collateral,” the high court replied that “The fraud which Cohn committed was the production of perjured evidence in support of his defense.  The means by which he induced the witness to swear falsely was but an incident.”

A group of participants at the same event.

The problem, as the justices saw it, was that, it could be deduced that Johnson committed perjury “by some fraudulent or corrupt practice on the part of him who gets the advantage of the perjury,” that is, Cohn, “it is a matter of indifference what particular form such corrupt practice takes.” This was because, “the evil and the wrong is in the perjury which follows” and Johnson’s testimony was “drawn in question at the trial, and determined by the decision of the court; and all that has since been discovered is another item of testimony bearing on that point.” Cited to this point was an 1878 case and, in that matter, it was determined that eve a matter of evidence given fraudulently was not a ground for reversing a judgment.

In other words, the final decision was not one of evidence or an acceptance of fraud and perjury, but one of authority. The Supreme Court’s ruling was in February 1891, a few months before Pico turned 90 years of age. A recent donation to the Homestead by the estate of Josette Temple includes a red velvet-upholstered chair and footrest that, purportedly, were given to Josette’s ancestors when Pico stayed there for a short time after being evicted from El Ranchito and on his way to Los Angeles. While there’s no way to know if the story is true, it certainly is an interesting one.

A dancer in the courtyard at the event.

As for the Pico Mansion, it deteriorated as the 19th century came to a close and the 20th century dawned. Harriet Russell Strong, who, with her husband, purchased El Ranchito land from Pico in 1867, undertook and effort to preserve the structure and bought the edifice and had it restored (by the standards of the time, that is) in 1909. Eight years later, it was purchased by the state and, in 1927, it was among the first state historic parks—which means, there is a centennial coming in a few years.

Additional restoration work was conducted in 1944, but the Whittier Narrows earthquake of 1987 caused considerable damage and this was worsened by the Northridge quake seven years later. A 1996 county proposition was approved, providing $2.5 million for repair and restoration for the building and general park improvements, work that was undertaken in the early 2000s. This 20 September will mark 20 years since the reopening to the public of this important local state historic park.

As for Don Pío, after his death in September 1894, he was interred at the old Calvary Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills (below modern Dodger Stadium) in a cast-iron tomb he had imported to house the remains of this wife, María Ygnacia Alvarado, after her death forty years prior. Calvary was already in a state of disuse and disrepair by then and tomb raiders desecrated the tomb in the early 1900s.

After Walter P. Temple realized the stunning change in fortune that came with the discovery of oil on his property in the Montebello Hills and then bought the Homestead late in 1917, a priority was renovating the near-ruined El Campo Santo Cemetery. This included the construction of the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum that was finished in spring 1921 and dedicated after the remains of the Picos were moved from Los Angeles and interred in the new structure near their compadres, William Workman and his wife Nicolasa Urioste and their daughter Antonia Margarita Workman and her husband F.P.F. Temple (these last being the parents of Walter.)

From Lee Shippey’s column, “The Lee Side O’ L.A.” Los Angeles Times, 10 October 1928.

The long walkway leading from the Workman House and La Casa Nueva to El Campo Santo, which was formerly a drive known as Evergreen Lane was remade into a walkway when the Museum opened in 1981 and renamed the Pío Pico Memorial Walkway. This post is both an acknowledgment of the importance of the Pío Pico State Historic Park and its deep connection to the Homestead.

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