by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The life of Isidore B. Dockweiler (1867-1947) is another one of the many stories of how some second-generation residents of Los Angeles (this could obviously be extended throughout the United States) rose above humble origins into positions of wealth and power as the Angel City grew by leaps and bounds during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These examples, of course, were almost exclusively from Europeans, mostly western and northern, while opportunities for people of color were all but closed except for a very few exceptions.
Still, Dockweiler’s life is full of interesting and informative aspects relating to our local history during this period and the featured artifact from the Museum’s collection for this post is reflective of one of his most notable public roles as a major figure in Democratic Party politics. It is a press photograph from Underwood and Underwood of New York and the caption stated that Dockweiler arrived in the Big Apple for the party nominating convention for the 1924 presidential campaign, but erred in saying he was a national party committee member from Colorado, rather than from California.
He was the youngest of the four sons of Margaretha Sugg (1827-1924), who was from the Alsace-Lorraine region that was often in contention between France and what became Germany, and Henry Dockweiler (1824-1887), who was from the southwester portion of modern Germany near the French border. Henry migrated to the United States in 1839 (a brother, Christian, later came to California and died in Los Angeles a few years before Henry) and was in Cincinnati for much of his young adult life, working as a rope maker and marrying Mary Vogel there in 1850, as shown in his federal census listing and a marriage record.
While some sources suggest that Henry came to Los Angeles in 1852, his obituary in the Los Angeles Herald stated he resettled here five years after that (Mary perhaps having died prior to that) and tried his hand at mining for gold in San Gabriel Canyon, then the scene of plenty of prospecting. He was long a sufferer from asthma and his brother died of tuberculosis, so this may have explained Henry’s move to this area. The 1860 census showed him as a rope maker, though he had some connection to San Francisco, where Margaretha Sugg, formerly of Buffalo, New York, worked as a household servant. In October 1861, the couple were married in the Los Angeles Plaza Church.
Their first child, Joseph John, was born the following August but died at just four months of age. Two years later, while she was visiting relatives back in New York, Margaretha gave birth to John Henry, who wound up being a well-known engineer and surveyor in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1865, Joseph, who was a bartender and then a plumber for most of his adult life, was born and he was followed two years later, at the end of December 1867, by Isidore.
Meanwhile, Henry transitioned from rope making to bar-tending and found work for Frederick Koll, proprietor of the Lafayette Hotel, one of three in the Angel City along with the earliest, the Bella Union, and the United States. In 1862, Koll took on Henry and Christian Fluhr, who handled the restaurant, as partners. Within about four years, Henry went out on his own and opened the Gambrinus (this was a famous European icon of brewers and beer sellers) Saloon, at the corner of Los Angeles and Commercial streets.
By the end of the Sixties, there was a move to Main Street under his own name next to the Pico Building, which housed the Hellman, Temple and Company bank, and then again, to “Dockweiler’s New Saloon” which opened in late 1871 “under the new Temple Building,” this being the fourth and final structure within the Temple Block. The establishment was in the edifice’s basement below the newly opened Temple and Workman bank and, when the first Los Angeles City Directory was published in 1872, Henry thought it humorous, just months after the horrific Chinese Massacre of October 1871, to advertise “No Killing [Within] 300 Yards From Here” for his saloon, where he prominently promoted the fresh oysters served there.
A loyal supporter of the Republican Party and the Union cause during the Civil War, when the Democrats ruled the political roost and pro-Confederate sympathy during the conflict was rampant, Henry was narrowly elected to the Los Angeles Common (City) Council in December 1870 and served three terms, including during the massacre. In 1871-1872, he built a group of brick residences at Fort (renamed Broadway in 1890) and 1st streets, but, having maintained an interest in mining, including in San Bernardino County during the Sixties, he invested heavily in a venture at Castle Dome near Yuma, Arizona (his Los Angeles saloon in the late 70s and early 80s, located at Main and 1st, was called Castle Dome) and was nearly ruined financially.
Despite the ups and downs experienced by the family, John and Isidore (Joseph appears to have lived a largely quiet and unobtrusive life) were excellent students at St. Vincent’s College, which opened in 1865 in Vicente Lugo Adobe on the east side of the Plaza with their father as a founder and which educated Catholic boys from elementary through high school ages. When Isidore, who completed the high school program in 1883, graduated with a bachelor’s degree four years later, shortly after the institution moved from 6th Street between Fort (Broadway) and Hill, he was the first to do so; other students at the school then included the brothers Boyle and William H. Workman, Jr. and Walter P. and Charles Temple.
Known for his oratorical and theatrical skills, Isidore, who’d worked as a bookkeeper during his college years and as a surveyor when his brother was city engineer during the mayoral administration of William H. Workman in 1887-1888, went on to earn a master’s degree in 1889 from St. Vincent’s, which was then situated at Grand Avenue and Washington Boulevard and eventually evolved, at the end of the 1920s, into Loyola Marymount University. He began service with the Board of Trustees of the institution in 1890 and remained it until his death nearly six decades later and received an honorary law degree from it in 1905. From 1898 to 1912, he also served as a trustee of the state Normal School at San Diego for teacher education and he was a trustee from 1897-1899 and 1901-1911 of the library.
After earning his graduate degree, Dockweiler, who was a protégé of Stephen M. White, a lawyer, district attorney and United States Senator whose advocacy for the Port of Los Angeles led him to be called a “Father of the Harbor,” joined the law firm of Anderson, Fitzgerald and Anderson to continue his legal studies. In October 1889, he was examined by justices of the state Supreme Court in a Los Angeles session and admitted to the bar, immediately following this with the formation of his own practice in the handsome Bryson-Bonebrake Building at Spring and 2nd streets, where the first public school in town once stood.
While Dockweiler maintained his law practice for decades, he was perhaps better known for his various civic, business, religious and political activities. For the Roman Catholic Church, he was involved in a great many projects and organizations, including as a founder of the Knights of Columbus, while he was also one of the founding directors, along with noted journalist, playwright and poet John Steven McGroarty, of the company that published The Tidings, which began in 1895 and is now Angelus. In 1924, Pope Pius XI made Dockweiler a Knight of St. Gregory, an honor also later bestowed on Dockweiler’s son, Thomas.
In business and finance, he was involved in at least 17 companies, including The Los Angeles Morris Plan Company, whose president and general manager was William H. Workman, Jr., the Wholesale Terminal Company, which developed substantial downtown industrial property and for which he was attorney, and being chairman of the board of Lincoln Savings and Loan, which went on decades later to infamy during the scandals under its owner Charles Keating. Among his many civic endeavors was his chairing the committee that oversaw the 150th anniversary celebration in 1931 of Los Angeles’ founding—the Homestead’s holdings has a letter from Dockweiler welcoming Walter P. Temple to the ceremonial board of advisors for the festivities.
His political presence in the Angel City was pronounced, albeit in a Democratic Party which, while once all-powerful when controlled by the pro-South, pro-Confederate “Chivalry” faction, was a perennial doormat to the Republican Party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was the candidate for lieutenant governor in the campaign of 1902, in which he and gubernatorial Franklin Lane (later Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson) narrowly lost.
Dockweiler rose to be the Democrats’ most visible local representative at the state and national level. In 1904, he was named chairman of the state party and was quoted in the 23 August edition of the Los Angeles Express as stating, after Stephen White’s brother Edward withdrew from seeking the position,
I do not regard my election as personal, but as a recognition of the united democracy of Southern California. The day of dissension has passed away. We no longer have [former President Grover] Cleveland, [frequent presidential candidate William Jennings] Bryan or [powerful newspaper publisher William Randolph] Hearst democrats . . . At the feet of Stephen M. White I learned the principles of democracy, and I always followed his lead. In my actions as chairman I shall be impartial. I am no man’s man. I belong to no faction. My ambition is to be known as a humble democrat, working for the success of his party.
Speaking of Bryan, when Dockweiler appeared as a delegate at the 1908 party convention in Denver, the Los Angeles Record of 7 July 1908 reported “there have been several false alarms to the effect that Bryan had suddenly appeared . . . and there have been a number of Bryan doubles, but it remained for Isidor [sic] B. Dockweiler to furnish the most striking impersonation of the Commoner.” It was added that “Izzy,” said to have dressed like the three-time (1896, 1900, 1908—he lost each time) presidential nominee, was heading to a Knights of Columbus event and drew a crowd mistaking him for Bryan with the paper concluding “Dockweiler was in real danger of being the center of a real demonstration before he could escape.”
After securing a spot on the Bureau of Indian Affairs following Woodrow Wilson’s surprise victory in the 1912 presidential election, when ex-President Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy cut into incumbent William Howard Taft’s reelection effort, serving from 1913-1916, Dockweiler’s next advancement within the Democratic Party came in that latter year. That June, he became the first Southern California resident to be appointed a member of the Democratic National Committee and the party was able to celebrate Wilson’s reelection not long before the United States entered the First World War.
In the 1924 election, Dockweiler was highlighted in Los Angeles newspapers as a prominent figure in the party’s political elite, with the Illustrated Daily News featuring him as one of the “Chiefs of Democracy” for the national convention at New York City, observing that, as the subcommittee chair for seating delegates and visitors, “he placed California well up front.” Two days later, the paper ran a photo of him and an Oregon committee member bearing their state standards for their respective states at the confab.
The three presidential elections were particularly brutal for the Democrats, who were swamped by G.O.P. and its candidates, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, in the campaigns of 1920, 1924 and 1928 and Dockweiler sought unsuccessfully to be nominated as his party’s candidate for the United States Senate in 1926. As the Roaring Twenties sputtered toward an ignominious end with the onset of the Great Depression, which hit its lowest depths during a wave of bank failures before the 1932 election, Dockweiler completed 16 years of service on the national committee with the nomination and resounding win of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He served a delegate to the 1936 and 1940 conventions at Philadelphia and Chicago.
He continued with his law firm and also served on the California State Parks Commission until his death in 1947, at which time he was lionized for his many contributions to Los Angeles business, law, politics, religion and society generally. Superior Court Judge Walter S. Gates, in something of an echo of Dockweiler’s debt to White, expressed gratitude for the mentorship he received, adding “Los Angeles will not soon forget him.” Joseph Scott, another very prominent attorney and Catholic lay leader, told the Los Angeles Times that “in the sunset days of his life he has been called home to the eternal mansions in the sky, an end of a journey full of accomplishment for God, his country and his fellow man . . .”
Scott added that his long-time friend’s “name for more than half a century has been a synonym for vigorous achievement, proud and exalted in his affection for his native State, uncompromising against all these alien ideologies which surround us.” An encomium in the Times proclaimed,
The great and humble will gather to do last honors . . . [as] the recitation of his accomplishments in the law, the church, public affairs and community development is a long one and justifiably honorable.
But it is in his role as a fine American gentleman that [he] will linger in the memory of his multitude of friends . . .
To all his acquaintances he was thoughtful, kind, courteous, deferential and he had a delightful touch of humor and camaraderie that endeared him . . . He was a Democrat and through the thin years of the party in California he marshaled the wavering ranks and showed a brave face to the enemy. When the party triumphed he stepped back from the scramble for preference.
Scott and the Times mentioned another legacy that Dockweiler left behind. In 1891, he married Gertrude Reeve (1871-1937), whose brothers attended St. Vincent’s College with Dockweiler and whose father was an architect who designed the first St. Vincent’s Catholic Church and the Pro-Cathedral of the Episcopal Church, and the couple raised eight sons and three daughters. Among them were John F., who served in Congress and was Los Angeles County District Attorney from 1940 until his death in 1943; Henry, who was a diplomat in China, Japan and Spain; Mary, a major figure in Angel City charity work, including the Los Angeles Orphanage Guild; George, a lawyer and judge; Frederick, also an attorney and active in Democratic Party politics; Thomas, mentioned above and who was on the Los Angeles Social Service Commission; and Edward, who was a rear admiral in the Navy and Bronze Star recipient for his heroism while a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II.
In 1955, Venice-Hyperion State Beach, stretching some three miles between Playa del Rey and El Segundo and next to Los Angeles International Airport, was renamed for Dockweiler and remains the main public recognition for a figure who was one of the best-known figures in Los Angeles for roughly a half-century.