La La Landscapes: A Photo of the 3rd Annual Chrysanthemum Fair, Los Angeles, October 1891

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With the great Boom of the Eighties peaking in Los Angeles during the administration of Mayor William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, there was also the context of fads and trends during the late Victorian period. One of the many examples had to do with popular plants in ornamental gardens, especially those largely cultivated by (and for) the middle and upper classes.

Prior to this famous explosion of population growth and regional development, there was an earlier, though more modest, boom in the late 1860s and first half of the 1870s, during which there was a movement towards beautifying residential landscapes. A preeminent example from that era, dating to about 1875, was the well-known garden of the Charles and Lucy Longstreet family, situated with an elegant house on Adams Street between Figueroa Street and Grand Avenue at what was then the southern edge of Los Angeles and far removed from downtown. A remnant of this once-expansive and ornate showpiece is a driveway of palm trees on the campus of the Orthopaedic Institute for Children and recently built housing.

Los Angeles Express, 23 October 1891.

While the Longstreet place was later subdivided, the family prefigured one of the areas for the next major expansion of elite residences around the time of the 1880s boom, this being the section featuring University Park next to the recently opened University of Southern California, affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, as well as the ultra-exclusive enclave of Chester Place. Imposing mansions of such figures as Thomas Stimson often included luxuriously landscaped gardens filled with rare and unusual flowering plants, bushes, shrubs and trees.

Previous “La La Landscapes” posts have highlighted late 19th century photographs, taken by such shutterbugs as Lemuel S. Ellis and his namesake son, who actually advertised themselves as specialists in documenting landscapes. One post, celebrating a donation by Tracy Soinger of New York, featured several more 1880s Ellis images, these taken on the leafy thoroughfares of Figueroa and Adams, along with one by William H. Fletcher in Pasadena, another area with manicured gardens surrounding houses of the well-to-do.

Los Angeles Times, 24 October 1891.

The idea that photographers could become that granular in their specialization is a reflection of the growth of Los Angeles and environs to support that, but also of the increasing interest and focus of some residents (again, those with more wealth to indulge) on beautification of their properties through their residential gardens. Layered on to this was a growing fascination with exotic plants, something that began to flower (!) in the earlier boom of the Seventies through such experimentalists as Ozro W. Childs, a nursery owner, and Elijah H. Workman, brother of the future mayor and who was instrumental in ornamenting public parks like the Plaza and Pershing Square.

This “La La Landscapes” installment features, from the Homestead’s collection, an October 1891 cabinet card photograph, taken by Herve Friend, of the interior of a large temporary pavilion filled with exhibits for the third annual chrysanthemum fair, held next to the Simpson Auditorium, next to what was known as the Simpson Tabernacle when that Methodist place of worship was completed two years earlier located on the east side of Hope Street between 7th and 8th streets. The chrysanthemum was especially popular and was commonly referred to as a “Japanese rose,” though the fall bloomer was originally grown in China, even as it became immensely popular in Japan.

Express, 24 October 1891.

The fair was organized by the Ladies’ Social Circle, another of the many women’s organizations, such as the Friday Morning Club, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and others, that also proliferated in the Angel City during the period. Methodists, in particular, proliferated among the planners, headed by Mary Barnes Widney, wife of the prominent judge and attorney (and USC founding figure) Robert M. Widney—their daughter Frances was the wife of William H. Workman’s son, Boyle, this being another example of Angel City elite interconnection.

Others who were on planning committees for the fair carried the well-known surnames of Shaffer, Chandler, Hubbell, Spence, Chapman, Pridham, Chaffee, Plater, Solano, Thom, Dunkelberger, Bonebrake, Rowan, Silent, Perry, O’Melveny, Yarnell, and Gibson. Another prominent figure was Maria Boyle Workman, the ex-mayor’s wife, while it was added that the chair of the event was Henry Z. Osborne, publisher of the Los Angeles Express newspaper, the keynote speaker was James J. Ayers, formerly editor of the Express, but then co-owner of the Los Angeles Herald, and that a poem for the event was penned by Eliza Wetherby Otis, first published at sixteen, the wife of the powerful proprietor of the Los Angeles Times, Harrison Gray Otis, and known for her verses for major public events. Clearly, having prominent representation by the three major dailies helped with public relations and marketing!

Express, 23 October 1891.

There was a bit of controversy that arose, however, as another chrysanthemum fair was organized and opened on the same day, 27 August, at Hazard’s Pavilion, a prominent performance venue on 5th Street just east of Hill Street and across from the north side of Pershing Square, then known as Central or Sixth Street Park. The Herald of that day commented in its editorial section,

There is just now a very unpleasant development in Los Angeles, and one which ought not to have been permitted to occur. Some three months ago the ladies of the Chrysanthemum society of this city announced their purpose to hold a fair, the third of the series . . . [given all the planning] their surprise, therefore, was extreme when another organization, called itself the Horticultural society, hired Hazard’s pavilion, and announced the opening of the Second Annual Chrysanthemum Fair. The ladies feel that their thunder has been stolen and that a wrong has been perpetrated . . . [the Herald] does not believe there is anything like fair play in the gentlemen who have announced the exhibit in Hazard’s pavilion . . .

Mary Widney and the Ladies’ Society secretary also fired off a letter to the Express, published in its edition of the 28th, and explained that it coordinated the first two of its fairs in October 1889 and October 1890 and that it was announced at the closing of the second exhibition that there would be a third edition “to be held the last of October, 1891.” Moreover, it was stated that “we never agreed to postpone our fair for the convenience of any subsequently organized flower show.”

Los Angeles Herald, 27 October 1891.

While the organization allowed the right of anyone to hold shows when they wishes, they added “we would not so do to others” and it added that “our immediate cause of complaint” was the wording of the rivals that their show was the second annual Chrysanthemum fair. It concluded, “we think this is a trespass on our rights and is calculated to mislead the public.” Still, the show had to go on and lengthy reviews appeared in the papers the following day, the 28th.

The Express began its coverage by reporting that “Between 2000 and 3000 people attended the opening . . . and helped to make the scene still more beautiful and brilliant” and it waxed a bit poetic with its observation that “as one looked beyond the miniature range of verdure-clad mountains that lay in the foreground, it seemed like some fairy spectacle evolved by the wand of an eastern magician.”

Herald, 27 October 1891.

The purple prose ran rampant with, “as far as the eye could reach was a sea of gorgeous blossoms, divided into parterres [a formal garden layout], circles, angles, palm leaves and many other fanciful designs.” It added that each day the area, embraced within a massive canvas tent in a vacant lot to the north of the Simpson measuring 160 by 145 feet, would become more impressive “as many of the blossoms on the growing plants are just budding into perfect bloom.”

Reference was made to the plant covered booths that included ones dispensing coffee, sandwiches, soda and ice cream. At the latter, the Express went on, “the little Japanese maidens [clearly white women in appropriation mode] skip in occasionally from their tea garden, with its dainty bamboo tables, its quaint nooks shaded by lantern-lining parasols, and its little birdsnest [sic] of a tea house, one of the prettiest spots in the huge garden.”

Express, 27 October 1891.

Banners and scrolls were representative of other countries and electric lights were used to great effect and as the paper reveled in the atmosphere, it proclaimed,

Add to all this the poetry of music and the bewitching glances of a rosebud garden of girls, and the aggregate of beauty can better be imagined than described, and it is not saying too much to remark that the affair is the finest flower fete ever seen on the Pacific coast.

Within the church, there was an art display, including works by well-known regional creators like J. Bond Francisco; Guy Rose (son of the San Gabriel Valley rancher Leonard J. Rose, for whom the city of Rosemead is named); Edith White, who was best known for her painting of roses, other flowers and landscapes; and Fannie Duvall, who moved to Los Angeles in 1888, exhibited a pair of works at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and lived in Paris and the Angel City.

Herald, 28 October 1891.

The house of worship was also illuminated by electric lights to showcase the displayed art works, while its parlors were used as resting spaces for women and the basement was a dining hall. The paper recorded that “the auditorium presented a very brilliant appearance . . . the platform was tastefully decorated with growing plants and cut flowers, while the handsome paintings of the art exhibit made an attractive background.”

Ayers’ remarks also rendered plenty flights of fancy in his exaltation of “our matchless Southern California” which was where “we can present to the rapt vision of the visitors a collection of several hundred varieties of that single beautiful species—the chrysanthemum, or gold flower.” He then paid tribute to the “picturesque grandeur of scenery” in the region’s foothill, mesas and valleys “grand in their pictorial variety of color and glorious in their fruit, foliage and flowers” and observed that “those who have knelt and worshiped here at nature’s generous shrine,” and “felt the heart-throbs of an atmosphere the quickens the veins with the glow of new-born strength” also “have felt that life in Southern California is worth living.”

Express, 28 October 1891.

Moreover, the orator insisted that events like the fair contributed to “the elevation of our moral standard, and to the refinement of our artistic faculties” and played its part in “laying some portion of the foundation for a better society, for better public manners and for a higher type of man and womanhood.” He proclaimed that

We ought to be thankful to the Almighty Guide who has piloted us to this American Eden. We can never be too grateful for the priceless gifts of soil and climate that we have here come to inherit. And we can never overestimate the charms and delights of our beautiful valley of the angels.

In its lengthy summation, the Herald noted that one of its reporters spoke to a “Mr. Hamashigeta” who was described as a “talented Japanese [who] has had sole charge of he cultivation of the chrysanthemums.” It stated that he was struck by the women dressed as Japanese ladies and “seemed dazed as if he had dropped down into his own land, into a garden of his favorite flowers.” He was quoted as saying, “it is a very nice display, only not so many varieties as we have in Japan. There you sometimes see 1000 varieties. We have been growing these [on display at the fair] since April.”

After Ayers’ oration and a musical piece for a vocalist, Osborne ended the opening evening’s exercises by paying tribute to the women organizers and, after he officially declared the fair as launched, the paper concluded by observing that visitors “wandered around and went into ecstasies over the labyrinths of many colored chrysanthemums . . . and were more and more bewildered over the floral feast which had been set before them.” The paper, however, couldn’t resist in insisting that some of the Japanese names for the flower were “odd,” including the “Kioto,” or Kyoto, and “Ko Ko Nove,” said to be a name for the palace of the mikado or emperor, though is the Kokyo Palace in Tokyo.

Obviously, it would have been much different if the photo could have been taken in color to really get the full effect the interior of the exhibit tent created for visitors to this third annual Chrysanthemum fair, but, with a little imagination this visual excursion into “La La Landscapes” can still be made into an interesting trip back to Los Angeles over 130 years ago.

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