El Pueblo de Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Plaza Historic District, also known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument, is located at the oldest section of Los Angeles, known for many years as “El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles”. The district, centered on the old plaza, was the city’s center under Spanish (1781–1821), Mexican (1821–1847) and United States (after 1847) rule through most of the 19th Century.

Panoramic view of the Los Angeles Plaza in 1876. The Pico House is the prominent 3-story white building at the center of the photo. The Los Angeles River can be seen in the background.
Panoramic view of the Los Angeles Plaza in 1876. The Pico House is the prominent 3-story white building at the center of the photo. The Los Angeles River can be seen in the background.

The Pico House is a historic building in Los Angeles, California, dating from its days as a small town in Southern California. Located on 430 North Main Street, it sits across the old Los Angeles Plaza from Olvera Street and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument.

Pío Pico, a successful businessman who was the last Mexican Governor of Alta California, ordered construction of a luxury hotel in the growing town. The architect was Ezra F. Kysor and it was constructed between 1869 and 1870. The resulting Italianate three story, 33-room hotel, dubbed Pico House (or Casa de Pico) was the most extravagant and lavish hotel in Southern California, and its opening was cause for much celebration. It had a total of nearly 80 rooms, large windows, a small interior court, and a grand staircase. In the days of the hotel’s primacy the courtyard featured a fountain and an aviary of exotic birds. Today Pico House belongs to the El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument. The ground floor is occasionally used for exhibits and other events.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Pico House (1869-70)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Pico House (1869-70)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Pico House (1869-70) and Merced Theatre (1870)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Pico House (1869-70) and Merced Theatre (1870)

The Merced Theatre was built in 1870 and is one of the oldest structures erected in Los Angeles for the presentation of dramatic performances. It served as the centre of theatrical activity in the city from 1871 to 1876.

The theatre was built by William Abbot, the son of Swiss immigrants who settled in Los Angeles in 1854. In 1858, he married the woman for whom he would name the theatre, Maria Merced Garcia, the daughter of José Antonio Garcia and María Guadalupe Uribe, who were long-time residents of the Los Angeles pueblo. The theatre was designed by Ezra F. Kysor, the architect of the Pico House.

On the other side of Merced Theatre is Masonic Hall, used by the Masons for their meetings until 1868 when they moved to larger quarters further south.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Pico House (1869-70); Merced Theatre (1870) and Masonic Hall (1858)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Pico House (1869-70); Merced Theatre (1870) and Masonic Hall (1858)

Freemasonry became popular in the United States in the 1850s and a lodge was started in Los Angeles in 1854. In 1858 Lodge 42 asked William Hayes Perry, a mason, and his partner James Brady to build a lodge room on the second floor of a building they were constructing at 426 North Main street for their carpentry and furniture-making business. Lodge 42 loaned Perry and Brady the money for the construction. The Masonic Hall was finished by November, after which the Masons paid a rent of $20 a month. The building was a two story unpainted brick structure with a symbolic “masonic eye” below the parapet.

Across Main Street from Pico House are the Brunswig Building and the two story Plaza House.

The Vickrey-Brunswig Building is a Victorian-era brick commercial building was among the earliest five-story buildings in Los Angeles. Commissioned by Los Angeles businessman William Vickrey as an investment property, the building housed ground floor retail with lodging on the upper floors when it opened in 1888. Prominent architect R. B. Young designed the building in a transitional Italianate style, varying the treatment of each story of the façade for greater visual interest. The windows of the upper floor feature Romanesque arches, while those of the third floor are embellished with turned posts that serve as the mullions between the grouped sashes.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Brunswig (1888)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Brunswig (1888)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Plaza House
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Plaza House

The County of Los Angeles purchased the Vickrey-Brunswig Building and the adjacent Plaza House in 1948 and renovated them for use by the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission, County Superior Courts, Police Crime Laboratories and the County Sherriff’s offices through the mid-1970s. After three decades of vacancy and deterioration, the County rehabilitated both buildings to house LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a Mexican and Mexican-American cultural centre which opened in 2011.

The two-story Plaza House is one of Los Angeles’ few remaining commercial buildings from the 1880s. It was commissioned by Frenchman Philippe Garnier, whose name appears at the base of the decorative false gable parapet rising above the roofline. Garnier, who was a successful businessman, entrepreneur and early real estate developer in the El Pueblo area, retained the architecture firm Kysor & Morgan to design the combination hotel and commercial building. The firm’s founding partner, Ezra F. Kysor, had earlier designed the Pico House and Merced Theatre across the street.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument is near the site of the early Los Angeles pueblo or town where 44 settlers (11 families) of Native American, African and European heritage journeyed more than 1600 kilometres across the desert from present-day northern Mexico and established a farming community in September 1781. Since that time, Los Angeles has been under the flags of Spain, Mexico and the United States and has grown into one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas.

Today El Pueblo de Los Angeles is a living museum that continues to fulfil its unique role as the historic and symbolic heart of the city, reflecting the Native American, African American, Spanish, Anglo, Mexican, Chinese, Italian and French cultures that contributed to its early history. Of the monument’s 27 historic buildings, 11 are open to the public as businesses or have been restored as museums.

Los Angeles started out as a small farming town in an area inhabited by friendly Native American Indians. Under the orders of King Carlos III of Spain, a “pueblo” was founded in 1781 to grow food for the soldiers guarding this far-off territory of Spain.

As the town grew and prospered, retired soldiers were given large portions of land on which to graze their cattle. In 1821 Mexico declared her independence from Spain and successive governors of Alta California gave additional land grants to other settlers including new arrivals from Europe and the east coast of America who liked the climate and the life here. They joined the Californios in becoming ranchers, merchants and winemakers.

In 1846 the Mexican American War began and the United States troops took Los Angeles the following year. At first the town retained its customs and traditions but gradually, as the population grew, the professional heart of the city moved southwards. The plaza area then saw many changes. The old landowners who had owned houses around the plaza moved away, new buildings were constructed, and the area gradually changed to light industrial and business use. These changes brought in new settlers and the east side of the Plaza became the heart of the city’s first Chinatown. French and Italian settlers also arrived in large numbers. All this activity could not prevent the gradual decline of the former pueblo area which, soon after the turn of the century, turned into a slum.

In 1926 wealthy socialite Christine Sterling began a public program to restore the home and surrounding area, opening Olvera Street as a Mexican marketplace and historic centre.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Olvera Street
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Olvera Street
El Pueblo de Los Angeles - The Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – The Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Interior of Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Interior of Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Interior of Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Interior of Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Interior of Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Interior of Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)

The Avila Adobe, 10 Olvera Street, is the oldest standing residence in the city, built by wealthy cattle rancher Francisco José Avila, whose extensive 4,439-acre land grant covered much of Beverly Hills and the Miracle Mile district. Built of tar from the La Brea Tar Pits, clay from the LA River and wood from the riverbank, this adobe structure is located near the zandra madre, the original water source for El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles. A mix of Mission, Spanish and ranchero aesthetics are evident in the white stucco exterior and walls and large outdoor living space.

There is a large courtyard at the back of the home which encompasses a multi-purpose space of play area, workspace and kitchen, complete with outdoor oven for cooking.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Garden of Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Courtyard of Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Garden of Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Courtyard of Avila Adobe (built ca 1818, oldest house in LA)

Francisco José Avila, a native of Sinaloa, was alcalde, or mayor of Los Angeles in 1810. Following his death in 1832, his second wife, Encarnación Avila continued to live in the house with her two daughters. The Los Angeles Census of 1844 lists Encarnación Avila, age 40, as a widow living in the house with one daughter. For a brief time, from January 10-19, 1847, the adobe was commandeered as a military headquarters by the invading North American army under Robert Stockton.

After Encarnación Avila died in 1855, the home passed to her two daughters, Luisa and Francisca and their husbands, Manuel Garfias and Theodore Rimpau. Francisca and Theodore Rimpau and their nine children continued to live in the adobe from 1855 to 1868 until they moved to Anaheim, California where Theodore served as the first mayor. From 1868 to the early 1920s, the adobe was rented and used as a restaurant, rooming house for transients, or was frequently vacant. The condition of the building deteriorated and was finally condemned in 1926 by the City Health Department, which caught the attention of Christine Sterling, who began a public campaign to save the adobe.

The Plaza Methodist Church is located on the site of the Tapia/Olvera adobe, which served as an early service building for the United Methodist Church mission in Los Angeles. The Methodist Church was also the founding agent in Southern California for Goodwill Industries. The adobe was torn down in 1917 and, nine years later, architects Train and Williams completed this Churrigeresque-style church. The building was altered in the 1960s.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles - Plaza Methodist Church (1925-26)
El Pueblo de Los Angeles – Plaza Methodist Church (1925-26)

In 1953 a strong effort to preserve the area resulted in the creation of a State historic park. The State of California and the County and City of Los Angeles joined together to purchase the buildings and sites around the plaza. In 1989, the Park was turned over to the City of Los Angeles. Now the El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument, as it is called, is run by the City of Los Angeles.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles
El Pueblo de Los Angeles Plaza
El Pueblo de Los Angeles
El Pueblo de Los Angeles Plaza

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