Sunday, March 27, 2016

Brass Knuckles, Female Boarding, and Quadruped Chickens: The Life And Times Of Block 50

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an official scheme for assigning numbers to the blocks of the city as distinct from the ordinary system of assigning house numbers, but the Sanborn company did have such a scheme for the fire insurance maps they published over many decades.  Given the changes in street names and house numbering systems over the years, this made it easier for the company to ensure that their geography stayed consistent from year to year.
 


The small oddly quadrilateral block in the middle is Block 50.

From at least as early as 1888 until 1953, Sanborn consistently used the same block numbers in the older section of the Los Angeles.  Here we'll be looking at Block 50, which was located just northwest of the Old Plaza and the historic Church Of Our Lady Queen Of The Angels, or Old Plaza Church.  Block 50 existed from the 1860s all the way into the early 1960s , when it finally gave way to the flood tide of stripe-painted asphalt which is otherwise known as the cheapest way to answer the need for ample parking. And yet, as we'll see, in one respect Block 50 lives on, a ghost of its former self.

Spanish colonial towns were typically laid out along rectangular lines, so Block 50's off-kilter placement and outline seem surprising at first.  One likely reason is that this spot was one of two early locations of the town's central plaza.  The first site, established in 1781 was nearer to the river but exactly where we don't know.  After severe flooding, the plaza was moved to the Block 50 site in 1815, and eventually to its present location between Main and Los Angeles Streets (Robinson, 1981, p9).  This final move probably was made in 1822, at the same time as the construction of the Old Plaza Church.

A Photo From 1869 
Although the city's business and cultural center, such as it was, had been shifting south ever since the American takeover, we are fortunate enough to have a good panoramic photo of Block 50, taken in 1869.


Block 50 in 1869.  NHM Seaver Institute Photo Collection, GPF.3381

The squarish two-story building just above the center-right is the Pelanconi House, which was built in 1855, and houses the La Golondrina restaurant today.   If you've been to the restaurant and remember the building as being much larger than it seems to be in the photo, there's a simple explanation for thatA warehouse for storing wine was added to the west side of the building in 1910, and when the De Bonzo family, owners of La Golondrina, took over the space in 1930, they had the wall between the original 1855 building and the 1910 warehouse knocked down.  This resulted in the rather peculiar and almost cavernous space, rising up and back from the Olvera Street entrance, in which La Golondrina exists today.  The Pelanconi House aside, none of the built environment in the above photo exists today.
 
Almost certainly this photo was taken from Fort Moore Hill, `which is known to very few present day Angelenos, and has been seen by only the a few of the older ones.  Fort Moore is one of several hills in the area that have been flattened beyond recognition and then forgotten by future generations. 

Except for people like us who read and write blogs like this.

To get the same view of the same ground today, one would need a helicopter, hovering some distance above and to the southwest of the Old Plaza Church.  Fortunately, the numerous parking lots in the area provide many places for helicopters to land. 

In 1884 a hen belonging to one E.C. Davis, of Short Street (later Bellevue on these mapshatched a brood of eight quadruped chickens.


Quadruped chickens.  LADH, 1884-10-09 p6

That's eight head and 32 feet of chicken, proving that even in 1884 the county was already an agricultural powerhouse.  There were plans for one of the overly-leggy chickens to be shown at the New Orleans World's FairStrangely enough, though, there appears to be no account of this in surviving reports of the fair. 

We don't know how close E.C. Davis' chicken coop was to Block 50, but Bellevue Avenue certainly did run through this neighborhood.  And evidently,

In September 1887 one Guadelupe Castillo stopped at a North Spring Street saloon for a cold one.  After drinking his beer, on his way out, he encountered Mike Nana who was standing just outside; the latter insulted him in some way or other, but the particulars aren't clear.


With Brass Knuckles.  LAH 1887-09-10 p12.
  
When Castillo objected, did Nana apologize?  Indeed he did not, but rather added injury to insult by smiting Castillo a good one above the left eye. 

The 1888 Sanborn Map
The year 1888 found Block 50 occupied by several businesses which seem to have operated mainly in separate small houses or buildings of their own.  Some of the buildings were adobe houses that had been built prior to the American conquest.
 


Sanborn Map of Block 50, 1888.  Downloaded from SDPL

Throughout its history, retail in its broader sense seems to have been the primary activity here.  Not just one, but two "Chinese Laundries" were to be found, as well as a number of saloons, marked "Sal" and stores marked "S".  A couple of restaurants completed the picture. This was some distance from Old Chinatown, which formed the city's Chinese quarter at this time, but it's evident from the maps that the Chinese-American population was by no means limited only to the area now commonly thought of as Old Chinatown, east of the old Plaza.  Some of the building outlines and walls indicated on this Sanborn map are already evident in the 1869 photo, and it's more than likely that some of the businesses were already in operation by the earlier date.

Marchessault Street would eventually become Sunset Boulevard, although the name Marchessault was  usually kept east of Main, where it skirted the northern end of the Plaza.   Upper Main would go through several name changes and eventually become North Spring, but this section of it no longer exists. 


Magnolia Saloon, Sonoratown. Marchessault and New High.


The neighborhood of Block 50 during this time had become known as Sonoratown due to the high population of Mexican Americans.  These people were not the descendants of the original Californio residents, but rather represented the first wave of more recent immigrants from that country.  On the other hand, much of the built environment in and around Block 50 still consisted of adobe buildings that did go back to the time of Mexican or even Spanish rule.  A few of these adobe houses were still in use as late as the 1950s.  

In addition to Mexican-Americans, other immigrant communities were establishing a foothold here. Besides Asian-Americans, already noted, the area would shortly be home to L.A.s first Italian neighborhood, of which Italian Hall, the Pelanconi Building, and Saint Peter's Italian Catholic Church serve to remind us.   There were also French immigrants, who had already banded together to to form an early HMO-type medical plan, and to establish a hospital at Hill and College Streets.  Although French Hospital has ceased to exist as an independent entity, its corporate successor Pacific Alliance continues to operate a large medical center on the site, making it the oldest same-site hospital in the city.

 
By Herman Schultheiss, 1930s.  LAPL Photo Collection, order #00098715

Bozzani Motors occupied this adobe on North Broadway for many years, in addition to the larger structure in the background.  The company still exists today, although it is no longer in the neighborhood.  

During the 1880s this neighborhood  was undoubtedly a tough place, while at the same time attracting Anglo Americans  out for an evening's entertainment.  The best way to understand this is to consider the fact that in 1880s there were places in and around L.A. that were as placid and stolid as anyone could wish. The early suburbs like Palms and Hollywood were devoted to farming, fruit ranching, and the abstinence from alcohol. But there were also still some districts as rowdy and ribald as any old Western town, with saloons, gambling halls, opium dens, and brothels.  You could live in one of those neighborhoods that were all placid and stolid, yet still seek out surreptitious fun in other neighborhoods not nearly so well-behaved and peaceful.  But if you weren't careful you could find themselves in a good deal of trouble, as happened one evening late in 1888 when one Tyler, the son of a former captain in the LAPD, died of morphine poisoning after visiting "a low dive" at 365 New High Street, or such was the verdict of the coroner's jury. (Note: This was a year or two before the present day house numbering scheme went into effect, so that address would be about where 661 would be today.)  Although he was known to have used morphine occasionally, he did not appear to be "a victim of the habit", according to the attending physician who, through much effort,  managed to bring Tyler out of his stupor for a brief spell, before he finally succumbed. 



A Strange Case. L.A. Daily Herald,1889-09-06 p8. Downloaded from Chronicling America, a project of the Library Of Congress.  Additionally see the previous day's issue, also available on the LOC website.  Tyler's first name is uncertain; the same newspaper used the name George in the previous day's issue.

Notwithstanding his occasional opiate use, witnesses stated that he was by all accounts well adjusted and happy and saw no obvious reason why he would have wanted to end his own life.  Was it murder or suicide? 

As an indicator of the neighborhood, this was not an exceptional incident, judging by contemporary news stories.  At this time the Sentous Block, comprising street level storefronts and lodgings upstairs, had recently been built across the street from and just to the east of Block 50On the morning of Friday, November 19 1887, Alice Hester, manager of the Sentous,  observed a man to enter Room 7.  Distracted by a second man who had  just then approached her to ask about a room, she failed to notice the first man leaving.  However, on inspecting Room 7 she found it had been thoroughly "tossed", as the expression goes.  When the miscreant was described to a police officer, the latter shortly thereafter returned with the man, whom Mrs Hester unequivocally identified as the burglar.  The alleged burglar turned out to be another police officer, John Brady, and was arrested.  Notwithstanding the damning testimony of Mrs Hester and Captain Buckles, the room's legitimate occupant, Brady had his supporters including LAPD Chief P.M. Darcy and LAFD Chief Walter S. Moore, both of whom furnished a portion of his bail money.  In the end Officer Brady was acquitted, his attorney asserting that Officer Brady was working an investigation, and that the Sentous Block was a notorious haunt of thieves, opium fiends*, burglars and women of ill-fame.

 I keep wanting to imagine that its hallways were filled with the sounds of loud revelry and jarringly noirish jazz music emanating from cheap phonographs behind closed doors.  But in 1887 there was no such thing as jazz yet, and the phonograph was little more than a laboratory curiosity.
 


 The 1894 Sanborn Map, And a Photo
By 1894 a few of the adobes here had been displaced by new buildings, usually in a style best described as American Small Town Commercial Victorian.  


View towards Block 50, SW corner.  LAPL Photo Cllection, #00032724

Take a good look at the two bay-windowed commercial buildings in the above photo, because they lasted only two or three decades.  During this period in the city's development, it wasn't unusual for a building to have an even shorter lifetime than the dozens that would later be rubbed out in L.A.'s massive postwar redevelopment project.
 
The next Sanborn for Block 50 gives us a stark clue as to what the building at its southeast corner, here partly obscured by utility poles, was being used for.



Block 50, circa 1894.  Sanborn map downloaded from SDPL.


In the late Victorian period, "female boarding" was a euphemism for a brothel.  As it happened, there was a similar establishment just up the street at the other end of the block.  Both of these buildings rise to two stories, and the second-story wrap-around corner bay window is clearly marked in the map above.  There were also some vacancies, possibly the outcome of the recent Panic of 1893.  On the Bellevue side of the block is a shop marked "Dress m'k'g".  Given the dire state of the economy at that time, this might have represented someone who was desperate to take in whatever small sewing jobs they could get.


Although the neighborhood would remain an entertainment district for several decades to come, and a few standout businesses like Brunswig Drugs would carry on, the town's center of gravity had settled even more firmly to the south.   As early as this, the whole neighborhood was beginning to show signs of wear and neglect,  although it did continue to be an active commercial area.  We've touched on the brothels already, which remained legal until the red light district was closed down early in the next century.  Other neighborhood businesses, though not as outrageous to the public's sense of morals, tended to be small scale, utilitarian operations like bakeries, second-hand stores, and inexpensive restaurants.  

The neighborhood around Block 50 might have gone on like that forever, but the new century just around the corner was to bring wrenching changes.

To be continued
 
*During this period virtually all drugs were freely available for medicinal use and sold over the counter.  However, raw opium and opium prepared for smoking, in the form traditionally used in some Asian cultures, had already been banned.