Saturday, September 30, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 5: The Natural History Museum

It may seem odd to some of my readers that the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County would have, let alone display, anything related to the city's French community. The words "Natural History Museum" tend to conjure up images of rocks, dinosaur bones, and dioramas of taxidermy wildlife. (Yes, the museum has plenty of those things too, but that's beside the point.)

When it opened in 1913, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County was named the Museum of History, Science, and Art (Le Guide calls it "our County Museum", and I'm sure I don't need to point out that Los Angeles' population was about the same size as Anaheim's is today). The museum's art department spun off into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and moved to Wilshire Boulevard in 1965. Today, the Museum's emphasis is firmly on science, but our history remains - in the "Becoming Los Angeles" exhibit.

And there are some nice surprises in store for French Angelenos.

General John C. Frémont is said to have signed the treaty ending the Mexican-American War at this humble kitchen table.
Jean-Louis Vignes' brandy still and strainer
The father of French migration to California used this brandy still and strainer. They're intact (if slightly battered) and safe in a glass case. I'm amazed these humble items survived when so much of our history has been demolished, paved over, renamed, or actively erased.

Charles Ducommun's scales and shotgun
Charles Ducommun was a half-blind smallpox survivor when he loaded up a donkey with as much as it could carry and WALKED from Arkansas to California, with this shotgun for protection. Incredibly, in spite of his reduced eyesight, the Swiss-born, French-speaking Ducommun continued to ply his trade as a watchmaker, opening a combination jewelry/hardware store. Ducommun's store grew into Ducommun Industries, a defense/aerospace supplier and California's oldest corporation.

I can't even tell you how much time I spent staring into that case, in awe of the fact that California's oldest corporation began with that tiny set of jeweler's scales.

Original log pipe, wrapped in heavy-duty wire
Jean-Louis Sainsevain and the ill-fated Mayor Damien Marchesseault tried to solve LA's water problems with pipes made from hollow logs. It backfired horribly (over and over...), but at least their struggle is remembered in the Museum. (The artifact information doesn't list them by name, but at least there's a surviving log pipe on display. And if you're reading this blog, you probably already know I'm used to this sort of thing.)

Feliciana Yndart, painted by Henri Penelon
In the 1950s, Henri Penelon's granddaughter took two of his paintings to the Museum to donate them.  Less than a century after his death, no one at the Museum had any idea who he was. I can only imagine how badly that must have stung.

Don Vicente Lugo, painted by Henri Penelon
Today, the Museum's Seaver Center for Western History Research owns thirteen of Penelon's surviving paintings. I wasn't expecting to see any of them on display and yet...there they were!


Don Francisco Sepulveda, painted by Henri Penelon
I have yet to visit the Seaver Center, but will be reaching out to them to do further research.

Animator's desk, chair, and multiplane camera - developed by Walt Disney
Few people realize that Walt Disney had French ancestry. "Disney" is a corruption of "D'Isigny", after Isigny-sur-Mer in Normandy. I have never considered it a coincidence that Disney's Los Feliz home was influenced by traditional Norman architecture.

And then there's the city model.

Built in the 1930s as a WPA project, the model is an amazing tool for seeing what downtown looked like before freeways sliced right through Frenchtown (and a couple of Beaudry tracts). 


Do note that the street we now call "Paseo de la Plaza" was labeled "Sunset Boulevard" on the model. You read it here first: Marchesseault Street was (at one point) renamed Sunset Boulevard.

Beaudry Avenue on the model.
Pershing Square as it appeared before that hideous redesign in the 1950s.
Do note the tiny Doughboy statue in the upper right corner.
Sadly not on display: a portrait of Francoise Bry Henriot, who emigrated from French-speaking Switzerland, married a French-born gardener, and established LA's first French-language private school. (Le Guide makes reference to Mme. Henriot's portrait hanging in the Museum. I can only presume it was moved to storage long ago.)

Nonetheless...can you imagine the tears of joy that seeing this exhibit brought to this French/Quebecois/Anglo-Norman Angeleno's eyes? (Who am I kidding? I'm crying as I write this.) For the first time in my life, I felt represented and acknowledged in my hometown. I have argued that we deserve our own museum (and my position on the matter isn't going to change), but just for one afternoon, it was as if the city had tapped my shoulder and whispered into my ear "I hear you".

Monday, September 25, 2017

Thank You LAVA Attendees!

LAVA's September Sunday Salon was yesterday. I was absolutely thrilled to give my talk and participate in the walking tour (and with a sold-out audience!).

THANK YOU for coming.

Pictures from the Salon can be seen here, and when the video is available, I will update this with a link.

If you haven't yet heard my special guest appearance on You Can't Eat the Sunshine, you can find the episode here.

I had some questions regarding why certain details were left out of my talk. I gave a longer version of the same talk at a different event in May and the original draft was well over two hours long! I had to cut a LOT of content to get it to one hour, and had to trim it down again (omitting details like Damien Marchesseault's suicide note) to make it a 50-minute talk (and I was aiming for 40).

There is SO much information that if I could include everything, I'd probably still be talking.

That's the beauty of blogging: I can go into as much detail as I want with each entry instead of giving the Cliff's Notes version. (And I promise I'll pitch a book to publishers soon!)

On the subject of books, there were a few questions about one of my resources. Le Guide Francais de Los Angeles et du Sud de la Californie (aka The French in Southern California History and the Southland Today) was published just once, in 1932, in English and in French. It's not easy to find (I spent years looking for a copy), but Central Library has two English-language copies of the book (if I remember correctly, it's in the rare books collection).

I have had multiple requests for a transcript of my talk. If you would like a copy of my notes, you can email me at losfrangeles (at) gmail (dot) com.

However, I must make one request from everyone who requests a copy of my notes.

I have had someone take my blog's content, alter it, and pass it off as their own work (and still manage to make a horrifying number of factual errors...). This person has faced no consequences, and when I complained to the editor, I received no response.

If you wish to share my notes with someone else for any reason, I ask that you link to this blog and credit me.

Time, effort, and money go into this blog. I have limited spare time and spend much of it doing research. I do a lot of driving around (with the exception of the historical photographs, I take my own pictures). I don't make a lot of money, but I've spent a good amount on books (the old, rare ones aren't cheap) and gas.

All I want is to be credited for doing the actual work.

With that out of the way...

Thank you all for coming, and I'm looking forward to returning in the spring (we'll tour a different part of downtown).

Monday, August 28, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 4: Ramona

There are two key areas of Southern California that actually treat their French roots with respect. The first, as I've mentioned, is the San Fernando Valley.

The second - and virtually no outsider knows this - is the tiny town of Ramona.

Situated in northeastern San Diego County, Ramona is an unincorporated town named after Helen Hunt Jackson's famous novel. (By the way, getting there can be a challenge. It's well off the beaten path, and some of the highway signage is confusing and/or missing. Do yourself a HUGE favor and take Highway 67 through Poway. The 78 SEEMS shorter and more direct, but trust me, it's not.)

The town was previously called Nuevo. But don't let the Spanish names fool you - Ramona's deepest roots are heavily French.

Like many other French families who came to Los Angeles, the Verlaque family moved farther afield in search of land. They raised sheep in San Diego, and by 1886 were making a good enough living to build themselves a little place out in the country.


This house - the Verlaque family's country retreat - was the first permanent building in the Ramona area. 

It's also the only known example of a French Colonial house built out of adobe.


The town of Ramona clearly respects its French pioneers.



When Henri Penelon painted the rebuilt Old Plaza Church, he was assisted by 21-year-old Bernard Etcheverry, who had just arrived from France. As you can see, Bernard and his family eventually settled in Ramona.

I should note that the Guy B. Woodward Museum, housed in the Verlaque adobe, does NOT allow photography. I was granted special permission to photograph two items in the museum because they are original to the Verlaque family.


This soup tureen belonged to Elizabeth Verlaque and was used in this house.


To the untrained eye, this might LOOK like any fireplace you'd find in an adobe house's kitchen...


Theophile Verlaque, however, had the roasting spit custom made (in Paris!) for the house. It has a built-in mechanical timer to ensure perfectly cooked meat. What can I say? Even way back in 1886...even in a humble country retreat...we like our food cooked perfectly (and I don't even eat meat).


The Verlaques, like most French families, buried their dead in the local Catholic cemetery. However, San Diego's Calvary Cemetery was turned into Mission Hills Park (previously called Pioneer Park) in the 1970s. They took out the tombstones, but not the bodies (I wonder if Pioneer Park might have been the inspiration for Poltergeist...incidentally, San Diego has quite a long history of flagrantly disrespecting its dead). In any case, two of the Verlaque family's tombstones were salvaged (most of the tombstones were simply thrown into a ditch on the edge of the "park") and can now be found outside the house.


The Etcheverry family home exists only in memories (if I had to take a guess as to why, I'd say it might have something to do with the fact that San Diego County's backcountry is prone to brush fires). But, a few miles south of the Verlaque house, Etcheverry Street still bears the family's name.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Excerpts from "Frenchtown! The Musical": Part 1

I am pleased - thrilled, really - to announce that I will be speaking at LAVA's monthly Sunday Salon on September 24. It's a free event, but space is limited. Get your tickets now!

There isn't really a musical about Frenchtown (unless I decide to write more...) - this just came to me.

(The curtain opens on a stage split between two different locations and two different years.

Stage Right, a marquee reads "Exposition Park, 1870". The scene is a bedroom in the Lachenais house. A Spanish guitar sits on the narrow single bed.

Stage Left, a marquee reads "Calabasas, 1880". The scene is the parlor in the grand Leonis adobe, complete with a piano. The window is wide open.

Serafina Lachenais enters, stage right. She sits on the bed and picks up the guitar.

Marcelina Leonis enters, stage left. She sits at the piano.

Both girls begin to play their instruments.)

Song: "My Daddy is a Monster"

Serafina: They say my daddy is a monster

I know that they are right

When I was eight he killed a man

And ran off into the night

Marcelina: They say my daddy is a monster

I know it must be true

He's greedy and self-serving

And trigger-happy too

Serafina: Some say I was lucky to be adopted

But this is rotten luck

My mom is dead, my dad's a psycho

And I feel so stuck

Marcelina: He hates my big half-brother

Won't let him in the house

Scares everyone who works for him

And gets judge and jury soused

Serafina: Wicked

Marcelina: Brutal

Serafina: Evil

Marcelina: Cruel

Serafina: Scary

Marcelina: Vicious

Serafina: Rotten

Marcelina: Malicious

Serafina: Mom was scared of Dad

Their relationship was grim

Everybody thinks he killed her

And I wouldn't put it past him

Marcelina: Daddy only loves three things

Money, booze, and me

He treats my mother like the help

And only married her for money

Serafina: Murdered Mr. Deleval

Blinded someone with a gunshot

Beat that Tongva man to death

(Spoken) Unfortunately, Daddy's all I've got

Marcelina: Daddy rules the western Valley

Fear's the biggest reason

No matter what the calendar says

(Spoken) In Calabasas, murder is in season

Serafina: Life is tough

Marcelina: It's quite restricting

Serafina: I feel so torn

Marcelina: It's so conflicting

Serafina and Marcelina (together): When your daddy is a monster.

Voice (offstage): Serafina! Serafina, come quickly! Your father's been arrested!

Serafina: Again?! What's he done now?

Voice: He shot the man next door!

Serafina (crying softly, defeated): Daddy. No.

(Serafina exits, stage right. Juan Menendez appears, stage left, and is visible through the open parlor window.)

Juan (through window): Hey, little sister. Are you feeling any better?

Marcelina: Hey, big brother. This headache just won't go away. And now my back hurts.

Juan: You're sweating.

Marcelina: That's odd. I'm freezing.

(Miguel Leonis enters, stage left, behind Juan. He is visible through the parlor window.)

Miguel: How many times do I have to tell you to stay off the damn porch?! (Threatens Juan with a revolver.)

Marcelina: Daddy, no! (Jumps to her feet, gets woozy, and collapses.)

(Curtain falls.)

Monday, August 14, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 3C: The Le Mesnager Barn

On the northernmost edges of Glendale, just past the Crescenta Highlands neighborhood, intrepid explorers will find Deukmejian Wilderness Park.

This nature park preserves 702 acres of wilderness, including the Le Mesnager family's former vineyard. (I'm at a loss as to why it was named after an elected official instead of the family that owned and worked the land for the better part of a century, but I'll take what I can get.)

The Le Mesnager family owned and lived in this barn (converted to a farmhouse by Georges' oldest son Louis after fire/flood damage) until the late 1960s. It's conveniently located close to the park's entrance, right next to the parking lot.


What's that in front of the barn?


Grapes! Yes indeed, they're used to make wine.


The barn is right next to this little amphitheater.


Seen from the back.


It's tricky to get a good angle on the barn when you can't get too close.


Don't let the sign fool you - I snapped these pictures in May. The barn's conversion/remodel was still clearly underway.


When the barn is re-opened to the public (and when I have time to drive waaaaaaay out to the furthest edges of the Valley - seriously, getting here took forever), I will be back to take better pictures.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 3B: Rancho Los Encinos

Moving on to the next historic location in the Valley, we find a very special property that many Angelenos don't even know exists. 

Los Encinos State Historic Park is all that remains of Rancho Los Encinos (sometimes called Rancho El Encino). The original rancho was established by Francisco Reyes (first alcalde, or mayor, of Los Angeles), re-granted to three Tongva ranchers by Pio Pico (Reyes allegedly mistreated his Native American ranch hands), sold to the de la Osa family, and sold to a Yankee named Thompson...who sold it to Philippe and Eugene Garnier in 1869.

The Garnier brothers were the first of four French Basque families to own the property. 


Philippe Garnier, Gaston Oxarat, Simon Gless, and Domingo Amestoy.


Former residents. Note the prevalence of Basque surnames.


The original de la Osa adobe house. This is the second oldest structure in the Valley - and the only one that is pretty much unaltered.


Philippe Garnier's shaving stand.


Gaston Oxarat's saddle. This finely tooled piece was originally covered with tiny silver conchas (shells).


Juanita Amestoy wore this beautiful gown when she married Simon Gless.


Don Vicente de la Osa had previously turned the adobe into a stagecoach stop and roadside inn. The Garnier brothers, being from France, kicked the hospitality up a notch.


The Garniers had one of the adobe's rooms painted with beautifully detailed faux marbre panels.


Can you believe some idiot PLASTERED OVER these stunning walls? For over a century, no one knew this fine paint job was even there.


Try, if you can, to let your imagination fill in the blanks. It's a beautiful room now - it must have looked even better then.


I do hope someone else takes the time to notice that the plastic food on the table is French in theme. (Why is there a red candle? Did red paraffin even exist in the 1870s?)


The Northridge earthquake of 1994 severely damaged the adobe (one outer wall caved in, requiring extensive repairs). However, there was one silver lining: the earthquake may have damaged the house, but it shook much of the offending plaster right off the salon's walls. As you can see, some of the faux marbre is still covered by plaster. There is a good reason for this: the adobe is very old and very delicate. Some things are best left alone, even if they're not perfect.


What's that next to the adobe?


It's a French farmhouse!

No joke: the Garnier brothers built this two-story limestone house, said to be a copy of the family home in France, to house their employees. They also built a brick-lined pond shaped like a Spanish guitar to collect water from the natural spring on the property.

The Garniers hit tough times: they overextended themselves financially, the wool market collapsed, and Miguel Leonis, the worst neighbor any Valleyite ever had, tried to intimidate the brothers out of their home by burning their wheat fields and beating their ranch hands. They lost the rancho to foreclosure in 1878, and it passed to Gaston Oxarat.

Gaston Oxarat, in turn, left the rancho to his nephew, Simon Gless. Legend has it that one day, Gless bought a large block of ice downtown and, upon returning to the rancho, found that it had already melted away. This was too much for Gless (I can't blame him one bit, since I know how hot it gets in the Valley - and this was long before air conditioning or swimming pools). He decided to sell the property and move to Boyle Heights (the Gless farmhouse in Boyle Heights is, incredibly, also still standing).

Simon Gless was married to Juanita Amestoy, and her father Dominique already had significant land holdings elsewhere in Los Angeles County. Dominique, commonly called "Don Domingo", smartly snapped up Rancho Los Encinos. Other members of the Amestoy family lived on the property until 1945. 

The Amestoys began to sell off bits of the rancho in the early 20th century, but it wasn't until after World War II that the bulk of it was subdivided into modern-day Encino and Sherman Oaks (my neighborhood).

Supposedly, the adobe was used as a sales office for the new housing tracts and (what else...) subsequently slated for demolition. Concerned neighbors fought hard to have the buildings preserved (thank God).

The last remaining scrap of Rancho Los Encinos has been a California state historic park since 1949 and can be visited Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm (excluding holidays). There is a pedestrian entrance on Ventura Boulevard, but virtually no one seems to notice it is even there.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 3A: The Leonis Adobe Museum

In the old part of Calabasas, there is a surviving remnant of LA's Wild West past.

I don't mean all the cutesy, faux-Western storefronts. I mean the Leonis Adobe Museum.

When he took control of Rancho El Escorpion, Miguel Leonis found a dilapidated, long-abandoned adobe house on the grounds. He and his wife Espiritu restored and expanded the house, making it their home.

In 1962, the house - abandoned and left to rot all over again - was slated to be torn down. Why? To build a parking lot for a proposed supermarket. (Gee, can you tell paving paradise to put up ANOTHER $#@%^&* PARKING LOT is a pet peeve of mine?)

Thankfully, the Cultural Heritage Board made sure it didn't happen. The Leonis Adobe Museum is Los Angeles' Historic-Cultural Monument #1.


Photos of the house before it was restored (for the second time) in the 1960s.



Miguel dreamed of his own empire. To modern Angelenos, this may seem like a humble starter home for such an ambitious man, but it was a much simpler time.


The furnishings in the house, while period-appropriate, aren't original. But since Marcelina Leonis played the piano (and may well have played one like this), I'm including it here.


Proof that the Leonises were on speaking terms at one point. (Yes, the posing looks a bit forced. But it's impossible to say whether this is due to the nature of photography in the Victorian era or due to Miguel being a horrible person and a worse husband.)


There are mannequins throughout the house in period attire. These two, seen in the kitchen, strongly resemble Miguel and Espiritu.


If you're not looking at a huge (fake) side of beef, are you even in a historic ranch house pantry?


The house's staircase was originally outside, Miguel expanded the house to enclose it (but it's not hard to tell this was once an exterior feature). The picture above the table is of Espiritu in her later years.





I'm sorely tempted to call this style "cowboy Victorian".


Espiritu's red velvet canopy bed was re-created from contemporary accounts. The trunk seen here is the only original item in the house (it was one of a set of three owned by Espiritu).


Miguel added the second-story veranda.


I'm pretty sure every French Basque in the Valley raised sheep at one point. Yes, there are live farm animals at the museum! (Why the heck not...it's Calabasas.)


Rear of the house, snapped from the chicken coops.


This angle on the house shows the expansions better.


The Plummer House, moved here from Hollywood, serves as the museum's visitor center. Fittingly, Espiritu was good friends with Maria Cecilia Plummer.

This is just a taste...I took over 80 pictures of the house and grounds! Whenever you're in Calabasas, check it out for yourself.