Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Messy Legacy of Gaston Oxarat

You know things didn't go so well for Rancho Los Encinos' first French owners, the Garniers. The wool market collapsed, and it was all downhill from there.

The rancho went to auction in 1878. Gaston Oxarat, a French Basque, placed the winning bid. Oxarat had wanted a chance to buy the rancho for some time; he'd previously obtained a lien on the property as collateral when he loaned money to the Garniers.

Gaston Oxarat's saddle, on display at Rancho Los Encinos
Oxarat had arrived in Los Angeles in 1851, and was mentor and friend to Domingo Bastanchury, another French Basque who, at one time, owned more head of sheep than anyone else in Los Angeles County. Bastanchury's orange grove - the largest in the world - made up much of modern-day Fullerton (which I will get into at a later date). As it happens, he was married to Oxarat's niece, Maria.

In spite of the fact that wool no longer fetched good prices, Oxarat used the rancho to raise sheep. It wasn't his sole source of income; he also had orchards.

Sources disagree over whether Oxarat lived on the rancho, with the Ballade family as a boarder, or at 43 or 47 Boyle Avenue in Boyle Heights. The 1880 census record citing the Ballade residence can likely be written off, since the boarder's age is given as 60 (Oxarat would have been 55 that year) and the name is written as "Accharat". There were numerous French Basques living in Los Angeles by that point, so without firmer proof, I believe this is a coincidence.

In any case, Oxarat (who was not in the best of health when he bought Rancho Los Encinos) passed away in 1886.

Things got messy after that.

Ten days after Gaston's death, the Morning Press stated that there were allegations of his death being due to poisoning. However, since there was no evidence, the authorities could take no action.

Oxarat left Rancho Los Encinos to his favorite nephew, Simon Gless. Less than a year later, Gless filed a lawsuit against Eugene Garnier and F.A. Gibson to clear the rancho's title. Eugene Garnier claimed that he and Gibson owned a partial interest in the rancho under an agreement made with Oxarat while he was still alive. Gless claimed the document was forged.

Francisco Oxarat, Gaston's son, was none too happy about Rancho Los Encinos being left to his cousin, and he took Simon Gless to court.

Benita Oxarat, who claimed to have married Gaston in 1874, sued Simon Gless separately, seeking the widow's share of Rancho Los Encinos.

Adela Freeman, née Oxarat, also sued Simon Gless, claiming to be Gaston's "sole surviving child" (which must have been quite a shock to half-brother Francisco).

(To clarify: Benita was not the mother of Francisco or Adela. Adela's mother was known only as Aguilla, and I haven't been able to find a record of who Francisco's mother was.)

In the end, Simon Gless kept Rancho Los Encinos...only to sell it later. But I'll get into that next time.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Never Give In: Philippe Garnier

Winston Churchill said it best: "If you're going through hell, keep going."

The Garnier brothers' glory days at Rancho Los Encinos had ended in financial ruin, foreclosure, and Eugene Garnier permanently returning to France.

Philippe Garnier had no money and a family to support. He could have thrown in the towel and gone back to France, never to return, just like Eugene.

But he didn't give up. And he had a profound effect on a treasured surviving portion of Old Los Angeles.

In 1878, Philippe Garnier was flat broke.

In 1879, Philippe began serving as a director of the Farmers and Merchants Bank and slowly rebuilt his savings.

In 1890, Philippe Garnier built three commercial buildings in the Plaza area.
Jennette Block, housing the Hotel de Paris
The Jennette Block stood at Los Angeles and Arcadia Streets, with the Hotel de Paris occupying the building. (It's sometimes reported that the Jennette Block was at Los Angeles and Aliso Streets. Most of the French-owned hotels fell within a one-block radius of Alameda and Aliso Streets. However, a surviving picture of the Jennette Block puts it right next to the Garnier Building. It's much more likely that the Hotel de Paris was based in different buildings at different times, since there are records of a Hotel de Paris at Alameda and Aliso and at Main and Turner opposite the Pico House.)

In any case, the Jennette Block was razed for the 101 Freeway.

Garnier Block
(Home of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes)
Many years ago, a French sea captain (no, not that one - he lived on the next block) and his wife lived in the Plaza, across Main Street from the Pico House. Their adobe house was demolished to build the two-story Garnier Block. Retail stores occupied the ground floor; the tiny Plaza House Hotel was on the second floor.

In 1946, the County of Los Angeles purchased the building. It was used as County office space, with a Sheriff's Department crime lab on the second floor. Unfortunately, the 1971 earthquake shook some of the elaborate exterior ornamentation loose, which prompted the County to remove ALL of it (blasphemy!), board up the building, and leave the Garnier Block to rot (double blasphemy!).

The Garnier Block was renovated into the La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, which opened in 2011.

Garnier Building
(Home of the Chinese American Museum)
Although LA's first Chinese market opened during Damien Marchesseault's tenure as Mayor nearly thirty years earlier, Chinese Angelenos often didn't have an easy time securing commercial buildings to rent, and they weren't legally permitted to own property in the United States.

Philippe Garnier commissioned architect Abram Edelman (co-designer of the Shrine Auditorium) to design a long, two-story sandstone and red brick building - the Garnier Building - with Chinese tenants in mind. The lease was signed before the building was even finished, and for the first three years of the lease, the rent on the entire building was only $200 a month. The building used to be much larger (the southern wing was razed in the 1950s along with the Jennette Block), so Philippe's tenants were initially paying below market rate.

Chinese-American social organizations, businesses, schools, and churches were all based in the Garnier Building. It was, in effect, Chinatown City Hall from 1890 to 1953 (when the state purchased the Plaza buildings). The original Chinatown was razed for Union Station, so the Garnier Building is the only remaining structure from Old Chinatown.

Interestingly, the building occupies the corner of Arcadia and Los Angeles Streets - where the 1871 Chinese Massacre broke out.

Today, the remaining half of the Garnier Building houses the Chinese American Museum.

Take a moment to consider this: the Plaza is known for its Spanish/Mexican history and character, so much so that angry activists vocally opposed plans to restore the Italian Hall (also in the Plaza) and reopen it as a museum. Yet, no one ever talks about the fact that the Plaza is also home to a historic property commissioned by a French Basque, designed by a Polish-Jewish architect, and built for the city's most hated ethnic group of the era - the Chinese. And only half of that building was lost to freeway construction. That's pretty amazing.

Philippe Garnier may not be well remembered today, but two (well, one and a half) of his buildings remain in the Plaza.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A Vintage Glimpse at the Ville de Paris

Once upon a time in Forgotten French Los Angeles, the best department store was the Ville de Paris/City of Paris.

Founded and owned by a succession of Jewish-French entrepreneurs (all cousins), the City of Paris most famously occupied the Homer Laughlin Building until 1917, when it became Grand Central Market.

Surviving pictures of the store, especially the interior, have proven maddeningly elusive. I have had to content myself with trying to spot what little remains of the store's original 'bones' whenever I'm waiting in line at Ramen Hood or Golden Road.

Major beret-tip to Retroformat Films for sharing the fact that the next film they're screening was partially filmed inside the Ville de Paris! I've seen my share of silent films and I never knew that. (The film is from 1923, after the Ville de Paris moved out of the Homer Laughlin Building. Still, it's a surviving look into a store that has very few surviving pictures of any of its locations.)

Safety Last!, starring Harold Lloyd and his creative partner/real-life wife Mildred Harris, is screening this Saturday night at the Woman's Club of Hollywood, with live musical accompaniment. Tickets available here.

Can't make it? Safety Last! is also available on YouTube.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Eugene Garnier Just Couldn't Take It Anymore

It's high time I introduced my readers to the four French Basque families who owned Rancho Los Encinos - one of my favorite places in Los Angeles - one after the other, for close to a century.

Quick overview for context:

Rancho Los Encinos (sometimes called Rancho El Encino, now Los Encinos State Historic Park) was a Spanish land grant given to LA's first mayor, Francisco Reyes. When the authorities discovered Reyes had been mistreating his Native American hired hands, they revoked the grant and Governor Pio Pico reassigned it to three of the very same workers Reyes had been exploiting.

Don Vicente de la Osa bought the rancho from the Tongva ranchers, raised cattle, built the adobe house that still stands on what's left of the property (it's the second oldest structure in the Valley), turned the house into a stagecoach stop and roadhouse when the cattle market collapsed, and eventually sold the rancho to a Yankee named Jim Thompson.

Jim Thompson sold Rancho Los Encinos in 1869. The buyers, Eugene and Philippe Garnier, were immigrants from France's Basque Country. (There were two other Garnier brothers, Abel and Camille, but little is known about them.)

Philippe merits his own entry, and you'll understand why when you read it. Anyway...

Faux marbre dining salon at Rancho Los Encinos

Like pretty much every French Basque who settled in Southern California in the 19th century, the Garniers were in the sheep business, and had a reputation for producing high-quality wool.

The rancho was still on the stagecoach route (today it's Ventura Boulevard). And, being from France, the Garniers knew how to top even Don Vicente's fine hospitality.

The brothers had the adobe's dining room painted with stunning faux marbre panels. Despite being almost 20 miles from what was then the heart of the city (long before the 101 existed...or, for that matter, the car), the Garniers served such good food that Andrés Pico - brother of Pio Pico - made a point of bringing VIP guests to the rancho for breakfast. In those days, it was a tiring, 15-mile horseback trip on a dirt road from Pico's house. I can't even imagine getting up before dawn and spending a couple of hours on a rough, sweaty horseback ride just to eat breakfast in Encino*, but apparently it was worth the trip for Pico and his guests.

Eugene built a two-story limestone house - a copy of the family home in France - opposite the adobe. The Garniers lived in the adobe; the limestone house was a bunkhouse for the ranch hands and for tired travelers. Today, the house is Rancho Los Encinos' visitor center.

Eugene Garnier's French farmhouse at Rancho Los Encinos

Rancho Los Encinos had its own freshwater spring - a VERY desirable feature anywhere in Los Angeles County, and especially in the hot, dry San Fernando Valley. Eugene built a brick-lined pond to collect the spring water - and he took care to shape it like a Spanish guitar. Novelty shaped swimming pools - i.e. Jayne Mansfield's heart-shaped pool - may well owe a debt to Eugene Garnier's guitar-shaped pond.

Eugene put a great deal of work into making Rancho Los Encinos what it was at its peak - and what it still is today.

Unfortunately, it wouldn't last.

In the late 1870s, the wool market collapsed. And it couldn't have collapsed at a worse time for the Garniers, who had overextended themselves financially during a brutal drought that dried up their grazing fields. And to make matters worse, the roadhouse business had waned due to fear of stagecoach robbers...followed by stagecoach service ending when the railroad came to Los Angeles in 1876.

The Garniers continued to run a tavern on the premises, but like so many other French Basques in the sheep trade, they had to find a new primary source of income.

Isaac Newton Van Nuys, who owned most of the southern Valley, had introduced dryland grain farming a few years previously. It was a no-brainer for the Garniers to turn their grazing land into wheat fields.

Unfortunately, there was the matter of their other neighbor, Don Miguel Leonis.

Leonis, possibly the most ambitious transplant in the history of Greater Los Angeles (and THAT is saying something), snapped up land whenever he could, and controlled most of the western Valley. Rancho Los Encinos, right next to Leonis' Rancho El Escorpion, was a very desirable property - especially because it had its own supply of fresh water.

You know where this is going, right?

In 1878, Eugene Garnier stated, under oath in a Los Angeles courtroom, that Leonis and his hired thugs had beaten the Garniers' hired hands and burned the rancho's wheat fields.

When asked if Leonis was his enemy, Eugene confirmed this, adding that he was forced to testify and that he would not be in the same courtroom with Leonis if he'd had a choice.

Having lost their wheat crop, the Garniers couldn't pay the bills anymore, and the rancho was bought at auction by Gaston Oxarat (who had previously obtained a lien on the rancho when he loaned money to the brothers).

Eugene Garnier went back to France soon after that day in court, never to return to Los Angeles.

But can you really blame the guy? He just couldn't take it anymore.

*This is not a snobby Westsider jab at Encino. I'm from Sherman Oaks.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The French Hospital Will Rise Again

If you were on the Esotouric bus on September 7, you were probably just as horrified as I was to see the French Hospital behind demolition fencing.

Demolition fencing at the French Hospital. Photo courtesy of Esotouric.

The French Hospital - established in 1869, rebuilt in 1915, expanded in 1926, renamed the Pacific Alliance Medical Center in 1989, closed in 2017 and sold in 2018 - couldn't reopen as a full-service hospital. California hospitals are subject to very strict earthquake safety standards, and the aging building would need over $100 million in renovations to meet those requirements.

That's never good news in a city that loves any reason to erase its own history.

I've been checking for demolition permits every single day, dreading bad news. No demolition permits have been issued for 531 West College Street. 

However, lack of a permit doesn't prevent demolition. I had to be sure.

I reached out to Munson Kwok, who is on the board of the Chinese American Museum and knows Chinatown like no one else I have ever met. If something is going on in Chinatown, Munson probably knows about it.

Munson assures me that the French Hospital isn't going anywhere.

The hospital site's new owner is Allied Pacific IPA, an HMO based in Alhambra. They are in the process of converting the building into an urgent care center.  Because urgent care centers don't admit overnight patients, they are subject to fewer seismic standards (and a much less costly renovation).

Munson spoke to Allied Pacific's CEO and founders recently at an event. One of them is an old friend of his. If he trusts them, then so will I.

Apparently, the Department of Building and Safety has some issues with the parking lot and the front of the building. This has caused the conversion to drag on for longer than planned. 

Allied Pacific hopes to have the urgent care center open in October - and, to Munson's knowledge, doesn't plan to replace the building, just rehabilitate it. 

Merci, Munson. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Happy 100th Birthday to Musso & Frank

You probably already know Musso and Frank Grill, Hollywood's oldest restaurant (one of greater LA's oldest restaurants, period), is turning 100.

Did you know the founder was French?

Musso and Frank Grill was originally Frank's, or Francois, Cafe, founded in 1919 by Firmin "Frank" Toulet.

Musso and Frank when it was still called Francois
Hollywood was just a few years into its metamorphosis from a quiet, semi-rural backwater into the film capital of the world. With no other eateries for miles (René Blondeau had passed away 17 years earlier), and with a sophisticated atmosphere that moviemakers loved, Frank's business boomed, and he moved into the larger building next door (the original restaurant space is now Cabo Cantina). 

In 1922, Frank brought in Joseph Musso as a business partner, and they changed the restaurant's name to Musso and Frank. The following year, the menu was overhauled by Jean Rue, a Limoges native and a veteran of the French navy. The menu has seen few, if any, changes since. 

Frank Toulet and Joseph Musso sold the business in 1927. It isn't clear what Frank did after selling his half of the restaurant. As for Jean Rue, he stayed on as head chef until his death in 1976.

Frank Toulet's death notice
Los Angeles Times, January 3, 1941
On January 31, 1941, a few weeks after Frank's death, the "Confidential Communiqués" section of the San Pedro News Pilot stated, in part, "...Frank Toulet (former owner of Musso-Franks cafe): It was nice to hear your boost for actors the other night, when you revealed that you advanced them $15,000 credit - and got back all but $200..."

Firmin "Frank" Toulet is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.

P.S. If you're about to comment "why didn't you contact Musso and Frank?"...I tried. I contacted Musso and Frank Grill for this entry six months ago. Their publicist said she would get back to me. I emailed her again. She no longer worked for the restaurant. I emailed Musso and Frank again and never did get a response. However, I understand they've been quite busy with their anniversary, in addition to "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" significantly boosting business, so there are no hard feelings.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

PSA: Frenchtown DID NOT Become Chinatown

For those of you who weren't on the bus yesterday, I took the opportunity to put a persistent rumor to rest. (Regular readers already know that one person in particular has ignored two separate requests to stop perpetuating this myth.)

Frenchtown DID NOT become Chinatown. 

Before I launched this blog, I began mapping places associated with LA's French community for my own reference. I have been working on this map for SIX YEARS and counting. To date, I've mapped almost 500 sites.

This is a portion of my French Los Angeles map. (And I do mean "portion" - the full map is HUGE.) 

As you can see, Frenchtown DID NOT Become Chinatown.

See that odd-shaped shaded area on the lower right, bordering the river?

That shaded area represents Frenchtown's original boundaries.

By 1870, after a full decade of French and Quebecois newcomers to Los Angeles outnumbering immigrants from every other country on Earth (yes, really), the community had grown. The red balloons speak for themselves, but in case someone can't see the detail, the community was centered on the intersection of Alameda and Aliso Streets.

Chinatown is ONE MILE AWAY from Alameda and Aliso. 

(The center of Chinatown, that is, BUT Chinatown's southernmost boundaries are still about half a mile away, and the Plaza separates the two neighborhoods.)

Do me (and thousands of dearly departed French Angelenos) a favor and send this entry to anyone who might need to see it.

*mic drop*

*It's true that there were a few French families in Chinatown by 1870, but the neighborhood's population was mostly Sonoran and Italian then. Chinatown was not, and has never been, a French neighborhood.