Monday, August 22, 2016

Wake Up, Sheeple! Part 2: The Sentous Brothers and LA Live

It's hard to believe that the pocket of downtown containing the LA Convention Center, Staples Center, and LA Live was ever quiet and rural. Back in the pueblo days, this land was on the outskirts of town and populated by Californio families.

But that changed when two brothers arrived - separately - from the French region of Haute-Garonne in the 1850s.

Louis Sentous, born in 1840**, came to California in 1853 to do some gold prospecting (there were a few smaller gold rushes after the big one) before moving to LA. Before long, he was raising cattle, selling dairy products, and running a butcher shop.

Louis married Bernath "Bernadette" Lasere, who was also from Haut-Garonne, in 1871 or 1872 (it isn't clear which date is correct). Their son Julius John was born in December of that year, followed by Marie-Louise (1873), Narcisse (February 1880), and Adele (December 1880).

I should note that some sources cite Louis arriving in 1871. However, there is plenty of evidence he was in California in 1853 and for years after. I surmise Louis traveled home to France to get married (it's possible he needed to find a bride; there weren't many single women in LA back then) and the census taker may have mistakenly put down 1871 as the year of arrival for both Louis and Bernadette.

The Sentous Brothers Ranch was near modern-day Jefferson and Western and may have been established as early as 1860. Their cattle are long gone; today, two fried-chicken chains, a bus stop, and a car wash can be found at Jefferson and Western.

In 1874, Louis moved his family to a farm in Calabasas. They moved back in 1877 (given that Miguel Leonis controlled much of Calabasas in the 1870s, who can blame them?). Louis owned the farm until he sold it in 1884, retiring to his home on Olive Street opposite what is now Pershing Square (the exact address isn't clear, but he would most likely have lived next to Remi Nadeau).

The 1883 city directory lists the L. Sentous and Co. butcher shop at the corner of Aliso Street and Los Angeles Street. However, the business prospered well enough that Louis set up the first meatpacking house in Los Angeles. The Sentous meatpacking plant (close to modern-day Culver City) was large enough that it was a stop on the Pacific Electric Railway's fabled Balloon Route, and the plant was the subject of at least one postcard image (more info here). Sentous Station was demolished long ago, but its location is still used as the La Cienega/Jefferson stop on the Expo Line.

Louis Sentous Sr. died in 1911.

Jean Guillaume Sentous, born in 1836, was a dairy farmer and wool rancher. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1854, 1856, or 1860 (sources disagree) after a stint in mining up in Calaveras County.

In 1867, Jean married Maria Theodora Casanova, born in Costa Rica to Spanish parents, at the Plaza Church. They had eight children - Narcisse (born 1868), Louis Jr. (born 1869), Francois (born 1871), Camille (born 1873), Heloise (born 1873*), Louisa (born 1876), Emely (sometimes written as Emila; born 1878), and Adele (born 1880).

There were two more Sentous brothers - Alphonse, born in 1850, and Pierre-Marie, whose birth year seems to be lost to history. Alphonse likely arrived later (there is no record of him in California until 1873), and Pierre remained in France. Little else seems to be known about either of them.

Like many other early residents who were able to buy land before the real estate boom of the 1880s, the Sentous brothers had considerable holdings, including a building block. The Sentous Block at 617 N. Main Street, built by Louis in 1886, housed both apartments and shops. In fact, former governor Pio Pico spent his last few years in an apartment in the Sentous Block (needless to say, he'd had some money troubles).

Jean Sentous established a dairy farm in 1856, on land bordered by Main, Washington, Grand, and 21st Streets. The land exchanged hands a few times and eventually became Chutes Park, one of LA's first amusement parks, in 1900 (sadly, in typical fashion, LAist neglected to mention the French guy who owned the land before that hotelier did).

There was a Sentous Tract, divided by Jean in 1861 and bordered by Pico, Georgia, Eleventh, and Sentous Street. The Sentous Street School was built at 1205 W. Pico in 1912, and later renamed Sentous Junior High School (the campus doubled as a night school).

Although Jean preferred family life to public life, he served as President of the French Benevolent Society for many years.

Jean died in 1903 at age 67 in his home at 834 West 16th Street (the 800 block of West 16th Street no longer exists). His funeral was held at St. Vincent's and he was buried at Calvary Cemetery. The funeral procession was the largest Los Angeles had ever seen (at least as of 2007, when this fact was cited in historian Helene Demeestre's Pioneers and Entrepreneurs).

Jean's son Louis Sentous Jr., who was just as popular as his gregarious father and uncle, was educated in Los Angeles public schools and St. Vincent's College before spending five years in France, attending the Seminary of Polignan and the Government College in St. Gaudens. Upon returning, he re-enrolled in St. Vincent's (which we know today as Loyola Marymount University) and graduated. Louis Jr. married Louise Amestoy, also from a notable French family (I will cover the Amestoys at a later date) in 1895.

Louis Jr. was President of the Franco American Baking Company for some time, developed real estate with his brother Camille, and served as LA's French consul for many years. (Demeestre mistakenly - but understandably - lists Louis Jr. as Louis' son. Birth records and Jean's newspaper obituary make it clear that Louis Jr. was in fact Jean's son.) Louis Sentous Jr. held several offices in the French Benevolent Society and was the Society's President for thirteen years, during which time the Society's membership more than doubled. In 1912, the French government made him a decorated officer of the French Academy for his years of service.

The Sentous family wasn't immune to trouble. In 1907, Louis Jr. and Camille were threatened by a deranged laborer, Quentin Prima, who demanded their assistance in courting their wealthy widowed aunt. Fortunately, Prima was promptly arrested.

Of Jean's other children, we know that Frank became an engineer, Narcisse bounced back home after a divorce, Adele and Louisa got married but Heloise did not (in the grand tradition of French women living very long lives, Adele died at age 90 in 1971), and poor Emely died when she was only 15.

The Sentous Block - incredibly - managed to survive until 1957. When it was finally slated for demolition (to build - what else? - another parking lot), Christine Sterling, the "Mother of Olvera Street", was so heartbroken that she put on mourning attire and hung a huge black wreath on the building's center door (as you can see in the picture below).

(Image courtesy of USC's digital library.)

Mrs. Sterling lamented "I had always hoped that the Sentous Building would be included in the city, county and state's plans to restore the Plaza area. But it looks like another part of our past is going to be carried away in a truck." (Emphasis mine. If Mrs. Sterling could see modern-day LA, she would probably be inconsolable.)

Sentous Junior High School closed in 1932, after only 20 years of teaching children (and adults). As the city expanded westward in the 1930s, more and more families moved out of downtown. The school was not demolished until 1969.

The rest of the Sentous Tract was cleared out and demolished around the same time to build (drumroll please...) a parking facility for the Convention Center. The Staples Center and LA Live came later. (On a personal note, I was harassed at LA Live by a racist scumbag who took issue with my beret and my ethnicity. I felt threatened enough that I didn't stick around to say hi to second opening band The Dollyrots, even though I love them - I bolted for the parking garage and beat it straight back to my apartment across town. That was in 2010 and I still remember it like it was yesterday. I'm never, EVER going to a Screeching Weasel show again.)

As for Sentous Street, it was renamed LA Live Way.

A few of LA's streets still bear the family's name. City of Industry boasts both a Sentous Avenue and a Sentous Street, and West Covina has its own Sentous Avenue. (Given later freeway construction and the proximity of the two Sentous Avenues, they may at one time have been portions of one continuous street.)

*Camille and Heloise were, according to existing records, born just six weeks apart. It isn't clear if this is the result of a clerical error or unlikely medical circumstances, or if either child could have been adopted.

**Multiple sources say Louis was born in 1848, but others, including his grave marker, indicate a birth year of 1840. Since young children don't normally go to a faraway country alone at age five, 1840 seems far more likely. Emigrating alone as a younger teenager would not have been that unusual for the 19th century (case in point: one of my great-grandfathers emigrated alone at age 14, lived in boarding houses until he got married, and - if his birth family was even still alive - never saw any of them again).

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Wake Up, Sheeple! Part 1: Germain Pellissier and the Wiltern

I love music more than life itself, and have been to many, MANY shows. Consequently, I know Southern California venues pretty well.

I was completely shocked - in the best possible way - to discover that two of them had French connections.

Germain Pellissier was born September 24, 1849 in Saint-Paul, France, and left at age 16 after his father died. Pellissier arrived in San Francisco in 1867 and soon moved to Los Angeles. Like so many other transplants, he was young - just 18 when he arrived.

Land was still plentiful and inexpensive at the time, allowing young Pellissier to set himself up in the sheep business, importing French and Australian breeds to improve wool production - and, in time, make real estate investments. He became a naturalized citizen in 1879.

Sources disagree over whether Pellissier owned 140, 156, 200, or 400 acres west of the original pueblo, but we do know that his considerable land holdings included the modern-day intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, purchased in 1882. Wilshire and Western didn't even exist in those days, but Pellissier knew that Los Angeles proper, then several miles away and comprising much of modern-day downtown, would eventually need to expand. In the meantime, he used this land as a grazing pasture for some of his sheep (he also grazed sheep in Kern County and Ventura County).

In 1887, when the Southern California land boom hit, Pellissier was proven right, and parceled out some of his land. Developers called it "Pellissier Square." By the 1920s, Wilshire and Western was considered the busiest intersection in Los Angeles (the city traffic commission deemed it the busiest in the world). Today, the intersection is part of Koreatown.

Pellissier's descendants continued to own the land long after his death, and grandson Henry de Roulet commissioned the Pellissier Building - one of the city's most beautiful Art Deco buildings - which opened its doors in 1931. The Wiltern Theater, which is part of the Pellissier Building, was a movie theater for many years, and is now one of Southern California's most beloved live music venues.

On a personal note, when I went to my first Wiltern show, I could barely focus on the band (and THAT is saying something!) because the venue is SO beautiful. I have been to Versailles, the Louvre, Buckingham Palace, and St. Peter's Basilica, and to me, the Wiltern has them all beat.

According to Pellissier's death notice, there was an earlier Pellissier building, commissioned by Germain himself, standing at the corner of Seventh and Olive. Originally, it was a house, and Pellissier rented out the ground floor to a saloon. In 1887, he built a hotel on the site. Like so much of LA's history, it is long gone. I have been unable to find a reference to which corner it occupied. The intersection currently boasts jewelry stores, a 7-11, and (shocker) more parking.

Like so many other French transplants, Pellissier did have a few relatives join him in Los Angeles. His nephews Francois - "Frank" to his Yankee friends - and Anton got into the dairy business, with Frank eventually relocating to Whittier, where land was still plentiful. Frank's house on Workman Mill Road stood roughly where Rio Hondo College's athletic fields are today, and the Pellissiers owned much of modern-day Whittier and the Puente Hills before urban expansion put an end to the Pellissier Dairy in 1971. Today, Pellissier Place in City of Industry and Pellissier Road in Whittier still bear their name, as does a Rio Hondo College scholarship awarded in the name of Frank's wife, Marie Valla Pellissier.

Between sheep ranching and real estate, Germain Pellissier became one of California's richest men. He and his wife Marie (née Darfeuille) were known to be active in the French Benevolent Society. They had four children - Marie Louise (born in 1877), Léon (born in 1888), Louise (born and died in 1890), and Adelaide (born in 1892).

Léon Pellissier died in 1901 at age 12. His headstone at Calvary Cemetery, shared with Germain, is entirely in French and states "Il s'est envolé vers le ciel ayant a peine touché la terre." (In English, this means "He flew to heaven barely having touched the ground.")

Pellissier lived at 191 Olive Street, near the northeast corner of Olive and 2nd. In his later years, he lived at 697 Cahuenga Street.

Germain Pellissier died January 15, 1908 at his home on Cahuenga Street at the age of 58. He was survived by his wife and daughters Marie-Louise and Adelaide, and is buried in Calvary Cemetery with Léon. Louise, interred at the original Calvary Cemetery in 1890, was reburied with her father and brother.

The house on Olive Street is long gone. A multi-level parking garage takes up the entire block. I somehow doubt any of the people parking there and walking to the Walt Disney Concert Hall just across Grand Avenue have ANY clue about the shrewd sheep rancher who lived there.

Next time: another LA music venue with ties to a notable French family.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Hey, You Missed Something!

I enjoy reading other writers' articles and books on Southern California's history, but mistakes and glaring omissions drive me crazy.

I've seen the French community slighted too many times to count, so this entry will focus on the three most recent incidents.

1. An article on LA's history of water management had several omissions. First, the writer mentioned construction of the city's water wheel, but failed to credit Jean-Louis Sainsevain, the engineer who constructed the wheel, and did not bother to mention the name of the reservoir the wheel fed - the Sainsevain Reservoir, one of LA's first.

Second, the writer completely ignored Jean-Louis Sainsevain and Damien Marchessault's years-long, constantly-thwarted efforts to fix the city's water system. She certainly did not mention Marchessault's tragic death, which most likely would not have happened if it weren't for the great strain he'd been under.

Third, the writer just barely mentioned (and in passing at that) the unification of the city's public and private water services (which was a pretty big deal at the time). She did not bother to mention any of its major players or the names of the entities, let alone Prudent Beaudry or Solomon Lazard, two of the three co-founders of the Los Angeles City Water Company.

Did she even research this article?

2. I really, really enjoy a certain local TV station's online articles about vanished/altered-beyond-recognition things about LA. They're fascinating. I've even linked to a couple of their articles in previous entries.

One of their writers, in a recent article, mentioned ALMOST every one of Los Angeles' immigrant support societies. She somehow failed to include either the French Benevolent Society or the Cercle Catholique Francais.

I can understand genuinely being unaware of the Cercle Catholique Francais. My own family lived in LA well before the Cercle was founded, during its entire existence, and well after the Cercle disbanded...and somehow none of us knew about it until I first read about the Cercle two years ago.

But how could she not know about the French Benevolent Society? It was founded in 1860, making it the city's second-oldest immigrant charity (after the Hebrew Benevolent Society). The Society existed to meet the needs of one fifth of Los Angeles at the time. The Society built its own hospital, which still exists today (albeit under a different name). The Society itself technically still exists. There is absolutely no excuse for this.

The writer claims her family has been in Los Angeles for over a century. I find it very hard to believe that she could somehow be completely unaware of the French Benevolent Society's 120-plus years of good works.

3. One of my very favorite LA-based bloggers recently posted something about Brunswig Square getting some non-Asian restaurants and lamenting the notion of Brunswig Square losing its character.

Brunswig Square falls within the parameters of modern-day Little Tokyo. But the neighborhood made up one of the oldest parts of Frenchtown first. "Brunswig" is, obviously, not a Japanese name. The blogger does not seem to have been aware of Brunswig Square's past. Which is odd, since he's otherwise quite well-informed and seems pretty smart.

Brunswig Square wasn't built to house restaurants and retail. It was originally the factory for Brunswig Drug Company, which had over a thousand pharmacies spanning every Southwestern state, Hawaii, Mexico, China, and Vietnam. The company's founder, Lucien Napoleon Brunswig, was a pharmacist from France and involved in a number of charities and volunteer organizations. (I will be writing a proper blog entry on Brunswig in the future, but until then, my Doughboy entry should give you a rough idea of why he matters so much.)

I understand why this blogger doesn't want Brunswig Square to lose its current, largely Japanese, character. I don't want Little Tokyo to lose its character and charm, either. But my own ethnic enclave no longer exists at all, and its former site largely became Little Tokyo and Chinatown. Would some acknowledgement of Brunswig Square's past - from anyone - really be so much to ask?

To these writers, and to all of the others who have not given French Angelenos their fair place in history, I would like to say, with all due respect:

We were here, too.

We have been here since 1827.

We made a LOT of contributions to Los Angeles (just you wait until I write about Damien Marchessault, Prudent Beaudry, and Remi Nadeau...) that helped take it from dusty pueblo to world-class city.

We matter just as much as every other ethnic group in Los Angeles.

Don't sell us short.*

*Yes, we are statistically shorter than everyone else (Michel Lachenais and Felix Signoret excepted). Insert sarcastic laughter here. Just quit pretending we don't exist. It's an a**hole move and you know it.