Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Raymond Alexandre and the Roundhouse

Continuing the theme of French sailors who settled in Los Angeles...

The Roundhouse, circa 1865.

Alexandre's "Roundhouse", circa 1885.
Image courtesy of USC's digital library.

Raymond Alexandre was a sailor, born in France but well-traveled. (His rank and exact birthplace seem to be lost to history.) Alexandre was an early French arrival, landing in town before 1850, and kept a saloon near Requena Street (where Harris Newmark spent at least one smoky evening with his trigger-happy friend Felipe Rheim).

In 1854, Alexandre built a two-story, cylindrical house with a hut-style roof at the corner of 3rd and Main Streets (which was, at the time, some distance from the pueblo). The house was allegedly inspired by a stone building he had once sighted on the African coast, and Alexandre built it for his new bride, Maria Valdez. (Alexandre used adobe instead of stone, as adobe was far more readily available at the time.)

Madame Alexandre wasn't impressed by her husband's architectural flight of fancy. (Given that this highly unusual house, inspired by an exotic location, was built roughly 80 years before storybook style came to Los Angeles, I feel comfortable calling it Southern California's earliest known example of fantasy architecture.)

Alexandre sold the Roundhouse to German-born George Lehman. In 1856, Lehman converted the house and its grounds into LA's first amusement park, The Garden of Paradise.

The Garden of Paradise was essentially a family-friendly beer garden that boasted a plethora of exotic plants, live music, and games for children. For over twenty years, it was a very popular Sunday destination. Lehman eventually added the wood paneling that gave the house its later octagonal look. Harris Newmark recalled that prickly pear cacti bordered the Roundhouse's gardens, and visitors freely picked the bright pink fruit.

On July 4, 1876, the Roundhouse hosted a centennial celebration for 3,000 people. Southern California's first large-scale parade began at the wool mills on Aliso Street and ended at the Roundhouse's grand party, featuring a French Benevolent Society chariot. One of the celebration's four marshals was Eugene Meyer, an accomplished Frenchman we'll meet again later.

Unfortunately for George Lehman, he accumulated debts he couldn't pay and lost the Roundhouse to foreclosure. The building was re-purposed as a schoolhouse, and Southern California's first kindergarten classes were taught there. Incidentally, Kate Douglas Wiggin (author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) trained as a kindergarten teacher at the former Roundhouse.

Raymond Alexandre's unique African/Spanish house was torn down in 1889. Today, the site is largely occupied by government buildings.

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