Sunday, April 16, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 1: Olvera Street and LA's Old Pueblo

The acknowledged foremost authority on Frenchtown, Helene Demeestre, has called at least one of her Frenchtown lectures "Without a Trace".

With all due respect to Dr. Demeestre, if you can't find traces of Frenchtown in modern-day Los Angeles, you haven't looked hard enough by a LONG shot.

Recently, I was fortunate to get a Saturday off work and spent it exploring the old Pueblo and nearby Chinatown. This is what you'll find if you make the same trip.

Damien Marchesseault, progressive six-term mayor, is remembered in a plaque outside the Biscailuz building. (Am I alone in thinking it's weird that the plaque is in English and Spanish, but seems to be missing a French translation?) The inscription references the nearest street being named after Marchesseault, which it was. However (insult to injury here), Marchesseault Street was renamed Paseo de la Plaza sometime after this plaque was installed. Oh, and the dates of his mayoral terms are highly inaccurate. (Even in death, Marchesseault gets no respect.)

Rest in peace, Mr. Mayor. And this plaque should really have a French translation...

Union Station, opposite the Pueblo. If Marchesseault Street still existed, it would lead right to Union Station's front doors.
Plaque outside the Garnier building. At a time when the United States government didn't believe Asians were human beings and anti-Chinese sentiments ran high, Philippe Garnier built this building specifically to rent to Chinese tenants (the Chinese-American community used this building continuously from 1890 to 1953). Today, it is the last surviving relic of LA's original Chinatown. (The plaque is in English and Chinese, but once again, missing a French translation.) 

Plaque on the wall of the Garnier building.

Do note the "P. Garnier 1890" relief.

LA's oldest Masonic hall. Sources disagree on whether Jean-Louis Sainsevain was grand master of LA's oldest lodge or not. We do know, however, that Judge Julius Brousseau was a high-ranking Mason.
The Pico House doesn't seem that big when you're right in front of it, but it looks enormous from across the plaza. French hotelier Pascale Ballade owned the Pico House for a time and threw the centennial to end all centennials here when the French Republic turned 100 in 1892.

Brunswig building (do not confuse with Brunswig Square in Little Tokyo) on the left, Garnier block (do not confuse with Garnier building) on right.

Garnier Block.

Brunswig building.

Inside the Garnier building, which now houses the Chinese American Museum.

There are too many clues to list, but there is plenty of hard evidence that much of old Chinatown was part of a French neighborhood first.

Back view of Garnier building. The building was much larger many years ago - only the last sections on the right are original.

Biscailuz building. Eugene Biscailuz, of French Basque extraction, was a respected lawman for many years in LA, and helped establish the California Highway Patrol.

La Placita and its unforgivably ugly faux-Byzantine mosaic. Up until the late 1930s, that exact spot contained LA's first public art - a mural of the Madonna and Child. The mosaic went up in 1981. (Somewhere, Henri Penelon is quietly crying into a glass of Sainsevain Brothers wine.) Oh, and let's not forget that La Placita's first TWO resident priests were from France!

And now...prepare for the shock of a lifetime.

As of this writing, if you visit the old Avila Adobe on Olvera Street, you just might stumble upon something unexpected... exhibit about the struggle for water services in early LA.

I had no idea it was even there. It's not advertised, and most of it is gated off. But the first part, which concerns the Sainsevains, Beaudrys, Solomon Lazard, Mayor Marchesseault (etc.), was open.

Water permit signed by water overseer and mayor Damien Marchesseault.

Jean-Louis Sainsevain - engineer and Marchesseault's business partner.

Early map showing the old water system.

Jean-Louis Sainsevain's water wheel, feeding water into the Sainsevain Reservoir (now a closed-off old park called Radio Hill Gardens).

How it worked.

Dr. John Griffin (an Anglo with a background in public health), Prudent Beaudry (French Canadian), and Solomon Lazard (French) - partners in the Los Angeles City Water Company. Many of the LACWC's early employees were French as well.

You had NO idea. did you? Most Angelenos don't.

The old Plaza with the original LACWC building - fittingly located on Marchesseault Street.

Bauchet Street, near Union Station. You know who Louis Bauchet is.

Philippe the Original! Don't worry, I will write about Philippe Mathieu in the future. This is not the location where the French dip sandwich was invented (that one was torn down for development purposes), but on a personal note, my parents used to go on dates here.

Classic neon sign at Philippe's.
Corner of Mesnager Street and Naud Street. You had NO idea this was here, did you?
So as you can see...we haven't really vanished "without a trace", as Dr. Demeestre puts it. There is a wealth of clues. You just have to spend some time looking for them.


  1. In regards to early Frenchmen and translations in Spanish: early spoken and written language was mainly in Spanish. Very little was in English or French. Also, an early relative of mine was the owner of the Avila adobe. The family is still around today, their ownership lasted until about 1868.

  2. Yes - very true. Early French Angelenos even tended to adopt Spanish versions of their names (Jean-Louis Vignes was called Don Luis del Aliso; his nephew Pierre Sainsevain was known as Don Pedro). However, Marchesseault was first elected in 1860 and Philippe Garnier's Plaza buildings went up in 1890. One-fifth of Los Angeles spoke French by that point (and the plaques honor native French speakers).

    How cool is that? My family never owned anything in LA that pre-dated World War II (even though one of my grandmothers first arrived around 1928).