Monday, February 18, 2019

The Frenchwoman Who Built the Italian Hall

Frenchtown had a longstanding friendship with Los Angeles' Little Italy. In fact, the Italian Hall was built by a Frenchwoman.

Miss Marie Madeline Ruellan, a Parisian by birth, sailed for California on the Guiding Star in the summer of 1868 at the age of 22. In 1869 or 1870 (sources disagree), she married Henry Hammel, a German immigrant who owned the United States Hotel (he also had a large vineyard). The couple's only child, Mathilde, was born in 1875.

Henry Hammel passed away in 1890, leaving his $400,000 estate to Marie and 15-year-old Mathilde.

Marie was active in charitable work and known for her kindness to orphans, but she shunned attention. When Mathilde married and had a family of her own, Marie lived with them and spent much of her time with her three grandchildren.

Marie's sizable inheritance included a parcel of land on the Plaza. Frank Arconti, who had owned the land before Henry Hammel and Isaias Hellman bought it, encouraged her to build on the site. Marie commissioned a two-story brick building (from Italian-owned Pozzo Construction), intended to serve the growing Italian community.

Like the nearby Garnier Building, the new Italian Hall served multiple community needs. Italian-owned businesses filled the ground floor. The second floor hosted musical and theatrical performances and provided a home for the Garibaldina Mutual Benefit Society (a health-and-welfare safety net for members) as well as social organizations like the Italian Workers' Club. Today, the restored Italian Hall houses the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. (Read more here and scroll down a bit for a picture of Marie.)

Marie Madeline Ruellan Hammel died of heart failure in 1913 at age 71. She is buried at Calvary Cemetery with her mother.

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