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 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, 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.

Between 1888 and 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 immigrant, 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 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. (There were other Garnier brothers - Abel, Camille, and Léon, but little is known about them except that Camille and Léon were two of the city's biggest spenders and could often be seen dining at one of Victor Dol's restaurants.)

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

Faux marbre dining salon at Rancho Los Encinos

Like so many other French immigrants 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 immigrants 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 permanently return to Los Angeles.

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

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