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.

In 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.

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