Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Domingo Amestoy, 30,000 Sheep, and the Skyscraper

Born in St. Pierre d'Irube, France, in 1822, Dominique Amestoy left home for Argentina at age fourteen. Many French Basques went to Argentina to raise sheep (or in some cases cattle), but young Dominique was going to learn shoemaking.

In 1851, Dominique decided to try his luck in California's gold fields. He didn't strike it rich (very few miners did), but he was lucky enough to find work on a cattle ranch. After earning enough money to buy his own herd of cattle, Dominique drove them to Santa Barbara for several weeks of grazing, then drove them to market in San Francisco. He saved the profits, departed for Los Angeles, and worked on a sheep ranch, saving his earnings until he was able to buy his own flock of sheep.

Dominique returned to France in 1862, married 19-year-old Marie Elizabeth Higuerre, and brought his new bride to Los Angeles. In order to keep growing Dominique's sheep business and keep their large family fed (they had thirteen children), the couple needed a second income stream. They started a laundry business, with Marie doing the actual washing (in an open tub with no running water) and Dominique handling pickup and delivery in a horse-drawn cart.

Finally, in 1875, Dominique - "Don Domingo" to Los Angeles' Spanish-speaking majority - had earned enough money to buy 800 acres of land in what is now Gardena. The Amestoy Ranch - bordered by Rosecrans Avenue, Prairie Avenue, Marine Avenue (originally Amestoy Avenue), and Vermont Avenue - was born.

Don Domingo took it a step further, importing Merino sheep and Rambouillet rams. By 1880, he owned an estimated 30,000 head of sheep.

In 1871, Don Domingo co-founded the Farmers and Merchants Bank with Joseph Mascarel, Charles Ducommun, and a M. Lecouvrer. The original Farmers and Merchants Bank building is still standing at 401 S. Main Street and is Historic-Cultural Monument #271. (The Farmers and Merchants Bank that is in business today is not the same institution. The original F&M folded into Security First, Security Pacific, and eventually Bank of America.) He was also one of the first members of the Chamber of Commerce.

Don Domingo didn't just own ranch land, he owned an entire block downtown. In fact, he owned the entire block where City Hall now stands. And he built the Amestoy Building on one of the lots in 1888.

 The building stood three stories high (plus a cupola) and had one of the first elevators in the city. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner dubbed it LA's "first skyscraper" (even though the Nadeau Hotel, built in 1871, was four stories tall and had the city's first-ever elevator).

In 1889, Don Domingo bought Rancho Los Encinos from son-in-law Simon Gless. He wouldn't own it himself for very long; he passed away on January 11, 1892. He was one of the richest men in Southern California at the time, and had been the county's largest taxpayer.

The surviving Amestoys sold the Gardena ranch in 1901. There is still an Amestoy Elementary School serving the area.

Members of the Amestoy family began to sell off portions of Rancho Los Encinos in 1916. They lived on the property and held onto the last 100 acres (including the surviving ranch buildings and pond) until 1945. The adobe was repurposed as a sales office for the suburban tract homes surrounding the property, and plans were made to tear it down after the houses sold. Thankfully, concerned neighbors fought hard to save the last piece of the rancho, and it has been a state historic park since 1949. There is still an Amestoy Avenue running north-south through the Valley, dead-ending at Ventura Boulevard not far from Los Encinos State Historic Park.

As for the Amestoy Building, it quietly stood in City Hall's shadow until 1958. When it was condemned, the Los Angeles Times published an obituary of sorts for the aging red-brick building, long since dwarfed by the gleaming white skyscrapers surrounding it.

In typical fashion for Los Angeles, the Amestoy Building was replaced with a parking lot.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Booking Now: Lost French L.A. Walking Tour

Did you miss my LAVA Sunday Salon back in September 2017?

Did you attend the Salon, but want to know more?

Did you only just recently find this blog?

I am pleased to announce that I have partnered with Airbnb Experiences to offer a 2-hour walking tour of Lost French Los Angeles (special pricing for the first 10 guests who book the tour). You can even book through the widget in the upper right corner of this blog.

After seven years of researching and mapping the French in Old Los Angeles (500 places so far), I know where all the surviving sites are - and where the lost ones used to be. I'll also be relating some of the best stories that time forgot.

Early L.A. was extremely dangerous, so a couple of these stories do involve murder. For this reason, I've set the minimum age at 13. If any family groups would like an all-ages version, email me (through Airbnb, or losfrangeles at gmail dot com) and I'll set up a special tour.

Tours are scheduled for Saturday; if anyone who wants to book a tour is only available on Sunday, email me with your availability and I'll schedule a special Sunday tour.

Please be advised: Airbnb requires photo ID verification. Be sure to add your ID within three days of booking or Airbnb will cancel your reservation.

Tour groups max out at 10 guests, so this will be a more personal experience than one of my lectures.

Goodnight from Frenchtown,


P.S. Blogger has been eating my replies to comments for months and won't fix the problem...if you comment and would like a response, or if you have any questions, please include an email address so I can get back to you.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Trials of Simon Gless

Simon Gless was living on Alameda Street and working as a bartender when his well-to-do uncle, Gaston Oxarat, passed away in 1886.

Quiet, unassuming, twenty-four-year-old Gless - his uncle's favorite nephew - inherited Rancho Los Encinos, fifty acres in Boyle Heights, the Postoffice Block and Odd Fellows Block (home of the City of Paris department store at the time) downtown, properties in San Francisco and in France, and about $29,000 in cash (about $800,000 today). It would be impossible to put a price tag on the Oxarat-Gless real estate holdings today, but to give my dear readers a rough idea, Rancho Los Encinos was subdivided into Encino and Sherman Oaks after World War II. The downtown properties were, at the time, some of the most valuable in Los Angeles.

Oxarat's body was barely cold before the mess hit the fan.

Simon was sued, separately, by his uncle's son, by a woman claiming to have married Gaston in 1874, and by a woman who claimed to be Gaston's illegitimate daughter. All of them wanted a chunk of Gaston's valuable estate.

Simon agreed to pay a French Basque attorney, M.V. Biscailuz, either $45,000 or $60,000 (sources disagree) to handle his uncle's estate. This ultimately did not go well, and eventually led to Simon suing Biscailuz years later. Judge Van Dyke sided with Biscailuz but reduced his fee to $14,000. 

Benita Murillo, filing a lawsuit under the name "Benita Oxarat", claimed that she was Gaston's wife and that Gaston was the father of her son Francisco. The case went to probate court. When Benita took the stand, her story crumbled. She admitted that she was not Gaston's wife and that Gaston was not Francisco's father. In fact, she stated that Edward Amar (another prominent French Basque who developed much of old San Pedro) had persuaded her to contest the will and claim to be Oxarat's widow.  

The other cases weren't so simple.

Within a few weeks of Benita's confession, Simon was back in court with his own lawsuit - against the rancho's prior owner, Eugene Garnier, and Garnier's business partner F.A. Gibson. Garnier and Gibson claimed to own a partial interest in the rancho, but Gless believed the document was a forgery.

I'll let the Los Angeles Herald (February 23, 1887) elaborate:
Plaintiff alleges that the agreement was forged by Garnier and that the claim is false. He avers that Garnier removed a certificate of acknowledgement made December 1, 1877, before Charles E. Beane, Notary Public, from another document and altering the certificate so as to make it appear to be a certificate of the acknowledgement of Oxarat and himself to the agreement, pasted it on the forged paper and filed it recently with Recorder Gibson. The document is now in the Recorder's office, and as it is material for plaintiff's case that it should not be destroyed, he asks that an injunction be issued to the Recorder preventing him from delivering it to defendant. Gless alleges that it is evident that the names were not written so long ago as 1877 nor further back than a year since, a different kind of ink was used and the writing is much fresher.
(As a Notary Public for the State of California, I was trained to spot this type of fraud. This is why certificates of acknowledgement HAVE TO be attached - no matter how much a signer whines about it - and why notaries have to make a separate journal entry for each notarized signature. If this case happened today, the alleged forgery would probably go to the crime lab and Beane's journal would probably be subpoenaed as evidence.)

Simon won that case, but Eugene Garnier filed an appeal and requested that the judgment be vacated. Garnier added that the judge in the case had a financial interest in the Gless estate and that he and his attorney were not permitted to view the relevant documents before their court date.

Adela Freeman, who claimed her birth name was Adela Oxarat, kept coming after Gless for part of the Oxarat estate, and managed to keep her claim limping along for a good six years. She was so persistent that one newspaper reporting on the case incorrectly stated Simon Gless was no relation to Gaston Oxarat.

Basque genealogy site Bridge2Pyrenees lists over a dozen court cases involving Gless. Yet another French Basque, J.B. Leonis, retained Gless as a Basque translator for his own court cases.

With all of his appearances in court as plaintiff, defendant, or translator, Gless may very well have spent more time in a courtroom than he did on the rancho.

Life wasn't all bad - Gless married Juanita Amestoy, daughter of rancher Dominique "Don Domingo" Amestoy in San Francisco in 1886, a few months after inheriting Gaston's estate.

Juanita Amestoy's wedding dress

Simon and Juanita had three children - Constant Simon (1890), Domingo Amestoy (1892), and Noeline Elizabeth (1897). 

After fighting so hard to keep Rancho Los Encinos, Simon sold it to his father-in-law. Valley lore has it that he sold the rancho for $5 after buying a block of ice downtown and finding it had already melted away upon arriving home (I'm from Sherman Oaks...this story may or may not be true, but the southern Valley is hot enough that it's definitely plausible). Another source says Amestoy paid $125,000 and wanted to subdivide the land for farming. In either case, the Gless family moved to 131 Boyle Avenue in Boyle Heights.

Gless farmhouse in Boyle Heights
Long after his mother's admission of fraud on the stand, Francisco Morillo came after Gless himself, still claiming to be Gaston's son. The matter had already been settled financially, but Morillo wouldn't drop it.

In April 1891, M.V. Biscailuz accused Simon of assault. Simon was arrested and the matter went to court, along with that long-brewing lawsuit against Biscailuz. The case dragged on for some time, but Biscailuz eventually dropped the charges against Simon. 

Two months later, Simon checked into Santa Ana's Brunswick Hotel, where he suffered a mental breakdown. Simon claimed he had been attacked by two Mexicans, but wasn't able to recall the details of the alleged incident. He was monitored overnight, took the train home to Los Angeles in the morning, and fired a revolver in his bedroom five times that evening.

After five years of lawsuits and harassment, Simon was so fearful and paranoid that he nearly attacked a visiting friend with a music box (Juanita intervened). 

Simon was taken to the Amestoy ranch (near modern-day Gardena) to recuperate; however, his attending physicians weren't optimistic about his odds of recovery. 

Mental illness of any kind was highly taboo in the Victorian era, and apart from one news article, little seems to be known about Simon's condition. 

Simon contracted chronic intestinal nephritis ("Bright's disease") at age 41 in 1903 and passed away after a few months. He died at home, with Juanita and the children at his side. 

Although Simon was mercilessly hounded by dishonest people, he was loved and missed by family and friends - so much so that the funeral procession was over half a mile long. Interestingly, given all the time he spent in courtrooms, two of the pallbearers were judges. 

Simon is unique among French Angelenos in that TWO former residences remain standing today - and Gless Street in Boyle Heights is named for him. 

The Gless farmhouse was landmarked in 2010, with the support of Gless family descendants - including Simon's great-granddaughter, Sharon Gless. 131 Boyle Avenue served as the Hebrew Shelter Home and Asylum for many years and has since been divided into apartments. Most of the tenants are mariachi musicians - fitting for a house located so close to Mariachi Plaza.