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.

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