Friday, August 7, 2020

The Lost Legacy of André Briswalter

There was a time when fresh food was rather costly in Los Angeles. The pueblo was hot and dusty, the river periodically burst its banks and flooded, and your neighbor just might illegally divert water from a zanja for their own use. Los Angeles traded with San Bernardino for eggs, crackers, and other foods, but the long and hot wagon trip often meant food was well on its way to spoiling by the time it arrived.

If you had a talent for growing fresh fruit and vegetables, you could make a good living.

André Briswalter arrived in the Pueblo from Alsace in the early 1850s. He rented a plot of land on San Pedro Street, planted vegetables, and sold them door-to-door in a wheelbarrow. With high demand for fresh food and limited competition, he could charge whatever the market would bear.

Briswalter made so much money that he was soon able to buy his own plot of land, followed by a horse and wagon.

André Briswalter planted an orchard in a plot bordered by present-day Main Street, Ninth Street, Los Angeles Street, and Olympic. When I mapped the site I was shocked to realize I knew the area quite well. The California Market Center (my professors informally called it "the Mart") now stands on the site. I couldn't even begin to list how many times I went there as a young design student. Briswalter's fruit trees are long gone, of course, as is the house on the land (where he spent his last years).

Briswalter had another orchard, south of what is now the Wholesale Produce Market. He also began to grow nuts. City directories list Briswalter's longtime home at Washington and Main.

André Briswalter eventually owned a great deal of City and County property, notably much of present-day Playa del Rey.

Briswalter was active socially, belonging to Knights of Pythias Lodge 79, better known as "La Fraternité" due to the lodge being composed of French speakers and conducting everything in French.

André Briswalter died of blood poisoning in 1885. A large cemetery chapel was built at Old Calvary Cemetery in his honor and served as his burial site.

Briswalter left behind an estate valued at $375.407.76 - nearly $11 million in 2020 dollars. (His land holdings, of course, would be much more valuable today due to the higher demand for land in Los Angeles.) That estate was willed to a veritable 'who's who' of 1880s Los Angeles - Isaias Hellman, Henry Hammel, W.H. Denker, Rev. Peter Verdagner, Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer, Louis Mesmer, Mary Collins, and Alice Briswalter Meit.

The will was contested by Caledonia Guirado, who claimed that she had been married to the elder André Briswalter and that he was the father of her son Andre. Investigation showed that ten years before Briswalter died, she had married someone else and had five children with him. She had several other children by what one newspaper politely called "three other irregular connections". The matter took nearly two years to sort out in court, with a jury ruling that Ms. Guirado was not André Briswalter's wife and the boy was not his son. (Sound familiar?)

Regular readers may recall that Tina Mesmer inherited money and land from Briswalter, who was a friend of her father's (curiously, she was the only Mesmer child included in the will). This became a problem after she married Griffith J. Griffith, who would eventually falsely accuse her of poisoning Briswalter and attempting to poison him.

In 1915, St. Peter's Italian Church moved into Briswalter's old chapel, having outgrown a smaller church on North Spring Street (much of modern-day Chinatown was Little Italy then). By 1943, the parish had outgrown Briswalter's chapel and was raising money for a new church.

Ironically, St. Peter's didn't tear down André Briswalter's chapel. They didn't have to - a terrible fire destroyed the building. The current St. Peter's opened its doors in 1947.

It isn't clear if André Briswalter's remains were destroyed in the fire, reinterred at New Calvary, or if they remain onsite at St. Peter's.

An immigrant prospers...his considerable estate is contested...a phony heir pops up...everything he owned or built is long gone...and for extra fun, it's unclear where he's buried.'s another day in Frenchtown.

No comments:

Post a Comment