Sunday, January 16, 2022

Little Houses on Bernard Street

Bernard Street is in Chinatown. That is, the short block of Bernard Street that concerns today's entry is in Chinatown. 

Bisected by the 110, Bernard has another short block in Elysian Park, and lends its name to an angled extension of Yale Street (shades of Bauchet Street). Many years ago, this was Jean Bernard's brickyard, which he subdivided into the Bernard Tract.

It's quiet in this upper corner of Chinatown. Despite its proximity to both Chinatown Central Plaza and Cathedral High School, the only sound is the soft whooshing of cars - on one end, getting on or off the 110; on the other, driving up or down Broadway. On the south side of Bernard Street, the neon-trimmed Royal Pagoda Motel (reportedly closed at the time of writing) reassures you that yes, you're still in Chinatown and didn't wander into a time warp. This is the side of Bernard that made a cameo appearance in "La La Land" - probably the only time most Angelenos have ever seen Bernard Street.

Sitting in the dark watching the film for the first time, I crossed my fingers, silently begging for the camera to pan to the north side of the street to show the little houses. It didn't.

"La La Land", which shows an incredible (if geographically improbable) checklist of locations in Los Angeles County, didn't show viewers the little houses on Bernard Street. But I will.

Fritz Houses on Bernard Street

Philip Fritz, born in France* in 1844, built three of these little houses between 1886 and 1892 to house his family - himself, his mother, his wife Louise, and their three teenage sons Philip Jr., George, and Fred. Two of the houses remain. The missing house, number 417, was moved to Wilshire and Normandie long ago, and the last time I checked, there were no Queen Anne cottages in Koreatown.

The Fritzes were from Alsace, which ceded to Germany in 1871. Tired of political upheaval and not interested in answering to the German government, hundreds of thousands of French speakers left the Alsace-Lorraine. Philip went ahead in 1873, secured work as a carpenter, and was able to send for his family ten years later.

411, 415, and 417 Bernard Street. Detail from 1894 Sanborn Map.

Philip became a railroad carpenter, working for Southern Pacific's Buildings and Bridges department, and eventually rising to the rank of Superintendent . Where Bernard dead-ends at Broadway (then called Buena Vista Street), a parking facility separates the street from Los Angeles State Historic Park, formerly "The Cornfield" (so named for volunteer stalks of corn that sprouted from loose corn kernels that fell out of freight cars). This was the home of the first Southern Pacific Railroad depot, and explains the Fritzes living a mile away from Frenchtown proper. In the 1880s, Chinatown was still Sonoratown.

When Philip and Louise became US citizens in 1888, land baron Louis Mesmer, who was also from Alsace-Lorraine, swore to their residency, moral character, and principles.

Philip Jr., also a railroad carpenter, was arrested in 1887 for resisting arrest in a riot (several unruly drunks had been throwing explosives to frighten horses), and suffered a seizure near Spring and Temple while being escorted to the police station. Instead of calling for a doctor, the police carried him the rest of the way. Per the Herald, "This started the cry that he had been killed, and cries of 'he's killed, shoot the officers,' arose and for a time it appeared as if there was danger of a serious riot." A few days later he was arraigned, but released, with the Herald noting that he was "considered a good boy" and chalking his arrest up to being in the wrong company. Another account indicated that he had in fact been pushed against the officer and did not deliberately assault him. Two months later, Philip Jr. suffered another seizure on Spring Street and was taken to the city jail for treatment.

Was Philip Jr. "a good boy"? Well...

In 1891, Philip Jr. was arrested for fighting with coworker Pat Murray (the newspaper indicated that one of them broke a cane over the other's head). In 1892, he faced battery charges twice. He was fined $10 after kicking a newsboy into the middle of the street for pestering him to buy a newspaper. His excuse was that he wasn't feeling well that day. The other battery charge was brought by a girl named May Clausen and bail was set for $100 (about $3000 today).

Philip was arrested for insanity in Goshen (Tulare County) in 1894. When it was discovered that he had been drugged and robbed, he was sent to the county hospital to recover, but remained afflicted for some time.

Philip Jr. had married Delphine Belaude, the English-born daughter of Alsatian immigrants, in 1890. Their daughter Louise, born in 1891, was raised by her grandparents at 411 Bernard Street. As for Philip Jr., he was only 27 or 28 when he passed away in 1896.

Middle brother George Fritz, who lived in the lost house at 417 Bernard Street, became a railroad engineer and was considered one of Southern Pacific's most trusted employees. One day in 1904, he was working in the roundhouse and was crushed between two locomotives. George was rushed to Sisters' Hospital, but died from his injuries hours later. He was just 32 years old. 

Fred, the youngest Fritz brother, was also a railroad carpenter. He married for the first time at age 45 - to a 21-year-old bride named Pansy. They had a son, Walter, and the 1920 census shows them living at number 417. By 1930, Fred was divorced and living in the house alone.

411 and 415 Bernard Street, with 417 long gone.
Detail from 1950 Sanborn Map.

Louise Fritz - Philip Jr.'s daughter - lived in number 411 until she married her first husband, Clyde Henry Stone, in 1917 and moved to number 415 next door. Their son Philip Stone died mere days after his birth, and when Louise sued for divorce in 1924, it was on the grounds of adultery and extreme cruelty. 

Louise then married firefighter Louis Vernon Parker, continuing to live at 415 Bernard Street. Unfortunately, Louis was a habitual - and violent - drunk. Their divorce was finalized in 1935. 

In the 1930s, when the Arroyo Seco Parkway onramp was built, the street had to be widened. 411 and 415 were moved 15 feet. The lost house, 417, was moved to Wilshire and Normandie, where it was used  to model housing modernization in a program co-sponsored by the Federal Housing Administration and the LA Times.

By this time, Old Chinatown and portions of the Plaza area had been demolished, displacing Chinese Angelenos, who began to move into Sonoratown. At a time when many Angelenos still didn't care to have Chinese residents living nearby, Louise got along well with her Chinese neighbors and often patronized Chinese restaurants. One story claims that when two Chinese children were not permitted to keep two cats in their boarding house, they asked Louise to take care of the cats (she reportedly did). 

Angels Walk stanchion with photo of Louise Fritz Whiting

Angels Walk stanchion with picture of 411 Bernard Street

Louise married for the third and final time in 1937, to letter carrier Otta Ira Whiting. He passed away from natural causes in 1950. 

Philip and Louise Sr. had both passed away by this time (Philip in 1932 and Louise in 1941), and Louise moved back into number 411. She lived in the house until her death at age 100 in 1992.

The Chinese Historical Society bought the property from surviving relatives of the Fritz family in 1994, turning the little houses on Bernard Street into the Chinatown Heritage Center. As with the French Hospital several blocks away, an Angels Walk stanchion outside references the property's history. In total, the Fritz family owned the houses for 108 years.

Time marches on. Cars whoosh by. Chinatown continues to gentrify. The Cathedral High School Phantoms play on athletic fields built over Old Calvary Cemetery. Shutterbugs take pictures of downtown from Los Angeles State Historic Park, posting them to Instagram and Reddit. Somehow, the little houses are still quietly standing on Bernard Street.

Chinese Historical Society at 411 Bernard Street

*Some sources, including Philip's passport application, list his birthplace as Germany. Preuschdorf, the commune (township) where Philip was born, was part of France until the Franco-Prussian War and is well within its current borders. Despite the German-sounding surname, the Fritzes were native French speakers. It's not a coincidence that some DNA tests don't distinguish between French and German ancestry.