Pictures: California Before the Stars Arrived

A collection of rare photos shows Los Angeles and Santa Monica in the late 1800s.

An extraordinary archive of 4,600 photographs taken in the city of Los Angeles and the beach suburb of Santa Monica between the 1870s and the 1950s has recently been acquired by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

Many of the photographs show streets and buildings that were important to the history of the area. Others were made for the tourist trade. "Some of these images I'd only seen in bad reproductions," Jennifer Watts, Huntington's curator of photographs, said in a phone interview. "Now we have the original prints. It's thrilling."

The previous owner was a local resident, 89-year-old Ernest Marquez. Over the course of 50 years, he collected the images as a hobby, buying them for a dollar or so at flea markets, antique shops, and garage sales.

"He has a very good eye," says Watts. "He had a clear idea of what he was looking for, and he was the only person interested in those images at the time. Now the market is much larger, and the prices are often through the roof."

The earliest photos show the dramatic changes that came to southern California in the late 1800s. Los Angeles grew from a town of 5,000 residents in the 1870s to a city of more than 100,000 in 1900. During that same period, Santa Monica was transformed from a cattle ranch into a coastal resort.

When it opened in March 1887, the 125-room Arcadia Hotel (above) was the finest place to stay in Santa Monica.

An early version of a roller coaster connected the cliffside building with the burgeoning town. Its single car held ten passengers, who paid five cents for a round trip along a gently undulating track of 500 feet (152 meters).

The ride was known as the Thompson Switchback Gravity Railroad, named for its creator, Lamarcus Adna Thompson. Using his own patented design, Thompson had already built a similar ride in New York's Coney Island amusement park in 1884. It brought in hundreds of dollars a day, inspiring Thompson to create more such rides in cities across the U.S. and Europe.

In its heyday, the Arcadia Hotel was advertised as "Unquestionably the Most Elegant Resort on the Coast," complete with passenger elevators and incandescent lights in every room. But its glory was short-lived. It closed in 1906 and was torn down in 1909 to make way for more modern seashore developments.

The Huntington staff is now cataloguing the Marquez collection and will be putting a selection of the most interesting photographs into the library's digital collection as that process continues.

Gelatin silver print by H. F. Rile, ca. 1900

Blessed with a sunny climate and a large bay, Santa Monica attracted some 3,000 visitors a month during the summer of 1887—around the time this photo was taken.

"A lot of people couldn't swim," says Watts. "They held on to that rope so they wouldn't get swept under water."

Bathhouses along the wide, sandy beaches offered warm saltwater baths, as well as restaurants, a bowling alley, a shooting gallery, and a camera obscura. The South Santa Monica Bath House, which opened in April 1886, advertised its attractions in the Los Angeles Herald: "Everything New. Imported Bathing Suits. Polite Attendants."

Two developers auctioned off the first parcels of land in Santa Monica on July 15, 1875. The cheapest lots sold for $75, the most expensive for $500. Within weeks, houses and stores were built and a newspaper started up.

Before the arrival of train service in December 1875, visitors from Los Angeles traveled to Santa Monica in horse-drawn wagons.

Albumen print from the studio of Pierce and Blanchard, ca. 1895

Rising at the corner of 2nd and Main Streets in Los Angeles, the Cathedral of St. Vibiana was dedicated in 1876, with construction finishing four years later. It originally served the Roman Catholic diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles, and later the archdiocese of Los Angeles itself.

The building suffered heavy damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Church officials wanted to tear it down and build a new cathedral on the same site, but preservationists managed to save it.

The archdiocese obtained a lot a few blocks away, where it built its mother church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

The old cathedral, known today simply as Vibiana, survives as a venue for weddings, fashion shows, award parties, fund-raisers, and other large events.

"This is the only building in any of the photos you're showing that remains today," says Watts. "It's really a beloved landmark."

Albumen print by Charles C. Pierce, 1893

The view from the Arcadia Hotel took in Santa Monica Bay and the buildings that were beginning to pop up along the beach, as seen in this photo by Charles C. Pierce.

Rooftop signs offer clues to the array of businesses that attended to the needs of tourists.

Two locations sold John Wieland's lager beers—one for the sum of 5¢, proclaimed in giant type. An advertisement in the Los Angeles Herald in 1866 says Wieland's was made in San Francisco and was "the finest beer in the market to-day."

Another establishment served Anheuser Busch lager beer, according to a sign in the lower left part of the photo.

Just above that lettering, a barely visible sign advertises hot and cold lunches, with the names Eckert and Hopf tacked on to the end.

Those were Bob Eckert and Rudolph Hopf, who were well-known caterers. They owned the Pavilion restaurant, advertised here behind the large letters touting John Wieland's beer in the lower right part of the photo. In the Los Angeles Herald of August 11, 1889, the Pavilion was promoted as a "restaurant and family resort" specializing in fish dinners.

"It was a dusty, hot trip from Los Angeles," says Watts. "As soon as people got off the train, they'd see the beer ads, with the bathhouses down below and the vendors selling things like cigars and lemonade on the beach."

Stereograph by F. (Francis) Parker, ca. 1875

Early development in downtown Los Angeles included a large commercial building, known as the Downey Block, at the corner of Main and Temple Streets.

To promote California as a tourist destination—and to advertise his own business—photographer Francis Parker created this stereographic card. Shot with a camera that had two lenses, the card displays right-eye and left-eye images. When someone looks at the card through a device called a stereoscope, the scene appears in 3-D.

"This was a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century," says Watts. "People would have baskets of these cards in their parlor. They'd sit around and view them and then discuss what they'd seen."

Construction on the Downey Block began in 1869. It was named for John Gately Downey, a pharmacist who served as the governor of California (1860-1862) before becoming a real estate developer.

The Los Angeles Public Library made its first home in the Downey Block, where it occupied four rooms between 1872 and 1889. Tenants that came and went over the years included a dry goods store, an athletic club, a bank, a liquor store, and the photographic studio of the artist who snapped these images—F. Parker.

The Block was torn down in 1904.

Albumen print by E. G. Morrison, 1878

Arriving from Los Angeles, this Southern Pacific railroad train has delivered a crowd of land speculators and tourists to Santa Monica.

At the depot, the speculators could look over the lumber that would be used to construct houses. They'd then tour the lots for sale and decide where they wanted to build.

Before this time, Santa Monica was mostly a tourist destination. Now people were coming to stay. "This shows the beginning of what would be the boom of the 1880s in Los Angeles County," says Watts. "There's going to be a real population explosion."

In 1880, the U.S. Census counted 417 residents in Santa Monica. By 1890 the number had more than tripled, to 1,580.

Albumen stereograph by Carleton Watkins, ca. 1877

The Santa Monica Hotel was the town's first lodging, constructed near what is now the intersection of Ocean and Colorado Avenues.

It was shot for this stereographic card by one of the celebrities of the 19th-century photographic world.

"Carleton Watkins was the most accomplished landscape photographer working in California at that time," says Watts. "He was already very famous by the time he got to Santa Monica. Business owners probably brought him to town and asked him to photograph the hotel as a way to advertise it."

The tourists attracted by such publicity traveled by train from around the country.

"In those days the visitors were very well heeled," says Watts. "It was a long trip from the Midwest or the East Coast, so people would stay for weeks, or even months."

Many of the city's early buildings, including the Santa Monica Hotel, were constructed of wood. That made fire a huge threat, prompting the city to install 25 hydrants in 1888. The volunteer Santa Monica Hose, Hook, and Ladder Company was founded in March 1889—but it was too late for the hotel, which burned to the ground on January 15 of that year.

Albumen print from the studio of Isaiah West Taber, ca. 1878

In a part of Los Angeles populated mostly by Chinese immigrants, shown above in a photo by Isaiah West Taber, the track of the East Los Angeles and San Pedro Street Railway followed Arcadia Street, today called Aliso Street. The rails were laid down in 1876 and torn up in 1880.

The block running into the distance in this photo was lined with businesses that included saloons and prostitutes' shacks. Gambling houses, opium dens, and other purveyors of vice attracted adventurous non-Chinese tourists and photographers to the neighborhood, as did the Chinese community's colorful parades.

On the night of October 24, 1871, an infamous massacre took place in the area around this intersection. A mob of men from outside the neighborhood went on a rampage, looting businesses and beating, shooting, and lynching local residents. According to the coroner's report, the mob killed 19 people.

Between 1933 and 1938 the people who lived in this area were relocated and the buildings razed to make way for the construction of the Union Station railroad terminal. The new facility opened on May 3, 1939, and is now the hub of the city's light-rail commuter network.

Albumen print by E. G. Morrison, ca. 1886-87

These vacationers in Santa Monica were likely staying in seaside cottages like the one behind them.

"There was no running water, but what an incredible view," says Watts. "You could never build like that now, right there on the beachfront."

Following Victorian-era etiquette, the group enjoyed the sand and sunshine while dressed in their street clothes.

Bathing costumes were donned only for taking dips in the sea—and even those left little skin exposed.

Women, for instance, wore suits with a knee-length skirt, black stockings that covered the entire leg, and lace-up bathing slippers that protected the feet from sharp shells and pebbles. Under all that, a body-shaping corset was still de rigueur.

Santa Monica would loosen up considerably as the rich and famous moved in.

The American Vitagraph Company and the Kalem Company built movie studios in the city in the early 1900s.

Soon stars such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Norma Shearer bought houses there. In 1926 newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst built an extravagant 118-room mansion nicknamed the Versailles of Hollywood for his paramour, Marion Davies. In that same year Louis B. Mayer, head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture studio, built a beachfront home at 625 Palisades Beach Road—a street that became known as the Gold Coast.

The oil and aviation businesses also came to southern California during the first decades of the 1900s, and real estate boomed after the Los Angeles Aqueduct began to deliver water in 1913. As modern development overtook the city and its suburbs, the old views captured in these early photos vanished from the landscape.

Follow A. R. Williams on Twitter.

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