A vanished city lives again...

Monday, June 8, 2009

Louis Phillips at Spadra Cemetery

Louis Phillips was an important figure in late 19th century Los Angeles. He's perhaps best known as the developer of the elegant Phillips Block (1887-1912), formerly located at Spring and Franklin Streets.

Although influential in the commercial life of Los Angeles, Louis Phillips did not reside in the city itself. He lived on his land holdings in Spadra, on Rancho San Jose in eastern Los Angeles County. In 1875, Phillips built a mansion at Spadra, and there he dwelt for the rest of his life. When he died in 1900, Phillips was interred at nearby Spadra Cemetery.

Now for a personal connection. It turns out that I knew about the pioneer Phillips family decades before I became an L.A. history buff. It just so happens that, in the 1920s, my father went to school in nearby Pomona with one of Louis Phillips's descendants. One of the few stories Dad used to tell about his childhood was how he got a bad case of poison oak while he and the Phillips boy were hiking up on Elephant Hill, which overlooked the old family mansion...and Spadra Cemetery.

Spadra Cemetery and Elephant Hill, Pomona, California, March 19, 1998. Photo by J Scott Shannon.

I'd known about this old settlers burial ground myself since the 57 freeway was built in the early 1970s; it could be clearly seen from the northbound viaduct as it came down from Diamond Bar. I was intrigued by the place, but I never actually visited the cemetery until 1998. When I did, I was pleased to discover the Phillips family plot there, and I took this photo of the marble monument.

Photo by J Scott Shannon.

While researching this post, however, I was shocked to learn that Phillips's gravestone had more recently been vandalized.

Photo by rwpeary on Flickr.

Bastards! This sort of thing genuinely sickens me...


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A pleasant prospect

Received yesterday another postcard view I've long been eager to acquire – this pleasant prospect of Los Angeles, as seen looking east from Bunker Hill, near Olive and First Streets, sometime around the turn of the last century.

I'm truly transported by scenes like this. It's a time and a place I never knew, but I feel completely at home here. Unlike the L.A. of my younger years, this is a town that I could have lived in and genuinely loved...

Some familiar landmarks stand out. Looming over downtown, at left, there's the old County Court House. In the center can be seen the Phillips Block – in its heyday the largest mercantile building in the city – at Spring and Franklin Streets. And, toward the lower right, with its broad cupola, is the ill-fated Times Building at First and Broadway. (Its presence in this view establishes the date at no later than 1910.)

Interestingly, the USC Digital Archive has the actual photograph this postcard was made from. (The date's given as circa 1887, but the old Boyle Heights orphanage is visible on the far horizon, so it can't be earlier than 1890.)

The view from Olive and First Streets is quite different today. (And not in a good way.)

View Larger Map

The last time I was in Los Angeles – ten years ago – I walked past this very spot. I could never have imagined that, a century before, such tranquil beauty once existed there...


Monday, June 1, 2009

Downtown Harbor Freeway, 50 years ago

Photo above and others linked to in this post courtesy of the U.S.C. Digital Archive.

Today, this is the downtown section of the Pasadena Freeway (Interstate 110). In 1959, though, when this photo was taken, it was the northernmost section of the Harbor Freeway (California State Highway 11), and this is how I first remember it.

I like this photo primarily for its composition, but also because it gives a great close-up view of what an old L.A. freeway looked like. Mom hated the Harbor Freeway, though, so we rarely took this route, but I still have vivid recollections of the eastern San Bernardino Freeway (U.S. 99 then/I-10 now) in the late '50s, and our hometown stretch looked exactly like this (minus the fancy planters in the center divider).

The freeways were quite different back then. For one thing, all of the exit and informational signs on the original freeways were made of porcelain steel, and had white letters on a black background, like the one here that says "Downtown." The smaller informational signs at the roadside had reflectors in the letters so they could be read at night, but the large signs were illuminated by lights, much like a billboard. (Here's another view of the Downtown Harbor, showing some nice examples of the larger black-and-white signage.) The first time I remember seeing the green freeway signs of today was when the first stretch of the Santa Monica Freeway opened in 1961.

To me, though, the most remarkable feature of the early freeways was the complete absence of any kind of crash barrier in the median strip. This plus the fact that seat belts were still a relatively rare innovation in the 1950s – well, it's no wonder many people back then thought that driving on a freeway was literally taking your life in your hands. Note that the curb isn't even sharply angled to keep a tire from straying into the dividing strip. It's easy to imagine how someone in the fast lane could take their eyes off the road for only a second or two, drift to the left a few inches, then suddenly find themselves facing an imminent, fatal head-on collision. (Here is a photo of the Pasadena Freeway in 1958, showing a similar lack of any effective barrier in the median.)

The first built-in barrier I can recall was again on the new downtown Santa Monica in 1961, which had chain-link fencing in the center divider. (!!!) Oh yeah, I felt A LOT safer then! It was only after they started using chain-link, though, that you could see just how often cars strayed into the median (and how pathetic the chain-link was at preventing cross-overs). Really, that fencing looked like a war zone in places. And it must have been a genuine pain to repair, too, as the metal posts were seated directly into the asphalt of the center divide.

One thing about the freeways that's stayed the same over the last 50 years is the traffic congestion. Everything else in L.A. may change, but traffic jams there really are forever.