Union Station Olvera Street Tour

What makes this tour important? In 1781, forty-four settlers arrived to create a farm community. They came because of the river. A hundred years later the railroads arrived and ushered in a real estate boom, pulling in thousands of settlers a month. It’s all still here: the oldest buildings in town, the trains and tracks and – surprise-surprise – the river!

 

Tour Starts: Union Station. The station, just a few blocks north of the center of downtown, forms the hub of LA’s rail network. Metrorail, Metrolink, Amtrak, Metro and regional bus lines – even freeways – meet here. See Map

Tour Ends: Union Station

How to Get There: If you’re coming from any distance, there are 3 options: 

  • By Rail: Take Metrorail! The tour starts at Union Station. From the train platform make your way to the Union Station terminal. The tour begins in the Waiting Room. Metrorail, Metrolink, and Amtrak offer maps, fares, trip planner and station location information.
  • By Bus: Visit the Metro site for bus transit maps, fares, trip planner and stops nearest you.
  • By Car: Parking ($6.00/day) is available at Union Station. Follow signs to the Vignes Street parking garage accessible from Vignes Street, directly behind the railroad station. Alternatively, parking is available on Main Street, near Olvera Street.

Tour Length: This is a relatively short tour. 2 hours should do it. Allow just a few more minutes if you take the Side Trips offered on this tour.

Optional Side Trips: There are three…

  1. LA River: 30 minutes
  2. MTA Library: 20 minutes or as long as you like (Mon. & Thur. only)
  3. Chinatown by DASH bus: 25 minutes (weekdays only)

How Much Walking? About 1 mile total – all of it over relatively flat terrain. This tour is wheelchair accessible.

Tour Cost: Once you’re downtown, nothing. The DASH bus through Chinatown costs 35¢ per boarding.

When to Go: The best time to begin the tour is mid- or late-morning between 10 am – 11 am so you can include a snack, lunch or dinner in your tour. Weekdays are fairly busy with commuters at the station and class trips at Olvera Street; DASH “B” buses operate through Chinatown on weekedays only and some museums are closed on Mondays. Weekends pull in a lot of visitors – especially to Olvera Street; some buildings elsewhere are closed or have restricted access.

Where to Eat: Click here for ideas and suggestions.

You Can Combine This Tour With:

  1. Chinatown Tour: About 2 hours. Follow directions at the end of “The Tour.”
  2. Civic Center Tour: About 2-3 hours. Follow directions at the end of “The Tour.”

Some Background

For Some Background on the area of the Union Square Tour click here:

The Tour

Here’s a map of the Union Station Tour:
View Union Station – Main Tour in a larger map

Assuming you arrived Union Station by train, on arriving at the train platform look for signs directing you to “Union Station” or “Alameda Street.”

–> Proceed to the Union Station passenger terminal Waiting Room.

Stop 1Union Station. 800 N. Alameda Street. John and Donald Parkinson – primary consulting architects, 1939

Here it is: the “Last Great American Train Station!” Erected as the country was emerging from economic depression, its completion also marked the coming of the city’s love affair with the automobile. More affordable than ever, cars could more easily handle local travel; a network of planned freeways promised even more speed and flexibility. What’s more, air travel – far faster than trains even in pre-jet times – was increasingly affordable, too. 

 
 
 

 

 

Union Station was busy when it opened, and even busier during the World War II gas-rationed years. But by the late 1940s, it witnessed a steady withering of traffic that continued well into the 1980’s. Amtrak had taken over passenger rail travel in 1971 but funding was always tight and train traffic continued to slide.

But guess what? Union Station is busier today than at any time in its history!

Why? Because it’s no longer just a regional or long distance rail hub. When it opened in 1939, Union Station served some 7,000 daily passengers, almost all arriving or departing on regional or long-distance trains. Sure, there were plenty of commuters or local rail travelers in L.A. but they used the city’s immense network of streetcars, none of which “hubbed” at Union Station.

  • It’s a commuter rail hub. Daily ridership, at about 75,000 passengers. is ten times what it was 70 years ago. The vast majority are local and suburban commuters using the subways, light-rail and commuter rail services that now hub here.
  • Rail travel is back! Tired of choked freeways, roller-coaster gasoline prices and the stresses of unpredictable commute times, more people are opting for rail travel than ever before. And the future isn’t about more freeways or expanded airports; it’s about high-speed rail – with Union Station at its hub.

OK – about the station. As noted in the introduction above, Los Angeles was a relative late-comer to railroad service. But it caught on and caught up – fast. By the early 1900’s, L.A. was a southwestern terminus for three major lines: Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe railroads.

Because each of those lines more or less terminated in L.A. (next stop, the Pacific Ocean), each had their own terminal on the eastern edge of downtown. If your destination was L.A. – as it was for most arrivals – no problem. If, however, you were connecting from one line to another, say, arriving from Santa Barbara on the Southern Pacific and heading east to Phoenix on the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe, you had a problem. Each line had its own, separate, downtown terminal necessitating a multi-block connection via taxi, streetcar, bus or on foot.

The solution, proposed as early as 1906, was obvious: built one terminal serving all three lines. The devil was in the details with no railroad wanting to foot a share of the bill. Suggestions of connecting the existing three terminals by elevated or underground rail were dismissed as too costly and complicated. For decades the city banged it about with the railroads and the electorate. Finally, in 1931, the California Supreme Court stepped in: “Build the Union Station.” Well, that settled the one-station issue. But it didn’t settle the other question: where?

Along came the Great Depression and the railroads were in no financial mood to foot the bill on a new station here, there or anywhere. So the city sweetened the deal and was able to push the railroads to agree on a locaton next to the plaza.

As architects were consulted and plans drawn up, land condemnation began. The ultimate irony was that descendants of the Chinese laborers who helped build the transcontinental railroad to San Francisco and later, the railroads to Los Angeles, were the very ones  whose residences were razed to construct the city’s Union Station. Today’s station sits square upon the site of L.A.’s original “Chinatown.”

In May, 1939, a three-day celebration marked the opening of the station. With Hollywood just up the road, there was no lack of the requisite dancers, celebrities and big production know-how to produce a major event. Themed floats re-enacted driving the “golden spike” that completed the transcontinental railroad, Chinese coolies laboring on track beds, the latest rail-mounted army artillery, bathing beauties and chorus line dances.

It’s a Fact…

The first train to depart Los Angeles’ spanking new Union Station went nowhere in particular and didn’t have a single fare-paying passenger aboard. The train appeared in the 1939 Paramount/Cecil B. DeMille film “Union Pacific” starring  Barbara Stanwyk, Joel McCrea, Robert Preston and Anthony Quinn. Conveniently, Mr. DeMille also helped stage the station’s very real and very long (3-day) opening ceremony.

Union Station was designed by a committee, so it’s no wonder its style can be variously described as Moorish, Spanish Colonial Revival, Dutch Colonial Revival, Mission Revival, Art Deco, Streamline Moderne styles – though usually as combinations of the above. Architects hired by each of the three participating railroads, a consulting team of architects (John and Donald Parkinson), an engineer, a landscape architect and a color consultant all had their hands in the final design. That design finally emerged in 1937.

 

–> Have a seat in one of the Streamline Modern chairs within the station’s Waiting Room.

As you sit in your Waiting Room chair (being sure you’re not a prospective target of an infamous Union Station pigeon perching in one of those 3000-lb Art Deco chandeliers above) take in the view.  The wooden beams 50 feet above are actually painted concrete. The brown wall panels seem to be made of sound-deadening cork but they’re not. They’re believed to be a composite material consisting of ground-up corn cobs. Below them are Spanish tiles. Though not from Spain, these are the real things, a product of Gladding, McBean and Company, one of the most sought-after tile companies of the time – and they’re still in business!

 

The floor tiles running from the station entrance to the train platform tunnel create a rug-runner of sorts, with marble from Tennessee, Vermont, Spain and France. Notice how the “rug” has worn at different rates over 70-plus years. The rest of the floor is paved in quarry tile. Note also how nicely the colors blend to create a fairly peaceful (it IS a train station, after all) place to sit and relax. We owe much of this to Herman Sachs, the station’s “color consultant.” Locally, he’s most known as the creator of the ceiling mural at Bullocks Wilshire’s porte cochere (WalknRideLA‘s “Deco by Metro” tour).

–> Walk towards the Information stand.

To the right is the Traxx Restaurant. To the left, beyond the newstand and Union Bagel is the Traxx Bar, site of a former Western Union telegraph office. A bank of phone booths remains. Now a quiet corner of the terminal, this telegraph/telephone area was once a hub of activity especially on the arrival of movie stars – a frequent event in the 1940s and 50s. With paparazzi flash bulbs exploding and autograph-seekers waving their papers in the air, news reporters descended on the celebrities for the latest scoop. The reporters would then plow towards the telephones and telegraph office to call in their stories. Camera or gossip-shy celebs (there were a handful) often skipped off their trains in Pasadena to avoid the crush of waiting fans, reporters and photographers at Union Station.

It’s a Fact…

Union Station – or its adjacent Fred Harvey Restaurant – has appeared in a long list of Hollywood movies including “Union Pacific,””Union Station,””The Harvey Girls,””The Fabulous Baker Boys,””Blade Runner,””The Way We Were,””To Live and Die in L.A.,””True Confessions” and “Silver Streak.”

Across the courtyard to the left is the now-shuttered Fred Harvey restaurant. You’ll stroll by later as you leave Union Station.

To the right, behiand the wooden room dividers (erected for the filming of the 1982 move, “Blade Runner“) is the original Ticket Lobby. This room is actually slightly larger (6 feet longer, 5 feet wider, 2 feet higher) than the Waiting Room. The ceiling beams and Art Deco chandeliers are different but the overall look and feel of the space is similar.  After Amtrak consolidated the ticketing functions of the three resident railroads in 1971 the  ticket counters were relocated to an area just beyond the Waiting Room. Today this space is used for private functions.

–> Return back through the Waiting Room and walk towards the “To Trains” sign.

To the left is an outdoor courtyard. Then, as now, some passengers prefer the solitude of a garden to the rush of a waiting room. One of them was actor James Mason, often seen snoozing on the grass while waiting for his train. To the right is another outdoor garden – you’ll visit it later in your tour.

At the end of the Waiting Room, to the left, is the baggage claim area and the entrance to the Blue/Purple Line subway station. To the right, behind the schedule board, is the new Ticket Counter area. This is in the general area where the station’s jail used to be. 

Notice the eateries and coffee shops here. In mid-2010 none of them existed; today there are four – plus a candy counter! Things are getting mighty busy here at Union Station!  

Restrooms are located near the Ticket Counters.

–> Continue into the Tunnel.

Until the Red/Purple Line arrived, all Union Station trains were accessed via this 500-foot tunnel. To the left and right, ramps and stairs lead up to the train platforms. There were once eight, double-sided passenger platforms serving 16 tracks. Additional tracks were used for private cars, freight, mail and yard-switching operations. Feel free to check out the platforms. If there are Metrolink trains accepting passengers, check them out, too, but watch your watch so that you don’t become a passenger! There may be restrictions on Amtrak accessibility – always check with the Conductor first.

The Metrolink Gold Line now occupies its own platform within Union Station. If you’re holding a Metrolink Day Pass, go on up the steps (or elevator) to the platform to check it out if you care to. The Gold Line track is unique at Union Station: it’s the station’s only “through” track.

From its inception, Union Station has been a “stub-end” station, that is, trains departed in the same direction from which they arrived: the north.  This meant the locomotives that pulled a passenger train into the station had to be unhooked and moved to the other end of the train to pull it out on its departure. Today’s Metrolink commuter trains and some Amtrak operations use “push-pull” locomotion, eliminating that dance.

There are plans to route a future high speed train (HST as they’re calling  it) through Union Station. San Francisco in less than 3 hours? Stay tuned – and stay patient.

–> Continue through to the East Portal of Union Station: the “Gateway Center.”

Two levels below are the the Red and Purple Line subways. Behind you were the entrance ramps to Metrolink, Amtrak and Gold Line trains. One level up is a major bus connection plaza. Clearly, the name “Gateway Plaza” is appropriate.

Gateway Transit Center. Ehrenkrantz and Eckstut, 1995

After walking through the long and narrow tunnel the center’s atrium offers a sudden and impressive expanse of space, thanks to its 3-level atrium. Wander the area and take in the public art within the center. MTA/city contracts require that one-half of one percent of construction cost be devoted to original art.

–> Walk to the center of the atrium.

The large mural, the aquarium and the ceramic tile “river,” and the paving tiles below you are all works of the design team of artists May Sun and Richard Wyatt and architect Paul Diez entitled “City of Dreams, River of History.” Wyatt’s 80-foot mural depicts the ethnic heritage of the city; the aquarium (Oscar Weathersby, marine biologist) includes only fish and aquatic plants found in waters off Santa Monica, 16 miles to the west. The floor tiles depict the plants and animals of the city’s river valley – and the wagon wheels that passed through and over them.

Maybe the most interesting is “River Bench” – the ceramic-faced water feature. Remember that Union Station was built upon the site of the former Chinatown; some of the artifacts uncovered during subway construction were donated by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and embedded within the stream. Look for dentures, buttons and opium vials.

–> Walk to the east entrance to the Red/Purple Line subway station. Look for the black panels with moving sticks of light.

This art is fun. A-Train,” was developed by Bill Bell, an artist with a Physics degree from Princeton University. Not surprisingly, this art makes you concentrate – but don’t try too hard. Twelve “light sticks” present pulses of light and if you follow their movement across the black panel, your eyes will complete the picture. Watch long enough and you’ll see passing freight trains, taxis (and a man chasing after a taxi), celebrities and passenger trains…some 300 images in all. They make noise, too! There’s a microphone in the panels; speaking into those microphones can activate the sound system.

Restrooms are located off the atrium.

–> Take the escalators up to the next level and walk out onto the Transit Plaza.

The Nick Patsaouras Transit Plaza (Mr. Patsaouras (a long-time proponent of mass transit in L.A.) is downtown’s main bus hub. DASH (Downtown Area Short Hop), Local, regional, airport and busway buses serve the plaza, offering easy connections to the rail lines you’ve just seen. Within and below the brick-paved transit loop is a quiet and too often neglected, grotto-like area entitled “La Sombra del Arroyo” (Wayne Healy and David Botello, 1995). This, and other artwork – the railings, bus shelters and a bust of Patsouras himself, are within and around the plaza, too.

–> From the Transit Plaza walk left towards the 25-story MTA Building.

Before entering the building, take a few minutes to explore the pathway to the right of the building, which leads out to Vignes Street. The passage is called “Paseo Cesar Chavez” (Roberto Gil de Montes, Elsa Flores, Peter Shire, 1995) and is lined with three fountains. It’s quiet here (yet another installation of public art unknown to most Angelinos) so listen carefully. Water trickling down each fountain makes a different sound.

It’s a fact:

Vignes Street, just east of Union Station, is named for the French immigrant Jean Luis Vignes. Arriving from Bordeaux in 1829, gravevine cuttings in hand, he transformed a nearby 104-acre plot of ground into a thriving vineyard. He also planted the first orange grove in Los Angeles.

Really, were it not for this river there would be no Los Angeles and no WalknRideLA tour. Give the river the half hour it deserves! Check out the following Side Trip.

Click here to see the Los Angeles River Side Trip.

–> Enter the lobby of the MTA Building.

MTA Building. One Gateway Plaza. McLarand, Vasquez and Partners, Inc., 1995

Owned by the city (as is Union Station), the 398-foot tower makes a stunning statement, isolated as it is from other downtown high-rises.

The 26-story tower evokes the Art Deco style with its overall massing, setbacks and vertical emphasis. But the lower levels archways are more reminiscent of Union Station’s Spanish Revival style and because the tower references its location to the station (instead of being a characterless glass and concrete box of a skyscraper) many give it a Postmodern classification.

Whatever, it’s quite beautiful inside and out – and it’s our tax dollars at work! Get your money’s worth and check out the public levels of the building – take all the pictures you want.

The lower lobby features three murals collectively entitled “Los Angeles” (James Doolin, 1995) depicting the city in the years (1870 shown at left), 1910 and 1960. Upstairs behind the Reception Desk is the third in the series (2000). The murals carry a message here: the earliest (1870, population 6,000) depicts a lone train – L.A.’s first one – arriving into town from San Pedro. The second (1910, population 320,000) shows all three railroad stations and streetcar lines running everywhere. In the third (1960, population 2.5 million) freeways have replaced rail, the famous four-level interchange at its center. But upstairs, the fourth mural (2000, population almost 4 million) clearly demonstrates that rail transit is back!  

 

–> Take the escalators (two rides will do it) up to the second floor lobby.

Check out that fourth mural and see if you can locate the building you’re standing in. Doolin’s 15-year-old work shows some buildings that were never built but is also lacking some that were. Also check out the Boardroom anteroom with its interesting artwork: “Epoch” (Patrick Nagatani, 1996) – a collage of over 500 postcards and photographs.

It’s a Fact:

The unveiling of Patrick Nagatani’s work, “Epoch” evidently unveiled too much anatomy for some. A self-styled “collage artist” taped paper atop the time-motion photos by Eadweard Muybridge of a naked man running.

If you’re here during the mid-week and it’s about lunch time, the MTA Metro Café offers cafeteria-style dining and some great outdoor views of Union Station and the city’s skyline.

Want to learn more about the railroads in Los Angeles (and take in some great views, too)? Take in this Side Trip of the MTA Library.  (Mon. & Thurs. only) 

Click here to see the MTA Library and Research Center

–> From the MTA Building retrace your steps back through the tunnel and into the Waiting Room within Union Station.

–> From the Waiting Room, exit left, out onto the South Courtyard. Pass through the courtyard, under the arcade to the courtyard facing the MWD Building and fountain.

Metropolitan Water District Building. 700 North Alameda Street. Gensler Architects, 1998

Here’s yet another courtyard (open weekdays, weekend hours subject to restriction) unkown to most save those who work here at the MWD Building. As you walk into the courtyard look down for the brick-marked boundary line defining the southern edge of what was once the old Chinatown. Off to the right is an easy-to-miss stone marker with a bronze plaque erected in memory of “Yangna,” the Gabrielino Indian settlement that once stood nearby.

Within the courtyard is a fountain and a pond well worth mentioning, too. Both are designs of Paul Hinckley and Jayne Odgers; tile by Thomas Barter, 1998. A koi pond is always fun to investigate; this one, entitled “Wellspring,” is no exception. The tile design beneath the fountain’s spillway may remind us of new construction above a crushed and broken past…an allusion that’s appropriate to this site. The fountain,”Sacred Chalice with Ouroboros,” is tiled to resemble the geometric patterns of Native American blankets but you may see more resemblance with snakeskin. Note the compass-like markers “Integrity, Health, Vision and Wisdom.”

Walk in the “Health” direction to the MWD Building entrance (no pictures inside and visitors are asked to sign in at the Information Desk). The District offers a small historial gallery outlining the city’s continued hunt for water. We – 4 million in the city, 9 million in the county – live in a near-desert; that search often gets combative and political. Interesting artwork is on display inside and outside the building’s front (Alameda Street) entrance. Out front flanking the Alameda Street entrance are two interesting murals by Steve Rogers “Nells Patch” (1997), shown at left, and “Hanna’s View – Parker Dam” (1998).

Thirsty? Water fountains (“eau de MWD“) are located inside, past the Informaton Desk. Restrooms are next to the water fountains.

–> Return to the Union Station South Courtyard. Turn left to the entrance to the Harvey House Restaurant.

Harvey House Restaurant. At Union Station. Mary Colter, 1939

If you’ve seen the 1946 movie, “The Harvey Girls” starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, John Hodiak, Angela Lansbury and Marjorie Main, then you know what the restaurant chain was all about: wholesome food served by wholesome waitresses to hungry, time-pressed travelers riding the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. At its peak the rail line operated over 80 Fred Harvey eateries from Chicago to California; over a dozen served California alone.

But not all Fred Harvey restaurants were located in train terminals. Though Fred passed away in 1901 his family followed travelers, not traditions. Some outlets opened over eastern tollways, some at airports. The same year the Union Station restaurant opened, the company opened a Hollywood location at 1423 N. Cahuenga Blvd. The restaurant was adjacent to a new Travel Center – a bus depot with nationwide connections via “Santa Fe Trailways.”

The restaurant was designed by one very hard-working, chain smoking, pioneer architect, Mary Colter, done in the “Spanish Colonial Revival meets Art Deco” style. Its exterior fully matches the station but it’s grand interior, below the 50-foot-high ceiling, is lighter, brighter and more whimsical. Parrot motifs abound (look through the windows and you’ll see them). The restaurant closed in the 1960s but remains almost unchanged from its earlier days.

Today the space is available for filming and private functions and is a popular reception room for weddings; MTA is looking for a permanent tenant.

–> Cross the arcade and re-enter Union Station. Walk past the Traxx Bar, turn left and exit the station to the sidewalk.

–> Walk to the right and then cross the driveway and walk towards Alameda Street.

The Art Deco light pylons flanking the main vehicular entrance are original as are most of the tallest palm trees above you. Parking lots have always occupied the space to either side of the pedestrian and vehicular entrance. Turn and face the station and again, what you see today is also pretty much what you would’ve seen in 1939 when the station opened.  

What has changed are the views to the north and south. The MWD Building you just visited dates from 1998 (a taxi stand and streetcar cargo terminal used to be there); the apartment complex Mozaic (2006) occupies space once devoted to an additional parking lot. Most station parking is now located within a parking garage just east of the Patsaouras Transit Center.

Want to give your feet a rest AND take in Chinatown? Check into the following Side Trip.

Click here to go to the Chinatown Side Trip! (Weekdays only)

–> Cross Alameda Street.

United States Post Office Terminal Annex. 900 N. Alameda Street. Gilbert S. Underwood, 1940

Standing here at the corner of Alameda and Los Angeles Streets, turn and look back at the station. To the left is a good view of the United States Post Office Terminal Annex.  The original plan was to locate the mail processing center next door to the station, about where the Mozaic apartments are today.  But its size and opulence threatened to out-shine the station’s so its site was re-located across the street.

When it opened the postal facility was one of the most modern and efficient in the nation but within 10 years it was judged too small to handle the growing volume of mail. Additions were made but by the 1980s even that expansion proved insufficient; the processing plant moved to South Central Los Angeles in 1989. They still have a retail outlet on the location. The structure served as a hospital for the movie, “City of Angels.”

–> Turn and walk up the sidewalk into “El Pueblo de Los Angeles” Historic Park.”

The 44-acre park consists of a plaza surrounded by the oldest buildings in downtown Los Angeles. Included within the park is Olvera Street, a popular shopping and dining pedestrian mall. Collectively, the shops, restaurants, street vendors, museums, historic buildings and frequent folkloric shows make this a big tourist draw.

Free docent-led tours of the park are available. Click here for more information.

Stop 7Placita de Dolores. 1979

The U.S. has its “Liberty Bell” in Philadelphia. The Mexicans has their “Bell of Dolores” which rang from a parish church in Dolores, Mexico, calling for independence from Spain  (the original now hangs in Mexico City). The wall behind the fountain features a mural, “Father Hidalgo in Front of the Church of Dolores,” (Eduardo Carrillo, 1979). The replica you see here was installed in 1978 and dedicated the next year by President Jimmy Carter. Back then the bell sat atop the fountain but was later moved to its present space along the sidewalk.

Along that sidewalk is the Indian Garden, planted in 1986 with indigenous plants likely used or eaten by L.A.’s original occupants, the Tong-va (later called, “Gabrielenos”) native Americans.

–> Continue up the sidewalk.

Stop 8Biscailuz Building. 1926

The building was named for Eugene Biscailuz, an L.A. County Sheriff, for his support of Chritine Sterling’s Olvera Street development (you’ll visit it in a few minutes). The Consulate-General of Mexico has offices here but the building is best known for two things: its mural, “The Blessing of the Animals” (Leo Politi, 1979) and an actual, annual blessing of animals that takes place here each Easter.

Tradition holds that a cow (considered by the Franciscans as the most “giving” of animals) leads the line. But what was once a blessing primarily for farm animals is now devoted mostly to pets: dogs, cats, guinea pigs, snakes, birds, hamsters and gerbils top the list. But there’s usually the occasional “pet” llama, gecko, donkey, monkey, camel, chicken or spider…or iguana.

–> Enter the Plaza area.

Stop 9The Plaza (“La Placita), ca 1825

The gazebo dates from 1962 but the plaza itself has been here from the early days. L.A.’s first founders settled (temporarily, as it turned out) down near that serene little stream. Successive floods took the settlement – and some of its settlers – down river to the Pacific Ocean. But by about 1815, they’d moved a safe distance from the usually quiet river, up the hill to about where today’s plaza is located.  At first the plaza was an empty, dusty lot. Until outlawed in 1860, the square was sometimes cordoned-off for an occasional bullfight. But eventually it began to take shape; its circular form dates from about 1870. The gazebo appeared in the 1981 movie “True Confessions.

The Moretown Fig trees surrounding the gazebo are over 100 years old. Also surrounding the gazebo are statues honoring those who had a hand in founding the pueblo; a bronze plaque honors the original 44 pobladores (settlers). What look like manhole covers ringing the park’s perimeter are actually bronze plaques honoring each of the town’s first 11 families.

 It’s a fact:

1836: Donations were requested of residents to help cover the expense of ridding the pueblo of scavenger birds “attracted to the city because of its filth.”

1859: Attractive plantings and a handsome picket fence were part of yet another “clean up the plaza” initiative. Within weeks residents had carted away the fencing for firewood. Goats wandered in and ate all the bushes.

–> Locate the Pico House and walk towards it.

Stop 10Pico House. 430 North Main Street. Ezra F. Kysor, 1870

Wow, the city had finally “arrived” when the 82-room Pico House went up! The first telegraph link with the east (via San Francisco) had been completed ten years earlier and talks of a rail connection (again, via San Francisco) were in the works. It was about time that Los Angeles had a first-class hotel and the Pico House fit the bill. Accordingly, Pico House was the first three-story building in town and the first hotel to boast gas lighting and indoor plumbing – there was a bathtub on each of its guest floors! Today Pico House hosts occasional art exhibits.

Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, was the hotel’s owner. Land rich but cash poor, he eventually sold off most of his holdings to pay off mounting debts. In 1869 he took in $115,000 from his sale of 60,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley (gentlemen by the names of Van Nuys and Lankershim were on hand to purchase it) and sank $85,000 of it into the hotel’s construction.

Pico could be considered one of the city’s first preservationists: his hotel was intended to upgrade the plaza area, already declining in importance as the commercial hub drifted southward along Main and Spring Streets. Although opening with plenty of hoopla and fanfare, within a few years Pico House was eclipsed by fancier hotels to the south. The Nadeau Hotel, at Spring and First Street, became the city’s prime hostelry, boasting its four stories (first in the city) and elevator (another first in the city)!

–> Walk down Main Street to the left of Pico House.

Stop 11 Merced Theatre. 420 North Main Street. Ezra F. Kysor, 1870

Here it is – Los Angeles’ oldest surviving theatre! The same architect who designed the Pico House did the Merced Theatre – and in the same year, and in the same style: Italianate. For guest convenience there was a direct access between the hotel and theatre. William Abbott, the buiding’s owner, named the theatre after his wife, Merced. He operated a furniture store on the first floor (“Abbott’s”), the 400-seat theatre on the second, and his family lived on the building’s third floor.

The story goes that Merced insisted the theatre carrying her name up top be taller than the Pico House next door. And so it is, by a scant four feet, thanks mostly to a taller cornice. The architect, Ezra Kysor, later went on to design the city’s St. Vibiani’s Cathedral about four blocks further down Main Street.

The theatre operated for only seven years, losing out to a newer, larger venue that opened up down the street. Keep in mind that when the Merced opened, the town’s population was hovering around 5,700. Technically, on any given evening, one of 14 Angelenos could attend a show. It was a while before the city – not especially known for its cultural inclinations, anyway – could support more than a handful of theatres.  

–> Continue down Main Street.

Stop 12Masonic Hall. 416 N. Main Street. William Perry (a Mason) & James Brady, 1858

The oldest of the trio of buildings, the Masonic Lodge #42 was housed here on the building’s second floor for ten years before moving to bigger quarters elsewhere; today they meet in Santa Monica. Since then the building has been a hotel, a cabinet-maker shop (purveyors of fine coffins) maybe a brothel (remember, the neighborhood was declining) and a pawn shop. Like the Merced Theatre, the building remains empty – though in excellent shape.

Across Main Street are the Vickrey/Brunswig Building (1888) and the Plaza House (1883). The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department operated a crime lab here until the 1960s. Only the original building façades remain.

Both buildings underwent major restoration for occupancy by the just-opened LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. The interactive museum includes a circa 1920s “Calle Principal” and will also serve as a community center with an outdoor garden (see below) and stage. Open noon to 7 pm; closed on Tuesdays. Admission applies.

Click here for more information about LA Plaza.

To the right of the museum is a fenced-in area that holds some controversy. What was believed to be an empty parking lot proved to be the burial place of Native Americans and early settlers. Records had shown the human remains had long ago been reinterred elsewhere but site preparation for the museum’s outdoor garden found those records in error. The remains don’t remain here – at least not for now. They (the bones of up to 118 individuals) were moved to the city’s Natural History Museum for further examination. To date, no resolution – expanded garden or cemetery – has been reached.

–> Continue down Main Street to Arcadia Street. Turn left and continue to Los Angeles Street.

To the right is the Hollywood Freeway. “I Love Lucy” fans might recognize this stretch; it was shown as the Ricardos and Mertzes motored into town in the 1955 telecast of “L.A. at Last,” – you know, the episode when star-struck Lucy disguised herself following her “run-in” with William Holden at the Brown Derby?

Click here to view the episode (the freeway arrival is at the very beginning).

Original plans for the freeway followed a more northerly route which would have taken out most of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, including where you now stand. Obviously, the preservationists prevailed. Still – a good chunk of historic real estate was sacrificed. 

–> Cross Los Angeles Street, turn left and walk up the street towards the next crosswalk.

Garnier Building. 415 N. Los Angeles Street. Abraham M. Edelman, 1890

Check out the photo on the left and compare it to what you see across the street today. A third of the Garnier Building is missing, plus the totally-gone Jeanette Building to its left – freeway victims all.

 But did you notice how beautifully they refinished the south side of the building – using original brick and stone from the demolished portion? (Go back and look again, if you need to). The Romanesque-styled building was built by Philippe Garnier, a French settler and well-established businessman. He leased the building to Chinese American merchants and since its opening it has housed Chinese shops, a Chinese community center (it was often called the unofficial “City Hall” of the local Chinese residents) and sleeping quarters for immigrant Chinese workers. It’s very appropriate that today it houses the Chinese American Museum, coming up in a few minutes.

–> Cross Los Angeles Street to the Fire House.

Stop 14Plaza Firehouse. The Plaza. William Boring, 1884

In this neighborhood of “firsts,” here’s another: the first purpose-built firehouse in the city. Although the city had operated a volunteer fire department since 1871, it wasn’t until 1874 that Engine Company No. 1 opened its wide doors. Over time (after the volunteers and the three horses moved out)  the building served as a saloon, a boarding house and a cigar store, then as a Chinese vegetable market, and a Chinese drug store. In 1953 it was the first building to be renovated following the creation of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Park. Free admission.

–> Walk next door to the Hellman-Quon Building.

Next to the Firehouse is the Hellman-Quon Building (1900), erected by the banker Isaias Hellman. Today it houses the offices of Las Angelitas del Pueblo – the volunteer organization that provides tours of El Pueblo.

 

–> Turn left onto Sanchez Street (the mid-block alley next to the Pico House) and continue to the Chinese American Museum.

Stop 15Chinese American Museum. 425 N. Los Angeles Street (but the entrance is on the building’s other side, off Sanchez Street). Abraham M. Edelman, 1890

The museum entrance is on the left, beneath the red Chinese lanterns strung across the alley. Portions of the exhibits change but the first floor features on-going displays with riveting, first-person recordings and images recalling personal histories of early Chinese American residents.  From an 1850 population numbering two, a timeline traces  Chinese population growth and history to today’s county population of over 400,000.  Admission is free but a $3.00 donation is suggested – and well worth it. Click here for more information.

 

The original “Chinatown” had its roots here, within the Garnier Building and extending east to what is today’s Union Station. Uprooted by the station’s construction (the Chinese were forbidden from owning property and therefore powerless to protest) the once-flourishing shops in the plaza area lost their customers. Those customers moved to the north of the plaza and the Chinese businesses in and around the plaza followed them. The best way to trace that migration is to take the WalknRideLA “Chinatown” tour, or hop aboard a DASH “BB” (weekdays only) bus for a ride through the “New Chinatown.” Information follows at the end of this tour.

–> Exit back to Sanchez Street, and walk out to the Plaza. The Plaza Church is diagonally across the plaza to the left. Cross Main Street at the crosswalk.

Restrooms are available straight ahead next to the parking lot.

Stop 17Plaza Church. 535 North Main Street. Jose Antonio Ramirez, 1822

This is the oldest house of worship in Los Angeles but it’s been renovated so many times that the original architect would be hard-pressed to recognize it. What was once a flat and shingled roof is now peaked and tiled. The single-bell tower now accommodates three bells. Basically, what you see dates from about 1861. But no matter, it’s a treasure. Some historians call the lone bell on the far left the “Elopement Bell.” History confirms that an American merchant seaman eloped to Chile with Josefa Carrillo after her socially well-connected parents refused to consent to their marriage. He later presented the bell as “penance and reparation.”

A marker next to the church salutes Edward Ord, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army; his roomate at West Point was the future General Sherman of Civil War fame. In 1849, to supplement his income, he took on the job of surveying the city – a necessary job now that California was a territory of the United States.

The Plaza Church is not a “mission” church. Los Angeles’s role in the early mission system was that of a “pueblo” – an agriculture community.  The missions nearest Los Angeles are the San Gabriel and San Fernando Missions; it was from the former that the 44 original settlers walked in 1781. Each year, early in September, “Los Pobladores 200” – descendants of those original 44, make the nine-mile walk from the Mission San Gabriel to El Pueblo. Their first such trek was made in 1981, on the 200th anniversary of the city’s founding. The public is invited!

–> Return back to the Plaza and walk past La Luz de Dia restaurant on your left. Turn left and enter Olvera Street.

The corner building on the left is the Simpson-Jones Building (1894). They’ve been making things here since it opened: engines, then shirts, then dumplings (when it was a Chinese restaurant) and now, since 1960, carnitas and tortillas as La Luz de Dia Mexican restaurant. In that same year the Main Street side was occupied by Bank of America, where it remains today. Opposite the restaurant is the Plaza Methodist Church (1926), built atop Agustin Olvera’s former adobe home.

17Olvera Street. The Plaza. 1930

Look at 19th century maps and you’ll see the name “Wine” or “Vine” Street given to this alley. Back in the early 1830’s and 40’s, when – San Franciscans may want to sit down for this one – Los Angeles vintners shipped their fine wines north to the Bay Area, this region was planted in vineyards – acres and acres of them. The name “Olvera” didn’t happen until 1877, after L.A. County’s first judge, Agustin Olvera, whose house was across the street. It was not much of an honor for your honor as within several decades the neigborhood began to decline as downtown’s hub moved south. By the 1920s the alley was looking every bit its age and plans were being drawn up to demolish it. Portions of the Charlie Chaplin silent classic “The Kid” (1921) were filmed in the alley.

Well, one Christine Sterling, a wealthy socialite and civic leader, would have none of it. Appalled by the city’s demolition plans she presented an alternate one: create a Mexican marketplace within the alley. The operative word here is “create.” Olvera Street had long since lost its Mexican roots having been occupied by successive waves of immigrants: English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Chinese. But there were enough traces of that Mexican past to pull it off – and she did.

The Sheriff’s Department agreed to provide prison labor, businesses contributed bricks and mortar and the city even agreed to ban vehicles from the street. Opening in 1930, Olvera Street presented its colorful “Mexican Marketplace,” or a somewhat romanticized version thereof, to the city.

Olvera Street isn’t authentic but, like you, it’s here! Credit Mrs. Sterling with creating a space to welcome tourists that otherwise would have welcomed a wrecking ball. Incidentally, within a few months of Olvera Street’s opening, Mrs. Sterling set out to create a “Chinatown,” too.  


–> Stroll down Olvera Street.

History, homes and museums aside, the main attractions are the puestos (market stalls) selling sombreros, plastic dinosaurs, bumper stickers and churros.

It’s a Fact:

Ingredients for making Churros:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • vegetable oil (to fry them in)
  • powdered sugar (to roll them in)
  • new belt – to allow for churro expansion (available at Olvera Street)

Sepulveda House (1887) was built in the fashionable Eastlake Victorian style. Facing onto Main Street, the wealthy Senora Eloisa Martinez de Sepulveda hoped her 22-room $8000 home (a huge sum at that time) would overlook a bustling, growing, downtown. The city did bustle and it did grow, but not outside her windows. The growth was moving south even before the final brick was in place and eventually the house was used as a machine shop, a boarding house, and a bordello. Mrs. Sterling spruced it up and by the early 194os it was serving as a USO canteen.  Today it’s a visitor’s center.

 

Avila Adobe (1818) is the oldest existing house in Los Angeles. Don Francisco Avila was the Mayor of the pueblo and although the population was about 600, it was enough to make it the most populous Spanish settlement in California (Mexico was not officially independent until 1821). In 1847 the house was commandeered by the U.S. Navy during the Mexican-American War and after that it was a boarding house, an Italian restaurant, and a hotel of not the finest repute. Plans were underway to bulldoze it down and put up a gas station when Mrs. Sterling intervened. The walls are no longer adobe. Suffering major damage from the 1971 Sylmar quake, they’ve been upgraded to reinforced concrete.

It’s a Fact:

The Avila Adobe: Washington didn’t sleep here but John F. Kennedy did! The Democratic Convention took place in Los Angeles in 1960 (his campaign headquarters were at the Biltmore Hotel downtown) and following a lunch here on Olvera Street he grabbed a nap at the house.

Casa Pelanconi (1855). The  Italian vintner Giuseppi Cavacci built the home but it was soon bought by Antonio Pelanconi who used it tho house wine, not people…but then again, maybe not. Like many of the buildings along Olvera Street, there’s no lack of rumors as to what went on in the building before it became La Golondrina Restaurant in 1930 – the oldest eatery on Olvera Street.

The Hammel Building (1909) was built as a shop for light industry and like most west-side buildings on the alley, its original main entrance was off Main Street; similarly, east-side buildings faced Los Angeles Street. With the Olvera Street improvement project, main entrances were often moved to the former alley. Today the Hammel Building is a retail shop.

Much as the Garnier Building served the Chinese community, the Italian Hall (1907), at the end of Olvera Street around the corner to the left, served the needs of Italian immigrants and Italian Americans. Operas, weddings, banquets and political meetings were held on the second floor; the first floor was for retail shops.

In 1932, two years after Olvera Street opened for tourists, noteriety arrived to the building in the form of a mural: “America Tropical,” by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Commissioned to fill the otherwise blank, south-facing wall visible to Olvera Street strollers, the artwork was ceremoniously unveiled – and within days, unceremoniously whitewashed over. Here, along this happy lane of old-time “Mexico,” was a mural that depicted imperialist governments (Mexican and, by extension, American) pointing rifles at a dead or dying Native American Indian strapped to a cross. Work has been “in progress” for years to restore the work but it appears the restoration is finally nearing completion. Stay tuned.  

It’s a Fact:

That’s Italian! Of the thirteen major, restored buildings on Olvera Street, seven were either built by, lived in or used by Italians for extended periods. Across the Plaza, Pico House was owned by Italians for over 50 years.

Maybe you’ve noticed the narrow stone gulley running down the center of Olvera Street. It loosely traces the route of the original Zanja Madre (“Mother Ditch”) – a water channel that delivered water from the river into town. The channel was built within a month of the original settlement in 1781 and over time was improved and re-directed. At one time a water wheel (image right) was constructed to bring additional flow into town but was later washed away by floods.

Records show that in the 1850s, the zanjero (“ditch tender”) was the highest paid official in town, even earning more than the mayor. At its peak in the 1880s, ten zanjas traveled 93 miles throughout the region. The system was scrapped in 1902, replaced by an updated system of underground pipes. Soon after (and ever since) most of the city’s water needs were met by aqueducts bringing water in from hundreds of miles away.

Portions of the original Zanja Madre remain in parts of Chinatown, Elysian Park and other neighborhoods between Olvera Street and the river. Construction of the Placita Dolores (you saw it earlier on your tour) revealed a section of the original ditch; recent discoveries have unearthed additional sections roughly tracing the route of today’s Gold Line tracks.

–> From the end of Olvera Street walk to the right to the corner of Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and Alameda Streets. Cross Alameda, turn right and return to Union Station.

Your WalknRideLAUnion Station Tour” concludes at Union Station. Thanks for joining us!

Or, if you’d like to add either the WalknRideLA Chinatown Tour” or the “Civic Center Tour” to your day, follow these directions. You could return to Union Station and take the Gold Line one stop to Chinatown or the Red/Purple Line one stop to Civic Center, but it would probably be faster to walk:

  • Chinatown Tour: By foot – From the end of Olvera Street, turn right, walk down to the corner of Cesar E. Chavez and Alameda Streets. Turn left and follow Alameda Street three blocks to College Street and the elevated Gold Line “Chinatown” station. It’s a 10-minute walk. By bus – On weekdays, you can ride (50¢; 25¢ for seniors 65+) to the Chinatown station by boarding a DASH “B” bus at the entrance to Union Station. The ride is short, about 5 minutes. Go to the Chinatown Tour.  

  • Civic Center Tour: By foot – From the end of Olvera Street, turn left and walk up to Main Street. Cross Main Street and walk one block to Spring Street. Turn left and walk to Temple Street, turn right again and continue to Hill Street. Turn left on Hill and walk a half-block to the “Civic Center” subway station. It’s a  15-minute walk. By bus – Alternatively, on weekdays, you can ride to within a half-block of the Civic Center station by boarding a DASH “B” bus (50¢; 25¢ for seniors 65+) on Alameda Street (opposite Union Station). Get off at the corner of Hill and Temple Streets and walk the half-block to the station.  It’s about about 5-8 minute ride. Go to the Civic Center Tour.