Now recognized as the birthplace of the City of Angels, the oldest section of Los Angeles has been preserved and is being restored as a 44 acre state historic park called El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument. With Olvera Street—reborn as a colorful Mexican marketplace—as its anchor there are twenty six historic buildings surrounding the old plaza.
The buildings range in style from an Adobe dwelling of 1818 and an 1887 Eastlake Victorian to a Spanish style church of 1926. There are also several brick buildings. Five of the historic buildings on the plaza now serve as museums. Statues, plaques, murals and informative signposts provide additional historic perspective for visitors. Reenactments of Mexican culture are frequently staged in the Plaza and several seasonal celebrations draw large crowds. Nearly two million people a year visit the Plaza and Olvera Street, attracted by the opportunity to see a quaint bit of historic Mexico in a major metropolis.
The Old Plaza
A “pueblo” (village) was founded near here in 1781 to provide food for Spanish soldiers by order of King Carlos III of Spain. It had taken 2 years to recruit 11 families (a total of 44 people) to make the six month, 1,200 mile journey from Sinaloa and Sonora Mexico.
A plaque in the Plaza in front of Olvera Street memorializes the Pobladores (settlers). Over half of the original 44 were of African or Mulatto (Negro and Spanish) ancestry. Except for two who were Spanish the rest were Mestizo (Indian and Spanish).
The area east of the Plaza became the city’s first Chinatown as French and Italian settlers also arrived in large numbers, but it was the dramatic Mexican immigration in the 1920s which had the most impact.
An Italian Hall still stands at the north end of Olvera Street. In 1932 Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted a controversial mural entitled América Tropical on the south wall of the Italian Hall which has only recently been restored in conjunction with the Getty after having been painted over for many years.
The Plaza served as the heart of Mexican community life through Spanish colonial rule—until 1821, and Mexican rule—until 1884 and the Gold Rush, but fell into disrepair as the city center moved southward.
In 1926 wealthy socialite Christine Sterling began a public campaign to save the Avila Adobe from demolition and renovate Olvera Street as a center for Mexican romance, commerce and tourism. A historical exhibit on Mrs. Sterling’s and others’, role in the renovation of the Plaza shares space with a History of Water in Los Angeles Exhibit in one of the brick buildings at the south edge of the Plaza.
Continuing efforts to preserve the area resulted in the creation of a state historic park in 1953.
Free docent led historic tours of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument can be reserved on the Las Angelitas del Pueblo (the Docents of El Pueblo de Los Angeles) website. El Pueblo de Los Angeles is easily accessible by public transportation as historic Union Station is just across Alameda Street from the Plaza.
Two statues on the Plaza are worth noting; King Carlos III of Spain (1716–1788) on the east side—dedicated on the Plaza by the King and Queen of Spain, Don Juan Carlos I and Doña Sofia in 1987 in honor of the 200th anniversary of American independence. Governor Felipe de Neve (1728–1784) on the west side of the Plaza—the Spanish Governor who selected the site and laid out the town of El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles on orders from King Carlos III of Spain. Today the Plaza plays host to many seasonal celebrations including the Blessing of the Animals (Saturday before Easter), Cinco de Mayo (May 5), the city’s birthday (September 4), Mexican Independence Day (September 15), and Los Posadas (December 16-24).
Old Plaza Firehouse
The first building constructed in Los Angeles for housing fire fighting equipment and personnel, the Plaza Firehouse was built in 1884 by Dennis Hennessy and designed by architect William Boring. The firehouse had been commissioned by the City Council. One aspect of the design is a turntable in the floor so that the horses that pulled the fire wagon didn’t need to be backed in or out. Once in position their harnesses were lowered from above allowing them to pull the fire wagon out of the station. Originally the firehouse was just used for the equipment of a fire company known as the Volunteer 38’s because it was formed with 38 members.
Because volunteer fire companies only got paid for putting out fires there were occasional arguments and even fights over which company arrived first and got to extinguish the flames. These and other challenges led to the establishment of the city’s first paid Fire Department in 1885. Walter S. Moore was appointed Fire Chief and a new Board of Fire Commissioners installed a seven man crew, the Walter S. Moore Company No. 4, at the Plaza Firehouse.
Specially bred horses—for size and strength—were purchased and stabled inside the station just as they were in the colder climates of Boring’s native Illinois. The horses were stabled on the ground floor and the men slid down a brass pole to respond to an alarm.
Ownership of the site where the station was built was challenged and the Supreme court decided in favor of Mrs. L. M. Bigelow and Griffin Johnston in 1891.Eventually a 5 year lease was negotiated and Chemical Company No. 1 moved in.The fire engine on display is a chemical engine with two cylinders holding 50 gallons of water and bicarbonate of soda. Sulfuric acid was added at the scene producing carbon dioxide to pressurize the water cylinders.
When the lease expired in 1897 the fire company moved out. The Plaza area where the building stands had evolved into the center of the city’s first Chinatown. The Firehouse was used for a variety of purposes over the next sixty years including a saloon, boarding house, poolroom and cigar store, Chinese vegetable market and later a Chinese drug store.
The Plaza Firehouse was the first building renovated after the State of California and the City and County of Los Angeles created the El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park in 1953. The Plaza Firehouse, which was dedicated as California Historical Landmark No. 730 is now a museum. Admission is free.
Chinese American Museum
The first Chinese community in Los Angeles was established at what is now El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. Chinese were growers, vendors and owners of markets for produce, distributing produce in carts around the Plaza. In addition they also operated laundry businesses and later restaurants, meat markets and groceries.
The Sun Wing Wo store was one such business that opened in the Garnier Building in 1891. By around 1900 a population of 3,000 filled eight streets in Old Chinatown centered around three sides of the Plaza.
The construction of Union Station in the middle of the Chinese community resulted in a move north and west of the Plaza to what is now known as New Chinatown or to China City between Spring and Main Streets.
The Chinese American Museum opened in December 2003 in the Garnier Building which is part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument. The Garnier Building is the oldest surviving Chinese building in Southern California and was once considered the unofficial “city hall” of the Chinese community in Los Angeles. The Museum’s collection includes images and artifacts documenting the heritage of the Chinese American community and historical and contemporary art.
La Placita Church
Directly across Main Street from the Plaza, La Placita Church is the oldest Catholic Church in Los Angeles. It was first established in 1784 as a chapel. Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles (Our Lady Queen of the Angeles Church) or Old Plaza Church as it is also known was completed in 1822.
La Placita Church still serves as an active parish. Under the leadership of Father Oliveres in the 1980s La Placita declared itself the first Catholic Church to be a sanctuary for refugees from the civil wars in Central America in defiance of the I.N.S. Although Father Oliveres was transferred to Bolivia in 1990 two new priests, Father Steve Niskanen and Arnold Abelardo, redeclared the church as a sanctuary for immigrants, began the Centro San Juan del Immigrante to give legal and medical aid to immigrants and more in 2002 and later.
There are surveyor posts in Front of La Placita Church that mark the first mapped boundaries in 1858 of the village that became Los Angeles. Two Bicentennial Historical Plaques (one in English the other Spanish) were dedicated by then Mayor Tom Bradley in 1981.
Be sure to visit my page about Olvera Street which has become a world famous Mexican Marketplace with two historic buildings; Avila Adobe & Sepúlvda House. Entrance to Olvera Street is next to the large Spanish style church on the Old Plaza.
El Pueblo de Los Angeles Parking
Parking rates vary but are approximately:
$2 – $2.50 per 20mins on weekdays
$8 – $9 Flat Rate at weekends
See also: Olvera Street