Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Ninety years ago today, the special “Features” section of the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times included a lengthy article on the demolition of the Arcadia Block, one of the last of the pre-Civil War structures left in the rapidly growing city. The Homestead has, in its collection, a browned, brittle, but still intact original of the section.
Penned by E.A. Brininstool, the piece explored the history of the 1859 brick commercial building, which stood south and east of the Plaza along the west side of Los Angeles Street. Accompanied by touched-up photographs, the article is an interesting look at how a late 1920s interpretation of the history of life seventy years before was made.
The piece began by quoting “an old timer” who was purportedly a resident of Los Angeles for nearly seventy years and who lamented, with tears in his eyes, that the destruction of the building took away “about the last reminder of the Los Angeles of the good old days.” Brininstool quoted the gent as opining that
I reckon there’s not a building left anywhere in this city around which could be written so many interesting stories of Los Angeles in the days when every man packed a gun, shot first and asked questions later.
In the author’s telling, the building was a relic of an era from the 1850s to the 1880s in which Los Angeles, or specifically, the Calle de los Negros, which was just north and east of the structure, “was the rendezvous for all the riff-raff—gamblers, gun-fighters, prostitutes and ‘bad men’ who infested Los Angeles . . .” Unfortunately, a common name for the street, named for a dark-skinned Mexican who lived there in the pre-American period, was “N*gger Alley,” and this term was freely used in the article.
The piece then went into the life of its builder, Abel Stearns, a contemporary of William Workman born in Salem, Massachusetts, not far from the hometown, Reading, of another Los Angeles colleague, Jonathan Temple. Stearns, in fact, arrived in Los Angeles just a little while after Temple in 1828, becoming the third American or European to live in the remote, isolated town in the “Siberia of Mexico.”
As has often been stated, Stearns, who was not known for his good looks, married a 14-year old accounted the most beautiful of the young ladies of Los Angeles, Arcadia Bandini, for whom the building was named. As a successful land-owner and cattle raiser, Stearns, whose El Palacio adobe house on Main Street was well known and became the location for a substantial commercial building erected by his wife and her second husband in the 1880s, had the funds (the article stated $80,000) to build the brick structure “which should be a monument to himself and a credit to the dusty, sleepy old pueblo.”
Brininstool then discussed a significant flaw in the building’s construction, which was to have the structure on the elevated west side of Los Angeles Street, though this was done, apparently, to avoid flooding from the nearby Los Angeles River. Yet, it was related in the article that Stearns had trouble getting tenants for the building because merchants were concerned about having patrons climb stairs to get to the stores above the street.
What went unexplained in the piece, though, was why the major tenant for so many years was the highly successful Harris Newmark, whose 1916 memoir, Sixty Years in Southern California is a oft-reprinted classic source of information on Los Angeles from the 1850s to the 1910s.
However, Brininstool included much interesting material on Stearns, including his building an iron foundry in town specifically to make shutters and other hardware for the structure; his distinction as being the first person to sell gold dust from the 1842 discovery north of Los Angeles that predated the much bigger rush of six years later (another early person to sell gold dust from this strike was F.P.F. Temple, Jonathan’s half-brother); and the terrible consequences to Stearns and others of the floods and droughts of the 1860s that nearly wiped the land baron out. What is not included is that the sale of Stearns’ vast estate provided him a reprieve and kept him in wealth at the time of his death in 1871. Arcadia Stearns married Robert S. Baker, a founder of Santa Monica, and their Baker Block was the replacement for the Stearns adobe, as noted above.
Other colorful information is included in the article relating to the building, including how it was the home of the first, though short-lived, public library soon after its completion, housed the Los Angeles Athletic Club when it was opened, and was the site of the deliberations of the vigilance committee that lynched Michel Lachenais in late 1870.
The piece concluded with the rueful statement that
the razing of the Arcadia Block removed one of the very last of the early-day historic buildings of Los Angeles—and the old-timers shake their heads and decry the advance of ‘civilization’.
In fact, one of the images in the article shows the demolition of the Arcadia Block, while looming in the distance is the steel framing for the 28-story tower of Los Angeles City Hall. Torn down just in the preceding couple of years was the Temple Block, started by Jonathan Temple in 1857 and then taken over by his brother, F.P.F., who added several structures in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
As for the author, Earl Alonzo Brininstool was an interesting character. Born in Warsaw, New York, near Buffalo, in 1870 to a grocer and his wife, Brininstool was first a lubricating oil manufacturer after his arrival in Los Angeles in 1894. Always interested in writing, however, he became a journalist with the Evening Express as well as a poet specializing in topics about the American West and a writer on a variety of historic subjects tied to the West. Probably his best-known work was an account of the Battle of Little Big Horn, published in 1925. Brininstool died in 1957 and is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.