No Place Like Home: The Theodore Rimpau House, Anaheim, August 1913

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the several dozen photographs shared at last night’s presentation to the Orange County Historical Society and from the Homestead’s collection relating to that county is a 1913 image of the home of Anaheim pioneer Theodore Rimpau.  As is so often the case, the immediate subject of a photograph, in this case Rimpau and his impressive home, only gives the surface of what can be a much larger story.

Rimpau photo Row Walker
A circa 1870s portrait of Theodore Rimpau, uploaded by “Row Walker” on the Find-a-Grave website.

That story essentially began with the arrival of the 24-year old Rimpau to Los Angeles in 1850, just a few years after the American seizure of Mexican California and during the ferment of the Gold Rush.  A native of Braunschweig (Brunswick) in the Kingdom of Hanover (whose monarch was also King of England) before the unification of Germany, Rimpau was the son of a successful grain merchant.

The only of his family to leave Germany, Rimpau, evidently well supplied with funds from his father, took a steamer from Bremen to New York and remained there for six months until, when the news of the discovery of gold reached the East, he ventured on to California via the Isthmus of Panama.

Rimpau 1852 census
Theodore Rimpau, his wife Francisca Availa and son Adolph (Adolfo) as captured in the 1852 California state census.

He landed at San Francisco on the last day of February 1849 and made his way to the gold fields and, it was said, “met with fair success.”  That might have been a “fair” way of saying he didn’t make that much money, because Rimpau joined two partners in opening a store in San Francisco.  He then traveled south to open a store in Los Angeles, arriving in 1850, just as the town was incorporated and not long before statehood was granted to California.

After arriving in the City of Angels, Rimpau reportedly operated two ships plying in trade between San Pedro and San Francisco so that he could supply good to the mining regions.  Yet, his boats were destroyed in storms and a fire razed his store within a year.

Rimpau 1860 census LA
The Rimpaus at the bottom of the sheet (with Theodore listed inexplicably as “James”) in the 1860 census, while living at the Rancho Las Cienegas west of Los Angeles.

At the end of 1850, Rimpau married María Marcelina Francisca Avila, born in 1832 to Francisco Avila and María Encarnación Sepulveda.  She was raised in the family’s adobe home on Wine Street just off the north end of the Plaza.  The couple, married in the Plaza Church, were married for 53 years and had an astounding 16 children.

By the end of the decade, the Rimpaus were living west of town on the Rancho Las Cienegas (named for marshes where springs emerged) owned by Francisca’s father and Theodore was raising sheep and cattle.  He then transferred operations to the Rancho San Joaquin, in what became Orange County and which was owned by the Sepulveda family, that of his mother-in-law.

Rimpau 1870 census Anaheim
By 1870, the Rimpaus were in Anaheim with eleven children in the household!

The floods and droughts of the first half of the 1860s, which wreaked havoc on the region’s ranchers, took its toll on Rimpau, who lost most of his cattle, but continued to raise sheep until another major drought took place in 1876-77, upon which his son Adolph drove the herd to Salt Lake City to sell them.

About eight years after the founding of the German-led settlement of Anaheim (German for “home” and “Ana” tying into the Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana, on a portion of which the town was established, Rimpau acquired 20 acres on the west edge of the community.  He planted the tract to grapes and made wine, which continued for about 20 years until a devastating disease destroyed the vines.  After that, he planted citrus and walnuts on the ranch. Rimpau also opened a prosperous store in Anaheim, later turned over to two of his sons to operate.

Rimpau 1910 census Anaheim
In 1910, Theodore was residing in his home with daughters Sophie and Marie (about 2/3 of the way down the sheet from the top.)

Rimpau retired to his substantial home, enjoying the fruits of his labor through the ups and downs of the decades.  Francisca died in 1903, a few years after the couple celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary.  When this photo was taken in 1913, the venerable proprietor of the substantial home was approaching his 87th birthday and the occasion for the image was a visit from a nephew, also named Theodore, who was writing to Rimpau’s brother Arnold, who resided in the family’s hometown of Braunschweig at an address just south of what is now John F. Kennedy Platz (Plaza).

Rimpau House Anaheim Aug 1913
This real photo postcard shows Theodore Rimpau standing in front of his impressive home in Anaheim.  The city’s central library and police department are at this locale on the corner of Harbor Boulevard (then called Palm Street) and Broadway.

The nephew’s message, obviously written in German and dated 11 August 1913, looks more substantial than its translation, done by my colleague Steve Dugan.  Steve told me this is because German words are so long and their English counterparts much shorter!  Nephew Theodore merely wrote his uncle:

This picture shows you Uncle Theo’s house in Anaheim.  I am pleased to have spent time seeing the sights here.

Theodore was likely pleased to have the chance to visit with his namsake uncle, because Rimpau, whose birthday was several weeks later, died on 3 October.  Despite his advanced age, the passing was sudden, as his obituary reported that he’d been seen in his yard the day before and then played cards with family and friends until a late hour that evening.  He quickly developed stomach pains, however, and died quickly.

Obit LA_Times_Oct_5__1913_
Los Angeles Times, 9 October 1913.

Rimpau left an estate of about $100,000, including the Anaheim property, a large portion of the Rancho La Cienega land, and his father-in-law’s adobe house near the Plaza.  Though he was clearly someone who believed in holding onto his property, it was not long before changes were made by his heirs.  In 1921, what was called Rimpau Hill on the Las Cienegas property was sold to be subdivided into houses in an area adjacent to Los Angeles High School in the Mid-Wilshire district.  Rimpau Boulevard now runs north and south through the tract from 3rd Street to Exposition Boulevard.

As to the home Rimpau and Francisca Avila lived in when they were first married, ownership was retained by their daughter Sophie until the 1920s.  The adobe house, situated on what was a ramshanckle dirt lane renamed Olvera Street, was slated for demolition when recent transplant Christine Sterling took up the cause of saving the street and what she could of its buildings as a tourist destination.

Rimpau Hill LA_Times_Nov_20__1921_
Times, 20 November 1921.

Sophie Rimpau rented the house to Sterling, who then recruited support from wealthy and powerful people like Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler to help her remake Olvera Street.  A centerpiece of the project, which opened in 1930, was the preservation of the home Sophie Rimpau sold to the City of Los Angeles and the Avila Adobe, the oldest surviving building in the city, dating to 1818, is a much-visited part of what is now the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.

Rimpau reverse
The message, in German, from Rimpau’s namesake nephew Theodore to Rimpau’s brother Arnold, dated 11 August 1913 from Los Angeles to the family’s hometown of Braunschweig, Germany.  The First World War broke out the following year and Theodore Rimpau died less than two months after the postcard was sent.

As to the Rimpau home, it stood on the corner of Palm Street (now Harbor Boulevard) and Broadway, where the central library and police department for the City of Anaheim are located today.  There is an impressive mausoleum at Anaheim Cemetery which houses the remains of Theodore, Francisca and other members of the family.

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