A journey one hundred years back to the age of kerosene lamps and cross-country train expeditions, preserved in central Los Angeles
By: Daina Beth Solomon
Issue date: 11/25/08
What is that cluster of Victorian buildings by the Arroyo Seco that drivers see from the Pasadena Freeway? A movie set? A Victorian-style theme park? Could it be an original enclave that survived for over a hundred years? Heritage Square enthusiasts are eager to tell the story. The location was established in 1969 as a sanctuary for Los Angeles Victorian buildings that were slated for demolition in the city’s fervor to expand. Concerned citizens established the Cultural Heritage Commission, vowing to restore and preserve these architecturally and historically significant structures.
Heritage Square, just three miles south of Occidental, is “an open-air, living-history museum,” explained the director, Jessica Maria-Alicea Covarrubias, referring to the cluster of five original, restored Victorian-era homes, in addition to the 1897 Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church, a carriage barn and the Palms Depot train station. Heritage Square invites visitors for a close-up experience of Los Angeles Victorian life as they learn about the development of Southern California through architecture.
While the buildings themselves are magnificent, they also serve as a starting point to explore Los Angeles history. Volunteers and staff teach visitors about the history, architecture and culture of the area. Guests also learn about the fashion, automobiles, politics, literature, manners, customs and the newest discoveries of the Victorian times, such as gas lamps and phonograph records.
One house displays an 1800s washing machine-appearing as a cross between a futuristic robot and a Rube Goldberg contraption. A tour guide, dressed in period costume, explained that even with this modern invention it would take days to complete the family’s laundry.
The most photographed of the buildings is the Hale House, constructed in 1887, the year that Occidental College was established. The ornate exterior surfaces are painted in eye-catching greens and dark rose. The Hale House was formerly located in Highland Park at Figueroa St. and Ave. 44 before moving to Heritage Square. Today, that spot is marked by a gas station and, at the right time, a good taco truck.
In a 1970 Los Angeles Times article, Jack Smith, a preservation advocate, called the Hale House a reminder of our city’s late 19th Century “buoyant and capricious era-the age of exuberance.” He wrote, “the house has been called ‘picturesque eclectic,’ meaning its designer took a scroll from here and a fleur-de-lis from there and put everything together with romantic abandon.” In July 1970, the house was lifted from its foundation and moved to Heritage Square at a cost of $13,300. Smith attended the midnight move and later wrote that “a motley and festive crowd gathered to watch, with cries of jubilation rising when the chimneys survived the move.”
Across the grassy yard sits the Octagon House, the personal favorite of many Heritage Square admirers. Visitors marvel at the practicality of this eight-sided home with windows on all sides enhancing natural light and air circulation. Octagon-shaped houses are relatively inexpensive to build, partly because they use shorter, less costly pieces of lumber. The Heritage Square Octagon House is one of a small handful in California, and one of fewer than 500 in the entire country.
The Palms Train Depot is another spectacular structure that teaches about Southern California railroad history beginning in 1876. Many passengers arrived at this and other Los Angeles railroad stations to settle in the area-farmers who would invest in California’s fertile central valley, and city-dwellers for whom Los Angeles was a paradise compared to the overcrowded, industrial cities of the east. The Palms Depot, originally near Culver City, was moved to Heritage Square in 1975. Visitors to the Depot can imagine buying train tickets or waiting for the arrival of family from back east. They can also shop in the museum gift shop for parlor games and other Victorian embellishments and join tours of the grounds leaving from the Depot.
Covarrubias, a passionate advocate for historic preservation, said, “Sometimes progress doesn’t mean knocking everything down and putting up a skyscraper…It’s a tragedy to lose historical structures.” Still, she acknowledges the challenge and cost of restoring historic buildings. She explained that, “both the outside and inside must be historically accurate, not just in appearance, but also in the building materials and construction methods.”
Heritage Square recently had an exhibit of historical photographs called “Oxy to Princeton: A Road Trip?” This private collection of 21 photographs was taken during a cross-country road trip from Oxy to Princeton and features rare, early images of Occidental College.
Heritage Square is a showcase for special events that bring Victorian history to life. Most recently, the “Halloween and Mourning Tours” explored Victorian etiquette surrounding death and also celebrated Mexican and Jewish traditions of mourning. During July and August, the free “Concerts at the Square” series featured eclectic musicians and attracted music-lovers from Los Angeles. The most traditional ceremony is the annual “Holiday Lamplight Celebration.” This year it will be held Dec. 6 and 7, from 4-9 p.m., reservations required. Guides wearing historical Victorian costumes will lead visitors around the Square as they partake in holiday festivities such as music, dance and parlor games.
Development Director Brian Sheridan noted Heritage Square’s excellent relationship with the community and its volunteers. “The overwhelming support from local high school and college students has been indispensable,” he said. He described the volunteers as professionals, retirees and history-lovers from all over Southern California representing a diverse mix of cultures, experience and skills.
Sheridan emphasized that Heritage Square always needs “intelligent people as interns, volunteers, and board and committee members. It’s essential to help interpret our unique look at history and communicate this message to the general public.” Covarrubias added, “For students who love history, this is a perfect place.” Occidental student Mindy Chen (senior) completed an internship at Heritage Square in 2006. “Volunteers have the chance to do real work and hands-on projects,” Covarrubias explained. Chen staffed the ticket counter and museum store, created a volunteer brochure, conducted marketing research and assisted with grant applications. She found the experience rewarding and commented, “I met so many interesting people, such as the volunteers who are passionate about preserving these homes.”
Chen loved getting acquainted with Heritage Square. She explained, “As a history major, I loved being around the houses-the store is in an old train station, and the office is on the second level of another old house. I also loved the store, where they sold all these funny Victorian-era objects. I mean, who sells rosehip salve or parlor games anymore?”
Heritage Square is perfect place to travel back in time, even for those who tend to shy away from history. As Covarrubias pointed out, “Once visitors come through our doors, they gain a new appreciation of L.A.’s history and a desire to preserve it.” Chen encourages Oxy students to consider volunteering at Heritage Square and added “Anything that takes you off campus is a great opportunity. I would definitely encourage anyone interested to volunteer. It doesn’t matter what you’re studying-it’s a close location and also a unique setting.”
Visit Heritage Square Museum’s website at http://www.heritagesquare.org.
© Copyright 2010 The Occidental Weekly