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On Los Angeles' 231st birthday, a search for its oldest building

Editorial

L.A.'s history can sometimes be hard to find. Some signs of its origins have been wiped away. And then there are the old structures added through annexation.

September 04, 2012
  • The Sanchez Adobe was added to the list of Historic-Cultural Monuments in 1990.
The Sanchez Adobe was added to the list of Historic-Cultural Monuments… (Robert Greene / Los Angeles…)

And now a pop quiz, in honor of the 231st birthday of the city of Los Angeles:

What's the oldest building in the city?

Is it Mission San Gabriel Arcangel? It's true that this is the spot from which the Pobladores set out in 1781 to establish their city (the padres had earlier built their mission near what is now Montebello but later abandoned the site as unsuitable). Each Labor Day weekend, dignitaries, descendants of the founders and other celebrants retrace those early steps as best they can by walking from the mission southwest on Mission Road, Alhambra Avenue and Valley Boulevard, past Lincoln Park, over the river and to the plaza near Olvera Street.

The oldest building on the current mission site was begun in the 1790s. But San Gabriel, although L.A.'s good neighbor and older sister, is not Los Angeles.

So what's the oldest building in Los Angeles? Perhaps the church adjacent to the plaza? No, if the Pobladores built a church in those first years, it wasn't La Placita. Neither this church nor the plaza itself nor anything next to it, such as Olvera Street, dates to the city's founding. That first Los Angeles was lost in a flood, and its location was likely lost to history, when the river overflowed its banks on its course west to the Santa Monica Bay (the river has since changed its route and now flows south into Long Beach Harbor).

The Los Angeles we know was built some 30 years after that founding trek by the Pobladores, this time on higher and safer ground. La Placita Church was probably begun in 1818, and that is generally also the date given for the nearby Avila Adobe. Visitors can still see both. They have long-standing claims to being the city's oldest buildings. But hold on a moment.

How about Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana? Clever guess. Even many Angelenos believe that the mission is in the tiny city of San Fernando, but perhaps you knew that it's actually within the Los Angeles city limits. Because Los Angeles grew rapidly to absorb other already established areas, the city has this odd characteristic: A building such as the Avila Adobe that may have been the oldest a century ago could wind up after the annexation of the San Fernando Valley as merely its second oldest.

But what the quirks of Los Angeles history give, they can also take away. The buildings of Mission San Fernando, probably begun in 1804, were severely damaged by the 1971 Sylmar earthquake and were completely rebuilt in 1974.

So the oldest building in Los Angeles is — Yamashiro Restaurant in Hollywood?

Come on, be serious. Yes, the restaurant grounds include a supposedly 600-year-old pagoda brought over from Japan, and yes, that would technically make the pagoda the oldest building in Los Angeles; but that's cheating. Or rather, it's not what we meant. What's the oldest building in Los Angeles still standing where it was constructed?

The answer — the possible answer, anyway — is surprising. The oldest building just may be a somewhat down-at-the-heels, nondescript, asphalt-shrouded place in the Baldwin Hills, until recently the site of raucous late-night parties and complaints from neighbors in adjacent upscale homes and towering condos.

It's no secret that this house in "The Dons" — as the area is called because of street names like Don Mariano, Don Luis and Don Tomaso — is old. It was already old when it became a golf course clubhouse in the 1920s, and older still when it became the headquarters of the Consolidated Board of Realtists, an organization of black real estate professionals who helped African American Angelenos buy and finance homes as restrictive covenants were being challenged in court.

Los Angeles gave it a nod — but not much notice — in 1990, when the building, known as the Sanchez Adobe at 3725 Don Felipe Drive, was added to the list of Historic-Cultural Monuments as the last remaining piece of Rancho La Cienega o Paso de la Tijera. The oldest part of the structure may have been built in the early 1790s, making it older than Avila Adobe, maybe older than Mission San Gabriel, older even, perhaps, than the 1795 Gage Mansion in Bell Gardens, currently considered the oldest structure in Los Angeles County. Like Mission San Fernando, the Sanchez Adobe wasn't previously part of Los Angeles but it's an integral part of it now, and was perhaps great-great-great-grandfathered in as the city's oldest building amid growth and annexation.

The Realtists long ago wanted to tear the building down as an eyesore, but in recent years they have learned much about its history and are keen to get it some notice and some love.

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has upped interest in his district's rich architectural heritage, from the Village Green to the William Andrews Clark Library, from Watts Towers toRandy's Donuts, from Wilshire Boulevard Temple to the Dunbar Hotel; now he's spearheading an effort to study, and ultimately to restore and celebrate, the Sanchez Adobe.

As Los Angeles celebrates its 231st, it's useful to remember that walking from Mission San Gabriel to the new El Pueblo and visiting the Avila Adobe, La Placita Church and the other historic buildings is one good way — but only one — to come home. Los Angeles' roots, though sometimes mysterious, run deep, through the San Fernando Valley, through downtown, through Baldwin Hills. The city that so often seems to lose itself somehow has a knack for finding itself again.

Happy birthday, Los Angeles. And many more.

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