Most Angelenos are familiar with Christine Sterling and her efforts to preserve the Avila Adobe and create a Mexican-themed market place at Olvera Street. Unfortunately, the hundreds of other women who were involved in the city’s preservation work are less well known.[i]
Among these women, Ana Bégué de Packman stands out in quixotic detail. As a descendent of Don Francisco Reyes, alcalde of the pueblo in 1793 and Maximo Alaniz who owned much of what is now Westwood, the diminutive Ana was a feisty champion of the city’s history and built environment.[ii] For more than 22 years, she served as Secretary of the Historical Society of Southern California and was a charter member of the First Families of California, a group dedicated to “genealogy, accurate portrayals of early Spanish culture, and the Father Serra canonization campaign.”[iii] Ana was also the author of a number of books on early California.[iv] Her research and regular speaking engagements did much to convince her audience that the young Los Angeles had been a happy place, full of festivals and leisure where “holidays were more plentiful than working days.”[v]
While an enthusiastic promoter of the city’s “Spanish fantasy past,” Ana’s relationship to Los Angeles and her own ethnic heritage was complex. A member of the Spanish-Mexican elite, Ana occupied an “intermediate racial position” in twentieth century LA.[vi] As historian Eileen Wallis points out, Ana, like many other female descendants of the original Californios, used historic preservation for a specific purpose – to maintain their social status. They were relentless in their efforts to teach Anglo-Americans about the city’s past but were also not above using their family histories to add a touch of “exoticism” to these activities.[vii] Unfortunately, by focusing exclusively on her own and the area’s Spanish (read European) roots, Ana obscured the multi-ethnic origins of the city. [viii]
Ana did more than simply write about the city’s early pueblo days. She actively sought to recreate them. In 1934, she moved into Casa Figueroa, an old adobe located at 3404 South Figueroa.[ix] Describing the adobe as having been “smothered by progress, Ana “stripped” the house of “all modern embellishments” and filled it with “authentic relics of Spanish California.”[x] For the next seven years, Ana used the adobe as a residence, museum and educational center (figure 1).In the 1930s, Casa Figueroa was the last adobe in the southwestern part of the city, but to Ana it was also the home of Guadalupe Reyes, granddaughter of Francisco Reyes and symbolic of a lost inheritance. In an interview with the LA Times, Ana described how she used to drive by the adobe knowing that one day she would have it. [xi]
Built by Ramon Figueroa for his wife Guadalupe around 1835, the house served as the residence for a number of pioneer families, including a local German brewer. [xii] In the 1890s, mining engineer C. C. Thomas enlarged the house, adding an enormous veranda, possibly designed by local architect, Sumner P. Hunt.[xiii] After Thomas’ death in 1900, the adobe was subdivided and turned into a rooming house.[xiv] When Ana moved in, the house “had fallen into disuse and tramps were sleeping in it.”[xv]
In November 1934, Ana convinced the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West to place a large plaque at Casa Figueroa (figure 2). The dedication of the plaque was accompanied by “elaborate ceremonies” and a program organized around the four flags that had flown over the house: the Spanish, Mexican, Californian and U.S.[xvi] Ana made an artful use of promotion to fund various repair projects. With friends and relatives, she hosted “Spanish-themed” parties, lectures and rallied women’s groups to her cause. On Sunday afternoons, she offered “merienda” (a Spanish tea service) on the patio to raise money.[xvii]
Despite these efforts, the overall upkeep proved too expensive. Ana moved out in 1941 and Casa Figueroa reverted to being a rooming house. Four years later a fire, started by a defective water heater, damaged much of the roof and upper floors.[xviii] The wooden plaque survived into the 1950s, but the house, sandwiched between a gas station and a florist went largely unnoticed behind a dense hedge (figure 3 and 4).[xix] As a rooming house, the adobe was occupied until at least 1956. In 1961, the Los Angeles Street Directory listed no residents and it is likely that the house was vacant for a number of years before being demolished in 1965.[xx] The land was used as a parking lot for USC until construction of the GalenCenter in 2006 (figure 5).
[i] For more on Sterling, Olvera Street and the Los Angeles Plaza, see Kropp, Phoebe, (2001) “Citizens of the Past? Olvera Street and the Construction of Race and Memory in 1930s Los Angeles”, Radical History Review 81 35-60. Kropp, Phoebe (2008) California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place, University of California Press; Deverell, William (2005) Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, University of California Press; Estrada, William, (2008) The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space, University of Texas Press