Thursday, January 14, 2021

Figueroa Street: A Thoroughfare Named in the 1850s, Los Angeles, Calif.

There was supposedly a jingle that helped people to remember the sequence of streets downtown:  "From Main we Spring to Broadway, then over the Hill to Olive!  Wouldn't it be Grand if we could Hope to pick a Flower that grows on Figueroa?"

All these streets were drawn on the first American map of Los Angeles in 1849.  Their original English names have stuck - with three exceptions:  Broadway was originally Fort; Grand was changed from Charity; and at first Figueroa was Grasshopper and then Pearl.

The story of today's Figueroa Street has always been complex and deserves an in-depth explanation. Not long after its predecessor, Grasshopper Street, was established on the survey, an "original" Figueroa Street was planned a little further west.  Figueroa fits in a little-known category as one of the first new streets established in 1855.  Today, the historic, original segment exists between Pico Boulevard and Exposition Boulevard.  Much of the research in this post is owed to the incredible sleuthing within map and other archival collections by librarian-historian Neal Harlow reflected in his 1976 book, Maps and Surveys of the Pueblo Lands of Los Angeles.

Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, NHMLAC

Who Was José Figueroa?

The street named for José Secundino Figueroa y Parra correlates to the Spanish, Mexican and indigenous history in California.  Figueroa was Spanish and Native and distinguished in his military role in the war to gain Mexican independence from Spain.  He served as Governor of Alta California beginning in 1833 at the time when the Mexican government set about to secularize the Franciscan mission system.  He died in office in 1835, shortly after he authored the first full-length book ever published in California, Manifiesto a la Republica Mejicana.  Aside from being a historical first, the book is a record of his efforts to regulate the allocation of land in the interests of Native Americans, particularly amidst new colonizing groups who arrived in 1834.

Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research


Interestingly, historic Figueroa Street leads down to where it first ended, at today's Exposition Park, where at the Natural History Museum one of only a handful of known surviving copies of the Manifiesto is preserved.

An American City in Need of Selling Land

Figueroa Street is also significant because of its direct link to the City's earliest ambitions to grow the city in both its acreage and operational revenue, and this blog post emphasizes this specific linkage.

The origin story of the street began when the Los Angeles municipality, newly incorporated in April, 1850, strategized to raise revenue by selling city lots.  Preparation began in the summer of 1849 by securing a very first American survey, the Plan de la ciudad de Los Angeles, commonly known as the Ord Survey, paid with private money lent by councilman John Temple, who arrived when Los Angeles was a Mexican pueblo.  The survey concentrated on all the cultivated lands within the four square leagues allotted in the original Spanish pueblo.

In the fall of 1850 a proposal was made to hold a public auction to sell town lots and agricultural tracts.  The sale took place on November 7th but fell short of the goal.  John Temple was only able to recoup about 80% of his loan.

Then in August, 1852, a “donation system” or a “Free Land Ordinance” allowed a person to petition the mayor for desired land whereby for a $10 fee a landholder was given one year to improve the land before receiving title.  Eight certificates were issued and many more the following year on 35-acre lots outside of the city limits, because the Common Council had set its sight on claiming not four but sixteen square leagues of municipal land. 

In May, 1854, the Ordinance was repealed due to the lack of a complete survey for the entire 35-acre lots. A year earlier Henry Hancock, assisted by George Hansen, submitted a proposal to remedy the lack of a survey.  The proposal included a sketch map of the donation lots.  (This extant map from April, 1853, housed in the Los Angeles City Archives represents the earliest cartographic record for the donation system.)

In 1855 Hansen made a plat of the liberal boundaries of Los Angeles that extended to the neighboring ranchos.  (The plat map did not survive, and its existence is based on a composite map containing an 1871 affidavit by Hansen – see below).  To underscore the point, the early maps from 1853 and 1855 extended beyond the original four square leagues defined in the original Spanish pueblo. 

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the U.S. War with Mexico stipulated all claimants to land (individuals and entities) to provide proof before the U.S. Land Commission.  The first Common Council of Los Angeles boldly sought title to land totaling sixteen square leagues.  The Commission regularly heard California claims in San Francisco, but they held a session in Los Angeles during the fall of 1852, and in that October the City presented its petition. 

Confident that they would eventually prevail, the City proceeded with the issuance of 35-acre donation lots.  But the City did not succeed, and on February 5, 1856, the Land Commission confirmed the original four square leagues.  With the setback, Hansen’s plat map from two years earlier became reformed in 1857 to reflect the confirmed city limits.  (The 1857 map did not survive, and its existence is based on a composite map containing an 1871 affidavit by Hansen – see below).

The Naming of Figueroa Street

Figueroa Street was conceived on the survey maps produced after the Ord Survey and created by Hancock and Hansen along with work contributed by Adolphus Waldemar and William Moore in the 1850s and into the 1860s and 1870s.  The maps first projected the wishful, expanded boundaries but then reigned in within the reduced, confirmed limits.  Detailed on those maps of the 1850s and repeated in the 1860s and 1870s were streets for American presidents and a select group of five Mexican-era governors – José María Echeandía, José Figueroa, Juan Bautista Alvarado, Manuel Micheltorena, and Pío de Jesús Pico. 

[Map of Confirmed Limits of Los Angeles, by George Hansen, ca. 1860-1870]
(Courtesy Seaver Center GC-1310-2766)

Why is Figueroa Street the longest street in the city?  It appeared on early maps as the longest street. Whether detailed on a map showing the ambitious sixteen square leagues or inside the four square leagues, Figueroa Street was drawn as the lengthiest and most centrally placed.  Its prominence surpassed that of the streets for the other four Mexican governors as well as the original seven streets for American presidents.

The tidy order of the streets for the presidents is clearly seen, but a close study of the placement of Echandia (current spelling), Figueroa, Alvarado and Micheltorena Streets reveal that they are in the chronological order of each governor’s time in office.[1]  The street of the final governor from the Mexican period, Pío Pico, was placed perpendicular to the others and preceded the American presidents.

Historical maps indicate that the streets for the presidents and governors first appeared in 1855.  Coincidentally, or not, an anonymous 1855 English translation was released in San Francisco of the first full-length book published in California 20 years earlier by Governor Figueroa.  Was this the impetus for the street naming?  The question remains unanswered, but the surveyor and Austrian national, George Hansen, had ties to San Francisco, and he was characterized as erudite and a scholar and philosopher.

As early as 1853, Santa Barbara city maps included the names of Spanish and Mexican governors:  Arellaga, Figueroa, Micheltorena, Solá, and Victoria.  They do not run in any particular order, but the early naming raises a question whether this mapping activity may have influenced the work of Los Angeles surveyors in 1855.[2]  See more below on the streets history of Santa Barbara.

City Mapping Activities in 1871

Two significant map events occurred in 1871.  The City purchased a map from George Hansen containing a detailed and notarized affidavit dated January, 1871.  The map provided circumstances as to why there were duplicate block numbers north of Pico as well as south of Pico, but the composite map helps explain key surveying activities in Los Angeles from 1849, 1855 and 1857.[3]  Today this important map is housed at the Los Angeles City Archives, and it provides the basis for the historical origin of Figueroa Street.

In late October of the same year, the City decided to contract surveyor Lothar Seebold to produce two copies of the Ord Survey.  When the copies were completed in 1872, the original Survey was most likely discarded.

Public Works Activities in 1876

In all the years since Los Angeles was incorporated and even admitted as a city in the Union, the City continued to await the official Land Patent from the U.S. Land Office until the award for the four square leagues came in 1875.  (The 25-year wait was not unusual – claimants including individuals waited an average of 17 years, and there were instances of claims finalized after 35 to 40 years.)  In the case of the City of Los Angeles, it actually secured an earlier patent of 1866 that went back into litigation – and was upheld in January, 1882!

A lot of attention was paid to Pearl and Figueroa Streets in 1876.  Recorded for January 27, 1876 were the following:  1) grade of Pearl Street from Fifth Street to Pico Street; 2) defining lines of Figueroa Street from Washington to Pico; 3) continuation of Pearl Street from Twelfth to South line of Pico Street.  Also earlier, on March 18, 1875, Figueroa Street was graded along the “street known as Figueroa Street.”[4]

It appears that the entire length of (original) Figueroa Street between Baxter and Exposition Boulevard (present day name) was re-established again as Figueroa Street in 1876 maybe for administrative reasons.[5]

How Was Figueroa Street Used in the 19th Century?

Real life eventually did not measure up to the cartographic vision for the streets.  A portion of the original Figueroa Street (above Pico) was built over; while today Figueroa remains very prominent among the five streets for the governors, Echandia is exceptionally minor; streets for the presidents were not realized beyond Washington, Adams and Jefferson.

But how was the original Figueroa Street actually regarded by the residents?  The two earliest directories that this author could find to shed some light are dated 1875:  Southern California Directory and the Los Angeles City Directory.

Above Pico Street

A small detail was found in pioneer Leonard J. Rose’s description of public transportation development in the city after 1874:  when the first streetcar line ran from Pico House down Main to junction at Spring, then to First, then west to Fort (Broadway), south to Sixth, then west to the car barns on Figueroa.[6]

Notably absent in the 1875 directories are residential addresses of those living on (original) Figueroa Street anywhere above Pico Street.  For substantiation, newspaper articles in the early 1890s reported the confusion that Figueroa Street was disregarded and homes and structures built through where the street should be.  Some demanded that the street be recognized fearing their property would be boxed in if the street became vacated.[7] 

By 1894 two contested stretches (between 6th and 9th streets; between 10th and Pico streets) were vacated.  In 1897, a longer segment leading northward from 6th Street up to Bellevue was vacated.  But Bellevue through Lilac Terrace was vacated earlier in 1886.  Lilac Terrace up to Baxter was vacated in 1897.  An overlooked segment of (original) Figueroa between 9th and 10th streets continues today as an alley named Cottage Place.  The well-known Hotel Figueroa has a rear door exiting onto Cottage Place.

Therefore the northern portion of (original) Figueroa Street above Pico Street withered away, and one street to the east, Pearl Street (first established by the Ord Survey as Calle de las Chapules or Grasshopper) took on the name, Figueroa, in 1897.

Below Pico Street

While the original Figueroa Street running north of Pico did not survive, the segment south of Pico thrived (and still exists today).  The 1875 Los Angeles City Directory show that the vicinity of Figueroa intersecting with Pico, Washington, Adams and Jefferson was dotted with 26 residences.  The residents were predominantly skilled:  several lawyers, a real estate broker, a staircase builder, carpenters, nurserymen, a Superintendent of Mines, bookkeeper, a clerk, several farmers and a couple of laborers.

A prominent person listed in 1875 was Horace Bell, who lived on the original leg of Figueroa just below Pico.  He probably settled here early following his return from the Civil War.  His wife Georgia was described as the first American woman to reside south of 8th Street and west of Grand Avenue.

Prior to 1875, lots were held by many individuals, but it is unknown if anyone actually lived on a lot and made improvements.  Other early landholders include surveyors Henry Hancock and William Moore both of whom received lots as partial payment in their contracts surveying for the City.

Some of the lots below Pico may have been procured by individuals during a period between 1852 and 1854 when the donation system was available.

Lots were auctioned “at the end of the 50’s and in the 60’s for $2.50 to $7.50 an acre to overcome financial stringency.”[8]  Attorney Cameron E. Thom (who served as City Mayor in the 1880s) invested in two lots bound by Figueroa, Pico, Grand and Washington for the price of $153 in 1855.

In his memoir Harris Newmark recalled his friend Colonel John O. Wheeler forgot about an investment of 50 to 60 acres near Figueroa and Adams until the active real estate boom of the mid-1880s.[9]

An early mention of an investment on south Figueroa is from a Los Angeles Star newspaper notice of April 27, 1867, informing that Joseph Shaw has title to land fronting Washington and Figueroa streets, and bounded by property owned by other individuals, Flashner and Hass.

From the Los Angeles Star newspaper (Huge thanks to M. Tapio-Kines for bringing attention this article)

Figueroa Street Naming in Other Cities

The Southern California Directory of 1875 reveals the existence of Figueroa streets in San Buenaventura (Ventura) and Santa Barbara, and those streets still remain today. 

Additionally historic Figueroa Street in Ventura turns into a pedestrian pathway called Figueroa Street Mall that leads to Mission San Buenaventura. 

As stated earlier, a total of five street names for governors were established as early as 1853 in Santa Barbara.  Naming for Governor Figueroa along with Mexican governors, Micheltorena and Victoria, and Spanish governor de Solá, were listed in the 1875 directory (while Arellaga was not found in any 1875 entries).  Carrillo Street was contemporaneously named in the 1850s for the local Judge Joaquin Carrillo and not for Governor Carlos Antonio Carrillo.  

José Figueroa's eponymous fixture in Santa Barbara is particularly significant since the Mission Santa Barbara is his resting place.

Figueroa Street is a Los Angeles Landmark

Last December a group of historians responded to a proposal for renaming a three-mile length of the street to Kobe Bryant Boulevard, between Olympic and Exposition Boulevards.  The Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece authored by those leading the charge - Darryl Holter, William Estrada and John Echeveste.[10]  As of this writing, the proposal has not been heard by the City Council. 


Published December 6, 2020 (Image from  blogger's collection)


Previous Los Angeles Revisited posts dedicated to Figueroa Street:

The Hotel Figueroa and Figueroa Street Name Origins

Before the Convention Center, the Staples Center and LA Live and Football 

The Pulchritude of Pearl Street 


[1] A map housed in the Los Angeles City Archives that was purchased in 1871 shows a naming pattern for Mexican governors that may have included a 6th governor, Pablo Vicente de Solá, who was the last Spanish governor of Alta California.  For the purposes of this paper, the mention of the streets for the governors will be kept to five: Echeandía, Figueroa, Alvarado, Micheltorena and Pico.

[2] Salisbury Haley conducted the first survey for Santa Barbara in 1851.  As of this writing it is not known whether the streets for the governors took shape then, or perhaps when Vitus Wackenreuder, County Surveyor, prepared another map in January, 1853.

[3] Neal Harlow, Maps and Surveys of the Pueblo Lands of Los Angeles.  Los Angeles:  Dawson’s Book Shop, 1976, pp. 72-75.

[4] Wm. M. Caswell, Revised Charter and Compiled Ordinances and Resolutions of the City of Los Angeles.  Los Angeles:  Evening Express Steam Printing Establishment, 1878.

[5] Bernice Kimball, Street Names of Los Angeles.  Los Angeles:  Bureau of Engineering, 1988.

[6] L.J. Rose, Jr., L.J. Rose of Sunny Slope 1827-1899, San Marino:  The Huntington Library, 1959, pp. 95-96.

[8] [A translation of Los Angeles, Origin, Life and Set-Up of the Two-Million City in Southern California by Anton Wagner, index to page 83], ca. 1937, MSS-577, Seaver Center for Western History Research, NHMLAC.

[9] Harris Newmark, Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913.  Boston and New York:  Houghton Mifflin Co., 1930, pp. 379-380.

[10] Darryl Holter, William Estrada and John Echeveste, “Honoring Yesterday’s Heroes,” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 2020, p. A19.