Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Downtown's Mateo Street & Keller Street - And Its Malibu and Santa Monica History

Several "Mateo Street" freeway signs can be seen on my daily commute inching westward on the 10 Santa Monica Freeway heading towards downtown Los Angeles.  The street view of Mateo is industrial and not extraordinary.  Not far away is Alameda Street, another industrial thoroughfare usually clogged with small, medium and big rigs. 

"Mateo," and the family name Keller, can be remembered for a father and son, who in their two generations helped to shape Southern California spanning about 1850 to 1958.  They contributed to the history of Santa Monica and Malibu as well.

Mathew Keller

Mateo Street was named for an Irishman Mathew Keller (1811-1881) and his vineyard near this street.  His adopted name "Don Mateo" reflected his naturalized Mexican citizenship and provided him an affable identity in his new city.  Amassing wealth and property, Keller's success was in part due to timing - being an early white settler in the city and finding opportunity as many Californio landholders struggled in the U.S. courts only to have their claims to land titles slip away, or else they no longer were able to afford their land.

L to R:  Mathew Keller, Phineas Banning and John H. Hollister
Image from book La Reina, Los Angeles in Three Centuries, 1931
(Image added Dec. 2018)

Mathew Keller arrived around 1850 and settled near where Union Station is now.  He opened a store at Los Angeles and Commercial Streets.  During his life, he was involved in extensive business affairs.  He invested in banking, oil and real estate.  He held public offices as city councilman and county administrator, and he also served a year as city assessor. 

In his early years living in Los Angeles, he was a member of the Rangers, a volunteer police force needed to keep a check on the volatile lawlessness.

In 1854, Keller registered a cattle brand with the county, indicative that he had a sizeable number of livestock.  Below was his brand:

Registered May 13, 1854.
Branding sample is in the Seaver Center's brand collection
at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

By the 1860s, Keller he had a vineyard and a wine manufacturing operation near Alameda and Seventh.  He also grew citrus and cotton. 

Keller Street

Today, Keller Street still runs in one of the oldest sections of L.A., although the street is hardly of use to most people.  Keller was one of the promoters of the Aliso Tract (surveyed in 1869), a subdivision that covered an area east of Alameda Street to the Los Angeles River, from First Street up north to along where the Hollywood Freeway runs today.  Keller Street was a part of the Aliso Tract.

Keller Street is accessible from Ramirez Street just beyond the Denny's Restaurant

Originally, Keller Street was the northern most section of the Aliso Tract.  From a historic tract map found at the Seaver Center in the Natural History Museum, one could see that the street was intended to have house lots on both sides of the street.

Today, it is a back street to the City of L.A.'s Piper Tech building
Keller Street's non-scenery

Mathew Keller's business partners and friends included plenty of the names of early L.A., including  Hellman, Childs, Sentous and Banning.  Keller's next door neighbor in the 1850s was William Moore, a city surveyor whose own career in mapping the city lands continued into the 1870s.

Rancho Topanga Malibu

Keller bought Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit in 1862  from an early French settler named Leon Victor Prudhomme.  Keller established some of his vineyards there.  He claimed the land before the U.S. Land Commission, and he was awarded the land patent in 1872 for about 13,315 acres.

Keller died in 1881, and in his will he left the Malibu ranchland to his youngest son, Henry, who was at the time about 12 years old and an orphan.  When Henry turned 21, Malibu became the largest bulk of his inheritance, but by 1892 he sold it to Frederick and May Rindge.

Less remembered of the settlers of the Malibu coast are its Spanish landholders.  Jose Bartolemeo Tapia was granted Malibu, Topango, Sottome, Simi and Sequit in 1805.  The land passed to his heirs in 1824 that included the son who was mentioned in history books, Tiburcio Tapia (1789-1845).  Tiburcio and Mathew Keller shared similar paths:  Tiburcio was a well-respected merchant in Mexican Los Angeles.  He held public offices, including several terms as alcalde (mayor.)

In 1848 Rancho Topanga Malibu was sold to Maria Merced (Tiburcio's daughter) and her husband, Leon Victor Prudhomme.  The sale price was $400.

Mathew Keller bought the land at a tax sale.  For a long time, members of the Tapia family were still living on the land and sought claims to most of the land, but as stated above, the U.S. Land authorities eventually decided in Keller's favor.

The Career of Henry Workman Keller

Young Henry Keller, having sold off Malibu in 1892, was well-off and by then living in Santa Monica.  He constructed a building at Third and Utah (now Broadway) around 1893.  The Keller Block still stands at its original location at today's Third Street Promenade.  It is a rare example in L.A. County of its type of architecture, "Richardsonian Romanesque Revival."

Keller Block, ca. 1893
Image courtesy of Santa Monica's City Landmark Assessment and Evaluation Report
October 2008

Keller tied the matrimonial knot in 1894, and he had an active career, particularly as a city and regional booster.  He was an early member on the State Fish and Game Commission, befitting as he was an avid hunter and fisherman.  He seemed to have inherited his father's drive and finesse:  his real estate legacy included developing the coast from Carlsbad to Del Mar.

In 1907 he and his family moved to Los Angeles, enabling him to participate in civic affairs.  Serving as a City Park Commissioner, he is credited with facilitating the first zoo and public golf course in Griffith Park in 1915.  He served as director of the Automobile Club of Southern California from 1908 to 1938, including a term as president in 1926-27.  Relatedly, he was appointed chairman of the All-Year Club in 1923 - the organization promoted Southern California tourism. 

One of his pet projects was to establish an international road from Alaska to Argentina, and he managed in bringing some of those roads between Southern California and Mexico.  Henry Workman Keller died in 1958 at the age of 89 in Pasadena.