On the southeastern side of town, not far from where the waters of the Rio Hondo empty into the cement trough of the Los Angeles River, a cluster of aging mobile homes with aged tenants stands guard over one of the last vestiges of Southern California history.
The boxy mobile homes surround the adobe house that was home to two of California's earliest pioneers: a Spanish cavalier who at one time probably owned more land than any man in California, and a former California governor who received the home as part of his wife's dowry.
For nearly 200 years, the home of Don Antonio Maria Lugo, and later, Henry T. Gage, has occupied this piece of land in southeastern Los Angles county. Although time has worn the surface of the building, its adobe walls, redwood siding, open courtyard and much of the interior remain sound.
It is for this reason that the tenants of Casa Mobile Home Park, who also own the park and the Lugo ranch house, have fought to get the old hacienda, known as Casa de Rancho San Antonio and the Gage Mansion, designated as a state historical monument. Last month the tenants, who are all more than 55 years old, succeeded, and the mansion became State Historical Landmark No. 984.
"We wanted to save it because it has cultural, political and architectural significance," said Casa Mobile Home Park resident Leon Paddock, who has been studying the history of the mansion and first broached the idea of getting it designated as a historical monument to the Bell Gardens City Council.
As historians tell it, when construction of the house began in 1795, the house was one outpost on a vast Spanish land grant of more than 29,000 acres.
"The land was theirs from sea to mountains," said Alice Quiroz, whose mother, Andrea Lugo, was a descendant of the Lugo family. "They acquired it by riding from sunrise to sunset."
History books record the Lugo family as one of several sent from Mexico, when Mexico was under Spanish dominion, in 1773 to settle Northern California. According to Dr. Roy E. Whitehead, who wrote "Lugo," a book of California history, Antonio Maria Lugo's father, Francisco Salvador Lugo, a Spanish soldier, his wife and four children traveled with a group of soldiers to Northern California to the Mission San Antonio de Padua, near Monterey. It was at the mission that Antonio Maria Lugo was born on July 13, 1775.
Whitehead writes that in 1810, when Antonio Maria Lugo was 35 years old and a corporal in the Spanish army stationed in Santa Barbara, he requested and was given his first land grant, the grant that included Bell Gardens. Shortly thereafter, he became mayor of Los Angeles.
Quiroz said that Antonio Maria Lugo had two homes in the Bell Gardens area. The one that stands now and the one in which Quiroz's mother was born on Gage and Garfield avenues. That home burned down several years ago.
By the time Lugo was 63 years old, he had acquired tens of thousands of acres of property.
"He was an extensive landowner and real estate operator, probably owning more land than any other man in California," Whitehead wrote.
As time passed some of the land was sold, but according to a book of history called "California," most of the land grants were lost when California became part of the United States in 1850.
"It was land that had given them (Spanish and Mexican settlers) the framework for their lives, and it was land that the Yankees wanted--and would have," author T.H. Watkins wrote.
In 1860, Lugo died. He was 85 years old.
"Don Antonio Maria Lugo, who had been an octogenarian for more than four years, rode around Los Angeles and over his Rancho Antonio in great splendor," Whitehead wrote. "He had never adopted American dress, culture or language and still spoke only Spanish. He rode magnificent horses, sitting on his $1,500 silver trimmed saddle erect and stately, with his sword strapped to the saddle beneath his left leg. . . . People knew him far and wide, and even the Indians sometimes named their children after him, as he was one Spanish Don that they admired."
By the late 19th Century only a fraction of the land grant given to Lugo was left.
It was then that Gage, a Yankee lawyer from Michigan, came to California and was married to Francis (Fanny) Rains, Lugo's great-granddaughter. Paddock said that Gage was given the house and 27 acres as part of his wife's dowry. In 1888, eight years after he married Rains, Gage became the 20th governor of California.
The house that stands today at Casa Mobile Home Park is more a product of Gage's handiwork than Lugo's, said Marty Parkinson, a South Pasadena resident whose wife is a descendant of the Lugo family. "The Lugos did not live in luxury by any means," Parkinson said.
Although the original building was shaped like a rectangle, Gage added two wings, giving the house a U-shape. He added redwood siding to the building, sheathing the two-foot-thick adobe walls. Gage also imported pearly gray-blue fabric wallpaper from France. Fancy tiles with pictures of deer, frolicking angels and the Gage coat of arms adorn the house's seven fireplaces.
The floors are wooden throughout, and in a room where the Casa owners now keep an organ given to them by a former neighbor, the Gage coat of arms can be seen in relief on the beige ceilings.
There are four large rooms, used by the Casa tenants for their weekly bingo games, potluck dinners, pool games and other social events. One room, which some think was Gage's study because of the built-in shelves and copper fireplace, is now used as the mobile home office. The second wing of the house, just off a kitchen with an old larder still intact, are the bedrooms, four in all.
From Gage Avenue, the shingled roof and a couple of brick chimneys are all that is visible. Today, only 4.9 acres of the original land grant is left, the site of the 56 mobile homes at Casa Mobile Home Park and the old house.
The home became the property of Casa tenants in 1983, when they bought the park from their ailing landlord and established it as a housing cooperative. Only those over 55 years old are allowed to buy into the co-op and move into the trailer park. Most, says co-op President Kenneth Snow, are "just a bunch of poor folks" who do not have the physical strength or the money to maintain the mansion as they would have liked.
That is where City Councilwoman Letha Viles and Assistant City Manager Mike Martinet stepped in. Viles, who has lived in Bell Gardens since she was 3, remembers seeing the mansion as a child before the mobile homes moved in.
"It was sitting on a rolling lawn and had a fish pond and there were palm trees, but I didn't realize it had historical significance," she said.
When she became a City Council member in 1987, she said she decided one of her first priorities would be to list the home on the state historical register.
"People had been saying, 'Oh, we're going to get it marked (as a state historical landmark), but nobody did anything about it," Viles said. "We had already lost two (historical buildings) and I didn't want to see it happen to this place."
Now that the building has received the historical designation, Paddock said that the owners are eligible to receive grants to help with upkeep. They also plan to open the home to regularly scheduled tours.