DOWNTOWN : Pico House Artifacts Focus of Exhibit

Visitors can imagine how the holidays were spent 120 years ago in Los Angeles at an exhibit at the El Pueblo Gallery at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument on Olvera Street.

“Treasures of El Pueblo,” which runs through Jan. 16, depicts how rooms at the historic Pico House, the most elegant hotel in Southern California in the 1870s, might have looked during the Christmas season more than a century ago.

The free exhibit also serves as a tribute to Don Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California and the man who built the three-story Pico House. The exhibit has already drawn nearly 4,000 visitors since its Dec. 10 opening, including 900 on one recent weekend day alone.

Monument curators say the holidays are the perfect time to share with the public some of the large collection of donated furniture and artifacts that the city has kept in storage.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” said curator Tamryn Stoll.


The furnishings displayed include an ornate rosewood bed, circa 1860-70, and an 1850s-era clock in the Pico House bedroom scene, which depicts what a high-end ($3 per night) room at the hotel might have looked like. The Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria was among the dignitaries who stayed in similar rooms, according to curators.

The Pico House parlor scene includes a spinet piano and a grand piano, built in 1846 and 1860, respectively; an old-fashioned card table with matching chairs upholstered in olive-green velvet, and several period sofas, lounges and armchairs in hues of green and gold. The Pico House parlor was where guests gathered nightly for conversation, games and music, and was described as the “most comfortable in town” in a Nov. 22, 1873, article in the Los Angeles Herald, according to curators.

Other accounts indicate the parlor was “probably even more lavish than what we have here,” with many plants and artworks decorating the room, Stoll said.

The Pico House building, located off North Main Street at the southwest end of the El Pueblo plaza, has been vacant for more than 40 years. Ideas for renovating and redeveloping the city-owned building, along with several other historic structures in the area, have been discussed, but no decisions have been made on its future.

Don Pio Pico sold some of his land holdings in the San Fernando Valley to build the hotel for $48,000 and then spent more than $34,000 to lavishly furnish its 82 rooms. The hotel was the first three-story building in Los Angeles and opened for business on June 9, 1870.

The hotel featured lace curtains, bathrooms on each floor--which was an innovation in the 1870s--and a French chef who cooked meals served in the large dining room on the ground floor. The bedrooms had wooden balconies that overlooked a large central courtyard with a fountain, according to exhibit information.

Unfortunately, although Pio Pico was a “brave, kindhearted and gallant person,” he was a poor businessman, said Jean Bruce Poole, historic museum director for El Pueblo.

His bad investment decisions and involvement with unscrupulous individuals caused him to lose the hotel 10 years after its opening. The plaza area also began to deteriorate as slums sprung up nearby and the business section of the city moved south, according to the exhibit.

The hotel continued to operate, run by a succession of Italian and French proprietors, but it never regained the luster of its heyday. The building was condemned in 1922, and in 1953 the state bought it as part of the historic park.

The El Pueblo Gallery is on Olvera Street. The exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for Friday and Saturday, when it will be closed for the New Year’s holiday.

Information: (213) 680-2821.