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The (d)evolution of a downtown landmark

Times Staff Writer

Pershing Square has been on a roller coaster of grandeur and decay since its dedication 141 years ago as public space. It has been refurbished and renamed at least half a dozen times.

Once a lush green oasis, the park today is primarily concrete surrounded by skyscrapers. It boasts statues of Beethoven, a World War I doughboy and a Spanish American War soldier -- but only a plaque for the man whose name it bears.

In the 1850s, settlers camped there on the outskirts of the village of Los Angeles. “The stream out of the Arroyo de Los Reyes [now Echo Park] crossed the southwest corner. So the confluence of the Camino Real” -- the Spanish settlers’ trail -- “with the stream would have been a natural locale for a camp,” Sacramento landscape architect and Los Angeles historian John Crandell said in an interview.

Early surveyors drew the acreage as 10 plots, but in practicality it was a solid five-acre piece of land. In 1866, city fathers declared the plots a public square, according to a city history. In 1867, St. Vincent’s College moved in across the street, and the square informally became St. Vincent’s Park. In 1870, it was officially named Los Angeles Park.

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At some point -- perhaps before the land was dedicated as public space -- German immigrant and civic do-gooder George “Roundhouse” Lehman planted small cypress and fruit trees and shrubs. Lehman, who owed his nickname to the circular design of a popular beer garden he operated nearby, continued to water the greenery until his death in 1882. With Lehman’s trees along the perimeter, the park became a shady oasis.

During the 1880s and ‘90s, it was known as 6th Street Park, and later, Central Park. A pavilion was added, attracting music lovers and soapbox orators.

The park began to play a starring role in the city’s cultural life and, beginning in 1894, served as the staging area for the crowning of the queen of La Fiesta de Los Angeles, a celebration of the city’s many cultures. That event endures as Fiesta Broadway.

In 1900, a life-size bronze was unveiled commemorating Spanish-American War dead. Created by an unknown artist, it honors 20 Southern California soldiers killed in the war.

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The artist’s model, according to a 1941 Times article, was a Spanish-American War veteran, 7th California Infantry volunteer Charlie Hammond of San Francisco. The statue, which sports a handlebar mustache and stands at parade rest, is believed to be the oldest work of public art in Los Angeles. The City Council declared it a historic-cultural monument in 1990.

In 1910, architect John Parkinson -- who later designed City Hall and Union Station -- revamped the park. His plans centered on a three-tier fountain sculpted by Johan Caspar Lachne Gruenfeld. The fountain was braced by four life-size concrete cherubs supporting a vase of cascading water. The fountain remained the park’s centerpiece for more than four decades.

“Parkinson added a comfort zone [restroom], planted clumps of bamboo near the center of the park and Italian cypresses behind curved granite balustrades at all four corners,” Crandell said.

In November 1918, a week after the armistice in the “War to End All Wars,” the park received yet another name: Pershing Square, in honor of Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing. Pershing commanded a unit of the black 10th Cavalry Regiment of the Buffalo Soldiers, fought in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and led U.S. forces as World War I raged across Europe. But it took nearly four decades before a plaque honoring Pershing was added.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, when the tropical look was in vogue, banana trees and birds of paradise were planted along the park’s brick-paved walks. At night, smartly dressed couples strolled during intermissions of nearby plays or concerts. During the day, spellbinding orators held court -- including preachers of old-time religion and of newer creeds such as socialism and anarchy.

In 1924, a life-size bronze of a World War I doughboy, sculpted by Humberton Pedretti, was unveiled, flanked by old cannons. In 1935, a bronze cannon from the fabled warship Constitution, known as “Old Ironsides,” was added. The ship, which fought pirates in the Caribbean and the British in the War of 1812, had earned its nickname when British cannonballs bounced off its oak hull.

In 1932, a statue of Ludwig van Beethoven was added to honor William Andrews Clark Jr., founder of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, whose home -- the Philharmonic Auditorium -- stood across the street from Pershing Square. Today, it’s a parking lot where developers hope to build a $1-billion condo complex called Park Fifth.

World War II brought a mass of rallies to the park to raise funds for war bonds and the Red Cross. In 1942, military recruiters lined up in dress uniforms as Angelenos arrived by the hundreds, volunteering their cocker spaniels and Boston terriers for war duty. Bruno, a 65-pound chow mix, was the first chosen for the K-9 Command program. Five other recruits, including a schnauzer and a German shepherd named Rin Tin Tin III -- grandson of doggy movie star Rin Tin Tin -- were commissioned on the spot. Rin Tin Tin III and his owner trained more than 5,000 dogs and handlers during the war.

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(The original Rin Tin Tin, born in 1918, had been rescued from a bombed-out kennel in France during World War I and brought to the U.S., where he made 26 films. His descendants were used in the 1950s ABC-TV series “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.”)

After World War II, the park shared the fate of downtown itself: abandoned by residents and businesses fleeing to the suburbs. Unsavory types moved in: As early as 1948, the city campaigned to rid the park of rats that came out at night to feed on visitors’ scraps. To starve out the rodents, the city also prohibited the feeding of birds.

The park was brutally excavated in 1952 to build an underground garage. Auto ramps replaced cypress trees, and the three-tiered fountain disappeared. The site was covered with concrete and topped by a thin layer of lawn.

In 1954, Hungarian immigrant Kelly Roth, who had owned a cigar store across from the square, donated $30,000 for twin reflecting-pool fountains. Architect Stiles O. Clements, whose work in Los Angeles included the Mayan and El Capitan theaters, designed the fountains. Roth said they were meant to honor his late wife, Nellie, and to thank Los Angeles for giving him a place to work, live and rear his children.

By the 1984 Olympics, the park had become an eyesore. Beer cans and wine bottles floated in the fountains. “Drunks and a plethora of down-and-outers tarnished the Square,” The Times reported. For the Games, the derelicts and pigeons were ejected for a few months, and the park was temporarily gussied up at a cost of $1 million.

In 1992, Pershing Square closed for a radical $14.5-million face lift. It reopened in 1994 with a 10-story purple bell tower, a walkway resembling an earthquake fault, a concert stage and a seasonal ice rink. At its dedication, then-Mayor Richard Riordan praised the park as “a breath of fresh air, a vision of hope.”

Across 6th Street sits one of history’s small but engaging ironies: St. Vincent Jewelry Center, named for the patron saint of the poor, St. Vincent de Paul. That side of the street once was home to St. Vincent’s College, now known as Loyola Marymount University. Like many of its vintage neighbors, the university fled to the suburbs years ago.

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cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com


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