This Sunday’s annual Lummis Day festival, celebrating the history and culture of northeast L.A., calls to mind a time 100 years ago when the city was extremely pregnant with its first major, home-grown cultural institutions, but they had not yet quite been born.
In its edition of June 16, 1912, the Los Angeles Times bannered the news that Charles F. Lummis and fellow members of the Southwest Society had paid $50,000 to secure a 17-acre property atop a bluff in Mount Washington for a museum to house Lummis’ extraordinary collection of Native American artifacts. The members said they had raised an additional $300,000 to build the museum and buy further relics to augment what Lummis had donated.
Groundbreaking for the Southwest Museum took place five months later -- an occasion marked by the hoisting of the same flag that John C. Fremont had planted high in the Rockies on his first expedition into the West with Kit Carson in 1842. The museum’s purpose, as Lummis put it in his speech that day, would be “to serve science and promote real education; to make these things a genuine and familiar part of public instruction; to preserve and exhibit…with the highest scientific accuracy, but at the same time with the greatest popular attractiveness, the story of man as it is told in the work of man’s hands.”
The Southwest Society had been formed in 1903, and in 1907 the Southwest Museum was chartered, making it L.A.’s first major cultural institution. By the time it opened in 1914, however, it had been beaten to the punch by the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park, which was already nearing completion in 1912. The county museum opened in 1913, a year ahead of the privately operated Southwest. The city’s first enduring performing arts organization, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was launched in 1919.
The county museum indirectly owes its existence to a late 1890s campaign to shut down a dog-racing course in what was then called Agricultural Park. The operation was perceived as a den of gambling and booze, not to mention an abattoir for the live rabbits the dogs chased. Legal wrangling over title to the dog racing property continued until 1908, when the way was cleared for the creation of Exposition Park. The museum and the neighboring State Exposition Building, a hall for agricultural and industrial shows, were the park’s initial attractions, followed in 1923 by the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The old museum building still functions as the domed hub of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; all that’s left of the State Exposition Building is a facade that’s now a rear wall of the California Science Center.
The Lummis Day celebration dates from 2006, when it was born out of a controversy that has yet to be fully resolved: the future of the Southwest Museum. The economically faltering Southwest had lost its independence in 2003, when it merged with what was then the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, creating the larger entity now known as the Autry National Center of the American West. In 2006, it became clear that Autry leaders envisioned a much-diminished role for the Southwest building. Autry officials recently reopened a sliver of the Southwest Museum -- but only on Saturdays -- to showcase conservation work that’s been accomplished on its 250,000-piece collection.
Eliot Sekuler, one of the Lummis Day co-founders, said the festival’s name was conceived as “a jab-in-the-ribs reminder to the Autry that this guy is important” and that the museum he founded and stocked with a treasured collection should endure. Now the event, which is free, is a general celebration of arts, history and culture in northeast Los Angeles. It will take place at two sites in Highland Park.
The Lummis Home and Garden, at 200 E. Avenue 43, will host music and poetry readings from 10:30 a.m. to noon and an art exhibition from noon to 5 p.m. Lummis started building his stone and timber mansion in 1897 and kept adding to it until 1910. It’s now owned by the city.
The other site for the festival is the Heritage Square Museum, a cluster of eight structures from the late 1800s at 3800 Homer St. Musicians, dance troupes and puppeteers will perform on three outdoor stages from noon to 7 p.m. , with free shuttles running between the two sites.