- Avila Adobe
The Avila Adobe, was built in
1818by Don Francisco Avila, and has the distinction of being the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles. It is located in the "paseo" of famous, historical Olvera Streetand is now a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, a Los Angeles State Historic Park.
The Plaza known today as Olvera Street is the third location of the original Spanish settlement "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles sobre el Rio Porciuncula", the first two having been washed out by flooding from the swollen Porciuncula (Los Angeles) River. The Avila Adobe is one of the first town houses to share street frontage in the new Pueblo de Los Angeles. Don Francisco Avila, indisputably the richest cattle rancher in Los Angeles at the time, was the owner of Rancho La Brea near the site of the present-day
La Brea Tar Pits. [Don Francisco Avila was owner of Rancho La Brea which bordered Rancho La Cienega. By mid century his land had flooded so that it became a marshland, so he acquired Rancho La Cienega. Thus history lists him as owner of one or the other.] Avila spent his working time at the ranch where he resided during the week, but on weekends, special feast days or holidays, he came to the Pueblo where he could conduct trade business, entertain friends, families or patrons, or prepare for services at the church across the street.
The present Adobe has seven rooms left from what used to be a much larger building. Restoration has worked to create an idea of what the original home was like. The largest room, the family room, was a general area for dining, entertainment and social gatherings. The office room was the main business room for Don Francisco Avila. The sala, or living room, was reserved for special occasions such as a wedding or baptism, maybe even entertaining special guests. There were sleeping quarters for the parent and another for the children, and a kitchen which was really more a food preparation area and doubled as a bathing room. Cooking was relegated to the out-of-doors and sanitation was done elsewhere outside the house. Most of the original furnishings came from other countries with whom Don Avila did trade.
The adobe consists of a generous courtyard with covered porches for each of the garaging areas, stables, workshops, etc. A more recent archaeological find has revealed a portion of the "
Zanja Madre" (Mother Ditch) which transported water into the pueblo via a brick-laid pipeline from the River.
The walls of the Avila adobe are 2-1/2 to 3 feet thick and are built from sun baked adobe bricks. The original ceilings were fifteen feet high and supported by beams of cottonwood which was available along the banks of the
Los Angeles River.
Though the roof appears slanted today, he original roof was flat. Tar (Brea in Spanish) was brought up from the pits located near the north boundary line of his ranch. The tar was mixed with rocks and horsehair, a common binder in exterior building material, and applied beams of the roof as a sealant from inclement weather.
The original floor of the Avila adobe was hard-as-concrete compacted earth. which was swept several times a day to keep the surface smooth and free from loose soil. (Dirt floors were common among most early adobes.) In later years, varnished wood planks were used as flooring.
The original structure was nearly twice as long as it now appears and was L-shaped with a wing that extended nearly to the center of
Olvera Street. The rear of the house had a long (porch) facing the patio. Don Francisco tended a garden and a vineyard in the rear courtyard. The nearby Zanja Madre, literally Mother Ditch, was a main irrigation ditch which brought water down to the Pueblo from the Porciuncula (Los Angeles) River and was close enough to the Adobe for Don Francisco to avail himself.
A Wealthy Rancher
Don Francisco eventually added a wooden veranda and steps to the front of the adobe. Avila would trade hides and tallow (a main ingredient in candle and soap) to own or order some of the finer things from around the world to adorn his house. French doors and window frames were ordered from Boston. These imports (The United States was a foreign country) were brought to California by ship over thousands of miles around the southern tip of South America. his buying and trading power allowed him to order the finest furnishings and tapestries from New England and Europe. Avila would trade his cowhides and tallow for household goods stored on merchant ships anchored in San Pedro or San Diego which he then carted by an ox-drawn ‘’carreta’’, the typical wooden cart of the era..
The Avila Adobe was considered a mansion in its day. It had a number of spacious rooms with an ample number of windows. It served many a social gathering with Don Francisco hosting these events in his large ‘’sala’’ (living room). Like so many of the Spanish Dons, his hospitality was renown throughout California and the United States.
In 1822, Maria del Rosaria Verdugo-Avila died at the tender age of twenty-nine, leaving Don Francisco with three young children to raise. Not long after Maria’s death did Don Francisco marry the lovely fifteen-year-old Maria Encarnacion Sepulveda, daughter of his close friends, of the Sepulveda family. Despite her young age, Doña Maria Encarnacion became a gracious hostess of the Avila manor. During their ten-year marriage, she gave birth to two daughters and a third child who died at an early age.
The adobe was always ready to receive friends, family and travelers, including the famous trailblazer, Jedediah Smith. Smith had led a group of trappers across the Mojave Desert from to Southern California and was able to stay at the adobe for a few days during January 1827. These were the first U. S. citizens to reach California from the east via an overland route. Smith later recorded: "A few families are rich in cattle and horses and mules and among these Señor [Avila] and his brother Don [Ignacio] are perhaps the richest."
Don Francisco Avila died on April 5, 1832. His widow, Dona Encarnacion, continued remained at the adobe until her death in 1855, though sometime after Francisco’s death she did remarry.
During the Annexation and Pacification of California
On May 18, 1846, Mexico declared war on the United States at which time the U. S. took interest in California. U. S. Navy Commodore Robert Stockton arrived in Monterey on July 14th and declared California won over. He then proceeded to march toward Los Angeles which he took without so much as a shot being fired. But the Pueblo de Los Angeles had not capitulated so easily and revolted against the garrison of men left to police the pueblo. Stockton was forced to return in October via San Diego. After a bloody fight just north of San Diego in December, which was a setback for the Americans, they marched toward Los Angeles. They became involved in a minor skirmish near the San Gabriel River on January 8, 1847 which after two days quelled the Mexican resistance.
When news of the advancing American troops reached the Pueblo, most the inhabitants fled, including Doña Maria Encarnacion whose husband was not around to protect her. She went to the home of a nearby relative and left the house in charge of a young boy who had orders to leave the doors and shutters closed. On January 10th Stockton arrived with a marching band fanfare that lured the young boy outside leaving the door open. The troops passing noticed the great size of the house with its lavish furnishings and decided to take it as temporary headquarters. When hostilities ended on January 13th with the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga, the troops vacated the adobe.
Vila's youngest daughter, Francisca married Theodore Rimpau, a German native in 1850. When Dona Encarnacion died in 1855, the couple lived in the adobe until 1868. By now the structure had aged appreciably, and the Rimpaus left. Various family member rented the house over the next few years after which it became a boarding house. An 1870 earthquake damaged the structure even more causing it to fall into ruin and in 1928 the City of Los Angeles condemned it.
It was a Mrs. Christine Sterling, an English woman from San Francisco who had moved to Los Angeles and had immediately taken and interest in its cultural history. In 1926 she began work on a the project of transforming the old plaza area from a skid row ruin into a Latin-American cultural center. She enlisted the aid of Harry Chandler, the Los Angeles Times publisher, who printed several articles that would generate public interest in the project and raise funds for the restoration. However, after two years the funding was failing miserably. Even though she faced a seemingly lost cause, when she learned of the 1928 condemnation of the adobe, she acted quickly to get a stay on the wrecking ball. She tracked down the owner of the building who happened to be Miss Sophia Rimpau, a member of the original family. She agreed to rent the adobe to Mrs. Sterling for a nominal amount. Sterling then went to the papers and called in reporters to cover a story on the restoration of Olvera Street and the Avila Adobe. The campaign sparked the support she needed and soon she had enough funds to buy the house.
One of Sterling's benefactors was Mrs. Florence Dodson de Shoneman, a descendant of the Sepulvedas, who provided furnishings for an entire room in the adobe. The adobe underwent the necessary renovations to keep it from being demolished and Mrs. Sterling pleaded with city council to rescind the condemnation order. Not only did council fulfill the request, but the chief of police provided assistance from prison inmates to help clean up the plaza area. Eventually the Avila Adobe was completely restored to its former glory representative of the days of the dons. By March 1930, the Olvera Street Plaza was transformed from a skid row to a Mexican-style marketplace.
Christine Sterling maintained her residence at the adobe, but held it open for group and student tours. In 1953 the State of California acquired the Avila Adobe as part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park. Mrs. Sterling remained in the house until her death in 1963.
In 1971 the Sylmar Earthquake cause major damage to the adobe, and the house was closed to tours until a $120,000 and five year restoration could be completed. A new structure added to the rear of the building was set up as a memorial to Mrs. Sterling. The Adobe has now been opened to tours since 1976.
The Avila Adobe Today
The Avila Adobe is opened for public touring and is located at East 10 Olvera Street within El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park. The Park office is located at 845 N. Alameda Street and the Visitors Information Center is at 128 Paseo de la Plaza. The adobe is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is California State Landmark No. 145.
History of Los Angeles
Pueblo de Los Angeles
El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument [http://www.cityofla.org/ELP/index.htm]
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