Jo Mora's Incredibly Detailed L.A. History Map from 1942

  • Maps

Navigating through rows and floors of books at the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Branch can be a daunting task, usually requiring a glance at the floor map. What the map may not show, ironically, is that tucked away at the very bottom of the building in the History and Genealogy Department, is the library's 100-year-old collection of 100,000 historic maps.

Currently on display at the library's First Floor Galleries (until November 4th), "As the CIty Grew: Historical Maps of Los Angeles,", makes it a bit easier for us to digest this massive collection. One of the 34 featured maps in the exhibit is "Historical and Recreational Map of Los Angeles," designed by Jo Mora in 1942 and dedicated to his "buen amigo" Charles Lummis. The map squeezes in an extraordinary amount of historical facts and figures onto its 23- by 30-inch surface, depicting almost the entire history of Los Angeles up to that point, while looking toward the future.

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Historical and Recreational Map of Los Angeles | Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Born in Uruguay in 1876 to a family of artists (including his father, Catalonian sculptor Domingo Mora, and brother Luis, a painter) Joseph Jacinto "Jo" Mora and his family soon left to settle around New Jersey and Massachusetts. He developed a career as an illustrator in Boston, and it was there that he began his fascination with the West, in particular the Californian missions and the Southwest Indians. Eventually traveling west, in 1907 he was married at Mission San Juan Capistrano. He settled his family in Carmel in 1920.

Mora took a humorous approach to issues surrounding the tangled history of Los Angeles. The amount of detail is astounding, covering a huge spectrum - from the city's water wars to the rise of the film industry. Excerpts don't do the map justice (you owe it to yourself to go look at the full size map at the exhibit), but observing the details reveals Mora's keen understanding of the city.

Here he depicts the founding of the city:
"Sunshine and mañana + love and fandangos = a delightful Pacific Arcadia."

Civil War years to the real estate boom of the 1880s:
"1885-88: Then came the most spectacular, frenzied, delirious and unbridled Real Estate Boom in all history. What a riot!"

Population growth of L.A.:
"Please help me figure out what IS the matter with the L.A. climate?"

(More details from the map at the bottom of this post.)

As an avid rancher, one of his favorite subjects was the cowboy. He spent years as a ranch hand at Donahue Ranch, near what is now Solvang. His book "Trail Dust and Saddle Leather" is one of the most authentic and entertaining accounts of cowboy life. For some, his most well-known work may not be his own commissioned work - but on the album cover for Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the groundbreaking 1968 album by L.A.-based cosmic cowboys The Byrds. The artwork - a detail from another of Mora's maps, "The American Cowboy (Salinas Rodeo)" - has become as iconic as the music found within the grooves.

He was also a prolific sculptor of monuments and bas reliefs, most of which are in California. Many are found in the San Francisco Bay Area and near his home in Carmel and Monterey. His precise reach extended to Los Angeles as well. One of his most elaborate works here is the exterior facade of the Million Dollar Theater - the first of the many historic theaters on Broadway.

The allure of the cowboy never left his mind; almost comically he included a longhorn skull in the otherwise Churrigueresque ornaments that surround the theater:
Million Dollar Theater Detail | Photo by Flickr user Be Frank used under a Creative Commons License

Mora's "Heroic Figures" can be seen above the entrance of the Pacific Mutual Insurance Building near Pershing Square. Note the presence of a redwood tree, symbolizing stature and growth for the original tenants (now based in Newport Beach; L.A. Conservancy now appropriately occupies an office in the building):
Pacific Mutual Building Detail | Photo by Flickr user jimw used under a Creative Commons license

Jo Mora left his mark in a variety of mediums: magazine cartoons, portraits, maps, sculptures and even a children's book - Budgee Budgee Cottontail, published posthumously in 1995. His appreciation for the history of California and the Southwest is apparent in everything he touched, and his works in and about Los Angeles certainly place our city within the legacy of the magnificent West.

Detail from Historical and Recreational Map of Los Angeles | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Detail from Historical and Recreational Map of Los Angeles | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Detail from Historical and Recreational Map of Los Angeles | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The map is dedicated to Charles Lummis:



Komanecky, Michael. "Jo Mora and the Missions of California," Anales del Insituto de Investigaciones Esteticas, Num. 91, 2007.

Mitchell, Stephen. Jo Mora: Renaissance Man of the West. Ketchum, Idaho: Stoecklein Publishing. 1994.

About the Author

Yosuke Kitazawa is the Site Editor of KCET Departures.


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