Photos: The Bella Union, L.A.'s First Hotel

Drawing of the Bella Union, L.A.'s first hotel, as it appeared in 1858. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Hotels have long served as temporary abodes for those visiting Southern California. Luxury hotels like the Raymond and the Green made Pasadena a coveted resort destination among East Coast elites in the 1880s. The Hotel Arcadia helped put Santa Monica on the map. And today hotels serve the region's still-vital tourism industry.

But Los Angeles' first hotel, the Bella Union, functioned as more than simply temporary lodging for out-of-town visitors. For decades after it opened in 1849, it was the heart of civic life in the recently conquered American city. Judges deliberated, lovers wedded, and gunfighters traded menacing glances all inside the Bella Union's walls.

Harris Newmark, whose stagecoach deposited him in front of the Bella Union when he first arrived in Los Angeles in 1853, described it in his memoirs as "the only real hotel in town...where stages stopped and every city function took place."

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Located on Main Street just north of Temple, the Bella Union doubled as Los Angeles County's first courthouse; the Court of Sessions, a three-judge panel that had legislative as well as judicial authority for the newly organized county government, met inside rented rooms at the Bella Union from August 1850 to January 1852.

A small house on the hotel's grounds also served as headquarters for the city's first newspaper, the Los Angeles Star. A sign reading "Imprenta" hung over one of the building's doors to mark the location of the bilingual newspaper's offices.

Despite the presence of these civic institutions, the rough edges of Los Angeles -- in the 1850s a boisterous town riven by ethnic tensions and marked by frontier violence -- extended into the Bella Union.

Accommodations were somewhat primitive, as Horace Bell wrote in his "Reminiscences of a Ranger":

In rainy weather the primitive earthen floor was sometimes, and generally, rendered quite muddy by the percolations from the roof above, which in height from floor to ceiling, was about six or seven feet. The rooms were not over 6x9 in size. Such were the ordinary dormitories of the hotel that advertised as being the "best hotel south of San Francisco."

The Bella Union saloon was no more genteel, frequented by a rowdy crowd and occasionally the scene of a gun battle.

The saloon's patrons were "the most bandit, cut-throat looking set that the writer ever sat his youthful eyes upon," Bell wrote. "All...had slung to their rear the never-failing pair of Colt's, generally with the accompaniment of the bowie knife."

"The grim, desperado looking bartender," Bell added, "looked as though he hadn't smiled since his father was hung."

During the U.S. Civil War, the Bella Union became a favored meeting-place for the city's many Confederate sympathizers, who hung a giant portrait of Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard in the hotel's saloon.

The Bella Union in 1865. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

A Fourth of July parade assembles outside the Bella Union, circa 1873. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Circa 1873 view of the Bella Union Hotel. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The Bella Union circa 1880s, by then renamed the St. Charles Hotel. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Handbill advertising a renovated Bella Union Hotel. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Established in 1851, the Los Angeles Star initially published out of the Bella Union. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Star Collection, USC Libraries.

Although its life as a hotel began in 1849, the Bella Union already boasted a colorful history before it ever welcomed its first guest.

It began in 1835 as a general store. Trapper-turned-merchant Isaac Williams, an early American interloper in the Mexican city, hired three of his fellow Americans to build the one-story adobe structure. Williams lived inside the Bella Union and sold goods shipped in from New England.

Then it served as California's de facto capitol building when, in 1846, Pío Pico -- recently installed as governor of Mexican California after a revolt against Manuel Micheltorena -- moved in to Williams' adobe and made it his official residence.

When U.S. forces took the city during the American conquest of California, Captain Archibald Gillespie and his marines used the adobe, which Pico had abandoned when he fled to Mexico, as their headquarters. The marines' stay would be short, however; native Californians soon revolted against the American occupation and besieged Gillespie and his men, forcing them to flee to nearby Fort Hill (later renamed Fort Moore Hill).

Finally, in 1849, Williams regained possession and in May sold his adobe to Benjamin Davis "Don Benito" Wilson, who converted the old store into a hotel, adding a saloon and French restaurant. Although several lodging houses had previously served Los Angeles, the Bella Union was considered the city's first full-fledged hotel.

Horace Bell described the Bella Union in those days as a "one-story flat-roofed adobe, with a corral in the rear, extending to Los Angeles street, with the usual great Spanish portal."

The hotel, which went through a succession of owners, gained a second story in 1851 and later a third in 1869.

By then, though, the Bella Union's days as L.A.'s premier hotel were numbered. On June 9, 1870, Pío Pico -- still active in Los Angeles as an influential town elder -- opened his luxurious Pico House on the Los Angeles Plaza. The Bella Union's primitive accommodations paled in comparison with the Pico House's indoor plumbing and gas lighting.

The Bella Union's owners undertook several renovations, replacing the aging adobe structure with a three-story brick building and renaming it first the Clarendon and then the St. Charles. But the historic hotel never regained its footing. It served an increasingly poor clientele, and in 1940 it was demolished to make way for a parking lot. Today, the Bella Union site is home to the underground Los Angeles Mall, across the street from the United States Courthouse.

The opening of the Pico House in 1870 marked the end of the Bella Union's reign as L.A.'s finest hotel. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photo Archive.

The St. Charles Hotel (formerly the Bella Union) in 1939, one year before it was torn down to make way for a parking lot. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

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About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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