Temple Square: The Lost Heart of Commercial Los Angeles

1880 view of Temple Square, looking south. Temple Block is the three-story Italianate building wedged between Main (left) and Spring (right) streets. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

For decades the triangle-shaped intersection pictured above was the commercial heart of Los Angeles. Professionals of all stripes -- lawyers, bankers, photographers, hatters -- jockeyed for offices overlooking the yawning, open space where Main, Spring, and Temple streets converged.

One man, Jonathan Temple, controlled so much of that frontage that the junction became informally known as Temple Square. Temple -- a Massachusetts-born merchant who moved to Mexican California in 1827, converted to Catholicism, and took the Spanish name Juan -- had opened the city's first general store on the intersection's northwest corner shortly after his arrival. Across the street, wedged between Main and Spring, was the Temple Block, an agglomeration of buildings that began in 1858 as a two-story adobe structure and evolved into one of the city's most prestigious business addresses.

Temple Square became an incubator of urban innovation. Eager to enhance his property's street appeal, in 1860 Temple installed what might have been the city's first paved sidewalks, built of a brick base, topped with asphalt, and then sprinkled with sand. The experimental pavement proved sticky in the summer months, but for most of the year it provided welcome relief from streets choked with mud and horse manure. Temple didn't stop at sidewalks to aid his customers' comfort; in 1861 he planted some of the city's first street trees (Peruvian peppers) outside his general store.

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In 1871, a three-story Italianate structure replaced Temple's old adobe building, with retailers occupying the ground floor of the New Temple Block and professional offices the stories above. Across the street was another commercial complex, the Downey Block. Three years later, Los Angeles' first streetcar line opened for business with Temple Square as its northern terminus, and in 1884 merchant Harris Newmark installed an ornate, seven-foot fountain in the square to quench the thirst of what was still a bustling business district.

But most the city's commercial activity eventually moved south. Financial firms huddled around Spring Street, while retailers made Broadway the city's premier shopping corridor. Temple Square survived until the mid-1920s, when the construction of L.A.'s new Civic Center erased the three-way intersection from the city's street grid. The Temple Block crumbled, Spring Street straightened itself out to become parallel with Main, and the city's old commercial heart beat no more.

Born Jonathan Temple in Massachusetts, 'Don Juan' Temple was part of a generation of opportunistic Yankees who moved to Mexican Los Angeles and married into Californio society. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Circa 1863 view of Temple Square, looking north up Main Street. Old Temple Block is the two-story adobe structure on the left. Behind it are the shade trees planted by Juan Temple in 1861. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Wagon traffic in front of the Downey Block, circa 1875. The view looks north from Temple Block. Main Street is visible on the right. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Circa 1872 view of the Old Temple Block. The cupola and clock behind it are part of what was then the county courthouse. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Temple Square appears at the bottom-center of this photograph of a model of old Los Angeles. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

Undated stereogram of the Temple Block by William Godfrey. Courtesy of the Zelda Mackay Collection of Stereographic Views, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Circa 1880s view of the Temple Block wedged between Main (left) and Spring (right) streets. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Temple Block in the 1920s, shortly before it was demolished to make way for L.A.'s new civic center. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Demolition of the Temple Block in 1927. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

A steam shovel clears the remains of the Temple Block in 1927. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

L.A. as Subject is 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.

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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