It’s easy to evoke Los Angeles, that ominous and contemptible city, just referring to the ways Angeleños are housed. Nathanael West wrote the most savage passage, charged with scorn and violence, that yoked architecture with authenticity. Los Angeles, he thought, had too much of the one and none of the other.[i]
But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages and every possible combination of those styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.
We’re as phony as the laughable, flimsy architecture of Los Angeles. It’s a cliché, but every cliché of Los Angeles begins with a half-recollected memory.
The house we live in, (for West, William Faulkner,[ii] Christopher Isherwood,[iii] John Fante,[iv] and their imitators), makes us what we are. And what we are is false. We’re as phony as the laughable, flimsy architecture of Los Angeles. It’s a cliché, but every cliché of Los Angeles begins with a half-recollected memory.
In 1854, an ex-sailor and his new bride built a home on Main Street between 3rd and 4th streets, far from what was then the center of town. The lot was wide and deep, fronting 120 feet on Main and extending to Spring Street. The soil was the city’s usual mix of sand and loam.
Water makes it mud. Los Angeles mud can be molded into blocks. The almost perpetual sun will dry the blocks into adobe bricks.
Workmen made adobe bricks out of water and loam for the ex-sailor, who was Ramón Alexander,[v] French-born, shipwrecked near San Pedro in 1848, his granddaughter thought. His bride was Maria Valdez, the daughter of Basilio Valdez,[vi] a well-connected Californio.
Alexander chose not to use the bricks to build the single-story, rectangular house that was typical of Los Angeles. He is supposed to have seen cylindrical stone houses in Africa, and that was offered as the inspiration for his unusual choice by those who wrote about the house years later.
Alexander paid between $15,000 and $20,000, Alexander’s wife remembered, to buy the lot, have the adobe bricks made, and raise a drum-shaped, two-story tower.[vii]
Adobe yearns to return to the state of mud. Adobe houses have to be protected or they melt in the rain. Alexander’s solution was a cone-shaped, shingled roof that made a skirt about 10 feet wide around his round house. The roof was a wooden umbrella that was another story tall. The roof and its supports created a porch at the ground floor and a circular veranda on the second.
Making the roof a perfect circle was beyond the skill of Alexander’s builders. They compromised on a 12-sided design.[viii]
In a town where sawn lumber was rare and a three-story building even rarer, Alexander’s round house – extravagantly high and unsparing of wood – was a marvel. It was the first thing that travelers coming up from the south would see of Los Angeles. It probably resisted every effort of Maria Alexander to make the house livable.
Either because rectangular furniture fits poorly in a round house, or because Alexander had bankrupted the family in building it, his marvelous tower was sold two years later. George Lehman and his wife Clara Snyder (both possibly from Alsace) bought the house in 1858.
Round House George
George Lehman perplexed Los Angeles. He was an industrious baker and a popular member of the city’s German-speaking community, but some of his American neighbors labeled him eccentric because he always dressed well, a cane crooked over his arm, and habitually carried a lemon that some memoirists remember him occasionally nibbling. He also was an early booster of Los Angeles real estate and a benefactor of Central Park (now Pershing Square).
He was nicknamed Dutch George and George the Baker initially, but his purchase of the Alexander house turned Lehman into Round House George for a generation of Angeleños. By some accounts he spent the next two years improving the grounds around the house, irrigating and planting fruit trees and rose bushes, setting out a hedge of prickly pear cactus and creating bowers along meandering paths and under the pepper trees. When he was done, he renamed his creation the Garden of Paradise.[ix]
Lehman opened paradise for business in September 1858, charging a small admission fee. He poured the local beer and served pretzels baked in his own shop. The open veranda on the second floor of the round house served as a bandstand for Sunday concerts.
Angeleños were delighted. Lehman had brought them the kind of convivial, neighborly biergarten found in nearly every German town. Downtown, the saloons attracted drovers and cowboys eager to gamble and get drunk. The suburban Garden of Paradise welcomed women and even had a “flying horses” carousel for children. Like Walt Disney a hundred years later, Lehman recognized the need for family entertainment and met it with Disney-like theatricality.
Since Lehman’s beer garden was the Garden of Paradise (and Lehman certainly thought Los Angeles was paradisiacal), it needed Adam and Eve and a supporting cast of biblical figures. They were supplied by statues of the first family, including Cain and Abel, whitewashed to imitate marble. The serpent was there too, lounging on the branches of an orange tree that stood in for the Tree of the Knowledge. In one account, statues of wild animals were scattered around the grounds, waiting for Adam to name them.
Even with fig leaves, it’s possible that Adam and Eve provided as much erotic speculation as moral edification for couples strolling to one of the garden’s shaded bowers.
What the statues were made of is unknown, although some sources say concrete. Who made them is unremembered, whether Lehman himself or an itinerant carver of santos. We don’t know what they looked like. Adam and Eve were tall and “heroic” in some memories. They reclined in others. Even with fig leaves, it’s possible that Adam and Eve provided as much erotic speculation as moral edification for couples strolling to one of the garden’s shaded bowers.
Round House George was noted for his enthusiasms, which were teased in the pages of the Los Angeles Star. Decades later, Harris Newmark wrote that Lehman had been a “somewhat original … character.” In other accounts, Lehman[x] was a “genial, fumbling” European immigrant who was “a good-natured, kind-hearted, well-meaning man, but full of vagaries and fantastic notions.”[xi] Other than the cane, the lemon, and the whitewashed statues, those accounts provide no other evidence.
If Lehman was a “character,” he also was a successful businessman. The Garden of Paradise and Lehman’s bakery made money, allowing him to invest in more real estate. He eventually owned several unimproved lots that lay across the southern boundary of a growing Los Angeles. He bought but he almost never sold.
The Garden of Paradise flourished for the next 20 years. At some point (no source recorded precisely when) the wide porch and veranda were sheathed in wood siding, concealing the adobe core. Lehman is supposed to have painted the name of the original 13 states (plus California) over the building’s 14 windows.
The round house was now a polygon, but kept it the name Round House (sometimes Old Round House) because that’s what Angeleños had always called it. The band still played on Sunday afternoons. German social clubs still met under the pepper trees. The quality of the beer improved when the city’s brewers imported ice. The Round House was a landmark, but other pleasure grounds, with better bands and fewer German speakers, were attracting American patrons. In 1876, Lehman rented the Garden of Paradise to new operators.
In some accounts, 2,600 Angeleños marched from Aliso Street to the Garden of Paradise, in the sweltering heat of July 4, to celebrate the centennial of the nation in 1876. This patriotic gathering seems to have been the garden’s last grand event.
Biergarten to Kindergarten
In the fall of 1877 (say most sources), Lehman rented the house to Caroline Severance – abolitionist, suffragist, and feminist – who had come to Los Angeles with her husband in 1875. Severance intended to open the city’s first kindergarten and a teacher training school under the direction of Emma Marwedel. Early childhood education, on the model of Friedrich Fröbel (sometimes spelled Froebel), was one of the many progressive movements that Severance embraced. Marwedel, trained in Germany, had already begun a kindergarten in Washington, DC.
Marwedel’s California Model Kindergarten and the Pacific Model Training School for Kindergartners graduated only three teachers in the short time it was open. One of the new teachers was Kate Douglas Smith, who carried the kindergarten idea to Oakland and San Francisco when the training school closed in 1880. (As Kate Douglas Wiggin, she became a best-selling author, known today for her children’s books.)
The kindergarten and the teacher training school weren’t successful. Severance was unable to persuade more sponsors to keep it open or recruit prospective teachers to begin training. Parents were reluctant too. Marwedel’s English was poor and her instruction, Kate Douglas Smith thought, was unsystematic. Part of the school’s failure might have been Lehman’s own unraveling finances.
Round House George had put his faith in the growth of Los Angeles, and the lagging pace of its growth now ruined him. He had held on to his empty lots around the bakery and Garden of Paradise too long, even after offers were made to buy them. He waited for the boom that would make him rich. The boom was still a decade away.
When the city levied heavy tax assessments in the 1870s to pay for road work along Main and Spring streets, the beer garden’s revenue wasn’t enough to pay them. Lehman arranged a $15,000 mortgage from a San Francisco bank, defaulted on the payments during the depression that dragged on through 1879, and lost everything in a series of foreclosure sales announced in the Los Angeles Herald:[xii]
The large real estate interests of George Lehman, including the Round House property, the Georgetown Bakery, brick house on Spring Street between Sixth and Seventh, lot in the rear of Judge O'Melveny's place on Second Street and several corner lots on Sixth and Spring, Seventh and Spring, Fourth and Hill streets, etc. will be disposed of … at sheriff's sale. The property is some of the most desirable for business and residence purposes to be found in the city. Considering the dull times, it will probably go for a song.
The prediction was accurate. The garden and house and Lehman’s other properties sold for just $16,500, much less than the amount of the mortgage and tax assessments.
The trees in the Garden of Paradise were eventually cut down, and the site was cut into saleable lots. The cactus hedge along Main Street fell to make room for concrete sidewalks. At some point Adam and Eve and Cain and Able were gone, but where wasn’t remembered.
Twenty-five years later, the “imposing” statues had become a memory of concrete mounds over the graves of Adam and Eve whom (newspaper writers claimed) Lehman thought had lived and died in Los Angeles, the original Eden.
Lehman died at the county hospital, penniless and demented, on March 8, 1882. The Herald took note of his famously round house, which now took in roomers, and said that Lehman had died with his “crooked stick at his side.” The Old Round House fell into greater disrepair, became a flop house, and was abandoned. It was taken down in 1886,[xiii] its wood framework reassembled in Boyle Heights. There is no newspaper account of its eventual fate.
For decades after his death, newspaper stories credited Lehman with building the famous Old Round House and donating the land for the Pershing Square park to the city. He had done neither.
Ramón Alexander built a tower of dried mud for unknown reasons (only hearsay reports his travel to Africa). George Lehman was a “crazy philosopher” (as the Herald said in a short obituary) but the only evidence of his manias is in the stories told about him, most of them long after his death. Perhaps he had been crazy, but it seems only after he had been ruined.
In the half-recollected memory of Los Angeles, the 12-sided round house would remain an 8-sided octagon, sometimes with 13 sides, sometimes with 16. History is like that, never entirely certain or true; so are the clichés of the city.
[i]. Nathanael West, Day of the Locust (New York: Penguin Classics, 2011), 8
[ii]. Faulkner is credited with the line “Everything in Los Angeles is too large, too loud and usually banal in concept. The plastic asshole of the world.”
[iii]. Christopher Isherwood wrote, “Many of its houses – especially the grander ones – have a curiously disturbing atmosphere, a kind of psychological dankness which smells of anxiety, overdrafts, uneasy lust, whisky, divorce and lies.”
[iv]. John Fante in Ask the Dust connected the city’s illusions with its houses, whose residents were “doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to … keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles.”
[v]. Ramon (or Ramón) Alexander is the name most often cited. But Remundo, Raimond, Raimundo, Raymond, and Roman are also used. His last name is sometimes given as Alexandre.
[vi]. Basilio (sometime cited as Vasilio) Valdez was a Californio landowner and a member of the Los Angeles town council in the 1830s.
[vii]. The Los Angeles Star, launching a tradition of LA architectural criticism, called the round house an “uncouth pile.” (Star, March 21, 1857, 2)
[ix]. Sometimes erroneously named The Garden of Eden.
[x]. “He is described, by those who knew him well, as a good-natured, kind-hearted, well-meaning man, full of vagaries and fantastic notions.” (Mary Bowman, “A Lost Landmark,” Land of Sunshine magazine, August 1897, 99)
[xi]. “Skyscrapers Now Stand on Beer Garden Site,” Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1926, 73.
[xii]. Los Angeles Herald, May 16, 1879, 3. Other Lehman properties were sold in subsequent months.
[xiii]. “An Old Landmark,” Los Angeles Herald, July 8, 1886, 5