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Los Angeles in Buildings: The Pico House

Soon Los Angeles will have its new tallest building in the form of the 73-story Wilshire Grand Center, a billion-dollar hotel-retail-office complex that will no doubt open to fanfare commensurate with its scale. So, in its own day and for similar reasons, did the Pico House, a three-story hotel named for Pío de Jesús Pico, the last governor of Mexican-ruled Alta California before its 1848 annexation by the United States. After getting out of politics, Pico went on to make a fortune as a cattleman, and by the late 1860s he had the idea to build a hotel. And he wouldn't just build a hotel, but a luxury hotel – and not just the most luxurious hotel in downtown Los Angeles, but the most luxurious hotel in all of Southern California.

Pio Pico
Pío Pico in 1860. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

The realization of this dream cost somewhere north of $80,000 (a princely sum in those days), an amount Pico and his brother Andrés raised by selling most of the land they held ­– and they held a lot of it – up in the San Fernando Valley. This bought, among other things, the services of Ezra F. Kysor, a Yankee who'd come west and become Southern California's very first professional architect. Though the city's architectural history holds Kysor in higher regard for the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, built six years later and a half mile down Main Street, he took on the Pico House as his first project in Los Angeles, coming up with an Italianate Victorian design, something of an East Coast import that unambiguously signaled the end of the aesthetic isolation of the adobe period.

Pico also spent the money on serious opulence, by the standards of the time and place: 80 bedrooms, 21 parlors, and a French restaurant arranged around a central courtyard with a fountain and an exotic-bird aviary, all with gas light and running water, all behind an exterior finished to look like blue granite. It once even advertised an “elegant Billiard Parlor and Reading Room connected with the establishment,” targeting – and attracting – countless guests of means, who, after the Southern Pacific Railroad opened Los Angeles to the rest of the country, could take the hotel's free bus shuttle straight in from the train station. It didn't take long to get there; the parcel of land Pico used, which once belonged to his brother-in-law, was right on the Plaza, at one time the center of Los Angeles public life.

Exterior view of the Pico House at the Los Angeles Plaza, ca.1870-1875
An early view of the Pico House, circa 1870-75. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Stagecoach at Pico House, Los Angeles, ca.1884
Stagecoach at Pico House, Los Angeles, ca.1884. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Drawing of Plaza and Mission from Fort Hill, Los Angeles, ca.1876
Drawing of Plaza and Mission from Fort Hill, Los Angeles, ca.1876. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

By 1882, the Pico House found itself so solidly booked that management had to acquire extra rooms off-site, just across the street, yet still had trouble meeting the booming demand. Pico himself, once one of the richest men in Alta California but also a victim of scams, property-damaging floods, and his own profligacy and gambling habits, had already lost ownership of the hotel that bore his name a couple of years earlier. The foreclosed-on building, auctioned off for $16,000 to the San Francisco Savings and Loan Company, nevertheless did briefly revive, in line with Pico's intentions, the declining fortunes of the old Plaza over which it towered. But the city's business activity had begun its inexorable shift south before the turn of the twentieth century (as it would then, toward the middle of the century, move west), a process that brought the Pico House's good times to an end.

Until becoming property of the State of California in 1953, the Pico House fell into the condition that, in their fallow periods, many other formerly stately downtown Los Angeles buildings have: that of a no-account flophouse. More recent decades have seen it go through a variety of uses commercial and residential (at different points in time, it has contained apartments and even a pool hall), but these days it hosts mostly one-off meetings, events, and exhibitions as well as the occasional photo, movie, or television shoot. Half a decade ago, the Travel Channel's long-running Ghost Adventures spent the night inside, looking for unexplainable shadows and “cold spots” amid the emptiness and relative decrepitude, despite renovations, of its now-spooky interior.

Not the kind of program to shrink from sensationalism, it also billed the Pico House as the site of an 1871 anti-Chinese massacre. The killings actually took place in an apartment block that stood on a nearby alley, reputedly teeming with the stuff of low life, called Calle de los Negros. That building was torn down in the late 1880s and Calle de los Negros has since become part of Los Angeles Street, but a faint reputation for hauntedness, perpetuated by enthusiasts of the paranormal, has continued to hang around the Pico House itself. That may go some way toward explaining its prolonged modern-day struggle to find a more permanent function, which has left it for the most part in a lonely, abandoned-looking state even as the city-administered El Pueblo de Los Ángeles historic park, with its tourist magnet Olvera Street, draws two million visitors per year and modern downtown Los Angeles booms once again.

Pico House and Merced Theater, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, Los Angeles, 1929
The Pico House in 1929, when was operating as the National Hotel. Photo by Adelbert Bartlett, courtesy of the Bartlett (Adelbert) Papers, UCLA Library Special Collections.

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Exterior view of the Pico House and surrounding buildings, Los Angeles, Calif., 1956
In 1956, the building bore the name "Old Pico House." Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library Special Collections.

Official registration as both a California Historical Landmark and a National Historic Landmark puts complete redevelopment of the Pico House out of the question, but economic and political problems (and perhaps a sheer lack of ideas) have continued to get in the way of any plan to repurpose the building in a way that would – to use the urbanist lingo – “reactivate” the space around it. The impression of dereliction the once-glamorous hotel now gives off parallels the story of Pico's life: he reached the age of 93, but did it almost in poverty, living in his daughter's house. When he died, his family buried him at the Calvary Cemetery just over a mile north of his wood-and-brick namesake.

Pico, who was born in Alta California a Spaniard in the New Spain of 1801, came of age as a Mexican, and died a citizen of the United States in 1894, now stands as the historical figure most colorfully representative of 19th-century Los Angeles. (In true 20th-century Los Angeles fashion, his remains subsequently moved from the Calvary Cemetery, the area of which would later become Dodger Stadium, to the suburbs.) And while the Wilshire Grand nears its completion as a symbol of the urban potential that Los Angeles, especially downtown Los Angeles, has finally rediscovered, the Pico House stands as a symbol of all that, for one reason or another, has yet to make a return from dissolution.

Pico House stereogram by Carleton Watkins
Undated stereograph of the Pico House, photographed by Carleton Watkins. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library.