Exposition Park is known today for football games, dinosaur exhibits, and its sunken rose garden. But as its original name—Agricultural Park—suggests, the park's history reveals a time when farming in Los Angeles was not limited to rooftop skid row gardens and relicts like Compton's Richland Farms.
Agricultural Park was born in 1872, when the Southern District Agricultural Society purchased a 160-acre tract near present-day Figueroa Street and Exposition Boulevard. They meant the land to serve as a sort of farmers' fairground.
As home to an agricultural fair, the park's location—surrounded today by the sprawl of South Los Angeles—may seem a puzzling choice. But in its historical context, the area made a logical setting for local farmers to showcase their prize livestock and produce.
In 1872, Southern California's Mexican-era rancho system was crumbling. Much of the L.A. basin had been divided into vast cattle ranches owned by the landed gentry of Mexican California. Largely self-sufficient, the ranches sold beef at the market but generally steered clear of commercial farming. But as American tax policy slowly dismantled the old rancho system by taxing real property and discouraging the ranches' passive use of the land, many of the estates passed into the hands of newly arrived Americans eager to squeeze profit out of Southern California' fertile soil and gentle weather.
Located just beyond the limits of L.A.'s urban growth in 1872, Agricultural Park's creators encouraged the new American landowners to take up farming and, by hosting an exhibition space, sought to capitalize on the growth of local commercial agriculture. By 1880, wheat and corn grew over much of Los Angeles' coastal plain and inland valleys. Citrus groves soon appeared, too, destined to serve regional boosters as useful symbols of Southern California's salubrious climate.
Agricultural Park may have succeeded in promoting profitable uses of Southern California's land, but the fairground itself could not turn a profit; in 1879 its mortgage creditors foreclosed on the property.
The park's new owners took advantage of another feature of its location: it lay just outside the southwestern corner of Los Angeles' original four-square-league royal land grant. With gambling, prostitution, and related activities banned inside the city limits, these vices migrated across the boundary into Agricultural Park.
Gamblers flocked to the Agricultural Park racetrack, which hosted races of all sorts. In early years, horses, dogs, and camels raced around the track. Later, the park would host L.A.'s first bicycle and automobile races. Gruesome animal fights—denounced by anti-animal cruelty organizations—provided more fodder for gamblers. Underneath the grandstand was an often-packed saloon, and a busy hotel in the middle of the park catered to racing enthusiasts and vice-seekers alike.
These amenities made Agricultural Park a popular attraction among late-nineteenth-century Angelenos. In 1875, the Main Street and Agricultural Park Railroad, one the L.A.'s first street railways, began shuttling passengers to the park on horse-drawn street cars.
As urban growth began to surround Agricultural Park, the park's neighbors demanded an end to its unsavory activities. The University of Southern California had opened across the street in 1880. In 1898, William M. Bowen—a prominent Los Angeles attorney, devout Methodist, and adjunct law professor at USC—began campaigning for the city to annex the park and outlaw gambling. With the support of future USC President George F. Bovard and other civic leaders, Bowen persuaded the city on June 12, 1899 to annex both the park and the university. It was just the fourth—but hardly the last—time the city had expanded its boundaries since it was incorporated in 1850.
In 1908, the state of California acquired Agricultural Park. Bowen, Bovard, and others sketched out a new site plan that included a sunken garden ringed by an armory building, an exhibition hall, and a museum. Two years later, the park's transformation began as construction crews demolished the old brothel and grandstand. On November 6, 1913, the site reopened as Exposition Park, its neatly trimmed rose gardens concealing the park's even more colorful past.
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, personal collections, and other institutions. 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 will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.