Built in 1893, the Bradbury Building is a beloved Los Angeles landmark and one of the oldest commercial buildings remaining in downtown. Its Victorian atrium illuminated by the natural light pouring through the skylight has been well documented by photographers and filmmakers alike. Its interior has been transformed into a variety of settings from a London military hospital in the 1944 film "The White Cliffs of Dover" to the futuristic dystopian apartment in the 1982 film "Blade Runner." While the building’s namesake Lewis Bradbury is often referenced in historical accounts, his wife Simona is rarely mentioned alongside him even though she oversaw his business affairs after his death, including the completion of the Bradbury Building.
Simona Martinez Bradbury was the Mexican wife of Lewis Bradbury, the real estate developer and mining millionaire who commissioned the historic Bradbury Building in downtown. Yet she was more than just the wife of a wealthy mining magnate. After her husband’s death in 1892, she managed his business ventures throughout California and Mexico and even developed her own block in downtown. Her Los Angeles Times obituary praised her “marked business ability and grasp of general affairs.”
Born in Mazatlán, Mexico on September 29, 1849 (some sources say 1845), Simona Martinez worked as a housekeeper in Lewis Bradbury’s home in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Lewis, originally from Maine, had been living life as a sailor when he settled in Mexico. "While in Sinaloa, [Lewis] invested in mining enterprises, including the legendary Tajo silver mine, from which he extracted a fortune," according to Jessica Kim in her book "Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941." Lewis was in his 40s when he married his much younger housekeeper around 1867. Eventually, Lewis trusted Simona enough to put his shares of the Tajo mine in her name, most likely to leverage her Mexican citizenship. The couple had six kids: John, Lewis Jr., Rosario, Simoneta, Minerva and Louisa.
When the family moved from Mexico to California about 1880, they first settled in Oakland. They lived at the corner of 12th Street and Filbert Street, now the site of the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. Lewis continued to amass property throughout California and, by 1887, moved the family into a 35-room mansion designed by architects Samuel and Joseph Newsom in the tony neighborhood of Bunker Hill. Lewis, Simona and their six children spent time in both homes, though it was said Simona preferred Oakland, while Lewis preferred Los Angeles due to his asthma.
When Lewis died in July 1892, the now-famous Bradbury Building was still under construction. In a move unusual for the time, Lewis named his wife one of his executors, along with his lawyer and son, who was 20 years old at the time of Lewis' death. As an executor of his estate, Simona helped to oversee the completion of the building and the development along the rest of the block owned by the family. In a very detailed 1893 article about the construction of the Bradbury Building published, the Los Angeles Herald reported, "The mantels, wainscoting and floor finish of a building of this character are matters requiring the exercise of exceptional judgement and taste. Mrs. Bradbury is therefore to be congratulated upon her choice in this direction." By the late 1890s, she developed the property at First Street and Broadway and built the Tajo Building, named after the family’s Tajo mine in Mexico. For her building, she hired the Bradbury Building architect George Herbert Wyman along with William Lee Woollett. Before it was torn down in 1940, the Tajo building housed the US District Court, the Los Angeles Stock Exchange (briefly) and USC Law School.
Simona was actively involved in Catholic charities and volunteered at local religious events. In October 1897, local newspapers covered the two-day charity fete hosted at the Bunker Hill home of Mrs. Simona Bradbury. "The handsome grounds, with their smooth lawns and pretty shrubbery, form a most attractive setting for the artistically-decorated booths, and in the evening, blazing with light from hundreds of electric lamps, seemed a corner of fairyland," reported the Los Angeles Times. The successful event earned Simona public accolades in the local press. The Ladies Aid Society gushed, "The kindness of the hostess in donating the use of her beautiful home, besides assuming the expense for music, lights, lumber, etc. has resulted in securing $100 to each of the six deserving charities."
As a devout Catholic, Simona and her family had an audience with the Pope when the Bradburys traveled to Europe in 1890. Her daughter Rosario documented the moment in her 1890 diary, "Got up quite early to be able to arrange our black dresses and mantillas to go to the Vatican to see the Pope… The poor Pope looks so old he could hardly raise his hand to give the blessing." This diary, along with other family papers are archived at UC Davis, which created this online exhibit featuring items from the family archive.
Ten years after her husband died, Simona fell ill and boarded the family’s private train to see her doctor in Oakland. She passed away a few months later on December 10, 1902 and is buried next to Lewis in the mausoleum she had built at Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. In her obituary, the Los Angeles Times remarked on her charitable endeavors along with her business acumen. "The passing of Mrs. Bradbury removes a unique and interesting character, and one which had been closely associated with the business history of Los Angeles for some years."
To honor their mother, the Bradbury children donated land to Monrovia’s Immaculate Conception parish and by 1905, the first Catholic Church of Monrovia was built. When both Lewis and Simona were alive, the family often spent time in their "country home" on their Duarte rancho, which became part of Monrovia. In 1906, the Los Angeles Times reported "Out at the easterly edge of this city stands a noble monument to the late Mrs. Simona Bradbury. It is the Church of the Immaculate Conception and has been erected by Lewis Bradbury in memory of his mother." While Simona’s name may not be associated with any of the downtown development she helped establish, the church built in her honor still stands on Shamrock Avenue in Monrovia.
There are more questions than answers when it comes to the life of Simona Martinez Bradbury. Yet it’s important to acknowledge the work and influence of this Mexican woman who not only held sway among the city’s elite in early Los Angeles but played a key role in one of downtown’s most famous landmarks.