While poking around in one of the online collections of historic photographs I'm wont to frequent (and borrow from), I came across the earliest picture I've yet seen of the Romanesque Revival City Hall which once once graced Broadway in Los Angeles. I've seen many pictures of the building as it was in later years, when the city had grown around it and it was no longer the largest structure in its area, but this photo dates to a time soon after it was built, and its dark bulk dominates the scene.
I've always been especially pleased by buildings which rise impressively from their low landscapes, and this one certainly does that. The view is to the south, toward blocks then occupied mostly by Victorian houses and the spires of a few churches. A view to the northeast would have shown what was then the center of town, but even there, only the large County Courthouse a few blocks away would have been a match for this splendid pile.
One of the interesting things about this large civic monument was that not until two years after it was completed did the city which built it reach a population of 50,000. San Francisco was the metropolis of the west coast, with over 300,000 citizens, and even Oakland was more populous than Los Angeles. Seattle and Portland were then both huge cities in comparison to this southern backwater. The city of Los Angeles then was the largest settlement in a vast region that was still devoted largely to cattle ranching, and was derisively referred to by cosmopolitan Northern Californians as "The Queen of the Cow Counties." Though the population of Los Angeles had doubled in the decade of the 1880's, it was nevertheless an act of civic daring for so small a place to erect so large and costly a public building for its municipal offices.
And yet a mere two decades after this photograph was taken, Los Angeles had surpassed in population Oakland, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco itself to become the largest city in the west. The ambitious optimism of the small-town burghers who had built the over-sized city hall had been justified. A mere two decades after that, the building had been outgrown, and was replaced by the much larger city hall which continues in use today. Even in 1908, the Victorian pile on Broadway was beginning to look a bit cramped amid the bulky 20th century commercial buildings and burgeoning office towers which were springing up on block after block which had only lately been built up with modest dwellings and small corner shops. Cramped, and a bit old-fashioned was how it most often looked in the photos I've seen up until now, and I was startled to see how splendid it was when new.
I never saw this building in person. It was gone before I was born. Looking at this picture, with the great bulk looming over the serene street and almost bucolic landscape beyond, I like to imagine how it would be to have the experience of one of those small figures on the sidewalk, looking up at all that stacked masonry, and everywhere else, open sky. And then I always remember that this gray scale city now exists no more than does Nineveh or Ur of the Chaldees. Only the streets are there, bereft of every trace of what stood along them little more than a century ago. What a moment to have missed.
This building was the City Hall of Los Angeles from 1888 until 1928. It was on the east side of Broadway, south of Second Street. It is gone, as is every other structure in this view.