Italians at the Pueblo

Italians at the Pueblo

Pelanconi House (now La Golondrina restaurant),
El Pueblo

[By Jean Bruce Poole, retired senior curator & historic museum director of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument from 1977 to 2001. Reproduced with permission from the Historical Society of Southern California:]

Since 1823 there has been an Italian presence at El Pueblo when Giovanni Leandri opened a general store and built his home where the Plaza Firehouse now stands. In 1838 Matias Sabichi who had built a home on the east side of the plaza started a saloon in the Plaza area. Both men married the daughters of local residents. The two sons were educated in Europe and both returned to Los Angeles as accomplished linguists. One son, Frank, became an interpreter for the City Council and, later rose to the position of President of the Council. Another Italian, a liquor dealer named Ballerino also owned a house on the east side of the Plaza.

On the short lane later known as Olvera Street but first called Vine Street or Calle de las Vignas, wine merchants plied their trade, growing the grapes in vineyards located close to the Pueblo, especially eastwards towards the river. Giuseppe Gazzo and Giuseppe Covaccichi, operated a winery on Alameda Street just north and east of Vine or Wine Street. It is probable that Covaccichi built, between 1855 and 1857, what later became known as the Pelanconi House on Vine Street. His building, the oldest brick building still standing in Los Angeles.

Antonio Pelanconi, a native of Gordona, Lombardia, arrived in Los Angeles in 1853. After trying other trades he associated himself with Gazzo and learned the wine-making business. He married Isabel Ramirez, whose father Juan owned a large part of what is now Olvera Street. Antonio purchased the building in 1871 and he and his wife and children lived there until his death in 1879. Antonio sold the winery to his partner Giuseppe Tononi in 1877 and in 1881 Tononi married Isabel, thus preserving the family heritage. Antonio and Isabel's oldest son Lorenzo became involved in wine-making, and after Tononi died, Lorenzo took over the business. Father Blas Raho, a native of Naples, was assigned to the Plaza Church as pastor in 1857 and was described as a "genial, broadminded Italian.

Close by on Vine Street after Theodore Rimpau (who had married Francisca Avila) moved his family to the German settlement in Anaheim in 1868, the Rimpaus rented the Avila Adobe to various tenants, including Italians who managed a hotel there in the 1 880s which was known as the Hotel d'Italia Unita. Another illustrious tenant was Secondo Guasti who later became an important vintner.

Around the corner on Main Street and backing on to Olvera Street a Frenchwoman named Marie Ruellan Harnmel built the Italian Hall in 1907, 50 named because it was built for Italian occupancy. Some years earlier Frank Arconti, a prominent member of the now thriving Italian community of Los Angeles, had owned a fuel and feed lot on the site. There appears to have been some connection between Mrs. Hammel and Frank Arconti, because Mrs. Hammel leased the entire Italian Hall building to him as soon as it opened. He was Secretary of the Societá Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza which was organized in Antonio Pelanconi's business offices in 1877. The Society had its offices and met in the Sepulveda House on Main Street until the Italian Hall was built. This was accomplished by the Pozzo Construction Company. The offices of the Society were located upstairs in the Italian Hall.

Various Italian societies rented the building for events including the Circolo Operaio (Italian Work Circle). In 1916 the Italian Benevolent Society merged with the Garibaldina Society to become Societá Unione e Fratellanza Garibaldina. The following year FK Ferenzc, who rented the upper floor of the Italian Hall, commissioned well known Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint a mural entitled American Tropical on the south exterior wall.

A local Italian landmark, the Piuma Grocery Store was located on the corner of Main Street and the Plaza in the 1890s until the late 1960s, when the building was torn down to make a parking lot for El Pueblo Park.

Across the Plaza, in 1896 two Italians named Giuseppe Pagliano and Giuseppe Borniatico rented the Pico House. Pagliano died in 1907 leaving a widow with three children. To make ends meet, she sold all the Pico House furniture, except for two chairs; which she gave to their son Johnny and a daughter. Johnny Antonioli visited El Pueblo at the age of 82 and provided El Pueblo with the actual stuffing and a photograph of the chair and gave the Monument other very important information about how the hotel had looked during his childhood.

In 1930 Pagliano bought the hotel, by now in a state of disrepair, and he, in turn, sold it to the state of California when the decision was made in 1953 to create El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument.

With seven of the thirteen buildings on Olvera Street either built or used for long periods by Italians and the Pico House rented or owned by them for more than half a century, it seems appropriate for the Italians of today to organize together to reclaim their heritage and to create a museum in the Italian Hall, since that building was specially constructed for Italian occupancy. Now the Historic Italian Hall Foundation is hard at work planning a museum.

Further Reading: Poole, Jean Bruce and Tevvy Ball, El Pueblo: The Historic Heart of Los Angeles, Oxford University Press USA, 2002.