Thursday, April 24, 2008
Attorney MacDonald Represents Olvera Street Grinch
By ROGER M. GRACE
Christine Sterling is widely remembered as the woman whose dogged campaign resulted in the converting of Olvera Street—“birthplace of Los Angeles”—from the muddy, trash-ridden alley it had become into the colorful marketplace it has been since the early 1930s. Far less known is the name of Constance D. Simpson...the woman who tried to block the development.
Who was this grinch? She was a property owner whose structure had a frontage of 235 feet on Olvera Street, at the southwest end, extending west to Main Street. Simpson complained that since the closing of the street to vehicles, she and her tenants (engaged in business and light industry) were denied access.
Her lawyer was J. Wiseman MacDonald, the current focus of this column, in a series on the original 1896 tenants of the Wilcox Building, at Second and Spring Streets. By this point, MacDonald had long been practicing out of an office in the Higgins Building, one building to the east.
MacDonald on Jan. 2, 1930, filed an action on Simpson’s behalf against the city to enjoin enforcement of a Sept. 3, 1929 ordinance, which became effective Oct, 12. The ordinance declared it to be “unlawful for the operator of any vehicle to drive out of or upon Olvera Street,” located north of the plaza. The ordinance was essential to the fulfillment of Sterling’s dream, expressed in a letter to the City Council, of “a typical Spanish-Mexican street where the Mexican people in costume can sell their wares under bright-colored awnings and canopies—coffee tables out on the sidewalk—street musicians—flower markets and all of the charm and picturesqueness of Mexico and Spain.”
MacDonald’s theory was the ordinance impermissibly intruded upon Simpson’s property rights through the guise of an exercise of the city’s police power to control traffic.
Olvera Street, which is only 525 feet long, was dedicated May 3, 1877. It was named after Agustin Olvera, the first county judge of Los Angeles (serving from 1850-53). Originally shorter, and denominated “Wine Street,” its pre-statehood structures included the Avila Adobe which Gen. John C. Fremont, as military governor of California, in 1847 used as his headquarters. (Fremont was to become one of the first two U.S. senators from California, in 1850, and was the first Republican candidate for president in 1856.)
The Los Angeles Times’ Jan. 3 edition quotes Sterling—who had taken up residence in the adobe—as commenting that the beautification efforts “will enable Mrs. Simpson to double her rents.”
Nonetheless, the litigation proceeded.
The city was represented by Deputy Los Angeles City Attorney Richard Kitzmiller. Acting for the Plaza de Los Angeles Corporation, which financed and managed the project, were MacDonald’s fellow Scotch-Americans MacIntyre Faries, who would later become a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, and his brother David.
I remember MacIntyre Faries. When I covered meetings of the El Pueblo Commission for the Herald-Examiner in 1971-72, he was a member of that dysfunctional state-county-city body (later replaced by a city commission). Olvera Street was the commission’s main concern.
Had it not been for Faries’ success in the courts in the 1930s—and MacDonald’s corresponding failure—the development of a leading downtown Los Angeles tourist attraction would not have then have occurred. Whether it would later have come about, and whether, far more significantly, the historic structures on Olvera Street would have endured up to 1971, or to this day, is anyone’s guess.
Can it be conceived that the Avila Adobe, generally believed to be the oldest dwelling place in the city, would by now have been long demolished had that litigation gone differently? Well, yes. Even after the street came under government protection, the integrity of that structure was violated. I recall Mark Russek, director of the El Pueblo Commission at the time I was covering it, telling me how tears had streamed from his eyes recently as trucks carted away the original adobe bricks comprising the back wall…treated as junk…preparatory to a stronger fortification being erected.
The seriousness of the threat posed by Simpson’s action is seen when it’s considered that MacDonald won in the Court of Appeal.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Walter S. Gates on Feb. 18, 1930, overruled demurrers to the complaint. Although he had done some fact-finding on his own—visiting Simpson’s property on Olvera Street—the jurist said he couldn’t presently determine whether the ordinance was “unreasonable and void.”
The case came before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Caryl Sheldon for decision in January, 1931, with the hearing stretching over 11 court days. I’ll pick up at that point next week.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company
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