On the surface, Olvera Street is vibrant and colorful with an authentic marketplace atmosphere. But dig deeper and find the culture.
You’ll find shops and restaurants selling brightly colored piñatas, candles, maracas, blankets and clothing. Musicians perform in the outdoor plaza. Olvera Street is a beautiful reminder of the origins of the City of Los Angeles.
Growing up in California, I didn’t spend a lot of time around downtown Los Angeles, but as an adult, I’ve really enjoyed exploring L.A. With every visit I like it more and more. It’s a culturally diverse city with a fantastic food and wine scene and some of the best museums in the world.
My most recent trip took me to Olvera Street, Union Station, and the oldest standing residence in the city, the Francisco Avila Adobe.
This is where the City of Angels had its start.
Here are a few facts about Olvera Street, and the area known as El Pueblo De Los Angeles:
The area was settled in 1781 by the Spanish, who were in power until Mexico asserted itself and took over the pueblo. The first houses and adobe structures, the parish church, and the first streets were built during this period.
By the 1880’s, the railroad brought a massive influx of immigrants, mainly from Mexico. It continued to be the center of civic life until after the Gold Rush, when the area fell on hard times.
In the 1920s a woman from San Francisco, Christine Sterling, was interested in the history and sociocultural value of the area. She drafted a plan to save the Adobe and plaza from demolition and turn Olvera Street into a tourist attraction.
Sterling is responsible for Olvera Street and the restoration of the Avila Adobe as it is today.
Without her determination, the Adobe and surrounding buildings would likely be dust in the wind.
With funding from the wealthy citizens of Los Angeles and hard physical labor provided by prisoners from the county jails, the restoration was completed. In 1929 the street was officially closed to traffic and in 1930, Paseo de Los Angeles officially opened.
In 1953 is was listed as a historic monument with the City of Los Angeles.
Reading this quote from Sterling’s diary made me laugh out loud:
“One of the prisoners is a good carpenter, another an electrician. Each day I pray they will arrest a bricklayer and a plumber.”
Not only did this woman have vision, she had a sense of humor, though I’m sure she was quite sincere in her prayers. She lived in the Avila Adobe until her death in 1963.
For more information on celebrations and cultural activities in the area, read:
Across the street – Union Station
Just across the road from Olvera Street is the beautiful and imposing Union Station.
Train stations rank high on my list of cool buildings and spaces. I love the feeling of adventure and freedom I get upon walking into a train station. One of my bucket list items is to ride a train from Los Angeles to New York and get off at all the interesting stops in between. Trains are a wonderful way to slow travel . Though not every train station is an architectural treasure, Union Station in Los Angeles definitely is. Inside and out, it epitomizes a time when rail travel was the norm in the United States, and travel, in general, occurred at a more relaxed pace.
Union Station was built in 1939 and was the last of the “Grand” stations built.
The design is Spanish Mission Revival combined with Streamline Modern Art Deco. The exterior (white stucco with a red tile roof) and the gardens reflect the influence of Spain in California’s history.
Inside Union Station, the archways and terra cotta tile floors carry out the Spanish design. The floors are so highly polished you can see your reflection in them, adding to the vast feeling of the space, though this station is one of the smaller stations built.
Spanish style mixes with streamline modern design elements throughout the waiting area. Get comfy in a huge leather seat, much like a club chair with a book or your laptop. Union Station was built in an era when design didn’t seem to sacrifice to economy, even if it was built during the Great Depression.
I wandered into a bar that looked like it was straight out of a film noir; wood veneers, all dark and cozy, with a few intimate tables scattered about.
Union Station is in the heart of historic downtown Los Angeles and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. If you go, plan to spend about half a day or more there, enjoying the sights. Have lunch on Olvera Street and then explore Union Station for yourself!
Where is your favorite train station?
If you enjoy historic walks read my post on Historic Downtown Los Angeles.
All content and photographs copyright Penny Sadler 2012.