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Marie Harrington by Marie Harrington

Andres Pico Adobe

 

Andres Pico Adobe
The restored Andres Pico Adobe as it looked in 1932

 

At the confluence of Sepulveda and Brand Blvd. in Mission Hills is located the second oldest home in Los Angeles City - the Andres Pico Adobe, the original part of which was built by the ex-San Fernando Mission Indians in 1834.

The long and interesting story of this landmark starts with conjectures as to what the original building was used for, whether a storehouse, a workman's living quarters or merely a toolshed is open to question for the adobe building with its 30-inch thick-walls was located in the center of the ex-mission orchards and surrounding vineyards. Certain it is that use was being made of it when Don Andres Pico leased the entire San Fernando Valley in 1845 to run cattle. Other cattle belonging to Don Andres were already up in the Antelope Valley roaming around La Liebre and surrounding sections but the don needed more room nearer to the pueblo. His tenure was short-lived due to the Mexican War breaking out the following year and his governor brother, Don Pio Pico, being forced to sell the valley to raise funds for the war. He sold the valley for the munificent sum of $14,000 to a Spanish merchant, Eulogio de Celis whose Los Angeles home was opposite the Bella Union Hotel site. It is believed that Don Eulogio made the first additions to the adobe on his new land. But in a few years he returned to Spain and never came back to California although his descendants did.

Romulo & Catarina
Romulo Pico, adopted son of Andres with his wife Catarina

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Before de Celis departed these shores, Andres Pico acquired an undivided half interest in the valley which included the adobe house and the old mission close by. This was in 1853, the same year that the first railroad survey was made. A well known sketch shows nothing in the vast valley except the mission with some trees to the south in which the adobe may have been hidden while in the lower right hand corner an Indian in a cactus patch is picking the ripe tunas or cactus fruit.

 

Don Andres Pico
Portrait of Don Andres Pico, first resident of the adobe,
who leased the San Fernando Valley to run cattle.

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Don Andres decided the little adobe house was not large enough to entertain the many guests he delighted to receive, being a most convivial soul. The mission was more to his fancy and there he made his country headquarters for the next 20 years or so. The house he turned over to his adopted son, Romulo and his wife, Catarina. Artists especially were royally entertained by Don Andres and some of the striking paintings of James Walker showing cattle drives, etc. were painted in the valley while he was a guest at the mission.

The transition of California from a Mexican province to a territory of the United States had been accepted better by Don Andres than by his governor-brother, who had left for Mexico at the beginning of hostilities. Don Andres was well-liked by the Americanos despite the memories of the trouncing he and his California Lancers had given General Kearney at San Pasqual. He became a member of the State Assembly in 1851; a presidential elector in 1852; received the title of Brigadier General in the California Militia in 1858 and became a State senator in 1860. In later years he may have settled down and been content to become a ranchero.

circa 1876
The Andres Pico Adobe circa 1876, Romulo is at the right.

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Due to his close association with the American scene, one supposes that he paid more than a little attention to the Victorian homes being built from Sacramento to Los Angeles. Memories of the wooden ornamentation of these new homes may have had something to do with his decision to add a second story to the adobe building plus putting in wooden floors and other woodwork. This work was supposedly done in 1873 the same year he sold all his valley interests except for 100 acres called the "Pico Reserve" to George H. Porter. Three years later Don Andres passed away at the Los Angeles home on Main Street, but Romulo and Catarina continued to live at "Ranchita Romulo" (Romulo's Little Ranch) for many more years. They finally moved to Los Angeles, but kept a room (now the library) for occasional return trips to the valley. The property was rented to various families the next few years. Old pictures show there was an olive grove and citrus plantings during this period. Water was not a problem as there were artesian wells on the property. Early settlers in the San Fernando Valley had found the lack of sufficient water a problem.

Deterioration of the adobe set in during the early years of the 20th century. By 1927 the beautiful and sad old landmark was practically abandoned except for Weary Willies who occasionally spent a night within its walls. Bit by bit, door jambs, window frames, lintels and roof shingles disappeared until just a shell remained of the building. Treasure hunters began to dig up the walls as they had been told of buried treasure in jars filled with trinkets found there in earlier times. They also dug fruitlessly for the supposed "tunnel" that connected the house to the mission.

So it was that in 1928, Mark R. Harrington, newly arrived from New York to become curator of the Southwest Museum, one day visited the San Fernando Valley. He saw the poor old ruin shamefully standing in the middle of waist-high weeds. It was a case of love at first sight. M.R. and his wife, Endeka, wanted a Spanish-type home and wished to save a landmark. In checking the deed to the location they found the property was owned by the Lopez Estate having been purchased years earlier by Josť Jesus Lopez. He was for many years mayordomo of the vast Beale properties on the Tejon. In 1930, M.R. purchased 30 acres of the Reserve from Dona Louisa McAlonen, one of the four remaining Lopez daughters of Don Geronimo, a San Fernando pioneer.

Reconstruction
Ruins of the Andres Pico Adobe during reconstruction

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Of the countless articles appearing in magazines and newspapers regarding the restoration work, M.R.'s succinct statement in his usual style was simply: "When I took over the Romulo Pico house about 1930 the walls were still standing, but the roof, stairway, doors, windows, and many of the window and door frames were missing; also most of the cross beams and most of the floor. I did not 'rebuild' the walls, but I did replace three or four layers of adobe blocks around the top of the walls, the originals having been damaged by the weather. I put in new timbers, new floors, and a new staircase. I regard the main building as having been built in the Mission period - probably early 1830's, the wings possibly added by the Picos.

When they restored the house in the 1870's, they used smaller cross beams to uphold the upper floor than the originals, the holes of which we discovered as we replastered the walls. They used wooden floors, but beneath what remained of their living room floor, I found the remains of an original floor of mission tiles.

The only changes I made were to build an addition to the north wing of the house; put a fireplace in the living room (only the dining room had one originally), rebuild the patio walls and build a garage.

A friend, who lived with her family at Pico Court, the Mexican housing complex owned by the citrus packing plant, tells how as a small girl she and her school friends played in the ruins of the adobe and heard moans coming from the location of the present south bedroom on the second floor.

Old timers have told me the only error I made in my restoration was the position of the stairway (in the living room). I have it first running south to north, then west to east. The old one, Benito Pico told me (supposedly an adopted son of the Picos) ran straight from east to west against the north wall of the sala.

The house as it stands today is just as it must have been when Andres and Romulo Pico restored it except for my addition of the north wing.

Reconstruction
Andres Pico Adobe during reconstruction

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The adobe is a typical Monterey-type ranch house with long shady corridors on both front and back sections. During Romulo Pico's tenure the south end of the front corridor was latticed and the winter supply of squash, melons and other produce kept there. The patio is located at the rear and until the late 1950's was planted to gardens. The entire patio is now cemented for pleasant entertaining of large groups of various functions. M.R. had been told there never had been a fountain in the patio - imagine a Latin patio without one - but in his excavations he found the old fountain foundations and reconstructed it.

He planted the eucalypti fronting Sepulveda Blvd. and the north boundary of the property. The large eucalyptus trees at the south end of the house became diseased in recent years and most of them had to be cut down. I had an expert of the Parks and Recreation check the tree rings and found the tree to be just under 100 years of age. M.R. also planted five acres of lemons in front of the adobe and joined the Sunkist family whose lemon packing house still stands cater corner from the mission.

It took about a year to bring the old landmark back to life. One can't help but wonder how M.R. ever accomplished what he did when he was away so much of the time on Southwest Museum expeditions. He was fortunate to have expert help in such fields as tile and ironwork; the adobe bricks being made on the spot from a pit dug in the rear of the adobe. When all the work was finished, the home had been termed as one of the outstanding houses in America. Here, M.R.'s son John grew up from a small boy until he left for college. John's memories of the adobe have been published in newspapers and magazines years later. Endeka's niece, Berdie, now the wife of Iron Eyes Cody, also spent a portion of her growing years at the adobe.

Reconstruction
Replacing roof beams after build-up of adobe brick on ruined walls

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As with any old California landmark, ghost stories abound to the delight of visiting children. M.R. used to tell many tales of hearing footsteps coming up the stairs at night, but of no one being there; of drawers of the Pico desk being pulled open (the desk is now in my study, but the drawers remain closed), and of a guitar being played in the dining room at night, and of Catarina sitting under the staircase and sewing. Certainly not a ghost, but a real-life person, was Tiburcio Vasquez who visited the adobe late one night while several guest were asleep. They were all sleeping in the long upstairs room, now a museum room. Tiburcio left early the following morning. When one of the guests asked Romulo who that man was who came in late, Romulo nonchalantly answered: "Oh, that was Tiburcio Vasquez." No member of the family was ever bothered by the bandit. His trunk which he gave to friends in Barrel Springs is now in the museum room along with some of the iron utensils found in it.

Among the old papers relating to the adobe, a notice from the Department of Building and Safety said of the 1933 earthquake: "No adobe cracks at all and only one plaster crack in the kitchen." The structure was not so fortunate in the 1971 disaster. The entire building suffered plaster cracks, the City removing the chimney. A section of wall in the office separated, but this may have been from an old crack. Condemnation signs were placed on all the doors and it was many weeks before anyone was allowed inside the house. But I am getting a little ahead of the story.

Considerable time was spent looking for authentic pieces of furniture and china to outfit the house. Cabinets in the kitchen were built to hide the refrigerator and washing machine, otherwise modernity in the kitchen had to be acknowledged. The Ranchito Romulo was becoming a nostalgic memento of the past. During the early days of World War II a camp was located south of the property where a Mexican labor camp had formerly been. The dining room of the adobe was opened to the soldiers who found it a haven as a reading room in their free hours.

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A March 5, 1932 invoice from Theodore Payne, veteran Los Angeles seedsman and nurseryman listed plants, shrubs and vegetables that M.R. ordered for the grounds. Listed were California Cherry, California Lilac, Fremontia, Yellow Flowering Currant, both tree and Matilija poppies, as well as other natives such as wild rose, Woolly Blue Curls, Tree Lupine and California Fuschia. Ordered also were both green pod and California wax beans, chayote, leek, Golden Bantam corn, peas and Lima beans. Early Crawford and Hale peach trees were also ordered. A grape arbor was located running west from the kitchen area and a small chicken yard was constructed at the rear of the adobe. Not a single trace of these plantings remain today, save for olive and eucalypti trees.

Finally, in 1945, M.R. decided to sell his beloved ranchito to friends, Dr. and Mrs. G. M. Lindblad. The Lindblads continued the tradition of gracious living and entertaining for which the ranchito had become known. They replaced the roof with terracotta tiles since sparks had burned the redwood shake shingles around the chimneys. Not happy with flaking whitewash on the inner walls, they were sandblasted, coated with layers of cement paint and a final coat of cream beige paint. Whitewash, applied to the ceiling to give more light, was scraped off and a natural wood stain applied. In the mid-1950's Dr. Lindblad received a teaching position from a university in Holland and once again the adobe was put up for sale.

During the succeeding years there were several short-term owners of the adobe who bought the property chiefly for speculation. Finally in 1957 the North Valley Y.M.C.A. was given funds to purchase five acres and the adobe became their headquarters, changing the appearance. The format of the rooms was changed to accommodate officers and meeting rooms. In 1965 the local newspaper reported that the Y.M.C.A. wished to sell the property with its valuable Sepulveda Blvd. frontage. The San Fernando Valley Historical Society, alarmed that the adobe might be demolished, spearheaded a drive to save the landmark. For over two years they valiantly sponsored many money-making affairs, but the asking price could not be met. It was then that Councilman Louis Nowell, in whose First District the property was located, became interested. After negotiations, he was successful in having the City of Los Angeles purchase the two and one-half acres facing Sepulveda Blvd., including the adobe. The Y.M.C.A. retained the remaining half of the property facing Columbus Blvd., and commenced work on a new headquarters building on the site.

This landmark owned by the City of Los Angeles since 1968 is administered by the Department of Parks and Recreation and run by the San Fernando Valley Historical Society under contract. Immediately restoration work was undertaken to bring the Andres Pico adobe back to its original condition. The volunteer labor was undertaken by society members. They had no more settled down to hard work when the 1971 earthquake struck the valley. The long uphill climb to restore the building began all over again. It was slow work, but once again the adobe is a living monument to the valley's past.

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Gifts of authentic furniture, china, silver, costumes and numerous other artifacts were given by devoted friends until the adobe is now almost completely furnished in the Victorian period in which the Picos lived.

In 1970 the Mark R. Harrington Library was dedicated in the room that had been M.R.'s original study. This affair and the Westerners Fandango that year were the last social affairs attended by Mark R. Harrington. Just a year following the dedication he passed on. Today the library honoring his name specializes in valley and California history and many individuals and students do historical research there all year long.

The library is only one of the many interests of the Society. It carries on a year round program of tours, monthly meeting, summer Sunday breakfasts in the patio, plus gala affairs such as Rancho Days, Cascarone Breakfast and Las Posadas. Costumed docents greet visitors on weekends and give group tours by appointment.

plaque

Honors have come to this landmark now in its 142nd year. A plaque was awarded by the Department of the Interior. A Letter from Harold L. Ickes, then Secretary of the Interior said in part: "It is possible . . . to record in a graphic way before it is too late, the exact appearance of these buildings and their surroundings. This is the purpose of the Historic American Buildings Survey." It was this 1935 survey that named the adobe as "one of the most outstanding homes in America," and drawings and pictures were made during the survey and are now in the Library of Congress.

In 1936 the Native Daughters of the Golden West - California Parlor, placed a plaque at the building followed by a fiesta and barbecue. The Cultural Heritage Board of Los Angeles declared it a historic landmark in September 1962, placing a plaque beside the older one. The Andres Adobe is now registered as California State Landmark No. 362.

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Reprinted from The Branding Iron,
December 1976, Number 124
by the
San Fernando Valley Historical Society,
1977
by permission of the
Los Angeles Corral of Westerners.

 

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San Fernando Valley Historical Society

Andres Pico Adobe * Box 7039/10940 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills, CA 91346 * 818 365-7810