Bella Union Hotel Site

300 Block of North Main Street. California Historical Landmark 656
Plaque at this location states:
"Near this spot stood the Bella Union Hotel, long a social and political center. Here, on October 7, 1858, the first Butterfield Overland Mail stage from the east arrived 21 days after leaving St. Louis. Warren Hall was the driver, and Waterman Ormsby, a reporter, the only through passenger."
This inscription on a plaque installed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation emphasizes only 23 of the buildings 105 year history, dismisses its importance during the Mexican period and ignores the 65 years when it was known as the St. Charles Hotel. The plaque implies that Los Angeles is without a history until it was conquered by the United States and what is worth remembering is progress as displayed by the westward advance of American civilization.

The history of the building, however, represents a more complex record of the changing character of the area. Constructed in 1835 as the home of Isaac Williams, a New England merchant who moved to Los Angeles three years earlier, the one story adobe became the last capitol of Alta California during the Mexican era when Governor Pio Pico purchased it for his office.

After the conquest of Los Angeles by American forces in 1847, the building was used by Lt. Archibald Gillespie, who commanded the occupying forces. Later it housed American troops, and after they left, it became a saloon. By early 1850, the building was operating as the Bella Union Hotel. Later that year, it became the county's first courthouse and beginning in 1858, it was the region's transportation hub. The Overland Mail Company operated by John Butterfield (the founder of American Express) rented space for a station until it built new quarters in 1860 at Second and Spring--the present location of Mirror Building. The Wells, Fargo and Company also had their office here and Phineas Banning operated coaches to Wilmington and San Bernardino from the hotel.

Reflecting the transformation of Main Street, a second story was added to the Bella Union in 1851 and a third story was added in 1869. In 1873, further improvements were made and the name of the hotel was changed to the Clarendon. Two years later, its name was changed for the last time when it became the St. Charles Hotel. During the last decades of its existence, the St. Charles was a low price lodging house, serving an increasingly poorer and diverse population. In 1940, this historic building was demolished for a parking lot.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, December 1997.

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