Earlier this year, we spent several weekends exploring some of the neighborhoods and buildings around “old” Los Angeles – the area in and around which the city of Los Angeles was founded. Some amazing locations with a rich history can be found in this area, including Union Station, the Hall of Justice, the Sepulveda House and the oldest house in Los Angeles, the Avila Adobe. It was during this time, one building in particular across from Olvera Street caught our eye – the Pico House, located at 430 N. Main St, which is part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles National Monument. We decided to arrange for a tour of the location to see if we could learn more about its history and perhaps, its hauntings.
When the Pico House (Casa de Pico) opened in 1870, it was the most luxurious hotel not only in Los Angeles, but also south of San Francisco. Built on the southwest corner of the Los Angeles Plaza (currently known as the “Old Plaza”), the Italianate style hotel designed by architect Ezra Keysor boasted indoor plumbing, opulent gas-powered chandeliers, a fountained courtyard, an aviary and a French restaurant. At that time, Los Angeles was a relatively small but growing city and the Plaza was the epicenter. Los Angeles was still in a transitional phase, 20 years after its incorporation as an American city after the ending of the Mexican-American war.
The streets around the Plaza were not only filled with businesses and elite members of society but they were also subject to a certain “wild west” lawlessness. Brothels, gambling halls and saloons were prevalent and many different cultures co-existed within a few blocks of each other under an atmosphere of racial tension. Vigilantism was not uncommon as vigilance committees or “lynch mobs” took to the streets, taking the law into their own hands.
Wealthy businessman and one time Governor, Don Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor under Alta California, built the Pico House with funds he obtained from selling off a portion of his land grants. The lavish new hotel was a success, upstaging it’s rival hotel, the Bella Union. But the success did not last long.
Racial tensions in the city came to a head with the Chinese Massacre of 1871, which occurred in and around the Calle De Los Negros adjacent to the Plaza and spilled into the Plaza as, by varying accounts, 18 to 23 Chinese men and boys were brutally murdered by an angry mob of whites and Mexicans. An employee of the Pico House at the time later recalled the scene: “The street was a madhouse of frenzied, armed men and terrified, stampeding horses. From the entrance of the Pico House I could see a mass of men flocking toward the Aliso street opening of Nigger’s Alley [sic] and heard a steady roar of guns. I remember one fellow, big, hatless and coatless, with bulging maniacal eyes as he ran passed us, brandishing huge butcher’s axes.”- (Michael M. Rice, I Saw the Wild West Tamed!, Los Angeles Times, May 13 1934, G12).
After the riots, and with the influx of people brought in by the railway, the town’s business center began to move southward and the neighborhood degenerated into seediness over a period of years.
Pio Pico was known for throwing lavish parties and being a heavy gambler as well as having a penchant for the ladies. His signature cane displayed an ivory female leg poised in the air. In addition to his extravagant lifestyle, the financial strain of some bad investments along with his falling victim to the fraudulent dealings of other businessmen helped contribute to his eventual loss of wealth.
As the neighborhood and his fortune declined, Don Pio continued to entertain at the Pico House for 10 years until 1880, when he lost his hotel to foreclosure. The building became a flophouse and spent many years in decline before eventually passing into California State hands in 1953. Today, the Pico House belongs to El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument and is both a California and National Historic Landmark.
Given the rich history of the building and the surrounding neighborhood, it is not surprising that some believe the Pico House may be haunted. As we learned on our tour, which included the three main floors, the inner courtyard, the basement and tunnels and the adjacent old Merced Theater, security staff have reported hearing mysterious footsteps from the upper floors late at night and seeing shadow figures leaning over the balconies of the inner courtyard. Perhaps Don Pio Pico himself is still entertaining guests in his beloved hotel. With regard to the living, tours of the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District can be arranged here: El Pueblo de Los Angeles National Historic Monument .
Additional Photos from our tour: