Italian Los Angeles

By Levi Clancy for לוי on

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Seven of the thirteen buildings on Olvera Street were either built or used for long periods by Italians, and Italians rented or owned Pico House for over half a century.

Since 1823 there has been an Italian presence at the Pueblo, when Giovanni Leandri opened a general store and built his home where the Plaza firehouse now stands. In 1838 Matias Sabichi who had built a home on the east side of the plaza started a saloon in the Plaza area. Both men married the daughters of local residents. The two sons were educated in Europe and both returned to Los Angeles as accomplished linguists. One son frank became an interpreter for the City Council and later rose to become President of the City Council. Another Italian, a liquor dealer named Ballerino, also owned a house on the east side of the Plaza.

Calle de Las Vignas became known as Vine Street and then Olvera Street. Here wine merchants plied their trade, growing the grapes in vineyards located close to the Pueblo, especially eastwards toward the river. Giuseppe Gazzo and Giuseppe Covaccichi operated a winery on Alameda Street just north and east of Vine or Wine Street. It is probably that Covaccichi built, between 1855-1857, what later became known as the Pelanconi House on Vine Street. His building is the oldest brick building still standing in Los Angeles.

Antonio Pelanconi, a native of Gordona, Lombardia, arrived in Los Angeles in 1853. After trying other trades, he associated himself with Gazzo and learned the wine-making business. He married Isabel Ramirez, whose father Juan owned a large part of what is now Olvera Street. Antonio purchased the building in 1871 and he and his wife and children lived there until his death in 1879. Antonio sold the winery to his partner Giuseppe Tononi in 1877 and in 1881 Tononi married Isabel, thus preserving the family heritage. Antonio and Isabel's oldest son Lorenzo became involved in wine-making and after Tononi died, Lorenzo took over the business.

Societa Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza was organized in Antonio Pelanconi's business offices in 1877. The Society had its offices and met in the Sepulveda House in Main Street until the Italian Hall was built, at which point it moved into the upstairs.

Father Blas Raho, a native of Naples, was assigned to the Plaza Church as pastor in 1857 and was described as a "genial, broadminded Italian."

Close by on Vine Street after Theodore Rimpau (who had married Francisca Avila) moved his family to the German settlement in Anaheim in 1868, the Rimpaus rented the Avila Adobe to various tenants, including Italians who managed a hotel there in the 1880s which was known as the Hotel d'Italia Unita. Another illustrious tenant was Secondo Guasti who later became an important vintner.

Around the corner on Main Street and backing onto Vine Street, a Frenchwoman named Marie Ruellan Hammel built the Italian Hall in 1907, so named because it was built for Italian occupancy. Its construction was by Pozzo Construction Comoany Some years earlier, Frank Arconti, a prominent member of Los Angeles' now-thriving Italian community, had owned a fuel and feed lot on the site. There must have been a connection between Hammel and Arconti, because as soon as it opened she leased the entire Italian Hall building to him. He was Secretary of the Societa Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, which had its offices moved to the Italian Hall upon its completion. Various Italian societies rented the building for events including the Circolo Operaio (Italian Work Circle). In 1916 the Italian Benevolent Society merged with the Garibaldina Society to become La Societa Unione e Fratellanza Garibaldina. The following year FK Ferenzc, who rented the upper floor of the Italian Hall, commissioned well-known Mexican muralist David Alvaro Siquieros to paint a mural titled American Tropical on the south exterior wall.

The Piuma Grocery Store at the corner of Main Street and the Plaza was a well-known Italian landmark since the 1890s until it was torn down for a Pueblo parking lot in the 1960s.

In 1896, Pico House was rented by Italians Giuseppe Pagliano and Giuseppe Borniatico. Pagliano died in 1907, leaving a widow with three children. To make ends meet, she sold all the Pico House furniture except for two chairs, which she gave to their son Johnny and a daughter. Johnny Antonioli visited El Pueblo at the age of 82 and provided the actual stuffing and a photograph of the chair. Also he gave the Monument very important information about how Pico House had looked during his childhood. In 1930, Pagliano bought the dilapidated hotel and he sold it to the State of California when in 1953 it was decided to create El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument.