Frenchtown: The Forgotten History of Los Angeles’ French Community

Vineyards, sheep, dirt roads, and French restaurants. Welcome to Los Angeles in 1870. At the time, the future megalopolis was little more than a town of 10,000 inhabitants where French was the most spoken language after Spanish! A forgotten chapter revived by an amateur historian who has recently begun offering walking tours in the footsteps of L.A.’s French community.
The Hotel de Paris in Los Angeles, ca. 1888. © Los Angeles Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

The visit through French Los Angeles starts in Little Tokyo, on the corner of Commercial Street and Alameda Street. You can see the eight-lane Santa Ana Freeway and the austere façade of the Metropolitan Detention Center from the intersection. This is where Marius Taix, originally from the Hautes-Alpes département, opened a bakery in 1882, followed by a hotel and restaurant, Le Champ d’Or, in 1912. The hotel has long since closed and the restaurant has changed location. The building itself was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with a parking lot.

Marius Taix’ French restaurant ca. 1956. © Los Angeles Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

The house owned by Marseille native Joseph Mascarel, one of the three French mayors of Los Angeles, suffered the same fate. As did the Viole-Lopizich family’s pharmacy, the offices of the newspaper L’Union Nouvelle (published from 1879 through 1962), and the Amestoy Building, erected by a Basque man who arrived in 1851, and regarded as the city’s first skyscraper. “This is Los Angeles,” says tour guide, Charlotte Claire Martell de Vere, or C.C. for short. “Everything ends up being a parking lot.”

Frenchtown, the French Enclave of Los Angeles

Visitors need to use their imagination to follow the historian through the streets of Frenchtown. The neighborhood in Los Angeles, home to 4,000 people in the late 19th century, has been swallowed up by the constantly expanding city. It only really survives through its place names. Bauchet Street, for example, was named after Louis Bauchet, a former soldier under Napoleon originally from the Marne département, who was the first French settler in Los Angeles. In 1827, the future city was just a small Spanish village with 700 residents, known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de la Reina de los Angeles. The Frenchman planted a vineyard there 1831, the first in California.

The same year, another French settler planted vines on the banks of the Los Angeles River. Bordeaux-born Jean-Louis Vignes later gave his name to Vignes Street. He had vine stock of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc sent over from France to improve the quality of his wine. He then sold his products as far as San Francisco and became one of the region’s biggest landowners. In reference to the giant tree growing in the midst of his vineyard, he named his estate El Aliso (The Sycamore). Today, the name lives on in Aliso Street and the Aliso Village neighborhood.

Encouraged by Jean-Louis Vignes’ success, his three children and their families, his brother, four nephews, and several friends joined him in California. The Sainsevain brothers bought the vineyard from their uncle in 1855 and produced the very first Californian sparkling wine, helped by a former Veuve Clicquot cellar master. The newly arrived French immigrants settled near the estate, and locals soon began calling it “French Town.”

Portraits of Forgotten Figures

“There were around a dozen boarding houses run by French people on the corner of Aliso and Alameda,” says C.C. de Vere. This American woman, a descendant of French king Henri I, has become a self-styled historian of Frenchtown. Alongside her job at a car dealership, she pores over censor records, old directories, and street maps, and scours genealogy websites and the Los Angeles Public Library archives.

C.C. de Vere also writes a blog, Frenchtown Confidential, named in reference to James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential. In it she paints the portraits of forgotten figures from the French community. Lyon native Henri Penelon took the first photo of Los Angeles, and Burgundy-born Firmin Toulet opened Hollywood’s first restaurant, Frank & Musso Grill, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Entrepreneur Edouard Naud helped found the French Benevolent Society and the French Hospital, while Michel Lachenais was lynched on December 17, 1870, for three counts of murder!

The earliest photograph of Los Angeles, taken by Lyon native Henri Penelon in the 1860s. © Los Angeles Public Library/Shades of L.A. Photo Collection

“The arrival of the railway in Los Angeles during the 1870s sounded the death knell of Frenchtown,” says the tour guide. The city’s population boomed and families from the Midwest soon outnumbered French people, who were forced to sell their fields to make way for new neighborhoods. This decline was hastened by Prohibition, as winegrowers, brewers, and restaurant owners deprived of their source of income returned to France or moved to the suburbs.

Some 30 Sites Still Standing

The historian has used her discoveries to create a map of more than 500 sites linked to the French history of Los Angeles and its surrounding region. Some 30 of these sites are still visible today. A few acres of the Garnier family’s estate have been preserved in the Los Encinos State Historic Park, and Michel Leonis’ ranch is now home to the Adobe Museum in Calabasas, nestled between a highway and a residential neighborhood.

“Los Angeles doesn’t do enough to preserve its past,” says C.C. de Vere. “The Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and Japanese immigrants have museums, but the French, who once represented up to 20% of the city’s population, have nothing but a few plaques scattered here and there.” Today, who remembers that Koreatown used to be the site of Germain Pellissier’s sheep pen? Or that her grandson built the Pellissier Building, one of the city’s most beautiful Art Déco structures?