The city of Los Angeles wasn't even supposed to exist. The southern west coast of the United States was a barren wasteland lacking water and transportation. But of course, with the help of innovative minds and financial backing it came to life, and has evolved quite extensively throughout its history. The tale of Los Angeles' oldest house just so happens to hold much in common with the origins of its hometown.
There's a lot that can be learned about Los Angeles from the history of the Avila Adobe – LA's oldest house. The two histories tend to go hand in hand as a story of land getting passed through the generations to multiple ethnicities, who took their respective power and left their own unique touch on the area. While Los Angeles shouldn't have existed in the first place, the unusual thing about the Avila Adobe is not that it came to be, but that it still exists today.
Built in 1818, as a part of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, the Avila Adobe was home to a ranchero family, amidst a time when ranchers dominated the town. Francisco Avila was the head of household and a native of Sinaloa, Mexico. Prior to the building of the Adobe, he became mayor of Los Angeles in 1810, according to the Avila Adobe Museum.
The next approximate century saw the Avila Adobe take on many forms. These forms included a hotel, a housing lodging – slightly different – and a temporary home for US troops and Commodore Robert F. Stockton.
"When there was the Mexican-American war, this was actually one of the Americans, one of their headquarters for a while, so it's very significant because it's not only Mexican but it's also American," said Angeliz.
Still, at the end of the day, much of the first century of its existence was spent vacant and unattended. The Avila Adobe had now been through Mexican, Spanish and American control and it was as clear as day that it was withering. There was no telling if it could stand the test of time.
As the 1920's started encroaching on the 1930's, Los Angeles began neglecting the area where the Adobe stood, leaving it unwatched and unsanitary. It needed an upgrade and no help beckoned. Well that was before one woman would intervene to revive the Avila Adobe and its surrounding area.
"In 1930, Christine Sterling – the one that made up Olvera Street – because of her we have the Avila Adobe. She was the one that actually saved it because it was about to get demolished. Because of her they ended up stopping it and then they ended up making it a museum," said Avila Adobe tour guide Angeliz.
Sterling was a local who saw the area in the same light that the city did, but she chose to proactively attempt to save it. Thanks to her connections with community leaders she brought the Avila Adobe back to life and truly transformed Olvera Street, where the house stood, into a Mexican marketplace. By the 1930's, the public was entranced by the newest tourist attraction that celebrated and exhibited Mexican culture and heritage. It became not only a place of history, but a place of pride.
"It is (a place of pride) probably because you're going back to the Californians' days. We're talking about 1818, so," explained Angeliz, referencing how far back the Avila Adobe represents Mexican history and struggle. Fellow tour guide, Alfred Corona said it best, "I mean, this is where they founded Los Angeles." It has an indigenous history, along with the obvious Mexican one.
After the area was revitalized and flourishing it was recognized as a special area by the California and purchased by the state in 1953, much in thanks to Francisco Avila's descendent, Sophie Rimpau. Even decades later, the Avila's were contributing to the success, maintenance and prosperity of their original land.
Mrs. Sterling took up residence in the very Avila Adobe she saved, until her passing in 1963. While it was a time of mourning, she was fondly remembered for how much she had done for the house and the area, including bringing "special groups and school children" to the Avila's home. Unfortunately, less than a decade later, the Avila Adobe would face its biggest obstacle to date and its largest degree of adversity.
The flow of tourism and school children ceased in 1971 after the Sylmar earthquake came to town. The very walls and roof, re-established by Sterling, were now weak and almost beyond repair. Avila Adobe's doors would be closed for five years, but yet again the town rallied around its oldest house and by 1976 the restoration was virtually completed. In July 1977, the Avila Adobe completed its most recent and last – for now – revitalization to date. Los Angeles' oh-so important landmark was open again and had been not only established as a museum to the public, but was refurnished as to exemplify the very living conditions of the original Avila's of the 1800's.
Now in 2015, anyone can walk right through the Avila Adobe's side entrance and explore the house for free. There are carts and barrels and cacti. There are vineyards that, as was recently reported, are 150 years old. The house itself is now 197 years old and looks sure to make it to two centuries. As early as the 1920's this wouldn't have been fathomable.
Even 197 years later, the Avila Adobe represents so much to Los Angeles' people and the city's history. It's been the home and pathway for Native Americans, Americans, Mexicans, Spaniards, Chinese and many more. It is a symbol, hallmark and home base of west coast Mexican heritage and culture. It is a symbol of adversity and community activism and strength. There is seldom a place with as much history as the Avila Adobe, let alone a place with so much to learn from. On Olvera Street, the market place is open seven days a week, and there you'll find the Avila Adobe, still standing after unsanitary neglect, an earthquake, and almost 200 years.