The Early Settlement
The Italian presence at El Pueblo began in 1823 when Giovanni Leandri, a native of Sardinia arrived, opened a store and built and adobe home on Calle de los Negros, adjacent to where the Plaza Firehouse currently stands. Leandri married a local Californio woman, Maria Francesca Uribe, and owned Rancho Los Coyotes, a 48,000 acre ranch in what is today Buena Park. He played a vital role in the development of the wine making and agricultural industries in early Los Angeles.
Because of the cultural similarities shared by Italians and Mexicans, Italians were welcomed in the pueblo, and did not face the discrimination that characterized their experience elsewhere in the country. Father Blas Raho, pastor of the Plaza Church in 1857, and Frank Sabichi, President of the Los Angeles City Council in 1874 best exemplify how the hospitable social climate of Los Angeles allowed its Italian residents to rise to positions of prominence within the community.
By 1869, Los Angeles had established itself as California's wine center, producing four million gallons of wine annually. Until 1877, Olvera Street was known as Calle de la Vignas or Vine Street because of the prevalence of wine making in the area. In the Plaza neighborhood alone, there were five Italian-owned wineries. Between 1855-1857, Giuseppe Covaccichi built what later became known as the Pelanconi House on Vine Street. Upon his arrival in 1853, Antonio Pelanconi (photo on the left), who hailed from the northern region of Lombardy, Italy, associated himself with vintner Giuseppe Gazzo and learned the winemaking business. Pelanconi, who would become one of the pueblo's most prominent Italian residents, later purchased the building that now bears his name and lived there with his wife Isabel Ramirez and their four children. Located at W-17 Olvera Street, the Pelanconi House is the oldest extant brick building in Los Angeles and a popular restaurant, La Golondrina. Over a nine-decade period, Antonio Valla, Giacomo Tononi, Charles Pironi and Giovanni DeMateis operated a winery on the opposite side of Olvera Street, where El Paseo Restaurant and the El Pueblo Gallery are located.
By the late 1800s, Italians owned or managed one-third of present El Pueblo Historical Monument. Secondo Guasti and Rosa Morelli operated a boarding house and restaurant in the Avila Adobe called Hotel Italia Unita. In 1883, Guasti founded the Italian Vineyard Company in Cucamonga, which at 5,000 acres, was the world's-largest vineyard at the time. Meanwhile, across the Plaza, Giuseppe Pagliano managed the Pico House, remaining the owner until 1953 when the State of California purchased the property. On the corner of Main and Commercial Streets, Giovanni Sanguinetti and Giorgio A. Vignolo, who served as city assessor from 1882-84, operated a thriving business, La Esperanza Store, which supplied the Pico House with groceries and wines.
In 1877, Ambrogio Vignolo and Antonio Pelanconi founded La Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, (Italian Mutual Benefit Society) a group that provided mutual assistance to its members and their families in times of illness, disability or in the event of a member's death. The group met regularly in the Sepulveda House on North Main Street. Following Italy's struggle for independence (1848-60), a second group formed, La Società Unione e Fratellanza Garibaldina, named for Guiseppe Garibaldi, Italy's revolutionary hero. The group provided medical care to sick and disabled members and charity to the needy. The two groups merged in 1916 to form La Società Garibaldina Di Mutua Beneficenza, an organization that exists to this day, and continues to serve the social and philanthropic needs of the community.
The Creation of a Community Center
In 1900, the Los Angeles Italian community numbered approximately 2,000. The Plaza area, present-day Chinatown, the foothills of Elysian Park and the area around the Los Angeles State Historic Park (the "Cornfield") comprised the city's "little Italy." The local Italian language newspaper, L' Eco della Colonia (which later became L'Italo Americano, also still in existence today,) and religious institutions such as St. Peter's Italian Church located on North Broadway sustained cultural loyalties. The Plaza area remained the community's center, and it was there that between 1907-08, a French woman named Marie Hammel hired the Pozzo Construction Company to build the Italian Hall on the corner of Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and North Main Street. After its completion, Ms. Hammel leased the entire upper floor to Frank Arconti, secretary of La Societa Italiana de Mutua Beneficenza to serve as the Society's headquarters. The Italian Hall was a popular site for weddings, banquets (see photo ion the right), and other social and cultural events such as the vendemmia, or fall wine harvest and weekend foot races that commenced at the Italian Hall and concluded in nearby Lincoln Heights. Pete Pontrelli's orchestra played at community dances in the Hall. Other Italian tenants of the building included Ettore Paggi, who operated a tavern on the ground floor, and the Arconti Hardware Store. Il Circolo Operaio Italiano (Italian Workers Club) was one of many emerging political groups from the multi-ethnic community that met regularly at the Hall. In the early 1900s, free speech was illegal in Los Angeles, being permitted only on a speaker's rostrum placed in the Plaza. In the years that followed, the Italian Hall hosted internationally-known figures such as Emma Goldman and the Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores-Magón who organized rallies at the Hall that drew up to 1000 people. Often, the gatherings featured multiple speakers, each representing a different ethnic group, who addressed the audience in their native language. One such rally was disrupted by the Los Angeles Police Department's notorious "Red Squad" and resulted in bloodshed. In 1930, a tenant of the Italian Hall commissioned the acclaimed Mexican muralist, Davíd Alfaro Siqueiros to paint an 80' x 18' mural entitled, America Tropical, on the south second-story exterior wall of the Hall.
In the 1930s, the Italian community, now numbering 30,000, outgrew the building, and ceased to use the Hall as a community center. However, Italians remained tenants of the Hall and an integral part of present El Pueblo Historical Demateis Winery Monument. In 1931, Lena Peluffo established an Italian restaurant, Casa de Pranzo in the Italian Hall. Four years later, Peluffo moved it to the former Italian winery on Olvera Street, and renamed the restaurant El Paseo Inn. For many years, Victoria Arconti operated a gift shop, Casa de Loza on Olvera Street. Piuma Grocery, located on the southwest corner of Main and Cesar Chavez remained a local landmark until the late 1960s when it was demolished to build a parking lot for El Pueblo. Blessing of the Animals, the mural that graces the façade of the Biscaluz Building, is the work of award-winning Italian American artist and author Leo Politi, whose affection for Olvera Street drew him to El Pueblo daily.
The War Years
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, 600,000 non-citizen Italians nationwide were branded "enemy aliens," required to register at their local post offices and carry identity cards. Italians residing in prohibited zones of Los Angeles and other parts of California received evacuation notices. Enemy aliens were subjected to an 8PM to 6AM curfew, searches of their residences and businesses, seizure of their property including boats, cameras flashlights and radios, and were barred from travel outside of a five-mile radius of their home. Aliens deemed "dangerous" were arrested; some were sent to internment camps for up to two years. The wartime violation of Italian civil liberties is referred to as Una Storia Segreta, which in Italians means, "the secret history."
The Museum Project
In 1990, the Italian community mobilized to preserve the Italian Hall and develop the facility into a museum. After raising more than a million dollars through grants from the State of California, the City of Los Angeles, The Getty Foundation and through generous donations from the Italian community, the Italian Hall was painstakingly renovated and returned to its original splendor. Today, the community waits eagerly for the opening of the Italian Hall Museum.