Friday, November 18, 2022

The Oldest House in LA

By Nancy J. Farrier


Avila House, Wikimedia Commons

Tourists who visit Los Angeles enjoy going to Olvera Street, a short block full of touristy shops and cultural foods. I’ve been there and meandered through the shops to the sounds of Hispanic music and the noise of visitors. About the middle of the block is a charming home—the Avila House. The plaque on the house says it’s been there for almost 200 years. 


In 1818, Don Francisco Jose Avila, a ranchero and alcalde or mayor of Los Angeles, began to build a house in town. Many of the rancheros lived outside the town, but would keep homes closer to town so they could have friends over or for when they attended church. Don Francesco Avila was known for his hospitality when he entertained friends and family.


Church on Olvera Street
Photo by Pedro Szekely, Wikimedia Commons
Don Avila lived in the house with his wife, Encarnacion, and his two daughters. The
original home was much more spacious than the restored house on Olvera Street today. Don Avila’s house, made of sun-baked adobe bricks, had walls 2 ½ to 3 feet thick. The ceilings were 15 feet high and supported by cottonwood beams. They used natural tar from the Brea tar pits mixed with rocks and horsehair to coat and seal the roof. In the back they had a vineyard, one of many in the area. 


In 1832, Don Avila died. He had been 50 when he married 15-year-old Encarnacion. She and her two daughters continued to live in the Avila house. During the Mexican-American war, Robert “Fighting Bob” Stockton, a U.S. Navy Commander, commandeered the Avila House for a military headquarters. After Encarnacion’s death, her daughters lived in the house until 1868. 


Over the next few decades, the Avila house was rented out, made into a restaurant and became a rooming house for transients. I found conflicting accounts about the date when the Avila House was condemned and slated to be torn down, 1926, 1928, or 1932. The house had declined to the point where it wasn’t habitable.


Christine Sterling

That’s when socialite, Christine Sterling moved to Los Angeles. She loved the city and enjoyed looking at the older areas. She went to the street where the Avila house was, now a grimy alley filled with sewage, and popular with transients and criminals. Christine read the notice condemning the building and began a massive and successful campaign to save the Avila House. 


Today the Avila House is a museum, decorated as the home would have been in 1840. The only original piece of furniture is a black, lacquered table, thought to be a gift to Francisco when he married Encarnacion.


Many visiting dignitaries, movie stars and celebrities have visited the Avila House. Senator John Kennedy is reported to have stepped on the horseshoe at the entryway between the chapel and the kitchen and said, “I wish to be President.” Other famous people have been entertained there in years past.

One of my books starts out in Olvera Street and mentions the Avila House. Read about it below:

The Ranchero's Gift

When Maya Garza’s step-father drags her to the cantina, planning to auction her off to cover his debts, she is desperate to escape. She sees no hope as she stands atop the table with a room full of men leering at her. Yaniv Madrigal is searching for his brother, and he can’t believe his eyes when he finds him bidding for a young woman. A woman who has the look of a trapped animal. Yaniv is even more shocked when he outbids his brother. Will Maya ever be free? Will Yaniv make peace with what he’s done? Find the book here


Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning, best-selling author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats and dog, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today! It's so interesting to find the history of houses and land.