The mid-20th century was a time of change for Los Angeles. The advent of freeways allowed suburbs to flourish in far-flung parts of the county. Meanwhile, the Victorian-era homes in and around the city’s center gave way to towering office buildings.
In the late 1960s, as all this redevelopment was afoot, a group of volunteers formed the Cultural Heritage Foundation of Southern California. The group lobbied to save a few of the old buildings and have them moved to a city-owned property just off the 110 freeway in Montecito Heights, where they could be preserved.
Over the course of several decades, Heritage Square Museum acquired a collection of eight historic buildings, including a church, a Red Car depot and homes designed for upper, middle and working class families. It’s also home to a replica of a drug store that once existed in nearby Highland Park.
Best known for hosting popular Halloween season events like the Victorian Mourning Faire and Haunting Ghost Tours, Heritage Square collaborates with local organizations like Street Food Cinema, Cemetery Lane and Downtown Repertory Theater for special events like this year's Boo-ze, Bites & Frights outdoor double features.
"When you walk into Heritage Square Museum and go into the houses, I want you to get a feeling of what life was like then," says Kori M. Capaldi, executive director of Heritage Square Museum.
Stop by Heritage Square on a Saturday or Sunday and you’ll have the option to either take a self-guided tour of the building exteriors or one of the three docent-led tours that lead groups inside the historic structures. Either way, you’ll start your visit at the Palms Depot, which dates back to 1887 and was once where Westsiders waited for the Red Car, the long-defunct public transit system for which Los Angeles was once renowned, to zip them around town. Here, you can browse the gift shop, purchase your tour tickets and perhaps meet Belle Boy, Heritage Square’s very friendly resident cat.
One of Capaldi’s personal favorites is the Shaw House, formally known as the Valley Knudsen Garden Residence. The French-style cottage originally stood in Lincoln Heights, where it was built in the 1880s by a cabinet maker named Richard Shaw. Inside, you’ll see a lady’s sewing room, complete with a spinning wheel and an antique Singer sewing machine.
"I think that it’s interesting when people walk into the house and they see that because that’s what people did at night," Capaldi explains. "They didn’t watch TV. They weren’t on the computer. They didn’t even have a radio. They were doing handicrafts. They were doing embroidery and crocheting and knitting, spinning wool and things like that, so I think that room is really representative of a day in the life of a Victorian."
The grandest home in the museum is the Perry Mansion (aka Mt. Pleasant), which was built in Boyle Heights in 1876. The home was built for William Hayes Perry, a 19th century LA business magnate who first made his fortune in lumber, and designed by E.F. Kysor, who also designed the Pico House. Because the Perry Mansion was built before the Industrial Revolution, the intricately carved embellishments throughout the home were done by hand.
The furnishings and decor inside the Perry Mansion include pieces from the Forbes family, who had lived on 7th Street in Los Angeles during the 19th century. "The furniture has been in their family since then," Capaldi notes. That includes the portrait, trophy and key to the city of one ancestor who won the Queen of Los Angeles competition in 1896.
"When you step into Heritage Square, you’re really looking at what Los Angeles looked like in the late 19th century. You can see the different styles of architecture."
It’s an eclectic mix of architectural styles that comprise the Heritage Square collection. Next door to the Victorian Italianate Perry Mansion is the Hale House, a Victorian Queen Anne Eastlake home built in 1887 with a multi-color facade that reflects its original paint job. The Hale House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Across the way is the Octagon House, built in 1893 with a design intended to give homeowners more space and light that was quite rare in California.
Built in 1887, the Ford House was part of a housing tract built by the Beaudry Brothers in Downtown LA. The house features hand-carved decorative elements thanks to original owner John J. Ford, a renowned woodcarver who worked on the California State Capitol and Iolani Palace in Hawaii.
A delightful, unique stop on the tour is the recreation of the Colonial Drug Store founded by George Simmons in 1918. The building was funded by the Simmons family to house their immense collection of vintage medication and cosmetic products, estimated to number 85,000 to 95,000 items. Most of the artifacts were made between 1888 and 1950 and have since been discontinued.
In addition to its regular hours, the museum is also available for private events like weddings.
Heritage Square's education program, A Golden Vision is designed for third, fourth and fifth grade students to learn about LA history during the Victorian era and culminates with a field trip to the museum. The on-site School Garden shows children from the community how their food is planted, grown and cared for.