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The Birth, Decline and Resurrection of a Community Center

Site History of the Italian Hall
Juan Ramirez, the father of Isabel Ramirez Pelanconi, was the first recorded owner of the parcel of land where the Italian Hall would later be built. The city’s original aqueduct, the "Zanja Madre" (mother ditch), ran diagonally across the property and provided an abundant supply of water to Ramirez’ adjacent vineyard.

In 1856, Ramirez sold the property to the City of Los Angeles, which built the Bath Street School, the city’s second public school, on the site. The school is pictured in the upper far left of the photo.

When the Bath Street School closed, Italian immigrant Frank Arconti opened a farm supply and hardware store on the site. During that time, many Italian families had established businesses and lived in the area.

Isaias Hellman, pictured here, and businessman Henry Hammel later acquired the property. Hellman was a German-Jewish immigrant who co-founded Farmers and Merchants Bank and Wells Fargo Bank. He was also one of the founders of the University of Southern California (USC). Hammel's former ranch comprises much of the present-day City of Beverly Hills.

After Henry Hammel died, his wife Marie assumed ownership of the property. Marie noticed that the Italian community was growing and, in 1907, with Frank Arconti's encouragement, commissioned the construction of a two-story, yellow brick structure. The building was named the Italian Hall and was designed to serve as a gathering place for the Italian community.

The company Marie Hammel chose to build the Italian Hall, Pozzo Construction, was founded in 1882 by Pietro Pozzo. By 1913, Pozzo Construction had completed over 300 projects throughout the city, including two of the earliest buildings at UCLA, pictured here, and the foundation for Los Angeles City Hall. Pozzo Construction’s expert craftsmanship is evident throughout the Italian Hall, from the ornate friezes on the exterior to the intricate mosaic entry, with its 7,000 tiles laid painstakingly by hand. On the building’s Main Street façade, the words “Italian Hall” were emblazoned in large, gold letters, and the flags of Italy and the United States were proudly displayed from the balcony.

Community Center
Following the building’s completion, Marie Hammel rented the first floor to an assortment of Italian-owned businesses, including a tailor, Lorenzo and Martinelli’s Billiard and Cigar Parlor, and the Paggi-Issoglio Saloon, which featured the longest and most elegant bar in the city. 

Ettore Paggi and Louis Issoglio operated a saloon on the ground floor of the Italian Hall from 1908 until Prohibition took effect in 1920. The saloon had a diverse clientele, and featured a carved mahogany bar inset with ornate stained glass. The tavern’s floor, which remains intact, is composed of thousands of mosaic tiles and bears the proprietors’ surnames.

Made possible by a loan from Marcus Issoglio.

Hammel leased the second floor to Frank Arconti, who was also the secretary of La Societá Garibaldina di Mutua Beneficenza (the Garibaldina Mutual Benefit Society), whose members are pictured here.

Prior to disability benefits, unemployment, and life insurance, the Garibaldina Society acted as a safety net for its members, provided financial assistance during times of need, and administered aid to local hospitals and the poor. Members wore this ribbon during special events. The red-white-and-green side was donned for joyous occasions, while the black side was used during times of mourning.

The Italian Hall’s second floor became the Garibaldina Society’s headquarters and the meeting place for other Italian organizations, including Il Circolo Operaio Italiano (The Italian Worker’s Club), which presented weekly dances.

This transom window was uncovered during the restoration of the Italian Hall in 2015. Concealed for decades by drywall, there was no indication that the building’s original 1908 window remained. The writing on the glass, which advertises lodge (meeting) rooms and banquet halls for rent, dates to 1917 or earlier.

The Italian community received noteworthy visitors at the Hall, among them, Umberto Nobile, the Italian aeronautical engineer who was the first to fly across the polar ice cap from Europe to America, and aviation pioneer Francesco de Pinedo. Musical and theatrical performances of many genres took place at the Italian Hall. Bandleader Pete Pontrelli, an immigrant from Bari who taught himself to play the trumpet at age 7, was one of many musicians whose careers began at the Italian Hall.

The building was also the site of countless weddings and celebrations, including the vendemmia (fall wine harvest) and commemorations of Italian Republic Day. Before the automobile, Italians assembled at the Hall before climbing aboard hay-filled wagons that transported them to picnics at the Pelanconi Ranch in Glendale, Sycamore Park in Highland Park, and the Guasti vineyard in Rancho Cucamonga.

Catherine Umina and Peter Flamminio were married in 1935 at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights and celebrated their wedding at the Italian Hall. Catherine’s empire-waist, high-neck, bias-cut, ivory silk velvet dress is typical of Depression-era bridal fashion.

The Italian Hall helped immigrants adjust to life in their new surroundings. Upon arrival to Southern California, Italian immigrants went to the Hall in search of employment, housing, and advice.

The Italian Hall unified the community, providing an avenue through which Italian culture was preserved and a hybrid Italian American culture was created. Although men and women often sat on opposite sides of the room during social gatherings, as was the custom of the era, many people met their future spouses at the Italian Hall.

In 1908, a disastrous earthquake and tsunami struck Italy, claiming 123,000 lives and destroying numerous villages. The Los Angeles branch of the Italian Red Cross and the Italian Relief Committee collected funds and supplies at the Italian Hall to assist survivors.

Free Speech, Worker’s Rights and Revolution
The Progressive Era (1890-1920) was a time of tremendous change in the United States. Progressive leaders advocated for a variety of causes, such as the elimination of child labor and corruption in government, women’s suffrage (the right for women to vote), the prohibition of alcohol, the creation of an eight-hour work day, and safer conditions in the workplace.  At that time, the average person worked six days a week for ten to twelve hours a day and earned very low wages.  In many parts of the country, violent conflicts erupted between employers and workers. 

As an attempt to prevent similar incidents from occurring in Los Angeles, in 1909 the city's leaders implemented a series of measures that prohibited free speech on city streets and private property. One of the few locations where meetings and demonstrations were permitted was at the Los Angeles Plaza. Among the noteworthy individuals who spoke at the Plaza was novelist Upton Sinclair, whose book The Jungle exposed the horrors of the meatpacking industry.

The Los Angeles Police Department's intelligence unit, referred to as the "Red Squad," which was charged with locating and arresting strikers, radicals, and other perceived threats, frequently descended upon the Italian Hall. It targeted organizations such as Il Gruppo 29 Luglio (the 29th of July Group), which was known to sing popular socialist anthems such as L’Internazionale at their meetings.

The Italian Hall remained a focus of the Red Squad throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, when groups met at the building to protest the execution of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and to rally in support of the unemployed.

During the Great Depression, unemployed World War I veterans gathered across the country to demand the compensation promised for the soldiers’ military service. The veterans and their supporters became known as the Bonus Army. In 1932, the Red Squad interrupted a Bonus Army meeting at the Italian Hall, kicking in the doors and assaulting attendees with clubs and batons.

Also headquartered in the building, Il Circolo Operaio Italiano organized celebrations for May Day, and likely served as the link between the Italian Hall and the non-Italian individuals and organizations who used the site. These included the International Workers of the World (IWW), who, in their call for “one big union,” organized workers regardless of their occupation or industry and granted membership to women and other groups typically excluded from unions.

Russian anarchist and feminist writer Emma Goldman made several appearances at the Italian Hall. Between 1908 and 1919, the building also hosted brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores-Magón, theorists of the Mexican Revolution and founders of the Partido Liberal Mexicano (Mexican Liberal Party), or PLM.

Established in 1905, the PLM called for the overthrow of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz and the redistribution of the country’s land, 78 percent of which was owned by foreign interests, to the Mexican people. After being exiled from Mexico, Ricardo and Enrique Flores-Magón moved to Los Angeles, where they continued to publish the PLM newspaper, Regeneración, in Spanish, English, and Italian. The newspaper chronicled the Mexican Revolution, social and political crusades in the United States, and workers’ struggles to unionize in Los Angeles. Many members of the Italian community supported the PLM.

Through their writings, the Flores-Magón brothers gained powerful enemies, including Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler, pictured here, the owners of the city’s largest newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, and among the most powerful figures in the city. The Los Angeles Times played an active role in anti-union campaigns to ensure that Los Angeles remained an “open shop,” or anti-union city, where workers were often required to sign contracts that prohibited them from joining unions. Businesses were penalized for hiring union workers and supporting union efforts. Otis and Chandler owned thousands of acres of land in Baja California, the epicenter of the Mexican Revolution. In exchange for positive reports about the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, Otis and Chandler received protection for their business interests in Mexico. The Flores-Magón brothers threatened this.

Ricardo Flores Magón wrote this letter to his brother Enrique in 1917, recounting the challenges of the recent rally held at the Italian Hall and providing suggestions for making future gatherings more successful.
Made possible by a loan from Archivo Magón.

Between 1911 and 1918, Ricardo and Enrique Flores-Magón were arrested numerous times in Los Angeles. In 1916, Emma Goldman organized a fundraiser at the Italian Hall for the brothers’ defense. After Ricardo was released on bail, he returned to the Italian Hall, where he spoke to a crowd of 700. Ricardo was soon arrested again for distributing seditious literature and charged with violating the Espionage Act. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison, where he died in 1922 at age 48.

Decline
By 1930, Los Angeles’ Italian population numbered 30,000, and the Italian Hall could no longer be used as the community’s primary meeting place. Urban expansion and demographic shifts led to the creation of additional community centers. While various Italian organizations, such as the Sons of Italy, continued to use the building for decades to come, the Italian Hall gained two new tenants: an Italian restaurant, Casa de Pranzo, on the first floor, and Franz K. Ferenz’s Plaza Art Center, located in a portion of the second floor.  Ferenz was an Austrian immigrant and Nazi supporter, who, at his Los Angeles bookstore, screened Nazi propaganda films and sold Nazi literature, including Ferenz’s swastika-decorated volume of essays titled "Hitler." 

In 1932, Ferenz commissioned the acclaimed Mexican muralist Davíd Alfaro Siqueiros to paint a mural entitled América Tropical on the second-story south exterior wall of the Italian Hall. Because of content deemed controversial by some, the mural was soon whitewashed. The complete story of the mural can be found in the América Tropical Interpretive Center, located two buildings south on Main Street.

In 1953, a time when much of historic downtown Los Angeles was being demolished, the State of California purchased the Italian Hall and 23 historic buildings in the area to create El Pueblo State Historic Park.

Maintaining the Italian Hall and the other buildings proved challenging, however. In the decades that followed, commercial tenants occupied the Italian Hall’s first floor, while the second floor was primarily used for storage, and the building fell into severe disrepair.

When a commercial development threatened to erase the historic significance of the Italian Hall in 1989, community organizer Maria Luisa Galeazzi, pictured here, launched a campaign to save the building. Meanwhile, historian Gloria Ricci Lothrop documented the history of the site. Political consultant Joe Cerrell helped secure grants that provided critical funding for the building's repair. Italian community leaders, including George Graziadio, Philip Bartenetti, Rosemarie Vanderhaar, Robert DePietro, Roberto Gugliemi, and Marcella Tyler formed a group to promote awareness of the Hall’s significance and raise additional funds for its restoration.

Not everyone believed that an Italian American cultural center belonged on Olvera Street, however, and a fight ensued to prevent the project from moving forward. In the end, the preservation of history prevailed.

In the years that followed, approximately $1 million was raised, and repair work began to address the building’s most pressing historic preservation and deferred maintenance issues. Sergio Bracci, a member of the restoration committee, recalls, “The building was a mess, with broken windows and pigeon guano over a foot high in some locations.”

In 2004, as the first phase of the restoration was nearing completion, a water leak caused considerable damage to the building and forced the project to come to a halt. Despite the setback, the Historic Italian Hall Foundation’s board of directors, including Josephine Mahoney, Doug Pozzo, Rosemarie Lippman, Frank Claro, and Nick Costantini, remained committed to the museum project.

The following year, historian Marianna Gatto spearheaded an advocacy campaign that led the City of Los Angeles to allocated over $1 million for the building's repair. In 2009, Los Angeles native Paul Pagnone assumed presidency of the foundation. Working closely with the City of Los Angeles, the remaining repair work was completed and the foundation raised additional funds to restore the building and develop the exhibitions and programs that you are enjoying today.

Credits: Exhibit

Content Author- Marianna Gatto
Design- Robert Checchi
Curation- Marianna Gatto and Robert Checchi
Video Projections- Christopher Sprinkle
Graphics- Robert Checchi and Clyde Crossan
GCI Videos- Francesca Guerrini

Images Courtesy of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, Alamy, Archivo Magón, Diego Flores Magón, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, Gary Leonard, Library of Congress-T. Kajiwara, Los Angeles Public Library, Paggi family, National Archives, University of California Santa Barbara Architecture and Design Collections, Schindler Collection.
Special thanks to Marcus Issoglio, the Arconti family, Flamminio family, Douglass Pozzo, the Emil Pozzo family, Archivo Magón, Linda Marcus, William Estrada, Elda Maga Pilj, the Paggi-Laura family, Caitlin Clerkin, Valentina Licitra, and Marilyn Gonzalez.

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.