Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Porter Hotel and “Mr. San Fernando”, J. Leo Flynn

A very cool ca. 1940s photo showing San Fernando Road at night was unearthed today from a box in a storage room housing artifacts associated with Lopez Adobe.

Among other elements, the image shows the two-story Porter Hotel building at the corner of San Fernando Road and Brand Boulevard and there is an interesting history associated with this century-old structure.  This was the second hotel to have that name in the area, as B. F. Porter’s Porter Land and Water Company built what was also called the “Mission Hotel” or “Boom Hotel” back in the 1880s.  This was the structure that briefly housed the George Junior Republic school for troubled boys covered in the last post on this blog.

A beautiful view of San Fernando at night, ca. 1930s, including, at left, the Porter Hotel, which operated for fifty years from 1913 to 1964.

A beautiful view of San Fernando at night, ca. 1930s, including, at left, the Porter Hotel, which operated for fifty years from 1913 to 1964.  From the Lopez Adobe Collection.

The building was completed in 1913 as a regional population and construction boom was underway and it contained stores, a bank, and the Porter Cafe on the ground floor and the hotel on the second level.

For many years, the property was controlled by the Flynn Estate, led by J. Leo Flynn and his brothers.  Note that, atop the building is a sign for the Flynn’s Grill, a business run by the family along with the hotel.

The Porter Hotel structure was the go-to location for meetings, dinners, parties and other events for service clubs, community groups, political fundraisers (usually for Republicans supported by Flynn) and others.  Among its retail tenants were furniture stores, drug stores (including Thrifty’s) and others.

A reproduction photo showing the Porter Hotel, circa 1920s.  From the Lopez Adobe Collection.

A reproduction photo showing the Porter Hotel, circa 1920s. From the Lopez Adobe Collection.

After a half-century, however, the building was suddenly the scene of a devastating fire that erupted on 21 July 1964.  The blaze seemed to have been the product of faulty wiring in the attic of the wood-frame building.  There were sixty-three occupants of the hotel, which was probably residential, who were forced to flee the structure and the hotel portion was completely gutted.  Meantime, the ground floor stores also suffered water and smoke damage, including Lee’s Furniture and Thrifty Drug.

For a time, Flynn contemplated razing the building and constructing something new, in keeping with his prominent role in promoting a reconfigured downtown that led, during this period, to the San Fernando Mall concept.  Like counterparts throughout the United States and locally in such places as Pomona, the outdoor mall was an attempt to remake aging downtowns.

A short article from the Fresno Bee-Republican, 21 July 1964, covering the fire that gutted the Porter Hotel.

A short article from the Fresno Bee-Republican, 21 July 1964, covering the fire that gutted the Porter Hotel.

Yet, when prominent Los Angeles architectural firm, A.C. Martin and Associates, was brought in to consult on what to do with the building, the company recommended a renovation keeping the basic frame of the structure while using a modern, aluminum-ribbed fascia as well as complete remodeling of the interior.

The result was what locals called “The Phoenix,” a building that rose from the ashes of the 1964 conflagration.  The building had survived its greatest threat after 51 years of existence and, exactly 51 years after the fire, the structure still stands today.

As for James Leo Flynn, he was born in 1897 at the base of Chavez Ravine to Irish immigrant parents.  His father, Henry, was a machinist and his mother Leo and his five siblings, including four brothers and a sister.  The family moved to San Fernando in 1901, where Henry Flynn opened a butcher shop.  Three doors down from the Flynn home in the 1910 census was Ramona Lopez Shaug, daughter of Geronimo and Catalina Lopez, and her family.

Flynn attended Morningside School, San Fernando High School and the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Davis.

An ad from the Van Nuys News, 19 December 1924 for a New Year's Eve party at the Porter Hotel Cafe.

An ad from the Van Nuys News, 19 December 1924 for a New Year’s Eve party at the Porter Hotel Cafe.

For a time, he assisted his father in raising cattle and operating the meat market.  When he registered for the draft during World War I, Flynn was working for the San Fernando Mercantile Company and, two years later, in the 1920 census, he was the foreman at a local dairy.  Married in the early 1920s, it was sometime during that decade that Flynn became manager of the Porter Hotel and it appears that he acquired the building in the early years of the Great Depression.  Eventually, he and his brothers comprised the Flynn Estate, the official entity that owned the building.

Flynn became a noted civic leader, serving on the San Fernando city council from 1932 to 1935 and then held the position of mayor from 1935 to 1940.  Active in the Republican Party, he was a member of the county central committee, was party chairman for the local Assembly district, and was a delegate to the party’s 1948 national convention.

The Valley News of 2 August 1964 featured this ad for a "fire sale" from Lee's Furniture, a tenant of the burned-out Porter Hotel.

The Valley News of 2 August 1964 featured this ad for a “fire sale” from Lee’s Furniture, a tenant of the burned-out Porter Hotel.

A longtime stalwart of the local chapter of the Kiwanis Club and its 1941 president, he was also active in Boy Scouts, the American Red Cross and the Community Chest.  A Roman Catholic, Flynn was active with Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills.  He was the board chairperson for the San Fernando branch of the San Fernando Valley Federal Savings and Loan Association, and president of the city’s chamber of commerce.  He was chair of the team that led the Downtown Shopping Center project and of the Economic Development Committee, which spearheaded the creation of the San Fernando Mall project.

In 1967, Flynn retired from the savings and loan, having also overseen the disposal of the Flynn Estate’s holdings, including the Porter Hotel building, after the death of his brothers who were involved in the business with him.  At a dinner honoring the man they called “Mr. San Fernando,” Flynn was honored with the Fernando Award, bestowed on the person, as reported in the Valley News edition of 10 December 1967, who “has done the most for the [San Fernando] Valley as a whole.”

Tribute was paid to J. Leo Flynn, "Mr. San Fernando" in this 18 August 1970 article from the Valley News.

Tribute was paid to J. Leo Flynn, “Mr. San Fernando” in this 18 August 1970 article from the Valley News.

In the 18 August 1970 issue of the Valley News, a tribute to “Mr. San Fernando” was offered, in which Flynn was lauded for his many activities in town as “first citizen” as well as being “a leading civic worker for the entire Valley.”  The piece concluded with the observation that J. Leo Flynn “was a man who stood tall among his fellow men.”

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Categories: Architecture, Downtown San Fernando, Flynn Estate, J. Leo Flynn, Porter Hotel, San Fernando buildings, San Fernando History | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The San Fernando Area in November 1853

From at least the early 1830s, the idea of building a railroad across the North American continent appealed to dreamers, visionaries and pragmatists alike.  With the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, the first imperialistic war embarked upon by the United States, and the stunning discovery of gold in the newly-conquered possession of California, the movement to build a transcontinental railroad was pushed further.

Congress responded in the early 1850s by funding a series of explorations and surveys conducted by the Department of War, led by Jefferson Davis (later president of the Confederate States of America), for routes from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.  Twelve volumes of reports with the ungainly title of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean were published by the federal government between 1853 and 1861.  These not only outlined the several proposed routes along degrees of latitude, but also contained much information on the flora, fauna and animals found in the explored regions. In fact, this latter made immense contributions to the natural sciences and their understanding of the still-largely unsettled regions of the vast American West.

Charles Koppel's late 1853 drawing of the Mission San Fernando and surrounding area for a transcontinental railroad survey is one of the earliest views of the region.

Charles Koppel’s late 1853 drawing of the Mission San Fernando and surrounding area for a transcontinental railroad survey is one of the earliest views of the region.

The fifth volume of the series, published in 1857, included explorations and surveys for railroad routes proposed for the Los Angeles region, including the San Fernando area.  In a subsection composed and submitted by William P. Blake, there is an interesting description of what the surveying party saw when the arrived in the eastern San Fernando Valley in Fall 1853.

Soon after leaving our camp [near San Fernando or Newhall Pass] under the fig trees, we found that we had entered a widely extended valley with a nearly level surface, without trees of verdure, and bounded on all sides by distant ranges of mountains.  On turning the point of a hill, we came suddenly in sight of the Mission buildings, which, with the surrounding gardens, stood isolated in the seemingly desert plain, and produced a most beautiful effect [an accompanying view is of the mission on the facing page]  The gardens were enclosed by walls, but the graceful palm rose above them, and groves of olive, lemon, and orange trees could be seen within.  Outside of the walls the surface was barren and gravelly, and the fertility within is the result of irrigation.

The building presents an imposing appearance, having a long portico formed by a colonnade, with twenty arches, built of brick, or adobe, and plastered and whitewashed.  The floor is paved with tiles, and a pleasant promenade in front of the edifice is thus afforded.  The remains of a large fountain, with a circular basin ten feet or more in diameter, was directly in front of the main entrance, and gave an indication of the splendor of the establishment in former days.  I was surprised to find the palm growing so far north, and surrounded also by such a variety of tropical fruits.

The grape is cultivated here, and we purchased a quantity of a very pleasant red wine, similar to claret.  Several men were employed in filling a large still with the fermented pulp and skins of grapes, from which the juice has been pressed, with the intention of distilling brandy (agua diente) from it.

Herds of cattle were seen on parts of the broad plain, feeding on dried grass or the burrs of the California clover, which covers the ground in the latter part of summer when all the grass has disappeared.  This plain doubtless presents a beautifully green surface in the winter and early summer when watered by the rains.  From the Mission, we passed directly across the plain towards a low range of hills which forms the boundary between it and the plain on which Los Angeles is built.  The distance across the plain is about ten miles, and the road was bordered in some places by a low growth of shrubbery and cactaceae [cacti], which gave a peculiar aspect to the country, and reminded some of the part of Mexican landscapes.  The distant ranges of mountains had a peculiar barren look, and in color were of various shades of brown, blue, and purple.  When we reached the base of the hills, we crossed a running stream, bordered by grass, which we afterwards found to be the Los Angeles river, and then the ascent of the hills immediately commenced.

Separately, Blake wrote of the exotic experience of eating a prickly pear, though not without being very careful to warn of the dangers of trying to get at one of the delectable fruits because of the sharp needles from the cactus.  In fact, he was sure to note that the prickly pear “is very refreshing to the traveler if suffering from thirst.”

After leaving the valley, the crew ascended the Santa Monica Mountains, taking time to admire the fine view of the Los Angeles plain and the Pacific before moving on to the small town of the “City of the Angels.”  Artist Charles Koppel, who drew the above view of the Mission San Fernando and surrounding area also rendered Los Angeles and, the publication of that image in 1857 proved to be the earliest published view of the town.

Despite the fact that a 35th parallel road directly to the Los Angeles area and terminating at the rough harbor at San Pedro was said to have been the most direct, easiest to build and, therefore, cost-effective, American sectional politics came to the fore.  Jefferson Davis, as a Southerner, championed the routes that would go through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before terminating in California.  Northeners, however, wanted a route that went to northern California or higher.

As the last of the reports was being published in 1861, the Civil War erupted.  With the Confederates seceding and being presided over by Davis, the northern states in the Union pushed through legislation and funding to build the transcontinental railroad to the San Francisco Bay area, terminating in Oakland.

A western portion, led by the Central Pacific Railroad and its Big Four (Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington, and Stanford), was built through the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains and the desolate deserts of the Great Basin in Nevada and Utah.  The eastern route, built by the Union Pacific, had a longer, if somewhat easier route (excepting the Rockies).  The two met at Promontory, Utah in 1869, completing one of the engineering wonders of the world.  The same year, the little Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad was built from the harbor to the growing little city.

In July 1876, a railroad line was completed from Oakland to Los Angeles, with the route running through the eastern San Fernando Valley and the new town of San Fernando, specifically sited with the line.  An economic downturn from 1875, however, stunted growth in the area, even with the new rail line completed.  It was not until 1885 that a direct transcontinental railroad line came to the region from the east.  When it did, the region experienced the famed “Boom of the Eighties” and towns like San Fernando experienced a revival.

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