Opened: January 30, 1871. The Merced Theatre is the oldest surviving theatre
building in Los Angeles. But certainly not the city's first theatre, as
is often claimed. The theatre building is bookended by the Pico House on the north and the Masonic Hall on the south. These three buildings are all that survives on this side of the block. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010
Ticket prices at the opening ranged from 50 cents in the balcony to $1.00 for main floor seats. The initial attraction was "Fanchon, The Little Cricket." William Abbott named the venue after his wife Maria Merced (or Mercedes) Garcia. The building had retail on the ground floor (Abbott's furniture store), the theatre on the second and living space for the Abbott family on the top floor.
It was also known as the Teatro Merced and Mercedes Theatre. Before the last round of street renumbering in the 1890s the address was 310 N. Main St. Main was originally called Calle Principal. The Merced was the center of Los Angeles theatrical activity from 1871 until 1876. The theatre's fortunes declined after 1876 when Wood's Opera House opened four doors south.
Architect: Ezra F. Kysor designed the Italianate structure to complement the Pico House (1870) next door, which he had also designed. Kysor, along with up and coming theatre architect Octavius Morgan, later designed the Grand Opera House down lower on Main St.
The theatre space was 35 x 100 feet with a 35 x 25 foot stage. Four boxes lined the side walls and access was possible directly to the next-door Pico House for hotel guests.
Closing: The Merced closed New Year's Day 1877 due to the Wood's competition as well as a smallpox epidemic. After closing, the theatre space saw a variety of uses including as a dancing academy, a Salvation Army hall, an athletic club and a hotel/rooming house.
A terrific map of the Plaza area showing current streets as well as ones that have vanished. It's a detail from a larger map on the website La Nopalera. Also of interest on the site are the Plaza Tour and the Photo Gallery. The latter page also has various maps of interest. Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor GS Jansen who spotted the map for his Noirish post #4314.
A detail from an 1888 Sanborn map in the Los Angeles Public
Library collection. Main St. is off the left edge. Note that the block
was using 300 numbers -- these would shift to 400 designations with the
renumbering to eliminate the 0-99 addresses.
The theatre, at 320, was long gone. The premises were occupied by a barber shop, a liquor wholesaler, lodgings, and a Salvation Army Hall upstairs in the theatre space. Note the Club Theatre in the lower left, here numbered 310. It was the competition that helped put the Merced out of business. Originally it was called Woods Opera House.
In the 1890 city directory the Southern California Athletic Club is listed as being in the "Old Merced Theatre Building."
A detail of an 1894 Sanborn map in the LAPL collection. Here the theatre building was numbered 418-420-422. It was still a liquor wholesaler but data about other users is gone. Note that in the lower front we see the stairs that patrons would have used to get to the theatre from the ground floor. And the Club Theatre, now numbered 408-410 was gone -- other than a barber in front, the space is vacant.
It's unknown what the space was called at the time but around 1900 the theatre was evidently used as a ballroom with events welcoming to those of various sexual orientations. Thanks to Terrence Butcher for locating this information on the page about the Merced from the Los Angeles Conservancy:
A Sanborn detail from 1906. On the ground floor we've got a restaurant in front and a plumbing and tin shop in the rear. Upstairs its lodgings. Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor Flying Wedge for the maps, appearing with a fine array of other Merced material on his Noirish post #14168.
A curious 1918 obituary:
An obituary for one Diedrich Kuck that appeared in the July 25, 1918 issue of the L.A. Times. They allege he operated the Merced Theatre, supposedly opening it in 1877. It had actually closed in 1876 and there's no evidence that it reopened. As far as him being a theatre man in town for 15 years, there's no evidence of that yet either. It's possible that he worked as a manager in various other theatres but it certainly wasn't for 15 years at the Merced.
Although they say his
theatre was called the Merced they also note that it was "a short
distance south of the old Pico House," which sounds more like Wood's Opera House, a venue that opened in 1876. So far his name hasn't emerged in any accounts of that theatre either. What
has emerged is that he was a saloon keeper. In the 1878-80 city
directory a D. Kuck is listed as running the Fountain Saloon at 24 N.
Spring. The 1884-85 directory gives his full name. And he's still
running that saloon on Spring St. in the 1890 directory. Maybe he had a
big theatre career of some sort as a side gig. Stay tuned.
The floorplans of the three floors of the building. The plans were generated for a 1937 Historic American Buildings Survey. They attempted to create drawings that reflected the original theatrical use of the building but it had already had several remodels. It's unknown what documents the team had to work with.
A partial renovation and various proposals: The theatre building, along with the adjoining Pico House and Masonic Hall, have been vacant for decades. The facade was restored in the 1960s. Additional work was done in an 80s "restoration" that included a seismic retrofitting, new electrical service, and sprinkler and alarm systems. Ductwork was installed but evidently not any heating or cooling equipment.
Over a period of 20 years, the City spent
approximately $11 million stabilizing the buildings on the block. The Merced building has been vacant for decades due to
lawsuits brought by an unhappy developer and other problems.
Richard Guzman, writing in the Los
Angeles Downtown News in August 2010,
had a story about the prospects for getting the buildings on the block
occupied again: "City to Look For Pico-Garnier Block Developer." The initial bid process received no takers. But
officials continued talking to several parties that expressed interest. Downtown News had a December 2010 update: "None Bid...."
At the end of the road no private developer was interested.
The idea that came along in 2013 was for the theatre building to be the home for the City of Los Angeles public access TV station Cityview, Channel 35. Roto Architects was hired to do the design. It's been a long process already and there's been not been any construction. The original theatre space on the second floor would have been the main studio with a 70 seat venue available on the ground floor for community events. The project also was to include using the Masonic Hall on the south side of the theatre.
A March 2013 DTLA News article announced "Merced Theater Could Become TV Station." Thanks to David Saffer for spotting that story. Roger Vincent had an L.A. Times story about the proposed changes in April 2013. Adrian Glick Kudler did an April 2014 story about the project on Curbed L.A. Eddie Kim on the Downtown L.A. News site also had an April 2014 story on the renovation process.
Status: As of 2023 the building still sits vacant.
The 2nd floor theatre space. We're looking east, toward the stage end of the space. Stage height presumably matched the flooring height at the top of that set of temporary stairs. The pair of doors on the right originally opened up into dressing room and restroom spaces, an area that was totally reconstructed in the 1960s. Up on the balcony level, there's a veranda beyond as well as access to the new alley stairs.
Thanks to Lanna Pian for this and the other photos she took in 2011 while investigating the building for the Los Angeles Conservancy Historic Theatres Committee.
A closer view of the house right wall near the former stage area. The double stack of doorways at the temporary stairs now go to an added stairwell that provides a second exit from the upper floors. Photo: Lanna Pian - 2011
Looking toward Main St., the area that would have been the back of the seating area. Note that the two center "windows" were once doors going out onto the top of the canopy overlooking Main St. It's a photo appearing on the 2011 Merced Theatre page of Jamie Diane Poster's blog Los Angeles Love Affair.
Again looking toward Main St. but standing farther back where the stage would have been. There were originally balconies on each side and at the rear of the auditorium. It's unknown what's inside all that drywalled area. Ductwork? Wall reinforcement for the Pico House? Photo: Lanna Pian - 2011
New steel added to stabilize the building. We're looking at the house left (north) wall near the Main St. end of the space. The opening that has been filled with concrete blocks would have connected the theatre to the Pico House next door. Photo: Lanna Pian - 2011
An earlier view looking toward the alley from what would have been the rear of the auditorium. Over on the far right are the stairs going down to Main St. Between that area and the jog of the south wall would have been another set of stairs continuing up to the theatre's balcony. The horizontal steel beam near us is the one seen in the previous 2011 photo. Those temporary columns down the center were later removed. Thanks to Michael Hudson-Medina for providing the photo.
More exterior views:
1870s - A view with "Merced Theatre" signage under the canopy. The photo appears on a Water and Power Associates Early Los Angeles City Views page. A version is also in the Los Angeles Public Library collection where they date as c.1880. Also see a California State Library stereo view by William Godfrey that they date as 1871 where the building has no canopy. It's perhaps an 1870 construction view.
c.1878 - A fine look south on Main with the Pico House, Merced Theatre and Masonic Hall in the foreground. In the distance we get a view of the Baker Block. Thanks to Michael Hayashi for posting the photo on his Facebook page.
1888 - A photo looking south that's in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. Note the banner on the 2nd floor of the then-closed theatre: "Dancing Academy."
1920 - Looking north from Arcadia St. The corner building on the right is the Orchard Hotel. The squat building just to the left of it is the former home of Wood's Opera House. It's a photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
1920s - A photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
late 1920s - A photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
c.1930 - The Merced Theatre, Pico House and the Plaza are in the lower center of this California Historical Society photo appearing on the USC Digital Library website. On the right, note Chinatown and the railyards prior to the start of work for Union Station.
1937 - A photo by Henry Withey in the Library of Congress collection. It was taken as part of a Historic American Buildings Survey.
mid-1940s - An Arnold Hylen shot looking north toward the Plaza. The building nearest us once housed Wood's Opera House. Thanks to Mr. Hylen's grand-niece Greta Gustafsson for posting the photo on the Arnold Hylen Photographer - Los Angeles Images of an Era 1850-1960s Facebook page.
mid 1940s - A photo in the California State Library collection. They have it dated as c.1910. Note the replastered and painted parapet wall: "1st L.A. Theater. Mercedes."
c.1950 - The Merced Theatre (with "SIGNS" on the side) flanked, on the left, by the Pico House and, on the right, by the Masonic Hall during the construction of the 101. Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor Ethereal Reality, who found the lovely photo on eBay for his Noirish post #17274.
1953 - Looking south from the Plaza. It's a photo by Palmer Connor in the Huntington Library collection.
1955 - A view south from Spring taken by Chris Shaw. It's included with many other photos of Los Angeles taken the same year in a post on the site Serendipitism. Many thanks to Nathan Marsak for spotting the post.
1960 - Looking south with the construction fence up in front of the theatre building and the Masonic Hall. It's a photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
1960 - A William Reagh photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
1960 - A look north from Arcadia St. in February as the Masonic Hall, Merced Theatre and Pico House undergo exterior restoration. The slide by Palmer Connor is in the Huntington Library collection.
1960 - Another February view by Mr. Connor from the Huntington Library.
c.1962 - A detail from an undated Palmer Connor slide showing restoration work continuing on the south side and rear of the building. It's in the Huntington Library collection.
More in the Huntington collection by Mr. Connor: from across the freeway - 1956 | from across the freeway - March 1961 | rear view from the south - 1961 |
1968 - The restored facade. It's a William Reagh photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
Around the back:
1921 - A look up Sanchez St. toward the Plaza. The tallest building on the left in the distance is the Merced Theatre. Farther beyond just before the Plaza is the Pico House. Close to us on the left, we get the edge of the Orchard Hotel building at the corner of Main and Arcadia St. The second building with the blank wall on the second floor is the stage end of what had been Wood's Opera House. The photo is from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
2010 - The rear of the theatre building on Sanchez St. as viewed from the south. The auditorium was on the second floor. Photo: Bill Counter
Note the little structure right behind the tree at the center of the photo. It's a former dressing room and restroom area that was completely rebuilt in the 60s. Note that, compared to the HABS plans of 1937 in the Library of Congress
collection, we've lost a couple of windows on the back wall in the
dressing room area. Also, in 1937 anyway, the middle window of the three
on the main floor's back wall was a doorway. At the far left is the truncated version of Masonic Hall. That building used to come all the way back to Sanchez St.
More information: The building is part of the City's El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. The website elpueblo.lacity.org has lots of information on buildings around the Merced Theatre. See the history page for lots of facts and photos.
Don't miss the Big Orange Landmarks article about the Plaza by Floyd Bariscale. Also check out his Plaza photo set on Flickr. The City Project blog has photos and information about the neighborhood. Also see the El Pueblo photo set of The City Project on Flickr.
The website Las Angelitas del Pueblo has a history of various buildings in the area. "Merced Theater" is a pdf of Lois Ann Woodward's 1936 research report on the theatre from the State of California Department of Natural Resources. There's a page about the Merced from the Los Angeles Conservancy:
Flying Wedge's Noirish Los Angeles post #14168 about the Merced Theatre has a lovely array of photos and real estate maps showing the Merced. The Library of Congress plans of the Merced appear on Westcork's Noirish Los Angeles post #14172.
Brent C. Dickerson's "A Visit to Old Los Angeles" lovingly explores the buildings of the Plaza area via old photos and postcards in "Arrival," part one of his series. Wikimapia has a map and photos of the Vickrey-Brunsweg Building across the street from the Merced.
Wikipedia has an article on the El Pueblo Historical Monument, an article on the Pico House, a photo of the Pico House courtyard, and a 2008 Merced Theatre facade photo.
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