A few years ago, after brunch at La Serenata de Garibaldi in Boyle Heights, I headed west on First Street to take a look at our family’s old hotel, now the Boyle Hotel. I was amazed to see the imposing brick building still in its original condition, albeit down at the heels–way down. But the biggest surprise was finding out that the old Cummings Hotel was now home to over one hundred mariachi musicians!
In 1889 my mother’s grandparents, George Cummings and Sacramenta López de Cummings built the four-story Cummings Block and Cummings Hotel in the up-and-coming suburb of Boyle Heights. George was an early and prominent resident of Boyle Heights and Sacramenta, a great-granddaughter of Claudio López, mayor of the Mexican Pueblo of Los Angeles in the 1820s, had grown up there on her family farm, part of a Mexican land grant. George and Sacramenta commissioned architect William R. Norton to design a four-story Italianate business block and hotel to be built on a choice parcel of land that Sacramenta’s parents had given to her in 1871. The iconic corner turret on the imposing brick building was a beacon for miles and the hotel quickly became a neighborhood center for civic and social events.
In the historic Boyle Hotel today, the poignant sounds of mariachi music link the vibrant Latino culture of the city with the Mexican pueblo of the 1800s. The hotel, better known as “Mariachi Hotel,” is home to the largest concentration of mariachis in southern California. Perched atop Mt. Pleasant on the western edge of Boyle Heights, it overlooks downtown LA, one mile to the west, and fronts Mariachi Plaza to the east. The residential hotel is affordable and ideally situated for these professional musicians. Since the 1930s mariachis in their elegant charro suits have gathered outside the hotel on the plaza, the “Garibaldi Square” of Los Angeles, ready to perform at a moment’s notice in a restaurant, at a private party or a community event.
Following my visit to the hotel, I contacted Diana Ybarra, president of the newly formed Boyle Heights Historical Society, who informed me that the hotel was in imminent danger of being demolished. This area on the east (“wrong”) side of the Los Angeles River was of little interest to developers until recently, when the soon-to-be-completed Mariachi Plaza Metro stop on the Gold Line Extension changed the picture. Having just completed graduate work in historic preservation in my adopted state of New Mexico, I was ready to work with Diana in finding a way to save the hotel. Together we prepared the historical society’s first nomination.
I learned that local residents were as concerned as I was about saving the big old brick building at the top of Mount Pleasant, a “local icon” for anyone who had grown up in theneighborhood. Without hesitation, the local, state and national preservation community supported the designation. Two of my professors at UNM, Chris Wilson and Miguel Gandert, visited the site and stepped up to the plate, with letters and much more. Miguel, a nationally acclaimed photographer from New Mexico, volunteered to document the hotel and mariachis before it was too late. Soon the 1889 building and with it the nexus of mariachi culture in southern California, would fade into history. But, just in time, the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC), an affordable housing nonprofit, purchased the building and worked with us to protect it with the local landmark listing. ELACC is committed to restoring the historic brick building, and supporting the mariachis by providing them with affordable housing, renovating the residential apartments, and building rehearsal spaces.
Miguel’s one-time visit turned into two years. We made many trips to LA, spending days hanging out with the mariachis on the Plaza, photographing them in their rooms at the hotel and following them to their gigs. We also came to know the neighborhood that had grown up around them. Following 120 years of changes, the Boyle Hotel is part of a thriving Mexican community, with a modest but self-sustaining economy based on the mariachi culture. These black and white photographs that Miguel shot (with 3 film cameras) are a testament to his belief in the subject matter, and to his artist’s eye.
On October 24, 2007, the City ofLos Angeles adopted the Boyle Hotel-Cummings Block as a Historic-Cultural Landmark #891 because of its association with the city’s early Mexican history, as well as for its distinguished architecture. The next challenge is less well defined, but equally significant: preserving the intangible heritage of the mariachi culture by finding ways to allow the mariachis to continue to live and earn a living as professional musicians in a neighborhood on the brink of gentrification.