Built in 1890 by Philippe Garnier—a French settler and prominent businessman—the Garnier Building is the oldest and most important single structure linking the Chinese community to Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. It is also the oldest and most significant Chinese building in a major metropolitan area of the state, as the original buildings in San Francisco’s Chinatown were destroyed by the earthquake of 1906.
Just prior to the completion of the building, Mr. Garnier leased it to Chinese American merchants, and the building remained in their care for several decades. Once regarded as the unofficial “city hall” of Los Angeles’ Chinese community, the Garnier Building housed shops, schools, temples, churches, and businesses during its heyday between the 1890s and 1940s. Additionally, the building hosted numerous social functions, such as dances and theatrical performances.
According to Chinese tradition, the upper floors of the building are closer to heaven and to the gods, and thus more appropriate for housing temples, schools, or organizations that exert authority. While commercial customers were located on the ground floor and mezzanine levels, Chinatown’s leading fraternal and social organizations, schools, and religious institutions occupied the second floor. These institutions helped to resolve the differences between Chinese organizations and individuals, care for the elderly and needy, and act as liaison with the dominant American society. The need for these community institutions was great, due to the strongly prejudicial attitudes expressed against the Chinese in Southern California as a result of the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882–1943.
Among the most important groups located in the Garnier Building were:
- The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (Chung Wah), which served as an umbrella organization for the community, fought anti-Chinese legislation, and mediated disputes
- The Sun Wing Wo Company (1891–1948), a popular general merchandise store which also served as a social center for Chinatown residents
- The Chinese American Citizen’s Alliance (1895–present), who were active in opposing discrimination and in registering Chinese American citizens to vote
- The Wong Ha Christian Chinese Missions School (1897–1905)
- The Chinese Mission (1901)
- The Chinese Chamber of Commerce (1912–present)
- The China Empire Reform Association (1913)
- The Chinese English School (1913)
- The Chinese Laundrymen’s Association
Many of the Chinese business establishments and voluntary organizations formerly located in the Garnier Building are still active today.
Beginning in 1933, the city of Los Angeles forcibly removed the Chinese community from its original location to construct Union Station Passenger Terminal, freeways systems, and other transportation developments. Residents were evicted and buildings were demolished—except for the Garnier Building, which miraculously was left standing.
A New Beginning
Once a bustling hub of community life, the Garnier Building unfortunately slipped into anonymity and eventual abandonment at the mercy of changing times during the 1930s. Today, however, the building has been resurrected into the 7,200 square foot Chinese American Museum (CAM), nestled inside El Pueblo de Historical Monument—a 44-acre public park honored as Los Angeles’ “birthplace” and the site of its original Chinatown community in downtown Los Angeles. As the oldest surviving building of historic Chinatown, the Garnier Building now has a new story to tell and a new destiny to fulfill as an iconic resource center dedicated to researching, preserving, and sharing the stories, experiences, and contributions of Chinese Americans in the United States.