Olvera Street's Avila Adobe; Michael Imlay
Built in 1818 by wealthy rancher and former mayor Francisco Avila near the center of Olvera Street, the Avila Adobe is considered Los Angeles’ oldest surviving house — just the sort of place you’d expect to be haunted. And indeed, numerous insiders at the El Pueblo de los Angeles Monument will tell you it is — but not by an Avila.
Throughout the Plaza area, El Pueblo volunteers and workers have plenty of creepy stories about the rustic casa. For whatever reason, though, most prefer to tell them “off the record.”
One former docent related how on a balmy evening in the 1990s a restoration crew sat outside the adobe wide-eyed, listening to what sounded like heavy furniture crashing and sliding from room to room. Several times the workmen screwed up the courage to peer in and call to whomever was making the racket. No answer ever came, and they never saw a living soul. After a while the crew agreed it was probably best to begin work on some other building that night.
A second docent, who still volunteers time at one of El Pueblo’s museums, further revealed that a custodian was once similarly spooked by the sounds of phantom high heels running angrily back and forth through the empty house.
Then there’s the case of yet another El Pueblo custodian who apparently somehow miffed the resident spirit while cleaning windows in the adobe’s courtyard one sunny afternoon.
“I felt something really cold on my back, and something like ice and stuff on my neck,” she recalled, adding that upon wheeling about, she saw a shadowy figure floating across the garden. It seemed to throw her a chilling glare as it evaporated into an opposite wall.
“It was about 3:30 in the afternoon. The whole house was closed; nobody in the restrooms; nobody in the rooms; only myself… I looked all around. I’m sure it was a ghost… maybe Mrs. Sterling,” she said, echoing the opinion of many familiar with the home’s spookier side.
Christine Sterling; LAPL Digital Archives
Hailed as the “Mother of Olvera Street,” Christine Sterling (left) stumbled across the derelict adobe in 1926 after moving to Los Angeles from Oakland. She later wrote:
“I visited the old Plaza, birthplace of the city, and found it forsaken and forgotten… [The Plaza Church] was suffocated in a cheap, sordid atmosphere… Down a dirty alley I discovered an old adobe, dignified even in its decay. Across the front door was nailed a black and white sign, CONDEMNED.”
Like many 1920s transplants, Sterling had been drawn to the City of Angels by promotional pamphlets emphasizing its early Californio roots. What she saw instead angered her.
“Why do people write and talk about history but do nothing to save it?” she would eventually ask.
Moving into the Avila house, she made herself the neighborhood gadfly. With pesky tenacity, she rallied powerful Angelenos to her preservation campaign, raised funds, saved and restored condemned structures, closed Olvera Street to vehicles, cleaned up the filth, evicted squatters and recruited merchants for a Mexican bazaar, which she opened to great fanfare Easter Sunday, 1930.
However, while praising Sterling’s achievement, modern scholars question her historical “vision.” Following the romanticized literature of her time, Sterling ignored early Los Angeles’ harsher realities to concoct a utopia memorializing beneficent friars, noble dons and carefree campesino artisans. She remained ensconced at the plaza perpetuating such idyllic images until her death in 1963 at age 82. Many now believe the home and all Olvera Street remain under her stern and watchful eye.
“When she died, she wanted her ashes in this house,” explained the former docent.
Indeed, Sterling actually passed away in the adobe, and urban legend has it that her ashes were scattered in the garden, which reportedly remains a locus of paranormal phenomena.
Pacing the Place
Casa Avila Bells
For example, one afternoon an Avila museum volunteer approached a woman who seemed transfixed by something in the courtyard to ask if all was well. “Yes, but there is somebody who is not comfortable at all,” the tourist answered. “There’s that lady, right in the middle of the garden, walking back and forth like she’s nervous… she feels something is wrong.”
Supposing such tales are true, what could possibly be troubling Sterling’s ghost?
Perhaps it’s the El Pueblo Monument’s transformation since her death. New initiatives – including several honoring the multicultural contributions of Chinese, French, Italians and others – are creating a fresh picture of the district strikingly at odds with Sterling’s 1930s makeover.
Take for instance how in 1990 the city restored a controversial Olvera Street mural by Mexican artist David Siqueiros. First unveiled in 1932, its political message so shocked Sterling that she ordered it whitewashed. Then, in 2004, El Pueblo officials opened a Chinese-American museum amid merchant objections that it violated the plaza’s “authentic” Mexican heritage. In even more recent years, El Pueblo’s historians have stepped up their efforts to resurrect the place’s true heritage amid its folklore.
Admittedly, all this is conjecture. Whether Sterling or other entities really haunt the old adobe or any other part of the El Pueblo Monument is anyone’s guess.
Walking the Avila Adobe’s tranquil, white-washed corridors, sipping margaritas over Dia de Los Muertos festivities along Olvera Street, bartering with merchants, and touring the Plaza’s educational exhibits, it’s still difficult to separate fact from myth at the El Pueblo Monument, let alone lift the shrouds surrounding its ghosts.
Evidently though, that’s exactly how Sterling designed things and, at least in that respect, her spirit remains eerily present.