Biddy Mason's Place: A Passage of Time

Background Information

1989. Betye Saar; Shelia Levrant de Bretteville. 331 South Spring Street (Broadway and 3rd.)
Biddy Mason was born a slave, probably in Georgia, on August 15, 1818. (1) She and her sister Hannah were later purchased as property by Robert Smith and his wife Rebecca, who owned a plantation in Mississippi. A year after the Smiths became Mormons in 1847, they migrated with their slaves to the Great Salt Basin. In 1851, they moved again with their slaves, this time to the new Mormon community in San Bernardino. Though California entered the Union as a free state in 1850, slave owners who immigrated to California were rarely challenged, and if they were, they rarely lost their cases in court. (2) With the rise of anti-slavery sentiment in California during the 1850s, however, the Smiths decided to move to Texas where they could legally maintain their slaves. But before the Smiths left, Biddy Mason, with the assistance of two free African Americans, Bob Owens and Elizabeth Rowan, petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus. After a three day hearing in January 1856, Judge Benjamin Hayes ruled that Mason and her three daughters, Ellen, Harriet, and Ann, were entitled to their freedom. Judge Hayes probably ruled in their favor in part because the Smiths bribed Mason's attorney to quit the case. (3)

Once she was free, Mason applied skills she learned as a slave and supported herself as a nurse and midwife. Her services were in great demand, and as a midwife, she delivered hundreds of babies for people of all classes. During a smallpox epidemic, she nursed many people at the risk to her own life. (4) She also helped found a day-care center and orphanage. In 1866, she became one of the first African-American women in Los Angeles to acquire property when she purchased two lots for $250 that ran between Fort Street, which is now Broadway and Spring Street. Mason did not immediately live on the property, but continued renting a small house on San Pedro Street. In that house, she and other members of the African American community established the city's First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872. She later developed her property between Fort and Spring in 1884 by building a two story brick building and moving into the top floor. On January 15, 1891, she died and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

Upon her death, her property passed to her children, who continued owning it until the Great Depression. During the 1920s, Spring Street developed into the financial center of Southern California. Office buildings designed in the Beaux Arts style housed the city's premier banks, law firms, and accounting firms. All structural references to Mason and her family were later obliterated when her parcel became part of a parking lot. Beginning in the 1960s, however, the once mighty office buildings on Spring Street began to be abandoned as the financial district shifted west to Bunker Hill and the Figueroa Corridor.

The Community Redevelopment Agency pursued several strategies to restore vitality to Spring Street. It subsidized the Los Angeles Theater Center, which was located in the former Security Trust and Savings Building. After sinking millions of dollars in what increasing became a losing cause, the CRA withdrew the subsidy and the theater immediately folded. Today, the theater is operated by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department for intermittent and poorly publicized stage productions. The CRA's second plan attempted to create a residential street. Captivated by successful stories of gentrification in other cities, the CRA converted the 1923 California Canadian Bank and the 1931 E.F. Hutton Building into a 120 unit condominium called Premiere Towers. The project, turned into a financial disaster for the few people who purchased the units. The CRA's third plan, which has been the most successful, brought a large state office building to the street. As an inducement to the State of California, the CRA promoted the constructed of a 10-story garage on land that included the site of Biddy Mason's home. (5)

The developers of the 1,274 space parking structure, The Broadway-Spring Center, (a joint venture of Allied Parking, Ltd., Systems Parking Investments, Inc., and L&R Auto Parks, Inc.) were required by the Community Redevelopment Agency to include a percent-for-art component. A portion of the funds was used for a large concrete mural facing Spring Street by Tony Sheets. Robert Chattel and Richard Rowe, CRA planners with strong interests in architectural and urban history, invited the Power of Place to propose an interpretive piece for the site.

The Power of Place, formed in 1982 by Dolores Hayden as a non-profit organization, sought to create a sense of place in Los Angeles by restoring and perpetuating the memory of the economic contributions of women and minorities "through experimental, collaborative projects by historians, designers, and artists." (6) This mission reflects the dramatic shift in historical inquiry that emerged from the cultural ferment of the 1960s.

Traditionally the study of history has focused on great events, such as wars and political struggles. It concentrated on institutional change and the role played by leaders in government, business and the military. This was the history of elites, usually white men, that was artistically expressed by some of the most brilliant, most recognized and most beloved works of public art ever installed in the United States. General Sherman in New York City, the Shaw Memorial in Boston, the Minuteman in Concord and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. are enduring landmarks in our nation's cultural legacy. The roles of women and minorities were marginal in this history and their struggles and accomplishments were rarely honored in public sculpture. Women were portrayed as elevated and idealized allegorical representations of society's highest ideals or its deepest public emotions.

In contrast to traditional history, social history has uncovered the histories of diverse groups, and the experiences of ordinary people, women and minorities. Their culture and traditions were first celebrated in the United States in a major public way with the murals of the New Deal. This artistic legacy was later rediscovered and refashioned by street muralists who painted the stories and experiences of the surrounding population not on interior post office walls, but on the exterior walls of undistinguished buildings. The established art world paid little attention to these community murals and had little interest in creating sculptural memorials until 1984, when the dedication of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial revitalized the public monument. Rather than statues of great men, new innovative forms of public memory were commissioned that express the lives of ordinary people as metaphors of racial, ethnic, class and gender identities. Recognizing these separate identities, when placed within a larger national context, has expanded the definition of an "American" by now including people long ignored.

The CRA's invitation to the Power of Place continued a relationship that began in 1985, by awarding a grant to the organization to publish a map of downtown Los Angeles that identified places where public history projects involving women and minorities could be created. One of the map's nine major sites was the former home of Biddy Mason. Though not an unknown figure in the city's history, Mason was largely remembered as a founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872. (7) The Power of Place's map and brochure expanded her presence. As an early leader of the city's African-American community, Mason symbolizes their contribution to the economic and cultural development of Los Angeles. Her employment as a midwife marks the site of her home as a place for recalling service workers and women's traditional occupations. And as a founder of the city's oldest African-American church as well as a benefactor, she exemplifies the collaboration, cooperation and networking that are essential for civilized life. The Power of Place proposed that these qualities, long associated with women and the home, be taken out of the private realm and celebrated in the public sphere. (8)

Initially, the Power of Place and the Community Redevelopment Agency considered a small project for the site, such as a plaque or marker in the breezeway or elevator lobby. (9) But after receiving grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for planning and design, The Power of Place proposed a larger, more comprehensive commemoration. The project was carried forward to completion with funds and support from the Afro-American Museum, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the National/State/Country Partnership, UCLA, the Broadway-Spring Center and the Community Redevelopment Agency. Assistance with initial research was provided by Lonnie G. Bunch III, Kathy Perkins, Mason descendants Linda Cox and Gladys Owens Smith, Miriam Mathews, and local writer Bobi Jackson. Hired as Executive Director of the Power of Place, Donna Graves brought a background in art, urban and social history to the project. Michelle Isenberg, who was the art consultant for the public art installations at the Broadway-Spring Center, also helped raise money for the project. A public workshop sponsored by the Power of Place and UCLA in late 1987, generated comments on proposals for the project by approximately 50 people in attendance.

The outcome of this collaboration and community involvement, "Biddy Mason's Place: A Passage of Time," is refreshingly different than the traditional memorial because it honors an African American rather than a white, a woman rather than a man, and an ordinary person rather than a national or local hero. And rather than defining Mason by a solitary classical statue, the commemoration of Mason involves an ensemble of components that celebrate her presence on a parcel of land that a century of development has all but obliterated. Susan King designed and wrote a special large format artist book called "Home/STEAD." Printed in an edition of 35, it contains historical research and text by Dolores Hayden and Donna Graves with images created by rubbings of 19th and 20th century gravestones at the Evergreen Cemetery, where Mason is buried. A copy of the book can be viewed at the Los Angeles Public Library. The other commemorative components include a poster designed by Sheila de Bretteville and written by Dolores Hayden, called "Grandma' Mason's Place: A Midwife's Homestead," a scholarly biography of Mason written by Hayden, (10) and two public art installations.

The first public art that people see when exiting the garage is Biddy Mason: House of the Open Hand by Betye Saar. Placed in the elevator lobby because most people who park in the garage pass through it, Saar's installation evokes a time when Los Angeles was a smaller and more personal place to live. A sepia-toned photomural on the wall adjacent to the elevator doors shows Mason sitting with three other women on the front porch of the small house owned by her friend and neighbor Robert Owens. Facing the elevators, a wood slatted wall picks up the architectural features of the Owen's house--the trim along the bottom of the roof, the clapboard siding, the picket fence and the shutters. By puncturing this wall with a "Window of Memories," Saar brought her "Nostalgia" series of intimate collages into the public realm. But unlike other works in the series, which are unconnected to a specific place, this "Window of Memories" is integrated into the history of the site. The variety of objects in the window have associations with women and the passage of time--a fan, a curled window shade, a medicine bottle uncovered during excavation of the site for the garage, wallpaper, curtains and a portrait of Mason in an old styled frame-and are organized as if they are the memorabilia collected from Mason's house. These mementos, which Saar described as producing a "sentimental and dream-like image," (11) reconstruct the period when Mason was living at the site at the end of her difficult life.

Biddy Mason: Time and Place, designed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville consists of an 81' long 8'high black concrete wall divided into decades containing photographs, imprints, maps and drawings. Both Saar and de Bretteville linked their two works by incorporating an identical portrait of Mason, and images of a picket fence and a medicine bottle. De Bretteville used the bottle in Saar's window assemblage to create the imprint in her work. Other images debossed into the wall include a midwife's bag, a spool of thread, scissors, cactus and wagon wheels symbolizing Mason's walk behind her owner's wagon from Mississippi to California. De Bretteville, who earlier designed the Power of Place map of the historical sites in downtown, felt Mason's residence "gives legitimacy and meaning to the site." (12) She designed "Biddy Mason: Time and Place" to be read chronologically when approaching it from the Bradbury Building. Words, which harken back to the inscriptions in the traditional monument, divide the wall into chapters of Mason's life. The pronoun "She" in the headings is a reminder that this is a memorial about a woman. Mason's life is further described in the text written by Hayden, and was etched into stone panels with a font designed by de Bretteville. Panels depicting Mason's freedom papers and her deed to the property (which are the only surviving documents of her life), juxtaposed with maps and drawings of Los Angeles, anchor her life within the context of Los Angeles history. Mason's portrait highlights the last chapter of her life. It serves as an introduction to the installation from Spring Street and is prominently displayed by de Bretteville because women have traditionally not been depicted in public monuments. (13)


1 "The Power of Place," by Dolores Hayden, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, c. 1995, p. 141.

2 Ibid, p. 145.

3 Ibid, p. 150.

4 Ibid, p. 153.

5 "Report to Contracts and Finance Committee on the Proposed Parking Lease Agreement With the State of California," June 30, 1987, p. 1.

6 Hayden, Op. Cit., p. xi.

7 "A Guide to Historic Places in Los Angeles County," by Judson A. Grenier, Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., and Jean Bruce Poole, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, Iowa, c. 1978, p. 85; "California Inventory of Historic Resources," State of California Department of Parks & Recreation, Sacramento, California, March 1976, p. 191; "Five Views: An Ethnic Sites Survey for California," State of California, Department of Parks and Recreation, Office of Historic Preservation, Sacramento, California, December 1988, p. 86.

8 "The Power of Place: Los Angeles", 1985?; interview of Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, March 16, 1990.

9 Letter from Thomas P. Phillips to Michelle Isenberg, Corporate Art Consultants, November 26, 1986.

10 "Biddy Mason's Los Angeles: 1856-1891," California History, by Dolores Hayden, Fall, 1989.

11 Interview with Betye Saar by Michael Several, May 31, 1990.

12 Interview of Shelia Levrant de Bretteville by Michael Several, March 16, 1990.

13 Ibid.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, December 1999.

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