Going With the Flow: The Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial

Kelly Wallace, Librarian, History Department,
Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial opening day
The Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial, with its waterfall flowing, as seen from Hill Street, dated November 1, 1958

It’s been over forty years, but the water is flowing again at the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial. If you’ve ever driven on Hill Street between Chinatown and the Civic Center, you have passed by an 80-foot-wide tile wall flanked by a terra cotta bas relief of soldiers raising a flag on one side and a 237-foot long brick expanse on the other. Unknown to many, this is the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial. Water used to cascade over the tile wall before it was turned off in 1977 in the midst of an extended drought.

Central Los Angeles Area New High School #9 site
Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial located on the west side of Hill Street, south of Cesar Chavez Avenue, [2002]. Photo credit: Tom Zimmerman, Los Angeles County Building Survey Collection

It’s the most historically and geographically important monument that nobody knows about. It’s where Los Angeles really began.—Clare Haggerty, former Deputy Director of Collections, County Arts Commission

The Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial commemorates the first time the American flag was raised over Los Angeles. On July 4, 1847, members of the Mormon Battalion and the New York Volunteers hoisted a flag made from flannel, muslin, and an old petticoat up a 100-foot-tall flagpole.

Fort Moore Memorial showing relief sculpture and wording underneath
Bas relief depicting flag raising on July 4, 1847, [1984]. Photo credit: Frank A. Serano, El Pueblo Monument Photo Collection

Though no trace of it remains, Fort Moore was the first American fort built in Southern California. The signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga in January 1847 effectively ended fighting in the Mexican American War, but American forces were still wary of local resistance to their occupation when Colonel George Cooke ordered the construction of a permanent fort on April 24, 1847. The design called for a 400-foot long battlement, with ramparts for six cannons. Curiously, the rear of the fort was left entirely unenclosed. The work was done by the U.S. First Dragoons, New York Volunteers, and the Mormon Battalion, the only religious unit in U.S. military history.

On July 4th, 1847, the first formal observance of the fourth of July in Los Angeles was held at the fort. During the ceremony, the fort was named in honor of Army Captain Benjamin Moore of the First Dragoons (killed by a lance during the Battle of San Pascual), the Declaration of Independence was read in English and Spanish, and the American flag was raised over the newly-conquered California territory.

The Mexican American War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Hidalgo in February 1848. Shortly thereafter, the never-completed Fort Moore was abandoned as a military post. It was officially decommissioned in 1853. Over the years, a cemetery, a beer hall, fancy Victorian homes, a parking lot, and a high school were all built over and around the remains of the fort.

Fort Moore Hill residence
Home of Mary Hollister Banning. The structure was built by Jacob Philippi as a beer hall but Banning transformed it into a home. Part of the trenches of old Fort Moore are visible in the upper left, [1887]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Los Angeles High School
Los Angeles High School on Fort Moore Hill, [1891]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

In the early thirties, over 260,000 cubic yards of dirt were hauled away by donkey carts to the Union Station construction site. In 1949, most of what was left of Fort Moore Hill was removed to make way for the 101 Freeway.

Fort Moore Hill
Looking north towards Fort Moore Hill from outside the Hall of Justice at Aliso and Spring streets on December 6. Excavation and construction of the Santa Ana Freeway/US 101 is well underway, [1950]. Photo credit: L. Mildred Harris, Los Angeles Photographers Collection

The Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial was the brainchild of May Belle Davis, a member of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. Davis’ great grandfather was part of the Mormon Battalion. In the early thirties, she began campaigning for a Mormon Battalion monument at the site of Fort Moore. The Depression and World War II stalled her efforts, but after 25 years she was finally able to gain approval from the county for the memorial. The groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 13, 1953.

Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial groundbreaking
Groundbreaking for the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial. Mrs. Moses (May Belle) Davis with civic officials.The project cost $373,887, [1953]. Herald Examiner Collection

The design for the memorial was created by local architects Kazumi Adachi and Dike Nagano. Sitting on what remains of Fort Moore Hill, the memorial’s design was, out of necessity, part retaining wall.

Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial
Hill Street and the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial under construction, [1955]. Photo credit: L. Mildred Harris, Los Angeles Photographers Collection

The monument design consists of the 80-foot wide tile fountain, the 78-foot by 45-foot bas relief, a 279-foot-long brick facade and a 68-foot-tall pylon. Sculptor Henry Kreis won the competition to design the bas relief depicting the flag raising ceremony. Kreis consulted with historians to make sure historical details such as the depiction of the military uniforms were accurate. He also designed the three smaller relief panels representing the ranchos, American settlers, and the development of water and power. It should be noted that the DWP was one of the sponsors of the memorial. Renowned California terra cotta manufacturer Gladding, McBean fabricated the panels for the wall.

Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial
Right side close-up of the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial. These three smaller scenes representing migration, settlement, and expansion, [1956]. Photo credit: L. Mildred Harris, Los Angeles Photographers Collection

Sculptor Albert Stewart designed the 68-foot pylon embossed with a sculpted eagle and an inscription. Stewart taught at Scripps College for 25 years.

Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial
This view shows a 68-foot high concrete pylon with a 16-foot terra-cotta bas-relief American eagle, designed by noted sculptor Albert Stewart, [ca.1950s]. Photo credit: Roy Hankey, Los Angeles Photographers Collection

The forty years since the water was turned off were not kind to the memorial. It suffered years of neglect and vandalism. The waterfall tiles became brittle and fell off, the plumbing system decayed, and the brick wall was scarred with graffiti.

After approving $1.4 million for the work, Los Angeles County has been carefully restoring the long-neglected the memorial for nearly five years. The prep work started in 2014 and construction began in 2016.

Restoration of Fort Moore
Restoration work on the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial

Overseeing the painstaking work was Clare Haggarty, former Deputy Director of Collections of the County Arts Commission, and Conservator Donna Williams. Williams also led, supervised the restoration of Hollyhock House and the Hall of Justice.

All of the nearly 300,000 tiles behind the waterfall had to be replaced. The one by two-inch size is no longer standard, so each tile had to be hand cut. In addition, there was a great deal of back and forth to recreate the original tile colors. Previous attempts to remove the graffiti did more harm than good. All of the plumbing had to be replaced, but as many of the original elements that could be saved were preserved.

During the restoration, a time capsule placed in the flag pole during the 1958 dedication was discovered. The capsule itself was handcrafted from copper sheeting and soldered shut.

Fort Moore time capsule
Original Fort Moore time capsule

Inside the time capsule were photographs, newspapers, county documents, and papers and brochures related to the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial. The contents were amazingly well preserved.

Fort Moore time capsule contents
Time capsule contents from the 1958 dedication

A new time capsule will be installed at the rededication. Public contributions were sought for inclusion in the 2019 time capsule.

The area surrounding the monument is also being revived. The Fort Moore Memorial used to be isolated, sitting across Hill Street from a parking lot and bounded by the 101 freeway on the south and Cesar Chavez Avenue on the north, but now it lies at the western edge of LA Plaza Village. When completed, the mixed-use development will contain a central walkway that connects the memorial with Olvera Street.

La Plaza Village, rendering courtesy of Johnson Fain
La Plaza Village, rendering courtesy of Johnson Fain

After all the hard work, the barricades are down and the memorial is spruced up and ready for its second act. The grand rededication was held on July 3rd, the 61st anniversary of the dedication of the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial.

Video courtesy of Robert Peterson, LA Hidden History