Italian American Museum of LA: A Cornerstone of West Coast Culture

Italian America's robust California population now has a world class hub brimming with art and culture.

The following piece, contributed by Marianna Gatto, explores the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles (IAMLA).

When we speak of Italian immigration to the United States, Los Angeles is seldom the city that comes to mind. Usually, one imagines New York or other Eastern cities.Given this prevailing assumption, many are surprised to learn that Italian settlement in Los Angeles, which is home today to the nation’s fifth-largest Italian population, can be traced to 1827, when Southern California was part of Mexico.

Within a matter of decades, the region boasted a sizable Italian community, much of which resided in the heart of the city, in and around present-day downtown Los Angeles. Not unlike their compatriots elsewhere in the country, the Italians of Los Angeles formed a host of organizations to support the needs of the burgeoning Italian community, and commissioned the construction of buildings to serve as community gathering sites.

Early 1900s banquet held inside the Italian Hall.

Among the early Italian organizations was the Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, or the Italian Mutual Benefit Society, which was formed in 1877. Inspired by Italy’s unification, a decade later, a second organization formed, the La Societá Unione e Fratellanza Garibaldina (the Garibaldina Society of Unity and Brotherhood).  Prior to disability benefits, unemployment, and life insurance, the organizations acted as safety nets for their members, providing financial assistance during times of need. The two organizations later merged to form the Garibaldina Mutual Benefit Society, which still exists today, and is headquartered in Northeast Los Angeles.

In 1907, Parisian-born businesswoman Marie Hammel ordered the construction of a building in the heart of the city’s little Italy. The building was to be called the Italian Hall; its first floor would house Italian-owned businesses, while the second floor would be utilized for meetings and events. Upon its completion in 1908, the Italian Hall became an important focal point, where Italians from all over the region gathered.

Charity footrace at the Italian Hall, circa 1917.

For decades, the building served as a popular venue for concerts, weddings, and other social events as well as the headquarters for many Italian groups. In the 1950s, as demographic shifts drew the Italian community elsewhere, the Italian Hall ceased to be used as a community center, and in the years that followed, the building languished. After being painstakingly renovated and restored to its original splendor, the Italian Hall is now the home of the award-winning Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.

Read more about the history of the Italian Hall and its transformation into the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.

You can also view an interactive tour of the building using this link.

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