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Official City Seal Marks L.A.'s Past

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Wednesday, September 09, 2009, at 09:17AM
Seal Olympic Ed Fuentes

The City of Los Angeles official seal at the swimming stadium built for the 1932 Olympic Games. The seal design was adopted in 1905.

Though it can be found all around us, especially here in Downtown, few probably pay attention to the official seal of the City of Los Angeles.

The 104-year-old mark can be found carved into buildings and historic bridges, emblazoned in color on street signs and vehicles and stamped in gold foil on official City stationary. Remarkably, the seal has seen little change since its creation in 1905.

As the 228th anniversary of the City's founding was held this past Saturday, there it was again. The seal was placed underneath "Happy Birthday Los Angeles," centered on the ceremonial banner that led a short stroll from Union Station to El Pueblo.

The seal contains the story of a pre-industrialized Los Angeles, making the mark a viable cheat sheet for amateur historians.

The city seal was designed in 1905 by Herbert L. Goudge, at the time an assistant Deputy City Attorney. Reared and educated in England, the young DA was not fond of the seal used on the 1904 Annual Report of the City Auditor, a cluster of grapes with leaves within a circle and type reading "Corporation of the City Of Los Angeles."

That trademark first came into use in 1854, according to Common Council minutes first written in Spanish.

“That was all right at one time because the viticulture was our chief industry around Los Angeles,” said Goudge in a 1925 L.A. Times article recalling the birth of the seal. Goudge's objected that the cluster of grapes did not represent Los Angeles as a "dignified city." He reported that the reply from councilmen was, "All right...then you go ahead and make a new seal."

In his 1905 presentation to the City, Goudge declared that a true mark that seals and authenticates documents contains two parts: a legend that bears "the name and date of its foundation" and a device containing "heraldic bearing" that uses elaborate insignias and for city or country becomes "a conventional epitome of the history and relationship."

With Goudge's own family having a crest that traced its lineage back to England's early history, and himself versed in municipal law, he felt the varied charters that governed the city created a unique culture and created an identity.

The Design of a New City Seal

Goudge's design appropriated details from the governments that had reigned over Los Angeles.

In the upper left is a version of stars and stripes, a detail taken directly from the Great Seal of the United States.

The upper right holds a Grizzly bear under a star, noting the California Republic's flag that flew briefly for a few weeks in 1846. Perhaps because of his British background, Goudge understood how revolt was part of America's fabric, and so included it in the City seal. The use predates the image's adoption by the State of California for its official flag by six years.

On the bottom left is an eagle holding a serpent, a visual lift from the version of the Arms of Mexico that would have been seen on flags flying over the city during Mexico's reign.

The bottom right is the lion of Leon and the castle of Castile, a representation of the evolving Arms of Spain during 1542 to 1821, the years California was under Spanish rule.

Above the shield are grapes still on a vine, to its right are oranges and to the left an olive branch. All represent the city's first major industry, agriculture, that made Los Angeles "a city set in a garden."

Around the device are rosary beads representing the Franciscan Mission Padres who first shaped what became the city.

The legend simply says "City of Los Angeles" and "Founded 1781." The significance bears weight considering the Declaration of Independence was signed only 5 years prior.

Around the whole seal, both device and legend, is another set of rosary beads to be printed in colors that represent gold nuggets, to note an economic past.

Tinkering with Design

While the design of the seal has stayed true to Goudge's vision, there has been some tweaking.

To establish consistency, a 1945 survey of the seal was requested by then Mayor Fletcher Bowron. The findings noted that the bear was out of proportion; the eagle resembled an American Bald Eagle, not a Mexican Golden Eagle; the Spanish lion and Castle had details missing; and the outer beads were sometimes simply left out.

"There seems no evidence that he [Goude] had special qualifications or training for heraldic drawing and several historical inaccuracies have been discovered in the design of the seal," sniffed the 1945 Report on the Design of the City Seal.

Not that changes were always monitored closely...

In 1966, an ordinance was passed to ensure the outer beads would always be included, prompted by a Valley-based Angeleno who noticed a lack of beads on a City of L.A. business card. He was concerned that the Padres' role in L.A.'s history not be left behind.

Change is still slow. The 1945 review recommended that the eagle's dome feathers be altered to gray. Yet, it still appears as white. In 1978, the ordinance was updated to specify that the bird was a Mexican golden eagle, not a bald eagle.

Even the current rendition of the mark shows the Golden Eagle with a light dome. Ironically, the eagle could simply be rendered in one color and be a better rendering.

Still, compared with the recent court battle between the County of Los Angeles and the ACLU over a cross in the County seal and current criticism of New York and Chicago's marks ranging from inaccurate dates and racism, it's a testament to the design that the City of Los Angeles Official Seal has been free of major controversy for 104 years.

As this past weekend's birthday celebration for the City of Los Angeles showed, the Herbert L. Goudge designed seal dutifully carries on.

Photo essay includes the current ordinance regarding the Official City Seal for the City of Los Angeles


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