Monday, September 26, 2011

J.V. Vickers -- 624 West 28th Street

John Van Vickers (1850-1912) came to Los Angeles in 1899 after a colorful past in Tombstone, Arizona.  Seems J.V. was previously Cochise County Treasurer 1888 and 1895-1896. He was there during the Gunfight at the OK Corral, building a significant cattle business, including the Chiricahua Cattle Company, one of the largest in the West.

Originally from Pennsylvania, he moved to Illinois where he met and married Anna Childs (1855-1946), who along with their five daughters came to Los Angeles with him from Arizona. Daughters Florence (1873- ) and Dora (1876- ) attended school in Philadelphia, with Florence then attending and graduating from Bryn Mawr College.  Third daughter Lillian (1889-1901) also went to Bryn Mawr, but died from a tragic accident there in December, 1901. The accident was carried by the New York Times on their front page.
"At 8 o'clock Miss Vickers rose and retired to the bathroom, situated near her own apartment.  Half an hour later she came rusing forth enveloped in flames." She died by 1 o'clock without regaining consciousness. The Times delicately stated "...the victim had rubbed her body with alcohol, which in some way became ignited." 
The New York Evening World was less delicate in their assessment.
Evening World Article on Lillian Vickers' death


To this day "ghosts" supposedly haunt the Bryn Mawr Dormitory where the accident occurred.  Daughter #4, Anna (1882- ), did not attend Bryn Mawr, instead going to the local upstart Stanford, as did daughter #5 Clara (1886- ). They were both members of Delta Gamma sorority there.

After arriving in Los Angeles J.V. continued his cattle business, which included partnering  up with Walter Vail, who was also a major rancher in Arizona. Together they formed Vail & Vickers Company, purchasing Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara, to raise cattle, which had previously been used for sheep ranching. The island became the last ranching enterprise on a Mexican Land Grant in California, and was run by a third-generation Vail descendant. Due to a (some say forced) federal government purchase of the land for Channel Islands National Park in the early 1980's, an agreement is in place to end all private activities by 2011.

In 1904 J.V. led a syndicate which bought a large parcel of land in Orange County. Realizing they needed transportation to the area if they were to develop it, they succeeded in luring Henry Huntington to extend his extensive trolley network by providing him a significant share of the operation, and even renaming the area from Pacific Beach to Huntington Beach. Little did they know the amounts of money in the ground, which did not appear until the 1920's.

Around the same time J.V. purchased a house in fashionable West Adams from Max Meyburg, a well-known retailer and light manufacturer in town.  Max had had the house built sometime around 1898, but had decided to move a few blocks west. The house looked like the below in 1910:

624 West 28th St. in 1910
J.V. in 1910
Now located in the new social center, two doors west were the Laughlin Jr. family, and the Vickers were just two blocks from Figueroa and West Adams. By this time (1910) Florence and Anna had married, Florence in 1905 to Franklin Allister McAllister, with two daughters, and one son. Anna about the same time married a Clarence Crawford from Oregon, whom she'd met at while matriculating at Stanford. Clara still lived at home.

Then while celebrating the Christmas season at home on December 28, 1912, J.V. had a heart attack while playing dominoes with his family. Clara stayed on for awhile, marrying Roy Naftzger, a real estate broker, in 1920. Mother Anna C. continued to reside in the house until her death in 1946.

A sample bookplate
Daughters Clara and Anna founded a Memorial Book Fund at their alma mater in honor of their father.  Many of the books in the library provided by the fund carried their bookplate, indicating the donor.

The neighborhood has changed significantly since the Vickers purchase. By 1942 the house was surrounded by sororities and fraternities of USC, and after wife Anna's death, the house took its new place along Greek Row. In the 1950's AO Pi sorority was in the house.

AO Pi, Nov. 1951 in the front yard at 624 W. 28th St.


By 1962 Alpha Epsilon Phi moved into the house from their smaller location a block west, staying through the 1980's. Today the house still stands, its latest resident Beta Omega Phi, an Asian-American interest fraternity. The house's outline, while substantially altered, is easily identifiable.

Recently at 624 W. 28th St.
(courtesy of the author)



Wednesday, September 7, 2011

E. J. Brent of Berkeley Square

Born of British stock, Edwin James Brent (1856-1923) first came to America in 1870, living in Indianapolis for ten years. He returned to England, married Mary West (1865- ), and came back, this time to Los Angeles, to seek fame and fortune. In 1890 he started a second-hand furniture store on the southwest corner of West 4th & Spring Streets. Business was good--within four years he opened a second location across the street in the same block.  In 1896 he moved another block south to larger digs at 538 South Spring Street in the Chauvin Building. A new building went up next door to the north in 1898, so the business relocated again. He remained thrifty with his business still, residing upstairs with Mary at that same location.

Bit by bit the business grew, but it was definitely under the town's business radar as articles about the Brents were few and far between. The business ultimately moved to 712 S. Main in 1905, where it remained until E.J.'s death in the early 1920's. Perhaps that business move was the driving force for E.J. to seek residence quarters apart from his business location.  They had their ultimate mansion constructed in a very fashionable gated community in West Adams known as Berkeley Square.  That new house hit the newspaper real estate section, and after that it was Society pages galore for Mary.

The house appears like a Craftsman on steroids.  Sitting in the middle of the block, the design of the house created odd lines when viewed as a photograph. Here it is a year or so after building...
#20 Berkeley Square ca. 1909



E.J. in 1910




The entry hall
The house received extensive coverage in the June, 1909 issue of Western Architect, with photos showing off the entry hall, dining room and exterior of the house.

And if you thought E.J. and Mary needed the large house for their large family you'd be half right--if you call servants family. Their one child E.J. Jr. (b.1903) lived there with four in-house servants.


Life seemed good for the Brents. "Brent's Great Credit House", as the business was known in local directories, continued to prosper while the family took multiple vacations, including recorded trips to Panama in 1913, and Hawaii in 1922.  One newspaper article in 1910 mentioned they "motored down to Coronado Beach last Tuesday for a week's vacation. Mr. Brent is enjoying the many beautiful auto drives in this vicinity and into the San Diego "back country" and across the line into Old Mexico."

1909 L.A. Directory Ad (courtesy of LAPL.org)
After E.J.'s passing, Mary remained in the house with her son for a couple of years more. She moved for awhile to 501 S. Manhattan, before settling down by 1930 across the street in a new fourplex at 456 S. St. Andrews Place, on the northeast corner of St. Andrews and 5th Street. The census reported her as renting at $75/month, an odd choice for one who should be able to easily own her abode. She disappears from the record by 1944.

One doesn't know if the house had been sold or not...by 1928 Winfield Scott, a local photographer, was living there with his daughter Margaret, who was listed as "artist" in 1928, and "photographer" in 1930 records. Interestingly, Mr. Scott was renting the grand house for $75/month in 1930, the same amount Mary Brent was paying over on St. Andrews Place.

By 1932 Scott had left, and a Leonard Bowie arrived, staying through 1934--then no resident can be found until 1946, when Vida Woelz turns up, joined by her husband John in 1948.

By the early 1960's a threat to all the houses in Berkeley Square appeared.  A new freeway starting at the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) went west all the way to Santa Monica, exiting at the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. And the eminent domainers targeted the northern half of the Berkeley Square subdivision for its trip through the West Adams area. By 1965 a new eight-lane freeway began to shoot drivers (except during rush hour) across Berkeley Square at 65+ MPH. And 20 Berkeley Square had become history.


Additional information:
More on Berkeley Square
A postcard showing Brent's Spring Street store


A New Bit of Information: 

One of the challenges of following the life of a house without photos is determining what really happened to the house.  Here's a theory for this one.

The house appeared to have stood empty through the late '30s and early '40s. And while I didn't write about in the above, others have mentioned that a #20A appears for this Berkeley Square address by the 1940's.  Take a close look at the images below.  The 1921 Sanborn map has been placed above an aerial of the neighborhood taken in 1948. Our #20 lot line has been superimposed on the aerial photo in the lower half.  #20 in the aerial photo appears to be half gone--the entire eastern portion missing, the portico removed--and a new house at the rear of the lot appears with a sidewalk coming in from the street. Perhaps that's the answer.  Even before I-10 sent this house to oblivion, perhaps someone else did, turning it into two houses.

Your mission--go find a photo that proves/disproves the theory!

1921 vs. 1948 Berkeley Sq.