VANISHING: The history of one house in Los Angeles
One day last spring, the house simply appeared, an apparition near the corner of Washington and Vermont. It was late Victorian in design, white, wooden and two-story, with a steep roof, gables and a wide front porch, and there was nothing around it but empty land. It looked like a Midwestern farmhouse in a freshly plowed field, somehow dropped before the ivy-covered slope of the 10 freeway–an inner-city dream, a hallucination.
Up close, there was a rational explanation. A chain-link fence surrounded the house and the land around it, 14 acres that were the future site of an L.A. Unified high school. Until recently, there had been a neighborhood here; the house at 1548 W. 20th St., hidden for nearly 100 years by a storage building, billboard painting facility and small businesses, was the last structure standing. And its reappearance offered something more rare than a mirage, and more precious: a glimpse of the city’s past.
The house went up around the turn of the century, though the precise date has been lost. Fading, barely legible real estate deeds record that on May 5, 1893, a woman named Anna Southwick sold a lot at this location (as well as another) to her husband, Thomas, for $5, but how she came by the land, and whether there was any structure on it, is unclear. A Sanborn fire insurance map dated 1894 shows a building at this address, but it’s not clear if the map is original or a later reissue. L.A. County tax records written in ornate, old-fashioned script on crumbling pages show assessments for the site as early as 1901–as far back as the books go–but the names of owners through 1910, including the Southwicks, are written without dates. And the Department of Building and Safety has no record of any early construction; the first permit on file, for the addition of a back staircase, is dated 1912.
But whoever built the house very likely was Midwestern and white, because that’s who was flocking to Los Angeles then, part of an early real estate boom, as suburban pioneers staked claims in the middle of nowhere. Downtown was thriving, bristling with big buildings and banks, but the acres west of Figueroa, which had been annexed in 1896, were little but scrub and farmland extending to Western Avenue, where the city stopped.
A photograph taken at the intersection of Western and Pico in 1903 shows a small group of people on bicycles heading north on a dirt road into absolute emptiness.
Those first owners probably weren’t rich people. Nearby, in the district that would be called West Adams, developers and power brokers–Abbott Kinney, Edward Doheny, Frederick Rindge–were constructing palaces in neighborhoods with names like Westacres, Kinney Heights and Berkeley Square. The house on West 20th was nothing like those mansions, with their beveled-glass china cabinets, marble fireplaces and mahogany floors. It was a respectable family home, well-built and strong, with fine redwood siding and a brick and mortar foundation that would miraculously withstand a century of earthquakes, and comfortably spacious, with a living room and two parlors set off with pocket doors and a big kitchen downstairs, and four bedrooms upstairs, each with its own gas jet for heat. A wide staircase and two-story foyer connected them.
Ceilings were high and moldings wide. The house faced north. If Anna and Thomas Southwick slept in the master bedroom, they would have looked out tall bay windows decorated with leaded glass to an unbroken view of the Los Feliz hills.
The population of L.A. nearly tripled between 1900 and 1910, and the streets around the house, with now-vanished names like Aubrey, Thornton and Warner, soon filled. It was a middle-class neighborhood, a collection of Victorians and, later, Craftsman bungalows. But around 1916, a seven-story Lyons Storage building went up a block away, and the area became more and more commercial, with small storefronts and brick buildings with vaults where highly flammable celluloid film was stored. In 1920, billboard pioneers Walter Foster and George Kleiser moved their Los Angeles office and operating plant to a several-acre lot that ran from Washington to 20th Street.
By then, the Southwicks had long since moved on. Mary and Joseph Newkirk owned the house, along with Hilliard Stricklin, Frank Simmonds and Albert J. Wilson, and George B. Wilson “as trustee.” The new owners may have been even less affluent than the Southwicks, or they may have been investors, because by 1920 tax records show the house being used as a duplex. By 1925, even neighborhoods such as Berkeley Square were losing their cachet, as the city spread west and the rich followed, to Hancock Park and Beverly Hills. The West 20th Street neighborhood continued its downwardly mobile slide, and the Depression was one more blow. The home’s tax valuation plunged, from $2,710 in 1925 to $1,020 in 1945.
It passed through more hands: William A. Wilson, Faith B. Wilson (relatives of Albert J.
and George B.?), Ogden Reid, Alfred and Vida Darby, Leroy Erich, Harry Evans, Walter Hawkins. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the racial covenants that in many L.A. neighborhoods had forbidden lease, sale or conveyance of property “to any person not of the Caucasian race.” African American families moved into and around West Adams, and with depressing predictability, whites fled. In the mid-1960s, the new Santa Monica Freeway tore through the heart of the area, destroying dozens of homes and further marginalizing those that remained. It rose like a monster just behind 1548 W. 20th, and the adjoining streets grew even more dense and run-down, new cinderblock apartments crammed up against the fading old homes, everything dead-ending in the roar of traffic. By then, Donovan and Ruby Smith had owned the house for six years, and it was changed beyond anything the Southwicks or Newkirks might have recognized, carved up into a boardinghouse of tiny rooms, each with a number on the door and dropped “cottage cheese” ceilings glaring with fluorescent lights.
Once again, a real estate boom changed everything. By the mid- 1980s, soaring Westside home prices had pushed the middle class east, where it “discovered” West Adams. The Smiths sold their house to an investor who quickly resold to Jackie and Sandra Spivey, professionals who raised four children there, loved the house, and spent all their available time and money resurrecting its former glory. Sometimes the past literally resurfaced. In the early ’90s, a collector knocked on the Spiveys’ door, asking to dig in their yard at what he said was once the site of an outhouse. A six-foot hole produced dozens of old bottles, smoking pipes, a porcelain doll’s head. By 2000, the house gleamed with cream and white paint and, says Sandra Spivey, was as nice as anything you’d find in Hancock Park.
That same year, though, L.A. Unified moved in with its power of eminent domain and an offer that couldn’t be refused. The Spiveys left for a new life in Las Vegas, and it looked like the end. As the school district’s builders prepared to bulldoze the area, there was outcry from preservationists, but not much legally could be done. This was a poor neighborhood, with homes so haphazardly modified they were no longer “historic,” merely old. In the end, six of the houses put up for auction were bought for $1 each by John Joseph Ramos, a sometimes developer who believes in using old homes for affordable housing. When he couldn’t find empty lots onto which he could move them, several were demolished anyway, their moldings and cabinets salvaged for use in other renovations. One small house was successfully relocated to Union and 22nd.
The Victorian at 1548 was a harder sell because it was so big that it would have to be cut into pieces for a move. Potential deals materialized, then fell apart; LAUSD deadlines came and went. “I let the house stay out there longer than most other people would have,” acknowledges Kip Drabeck, the new school’s project manager. He wanted to see it through to the end. Meanwhile, it sat empty, an orphan house in an orphan neighborhood, and vandals steadily undid all the Spiveys’ hard work. The crumbling walls were covered with graffiti, the carpet was burned, the grand staircase lost part of its banister. Pigeons flew in through smashed windows to roost upstairs, until their droppings crusted the carefully polished oak floors.
Finally, in late 2004, Ramos made a successful connection with Helio Marquez, who grew up admiring old Spanish colonial homes in his native Corinto, El Salvador, and owned a house in West Adams with a lot just big enough to also hold the Victorian, which he wanted to restore for his extended family. “In my country, they don’t do this kind of thing,” Marquez says. “I will try to find a picture, to make it historic.” By March, the house was being prepared for its move, which was scheduled for this month, and excavation for school construction had begun. Soon, all traces of the former neighborhood would be gone, and the lot that held the house for so long would become part of a baseball field. That’s the way it always is here, where the future erases the past so completely that it takes even its memory. But the house would have a new life, and through those last months, as rain fell and wind scoured the air clean, turning the light to pure gold, it sat there, in the open, for everyone to see. For that brief, strange time, it was again what it had been at the start, a handsome white Victorian in the empty space of a city on the brink of change.