Chester Place: The Grandeur of L.A.'s First Gated Community

For a few years in my mid 20s, I was a very bad waitress at a West Adams sports bar that served USC frat boys and local Lakers fans. The bar was tiny and dark (I called it "the coffin") and it smelled like beer and felt like grease. The rays of multiple TVs were all that illuminated the dim, claustrophobic interior and sometimes when it got too loud I would throw off my filthy black apron and just walk. On one of these walks I came upon the downtown campus of Mount St. Mary's -- and could not believe what I saw.

Just off decrepit, congested Adams Boulevard, surrounded by a large stone wall, was a perfectly preserved late-Victorian street. Within, the noise from traffic seemed to disappear, replaced by the sound of birds rustling the leaves of magnificent magnolia, pine, palm, rubber, and pepper trees. Students quietly walked to and from buildings, well behaved and orderly. And these were no ordinary campus buildings -- rather, they were solid, expertly renovated mansions with large porches that opened onto wide green lawns. Every beam, window and column seemed perfectly and individually crafted, and gentility and grace permeated and perfumed the air. Suddenly, I wasn't a tired, dirty waitress who had spilled a tray of Blue Moon all over my company-issued tank top; I was a lady in lace on my afternoon stroll, marveling at the wonders of nature and the ingenuity of man.

Long before this street and its surrounding buildings were taken over by the nuns and students of this small Catholic school, it was for a brief period at the turn of the last century the toniest enclave in the upscale West Adams neighborhood. It was L.A.'s own 5th Avenue, the center of "the Los Angeles 400" known to all as Chester Place.

In 1876, a sea captain by the name of Nathan Vail bought 17 acres of rural land on Adams Boulevard, just west of Figueroa Street. On the property he built a large farmhouse and at the Adams Boulevard entrance he erected an imposing stone and steel gate which stands to this day. The rural area surrounding his land, sparsely populated by Chinese farmers and other settlers, was changed forever with the arrival of the streetcar. Soon, the wealthy, pushed out of their exclusive enclave on Bunker Hill, began building homes in the area now called West Adams, which offered the commerce of Agriculture (now Exposition) Park, the fledgling University of Southern California, and easy access to downtown Los Angeles via the Adams and Washington Boulevard streetcars. Mansions sprang up and down Adams and Figueroa in a variety of styles. These included the 30-room Richardson Romanesque "castle" of millionaire lumberman Thomas Stimson. It sat directly behind the Vail property at 2421 South Figueroa, and boasted an interior featuring all the different woods Stimson loved so much.

Vail sold the estate to his business partner, retired Arizona Judge Charles Silent, in 1885, and died in 1888 trying to swim to an offshore ship. Silent moved into the farmhouse and subdivided some of the western property into a residential park he called "St. James Park" after his eldest son. In 1899, he moved the old farmhouse to the back of the remaining undeveloped property, extended the old Vail driveway to 23rd Street, and subdivided it into lots. He called this street Chester Place after his second son. Sadly, Chester, a Stanford graduate, would be found in a Northern California marsh in 1907, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Between 1899 and 1903, twelve more stately homes were built on Chester Place. Designed by some of the best architects of the day, including Sumner P. Hunt, Theodore Eisen and A. Wesley Eager, these homes were large and comfortable and composed of a mishmash of different styles reflecting the rapidly changing and opening world of the new century. There was a uniquely Californian rejection of formalism, an embracing of asymmetry, and an emphasis on outdoor living. Sleeping and receiving porches, patios, solariums, and porte-cocheres for coaches and automobiles were popular, as were mod cons like electric lights (which often supplemented gaslight). These innovations didn't come cheap: In 1900, while Lee Foster was building a stable behind Number 10 Chester Place for $2,250, the cost of a typical a 7-room home averaged around $2,000.

A perfect stylistic example is Number 11 Chester Place, built by Mrs. Artemisia Vermilion in 1902 for between $25,000-$30,000 and designed by Hunt and Eager. Shaded by palms, this two-story cement and stone structure contained Craftsman, Gothic, and Elizabethan architectural elements. It featured a gabled roof, a nature-inspired interior, including a novel recessed den, rich in local oak finishin,g and paneled ceilings arranged in "irregular geometrical figures." The first floors of these homes were showplaces, the upper floors dedicated to family living, and the attics and basements above and below often the domain of servants.

But none of these homes could touch 8 Chester Place, sprung from the fertile and well-traveled imagination of the socialite and artist, Sarah Posey. Considered the grandest home in the city, this 22-room fantastical mansion was said to be a "gothic revival mix of chateau-esque chimneys and attic windows mixed with Moorish revival door frames and Californian mission elements of heavy tile roofs and terra-cotta walls." Others called its style simply "General Grant Gothic."

In keeping with the obsession with the Far East, its upstairs family rooms were in the Japanese style. Downstairs was more in keeping with the conspicuous consumption of the era, a cluttered, late Victorian mishmash of "hunting lodge" and chintz. The entrance hall alone was described thus:

"Upon entering the hall a visitor first sees in burnt letters words of greeting on the large mantle on the fireplace directly opposite the door. The ceiling is covered with immense tapestries, representing spring, summer, fall and winter. The work was done by a French artist and done especially for the hall. To the right is a statue of a Venetian knight of the sixteenth century and on the landing of the stairs is a figure of "Rebecca at the Well", purchased in Venice. Mrs. Posey has even improved on the Rebecca of old by having tiny, incandescent lights arranged among the palms overhead. The lights in the hall replicate the old English torches."

But 8 Chester Place was not to be Mrs. Posey's for long. Only a year after she and her family moved in, oil magnate E.L. Doheny and his new wife, the former telephone operator, Estelle, fell in love with the house and all that was in it. He made an offer the Poseys couldn't refuse: $120,000 in cold, hard cash.

And so the Dohenys moved into the neighborhood, which they would one day swallow whole.

This was the Edwardian golden age of Chester Place. For such a privileged enclave, the residents were remarkably close knit and open. Judge Silent and his neighbor, Austrian Count JaroVon Schmidt, maintained a friendly rivalry over who could produce the best fruits, which they would give to everyone from neighbors to streetcar conductors. When reporters wanted to get a scoop on a society story they would simply approach the grand ladies of the neighborhood as they visited on their porches, or chat with the servants who swept the walkway with giant palm fronds. At a summer party at Number 10, hosted by Mrs. Bayly, "handsome matrons" and "dainty young buds" in pink and white lace drank punch while having their fortune told beneath palm trees as the Venetian orchestra played on the vine-clad veranda. Inside, the home was decorated with:

"... bowls and baskets filled with yellow coreopsis and asparagus ferns. In the dining room a beautiful color scheme was carried out in pale green and yellow. The table was spread with a handsome cloth of lace and embroidery in yellow shades, and in the center rested a mirror, which bore a candelabrum of sparkling crystal, bearing twenty-five slender green-lighted tapers."

The neighborhood even endured its own scandal that made all the daily papers when a young socialite, who signed herself "Your friend INCOGNITA," began sending provocative, typed letters to anyone who dared entertain her rival in love. She accused the lady of spending afternoons with a married man of Chester Place and mocked her neighbors, reminding one she had once been a shop girl and chastising the other for being loud and wearing ill-fitting gloves. No wonder events in the neighborhood, open to the greater public, often sold out. Who wouldn't want to watch a recital, at a benefit for the SPCA, played on Mrs. Doheny's $10,000 custom-made Steinway, said to be the most expensive piano in world. It was enameled in 14-carat dull gold and painted with pictures of Greek goddesses, Mrs. Doheny, and her stepson, Ned. Or there was the night Chester Place was opened for a moonlight pastoral of "Romeo and Juliet" performed from the Doheny balcony. The night before the show, it was reported:

"A dress rehearsal took place last night-strange figures walked across the lawn in the misty night. A desperate fight went on under the palms, but no one cared. The special policemen did not interfere--they looked on and got pointers from the two gentlemen who were calmly practicing a duel by the unaccustomed light."

But this remarkable accessibility, and the architecture itself, had its drawbacks. A thief, nicknamed "the porch climber," began climbing from the wide porches into unfastened windows above, stealing from the homes on Chester Place. In March of 1904 he was so bold as to steal over $1,000 of jewels and silver at Number 17 as the Foster family ate dinner below. In the fall of that year, beloved Chester Place night watchman, J.S. Hendrickson finally caught up with this well dressed "gentleman robber," who wore a grey suit and grey crush hat, as he stood in front of 8 Chester Place. A shootout ensued and the robber was badly wounded but escaped, leaving his bicycle behind. The man, a notorious West Coast bandit named Dave Canary, was found the next day and sentenced to life in prison. Sadly, neighborhood fixture Hendrickson would be killed just outside the gates of Chester Place in 1916, in a shoot-out with two young toughs.

As in all of Los Angeles of that time, there was a transient feel in West Adams, with neighbors often buying each other out and homes being leveled. As early as 1910, many of the city's elite began to move westward, and the Dohenys, their wealth and social prominence growing, began to slowly overtake Chester Place. By 1914, they had bought 14 lots and the street itself from Judge Silent. They built a 200-foot-long conservatory to hold E.L.'s collection of palm trees and other tropical plants, which were considered by many to be the finest in the world. Also notable was the Pompeian Room, an exquisite Italian, Spanish, and African marble ballroom that featured a 24-foot wide glass dome, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Wedgewood medallions.

The Dohenys bought neighboring houses from St. James Place and Adams Boulevard as well, and created their own little posh community. Their son, Ned, now lived for a time at Number 10 with his family (his children would play on the grand lawn between Number 8 and 10) and other houses were rented out to employees, siblings, lawyers, and friends. Devout Catholics, the Dohenys were also sponsors of the spectacular St. Vincent's Church on the corner of Adams and Figueroa. Estelle Doheny was a woman of enormous drive and charity and continued to host numerous society events, even as E.L. went into decline due to his involvement in the Teapot Dome affair and the scandalous murder of Ned Dohney at the Greystone Mansion in 1929. At one party for Naval officers the trees were strung with sparkling lights and it was reported that there was "dancing in the streets of Chester Place." Old E.L. died at Number 8 in 1935, leaving Estelle a vast fortune, though much diminished by the Depression.

Chester Place itself was an increasingly isolated snow globe of the past in the midst of West Adams, which became a center for the black elite in the 1930s. Estelle ruled Chester Place firmly but fairly -- there was a strict moratorium on picking flowers, and guests at the Adams gate were asked politely what business they had there. Electrical outlets were installed close together in the Pompeian room to accommodate the sewing machines used for her frequent sewing drives. In 1948, when the USC fraternity now lodged at the Stimson Place became too rowdy, Estelle simply bought it and gave it to the Catholic Church. Estelle was made a papal countess for her work in the church, so it wasn't surprising that when she died in 1958, she left all of Chester Place to the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

The area around Chester Place was a very different place by then. Mass transportation had given West Adams life, but it also caused its death. By the 1960s, the construction of the Santa Monica Freeway bisected the neighborhood, destroying many once-fine homes. Many remaining buildings were broken apart into apartments or torn down. The area became dangerous and desperate, although the University of Southern California did provide it one continuing bright spot. The Los Angeles archdiocese transferred Mount St. Mary's to Chester Place and the college opened its second campus there in 1962. Several new campus buildings have been built on Chester Place, but nine of the original homes still remain. They are used as classrooms, offices, dorms, and cafeterias. Docent-led tours are offered.

Spend an afternoon at this lovely place and I have no doubt that you will soon understand why the Dohenys wanted the entire street all for themselves.

Click here for docent-led tours.

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About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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