Brand Park and the Gates of Miradero: The Strange Life of Glendale's First Family | KCET
Brand Park and the Gates of Miradero: The Strange Life of Glendale's First Family
I drive through a lovely, well-kept part of northwest Glendale with an old-timey downtown into the foothills of the Verdugo mountains. I am now in an elegant, quiet neighborhood, the picture of Americana, when at the corner of Grand View and Mountain Boulevard there appears before me a blindingly white archway topped with minarets, like something one would see in a golden age movie about India. Stenciled into its metal gates are a stylized "B" and on the top of the arch the word, "Miradero."
Spanish for "the lookout."
This is the entrance to Brand Park and Library; an entrance to another time and place. A line of palms leads from the archway past a large fountain now used as a giant planter for the library, a mini-palace of Indo-Saracenic Revival design. Newly painted a chalky white and currently covered in scaffolding, it is at once imposing but somehow diminutively unreal.
But the noise of birthday parties and soccer games quickly brings me back to modern reality. On either side of the palms stretches a typical L.A. park, green and practical, with an up-to-code playground and picnic tables covered in BBQ supplies. As I walk behind the house and into the brown hills, a group of children squirt each other with water guns around the public restroom, and a man relaxing in a beach chair sings an Armenian song which he finishes with the very American, "Happy Fourth of July!"
I walk past a Japanese garden, a restored Victorian home, and a decrepit garage in a style matching the palace, now converted into a makeshift workshop. I am now on an ever-the-same hiking trail, going up a mountain, a lizard scurrying at my feet, a strange public works project to my right in the canyon below. Soon, I come to two crumbling sets of stairs. Up the stairs I go and up top is a tiny parched cemetery surrounded by brown and brittle tall grass swaying in the dry air. The cemetery is dominated by a gravestone in the form of a pyramid, the name BRAND stenciled into the grey rock. Below stretches all of Glendale and here -- eternally on the lookout, under this strange arrangement of rocks -- lays the man responsible for all this, a man just as odd as the Park which bears his name.
Leslie C. Brand was a tiny man. At only 5 feet tall he seems to have had a touch of the old Napoleonic complex -- he liked to acquire, and he wanted the newest, the fastest and the biggest. This fearless, gregarious visionary was born in a small town in Missouri on May 12, 1859. He got his start in Moberly, Missouri in the office of the city recorder and quickly had early success as a real estate man. After the untimely death of his first wife he escaped to Los Angeles and formed the Title Guarantee and Trust Company with E.W. Sargent in 1887. In 1891, during a brief residency in Galveston, Texas, he ran off to Mexico to elope with an artistic, southern girl named Mary Louise. On a trip in 1893, they went to the legendary Chicago World's Colombian Exposition and were blown away by the British-sponsored East Indian Pavilion, designed by Henry Ives Comb. This Taj Mahal-inspired edifice was a tribute to empire, and one day Brand would build his own version of the building in an empire of his very own.
Inspired by the wide boulevards of Galveston, Brand returned to California in 1894 with dreams of creating a grand, model city. His target: the sleepy, temperate 300 person grove-covered community of Glendale. Flush with cash, with no government regulation or income tax to hamper him, Brand was in like Flynn. He purchased a huge chunk of the San Fernando Valley and quickly began buying up land for the right of way for an extension of the Pacific Electric railway. The extension opened in 1904, running from the Arcade Station in downtown Los Angeles to Glendale. He also laid out a grand boulevard on either side of the railway and insisted it be named after him, pushing the commercial center from Glendale Boulevard to Brand Boulevard, and consequently infuriating many early town boosters in the process.
Not that Brand much cared. He was too busy -- planting palm trees, opening the city's second bank, a telephone company, the Miradero water company, a power and light company, creating subdivisions, building the Masonic Temple and the first Glendale country club, and constantly promoting Glendale, both in print and through public and private events at the historic Casa Verdugo. Knowing the power of advertising, he would take out full page ads in the local papers asking, "Have you been to Glendale?"1
His hands were in every pot -- even the sugar pot. In 1903 he was involved in a lawsuit over a carload of sugar that he had bought on speculation for a local grocer named J.R. Newberry. When the grocer refused to pay, claiming the sugar was infested with rats and dirt, Brand countered that the grocer simply didn't want the sugar, now that prices had fallen. He was also involved in the water wars, being named as a defendant in a blanket suit brought by the city of Los Angeles against all irrigators in the San Fernando Valley to prohibit them from using any water that percolated from the L.A. River. However, it seems he somehow retained rights to his water company, and eventually sold Miradero Water to Glendale at an enormous profit.
When he wasn't working, wearing his customary broad brimmed hat to appear taller, he was galloping on his horse, or speeding around in a newfangled National Automobile he called "Tioga Wolf." The childless Mary Louise was busy as well -- giving parties featuring paintings of book titles she designed herself, hosting events at the Glendale country club, taking care of their extremely close extended families, indulging in grand opera, and often motoring around the country with Leslie or other friends and family.
The little man's plan soon worked. The population boomed and commerce thrived. Glendale was flourishing and Brand was its unofficial king.
The King needed his castle.
In 1902, Brand hired his brother-in-law, Nathaniel Dryden, to build the fantastical East Indian home he had dreamed of since the Colombian exposition of 1893. Dryden and an assistant traveled to India, on Brand's dime, to study the nation's architecture before returning to oversee the construction of the $60,000 home. The Brands, their beloved dogs, and assorted relatives moved into "Miradero" in 1904, and it quickly became the center of Glendale social life. Borrowing from Spanish traditions, the 13 rooms in the home opened onto a central solarium. In contrast to the "oriental," "exotic" hodgepodge of the exterior, with its domes and crenellated arches, the interior was strictly late Victorian, with zinc Tiffany glassworks, oak and mahogany finishings, brocaded silk wall hangings and a huge carved fireplace. A niece recalled Brand often sitting in his favorite rocking chair at a big picture window, which looked down on Glendale below, the rocker's legs cut proportionally so his feet could touch the ground.
So seriously did the Brands and society take their home, which locals christened "The Castle", that Mary Louise was always referred to in print as "Mrs. L.C. Brand of 'Miradero'."2 Brand added a pool, tennis court, orchards, and expansive kennels. In 1909, he built a shingled Swiss-style private club trimmed with redwood in the canyons behind his home that featured a billiard room, grill room and prodigious bar that soon became the hangout for many of L.A.'s elite, including motion picture colonists like Mary Pickford. In 1911, he added a tower containing his private boudoir to the main house. The tower was a crafty piece of work. At the time taxes were levied according to where you physically slept. Brand's new tower was technically in Los Angeles County, while his old room was in the city of Glendale.
L.A. County levied much lower taxes.
It was this clever practicality that led Brand to his great love. He often traveled to his summer home at Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras and hated the torturous automobile ride home. He wanted to be able to catch a fish at the lake and cook it at Miradero that evening. So was born his pioneering interest in early aviation. Brand became a pilot, and never one to do anything halfway, he bought several early planes, including a "330 horsepower airplane limousine capable of flying 140 miles an hour and luxuriously appointed with mahogany finish, cushioned seats and brass trimmings." He also built a private airstrip below Miradero. On April Fools day, 1921, he and Mary Louise hosted a legendary "fly-in" luncheon, inviting 100 aviator friends to fly into Miradero. The gates were to be locked, the only way in was to fly directly in. The invitation included a helpful map marking where to land. Friends complied, many doing tricks and spins in the air before they landed.3
But for all his outlandish parties, for all his private tables at the grand opening of the Ambassador Hotel, his mandatory family Sunday fun days, his employee fairs at Miradero -- all was not as it appeared. Sometime in his mid-50s, Brand met a former Ms. Nevada in her 20s, named Birdie Carpenter, on a train from Oregon to Los Angeles. He soon gave her land, sent her to secretarial school, and set her up as his mistress. When she became pregnant, he again ran off to Mexico and married Birdie -- even though he was still very much married to Mary Louise. Their son, Lee, was born in 1922, and soon after came Jack (whose paternity Brand questioned). Birdie lived with her children under the name, "Mrs. Lee Gordon," and the children were given Gordon as their surname. Brand had picked the name out of a phone book.
Brand didn't have long to enjoy his only children. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1924, and in the summer was so ill he was forced to leave his beloved Mono Lake and return to Miradero. In characteristic fashion he was productive to the last, even as he lapsed in and out of consciousness. In touchingly shaky handwriting, he awarded the deed of his prized $30,000 Le Pero plane to Captain Lowell Smith, who had just completed an around-the-world flight. From his tower bedroom he bequeathed, outright, 800 acres of Miradero to the city of Glendale. He also promised Miradero and the 50 acres surrounding it to the city on the death of Mary Louise. He insisted the land be used exclusively for a public library and park,4 that it be called "Brand Park and Library," and that it "be kept in as good condition as the best public parks and libraries are maintained in Southern California."5
To his children he promised nothing.
When the end came in April of 1925, it was Mary Louise, not Birdie, who was by his side. At the large funeral at Miradero, a plane dropped flowers from above. His casket was carried by employees of Title Guarantee and Trust up to the little private graveyard in the dusty hills, where other members of the family, including Nathaniel Dryden and several adored dogs, already laid. Longtime partner E.W. Sargent took control of the businesses and Mary Louise settled into a quieter life at Miradero, dying in a car accident on one of her cherished automobile trips East in 1945. And the shadow wife Birdie? She lived a simple, frugal life as a frumpy "widow," dying in 1954 in a duplex on Brand Boulevard.
After many delays and a protracted battle with 12 heirs, who claimed Miradero had not been kept up to the standards Brand had specified in his will, the Brand Library was officially opened in 1956. It featured a specialized collection focused on arts and music (which no doubt would have pleased the Brands, who had six pianos at Miradero alone). Major additions and renovations to the library and surrounding park have occurred over the years, including the addition of an art gallery, the tea pavilion, and the saved Victorian home, called "The Doctor's House." The current renovation is slated to be completed in early 2014.
But strange occurrences continue to happen at Miradero. In 1953, the dusty graveyard off the mountain path was stalked by grave robbers. The skull of one William P. Thompson was stolen and his remains were scattered among the tall grass. Three years later, the Glendale director of Parks and Forestry was on his weekly inspection when he found that another grave had been desecrated. This time the skull of Nathaniel Dryden, who had built the dream Brand had long envisioned, vanished forever. There is no report of the culprits ever being found.
But perhaps the oddest story from Miradero is the easiest to understand. There are long-standing reports of a ghost inside the Brand Library. And it's not just any ghost -- it's Leslie Brand himself. Employees and visitors have seen him walking up the stairs, hearing a voice say "Joe," or perhaps it is "Go."6 They say the spirit particularly likes hanging about the tower, once Brand's private boudoir. His portrait seems to look down upon visitors as he once looked down on the city he shaped, in the castle he created, from the comfort of his perfectly made rocking chair.
1"DNA Test Force Rewrite of City's History Books," Los Angeles Times, April 6,2008
2"Events in Local Society" Los Angeles Times, 1906
3"Must Come by Air or Not At All," Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1921
4"Mrs. M.L. Brand of Glendale dies in crash," Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1945
5"Court Battle to Open Over Brand Estate," Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1950
6"Glendale Library Haunted by LC Brand," Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2008