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Dancing in the Hallways: The Banning Homestead in Wilmington and the Art of Gracious SoCal Living

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I am from the South. Anyone who meets me for five minutes usually catches on to this, either because of the way I pronounce I and don't pronounce ings, or because I tell them. When I was growing up, one of my favorite things to do was visiting the old plantations and grand houses that dot the North and South Carolina coasts. They had long since been turned into museums, and their graceful porches, hushed hallways and tree laden lawns smelling slightly of salt air from the nearby sea are some of my most prevalent childhood memories. I have lived in Los Angeles for ten years now, and thought those visits were thousands of miles away. So imagine my surprise when I pulled up to the Banning Residence Museum in Banning Park , two miles from the terrifying industrial expanse that is the Port of Los Angeles- there in front of me stood a large, Civil War-era mansion, right out of my childhood wanderings.

There is a quiet elegance about this expertly kept, city-run museum -- inside and out. The lawn is shaded by giant jacarandas and eucalyptus, there is a lovely rose garden, and several outbuildings (including a large barn) that serve a variety of social and educational purposes. The main Greek Revival-style house, with its deep porch and widow's walk, is like something out of a Southern Living postcard. The house's interior is lovingly restored, and filled with beautiful period furniture, artifacts and clothing -- including dozens of pieces owned by the Banning family. The guided tour was led by a charming and knowledgeable older lady. And there were Christmas decorations in every room -- always a seasonal plus.

In the basement ballroom, by the large dancing pavilion built by later generations of Bannings, was an exhibit called "Improbable Gateway: The Los Angeles Transportation Legacy," detailing the important history of transportation in Southern California. There could be no more perfect place for this exhibit. The man who built this lovely home was responsible for many of early SoCal's great transportation strides. In some small way, his efforts are the reason many thousands of us now travel to Los Angeles from all over the world, to make a new life and build a new home- one that almost always echoes the one where we started.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

A Man of Large and Liberal Ideas

Phineas Banning | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library
Phineas Banning | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

"Active, energetic, irrepressible Phineas Banning," called by many "the father of the Los Angeles harbor" and the "transportation king," was born in 1830, on an unassuming farm outside of Wilmington, Delaware. 3 One of eleven children, he was descended from a long line of enterprising New England pioneers who were related to the famed DuPont family by marriage. However, his father was not a great success, so Phineas, at age 13, left a difficult farm life to join some of his siblings in Philadelphia. After working as a clerk in his brother's law offices, he eventually became a packer and shipping clerk at a wholesale import shop. Through this job, he met a merchant who hired him to accompany a large shipment of merchandise out to the wild frontiers of California. In 1851, at the age of 21, Phineas made his way to San Pedro Bay by way of Panama, and quickly found work as a clerk in the quiet, muddy port community of San Pedro (20 miles north of tiny Los Angeles), where:

Phineas immediately saw the possibilities of a more connected Southern California. He began a stagecoach line with a partner, running passengers and freight from San Pedro to Los Angeles. A quick study, he became an expert and fearless stagecoach driver, prompting one friend to comment that Banning "could ride farther and with less fatigue than any man I ever knew." 5 He also controlled a landing at the port and began dreaming of a dredged deep water port that would transform the region. In 1854, with his charm and powers of persuasion, he convinced a group of friends to buy 2,400 acres of Rancho San Pedro to further his goals. He also found time to woo a young Missouri native named Rebecca Sanford, who was the sister of a business associate. Legend has it that he fell in love with her instantly and courted her every weekend until she consented to marry him. No doubt she was impressed with what she saw. According to all accounts, rugged, handsome Phineas cut quite the imposing figure:

 

Drawing of Wilmington Harbor, showing the breakwater, channel and basin, ca. 1880 | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library
Drawing of Wilmington Harbor, showing the breakwater, channel and basin, ca. 1880 | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library
View of Wilmington harbor, showing the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad built by Phineas Banning, 1870 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
View of Wilmington harbor, showing the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad built by Phineas Banning, 1870 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Marriage and the birth of eight children (only three survived to adulthood) did not slow Phineas down. He and Rebecca quickly became the preeminent entertainers in the region, hosting many "sumptuous" dinners filled with "wine and wit," and throwing legendary Fourth of July parties featuring Phineas' long winded and amusing speeches. In 1857, Phineas bought 640-acres of waterfront property from his friends. In 1858, he founded the port city of New San Pedro on a portion of this land. He eventually renamed the town Wilmington, after his birth place, built wharves, warehouses and infrastructure on the site, and brought his numerous employees over from San Pedro.

The Civil War was a boon for the fledgling town, which one unimpressed visitor called "a village of shanties," featuring a great number of questionable saloons. The staunchly pro-Union Phineas (Rebecca was pro-Confederate) was already a genius at securing government funding for his projects and (allegedly) cleverly overcharging. He received many government contracts, including ones for hauling supplies to Yuma, the Central Valley, and Salt Lake City on rough Indian roads that would eventually become the approximate routes of our modern day freeways. He also convinced the Army to build a federal base and depot in his new town. This outpost, named the Drum Barracks, brought a flood of business to the town and Phineas' numerous enterprises. By 1865, the now "General" Phineas was the largest single tax payer in Los Angeles County and was elected to the state senate (where he served until 1869).

It was only fitting that the "mayor, councilman, constable, and watchman all rolled into one" of Wilmington would build the biggest and most luxurious home in the town. 7 In the spring of 1864, construction began on a three-story, white-clapboard Greek-Revival house that was probably based on homes from Phineas and Rebecca's eastern youth. Phineas had rows of eucalyptus trees planted to surround the home. The estate boasted a large library, many imported furnishings and tapestries, and its very own artesian well. Only two miles from the port of Wilmington, this home soon became the first place many travelers to Los Angeles encountered. The home was also the site of frequent "regales," where champagne was "always on tap" and guests danced in the extra-wide downstairs hallway.

Fort Drum Barracks in Wilmington, military headquarters during the Civil War. The men are wearing Union uniforms | Photo: C. C. Pierce Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Fort Drum Barracks in Wilmington, military headquarters during the Civil War. The men are wearing Union uniforms | Photo: C. C. Pierce Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Banning House, ca. 1870. Oldest known photograph of the house | Photo: Property of Friends of Banning Museum
Banning House, ca. 1870. Oldest known photograph of the house | Photo: Property of Friends of Banning Museum

The Ancestral Home

As he got older, the overindulgent Phineas' large frame tended to a "Falstaffian rotundity," according to one friend. Rebecca died in 1868, due to complications from childbirth. Although heartbroken, this did not slow the grieving widower down. Phineas pushed through a bond, funding the construction of the region's first railway, linking San Pedro Harbor to Los Angeles. It opened within a year. In 1870, he married a young, vivacious, and decisive woman named Mary Hollister, who soon gave birth to two girls, and became the area's premier hostess. Phineas went to D.C. to lobby for the construction of a Wilmington breakwater, so that his long held dream of a deepwater port could become a reality. According to the L.A. Times, this lobbying was a success: "...by 1873, enough money was available to start construction. Over the next 10 years, Banning dredged and improved the harbor, expanding its operation with the Southern Pacific Railroad." 10

Phineas would not live to see his dream of a deep water port completed. His last decade was a busy one, and many of his assets were sold to the Southern Pacific Railway. In 1876, he helped bring the Southern Pacific Railway to Los Angeles, linking the growing city to the rest of the country. He continued to live large -- Mary remembering that he "required a half a pint of champagne with peaches and cream" by his bedside table every evening. 11 Although many contemporaries charged him with corruption, an obsession with honorifics and an oversized ego, no one could doubt "just how much this section has been indebted to him." 12 After his death in San Francisco in 1885, his body was brought back to his Wilmington estate for funeral services. In Wilmington, it was a day of intense mourning:

Drawing of the Phineas Banning residence | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Drawing of the Phineas Banning residence | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Stereograph of the Banning House, taken by Joseph Banning, ca. 1880 | Photo: Property of Friends of Banning Museum
Stereograph of the Banning House, taken by Joseph Banning, ca. 1880 | Photo: Property of Friends of Banning Museum

Phineas had enjoyed a close relationship with his three sons William, Joseph, and Hancock. The brothers soon took over the family's numerous enterprises. A simmering feud between the boys and their opinionated step-mother soon boiled over, and Mary departed for more sociable Los Angeles with her daughters, Mary and Lucy. For a time, Joseph and his wife, Katherine, who was also his first cousin, lived at the Wilmington estate with their young family. Both Joseph and William had fallen head over heels in love with Katherine, but in the end she had chosen Joseph to be her husband. Although William never married, it seems the brothers were able to get past this unfortunate triangle, and William was the couple's frequent house guest.

In 1892, the Hancock brothers bought Catalina Island and began developing it into a resort property. The sons were able to realize their father's dream of a port of Los Angeles in San Pedro and Wilmington. A breakwater was built in 1899. In 1895, Joseph and Katherine moved out of the Wilmington homestead for homes in Los Angeles and Catalina Island. A Banning employee named Andrew Young moved into the mansion with his family and resided there for almost a decade. The Bannings still owned the home however, and had a strong nostalgia for it. When the brothers' beautiful, wild, half-sister Lucy was at her most willful, William even offered to move Joseph and his family back to the homestead to help rehabilitate her in the family's ancestral home. This offer was not accepted.

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The brothers continued in business together, but feuds between Hancock, his wife -- L.A. society leader Anne -- and volatile Joseph and his strong-willed Katherine meant relations were often strained. It was left to the even-keeled, unmarried William to act as peacemaker, dubbing the feud among his family, "the war between the states." In 1908, a property division agreement in the family landed the Wilmington homestead in the possession of Hancock and Anne. To create the perfect country home for the socially, politically, and philanthropically prominent Anne, major renovation of the grounds began. The basement was transformed into a grand ballroom, an outdoor dancing pavilion was added, and a Japanese garden and outdoor amphitheater were constructed. Anne soon began throwing large entertainments at the house, including numerous debutant teas, balls and charitable entertainments. The home was soon at the center of L.A.'s aristocratic social life, as it had been a generation before. During WWI, Anne's influence grew when she founded the "Grey sisterhood" of female volunteers. She also came up with the idea for Red Cross Shops, which were operated to benefit the war effort.

But the area around this "country estate" was changing. The port of Los Angeles was officially founded in 1907 with the creation of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners. Wilmington was annexed into Los Angeles in 1909. By the 1920s, the port of Los Angeles was the busiest harbor on the West Coast. The massive industrialization of the area made the neighborhood surrounding the homestead become increasingly unsafe. As early as 1923, Hancock reported having to fire his shotguns to scare off unsavory characters. Hancock died in 1925. The family, unable to bear the great burden of running the estate, offered to sell it to the city for use as a park. In 1927, a bond referendum was passed, and 21-acre "Banning Park" was born.

Dining room of the Banning House, ca. 1886 | Photo: Property of Friends of Banning Museum
Dining room of the Banning House, ca. 1886 | Photo: Property of Friends of Banning Museum
Parlor of the Banning House, ca. 1910 | Photo: Property of Friends of Banning Museum
Parlor of the Banning House, ca. 1910 | Photo: Property of Friends of Banning Museum

A Place for Family, Friends and Fellowship

After decades of sporadic use, including stints as a USO club in World War II and headquarters of Wilmington's annual Wisteria festival, the house was renovated in the 1970s by a non-profit group called Friends of Banning Park. It was reopened as a historic site in 1974. In 2001, it was designated as a historic-cultural monument by the Los Angeles City Council. In 2011, the Improbable Gateway Museum was opened by the city. Today, the Banning Residence Museum offers tours Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday. The museum hosts many school groups. Many special events are held on the grounds and in the beautifully restored historic barn, which features a newly constructed replica of a Banning stagecoach. According to director Michael Sanborn:

Holiday festivities at the Banning House | Photo: Property of Friends of Banning Museum
Holiday festivities at the Banning House | Photo: Property of Friends of Banning Museum

For more information about the Banning Museum, visit: www.thebanningmuseum.org

Special Thanks to Michael Sanborn and the Banning Museum.

Further Reading: "Grand Ventures: The Banning Family and the Shaping of Southern California," by Tom Sitton.

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1 Sitton, Tom. "Grand Ventures: The Banning Family and the Shaping of Southern California," p. 42
2 Maurer, David. "Colonial Homes 25.4" (Aug/Sep 1999): 98-105
3 Sitton, Tom "Grand Ventures" p. 42
4 Ibid. p. 34
5 Ibid. p. 42
6 Ibid. p. 41
7 Ibid. p. 127
8 "Old place improved" Los Angeles Times, Oct. 31, 1909
9 "Brilliant scenes of other days at Banning House" Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1922
10 Maurer, David. "Colonial Homes": 98-105
11 Sitton, Tom "Grand Ventures" p. 146
12 Sitton, Tom "Grand Ventures" p. 150
13 Maurer, David. "Colonial Homes": 98-105

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