Lummis House: Where Highland Park's Herald of the Southwest Reigned over his Kingdom
It is amazing -- the hidden little utopias scattered all over Los Angeles. One recent bright Saturday morning, I parked my car on a non-descript residential street right next to the 110 Freeway in Highland Park. I must admit, I was prepared to be underwhelmed as I entered the Lummis Home and Gardens, surrounded as it was by a grungy fence and the dull roar of the freeway.
How wrong I was.
I was immediately enveloped in a secluded wonderland of drooping trees, native plants, and chirping birds. In the center of it all was "El Alisal," a miniature stone castle complete with a picturesque Rapunzel tower. Painters with their easels were scattered all around the property, and a teenage couple canoodled on a secluded bench. Equally enchanting was the castle's interior. With its customized Arts and Crafts style wooden features, one of a kind painted windows, and curved adobe walls, it was like something out of a Southwestern fairytale.
Everywhere were imprints and relics of Charles F. Lummis, the castle's creator and undisputed king. For decades, he lorded over his hidden principality, enchanting visitors as he lived the life of a Western Don Quixote.
But in the process of crafting his curated old California fairytale, he drove away those who loved him and lost touch with the reality of the bustling, ever changing city that surrounded him.
The House that Chuck Built
A man's home should be part of himself...Something of the owner's individuality should inform it...Everyone knows that the thing he has made is more genuinely his than the thing he has bought. The creative thrill is so fine and keen, it is pitiful for a man to get a home off the bargain counter, and miss all the joy he might just as well have had in building it.-Charles F. Lummis ("American Character", 2001)
During these years the patio was his reception room. Here he stood at his workbench near the old sycamore in his working costume of white jeans. Sawing, planning, rabbeting, carving. Visitors came from all over the world, and he would continue to work as he talked with them. To sit down would have been to lose time. An awestruck woman once breathed over a shaving curling from his block plane. "Mr. Lummis! Did you make this? May I have it?" -Tubrese and Keith Lummis, children of Charles Lummis("Charles F. Lummis", 1975)
Charles F. Lummis was a legend in his own time (and in his own mind). The son of a well-to-do New England family, he would become the Southwest's most important early booster. This love affair with the Wild West began in 1884, when the diminutive 25-year-old Lummis walked on foot from Ohio to Los Angeles to reach his new job as city editor at the fledgling Los Angeles Times. His dispatches back to a paper in Ohio made him a national darling, carrying "in his shoes a pretty fair-sized circus."
Once he arrived in Los Angeles he worked around the clock, until a stroke due to overwork left him partially paralyzed. To regain his health, he moved to the Native American pueblo of Isleta, New Mexico, where he became enchanted with the culture. When he returned to Los Angeles, his paralysis had disappeared. He had a new wife, a school teacher named Eve (also called Eva), and a new job, as editor of the Land of Sunshine (later called Out West), a promotional journal initially sponsored by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
From his appointment in 1893, Lummis used Land of Sunshine to extoll the West's rich pre-Anglo culture and heritage, and to highlight its burgeoning artistic community. "Lummis was one of the first writers to realize that the history of the United States did not begin with Plymouth Rock", one admirer wrote, "one of the first to discover the Southwest as a treasure trove of romance, history and archaeology." Lummis dismissed such praise, stating, "I am convinced - despite keen maternal pangs to the contrary - that I didn't discover anything."
He resumed his obsessive work schedule. Over the next twenty odd years, he would write 16 books, become a celebrated photographer and amateur archeologist, do a stint as city librarian, found the Landmarks Club to save crumbling missions, create the Southwest Society that would open the Southwest Museum, fight government sponsored Indian schools, and champion Native American rights.
But even a whirling dervish needs a place to rest. By 1894, Eve was pregnant with baby number two. Lummis began scouting for places to build his family a permanent homestead, "built to last 1000 years," where he would rule as benevolent patriarch. He was drawn to the artsy, bohemian community surrounding the Arroyo Seco, and soon discovered the perfect spot:
In May, he found a two-and-a-half-acre lot six miles north of downtown Los Angeles going for $650...The lot had several features that Lummis liked, including a towering grove of old sycamore trees and a seemingly limitless quantity of large water-worn boulders out of which he intended to build a castle for the ages in the shade of the sycamores. He had been mulling over his dream home for a decade, storing up ideas during his travels to pueblos, missions, forts, and homes throughout the Southwest.
He named it El Alisal, "the place of the sycamore trees." Its construction, spanning two decades, would become another of Lummis's daily obsessions and points of pride. "Any fool can write a book," he said, "but it takes a man to make a dovetail door." (L.A. Times)
In 1896, the family moved into a rough cabin on the property, and Lummis began to build his miniature castle. "I would rather take pleasure in putting in 2,600 tons of masonry than in two-million strokes with a golf club," he declared, "because it leaves a mark."
The constant construction did not stop El Alisal from becoming one of the social centers of California. Lummis's many visitors always encountered a hive of activity. "Indian boys brought yearly from Isleta did rough labor," his children remembered. "Sometimes a famous visitor would lend a hand hoisting a beam. There were transitory carpenters, roofers, masons, and electricians." Even the children "brought rocks and tamped mortar with their bare feet."
The result was something quite remarkable -- a house as unique as its owner. "Every window was designed to recall some building in Peru or New Mexico; some were located to permit a view of a favorite garden spot," his daughter Tubrese recalled: "Every door was handmade and unique. Eve noticed a beautiful door in the background of the Velasquez painting 'The Maids of Honor,' and the replica still hangs at El Alisal. The hinges on the main entrance were forged in the shape of the sacred serpent of the Inca ruins of Tiahuanaco." Even the fireplaces were unique, each featuring inspiring quotes like, "A casual savage struck two stones together--now man is warmed against the weather." The fireplace in Eve's bedroom was inscribed cheekily, "Love and a Fire, they're easy lit; but to keep either--wood to it!"
Lummis filled the castle with his extensive collection of Southwestern artifacts and artwork. The gardens bloomed with native plants and trees, and the sycamore shaded patio was surrounded by stone guest houses that looked like medieval cottages. While some guests found the setting rather cold and "higgledy-piggledy," most felt as this visitor did:
We enter upon rooms that every museum in the land must envy...artistic, historic and prehistoric treasures galore...with such alone is the house adorned. Surely a tangible exponent of the theory that home should contain only that which is useful or what is believed to be beautiful.
An Old California Good Time
I know a home built round a lordly tree
Where silver fountains glimmer in the moon;
A spacious hall of wit and minstrelsy
Of stately sarabande and rigaudon
Where wisdom wears the garments of delight
Where ballad, lyric Andalusian grace
Enchant the portals of the summer night...
So reigns Don Carlos in his dwelling place
- Henry Herbert Knibbs ("Saddle Songs and Other Verses," 1922)
Charles Lummis defined the phrase, "work hard, play hard." Throughout the early 1900s, El Alisal was the setting for countless legendary fiestas, which were attended by the leading artists and socialites of the day.
Anticipating this fact, Lummis had poured a cement floor on the ground floor of the castle, so that it could be easily hosed off after parties. "There were warm and exciting times at El Alisal, when we felt him reaching and trying to break through to us with expressions of the love he felt," Tubrese remembered. "The fiestas, especially Christmas and the 4th of July (such Roman candles and pin wheels and shooting stars and rockets and strings of firecrackers went off then, with my father at his most glorious!)."
Parties held for no particular reason were called "noises," and featured Spanish music, discourse and feasting that lasted late into the night. "No one invited ever failed to come," the singer Edith Pla remembered. "And there were people who wanted to come for years but were never invited."
People like John Muir, Frederic Remington, Clarence Darrow, Mary Austin, Madame Helena Modjeska, Horatio Nelson Rust, Marguerite Zitkala-Noni, Maynard Dixon, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, John Philip Sousa, John Burroughs and Will Rogers filled the red Moroccan leather "House book" with sketches, poems and odes like this one written by the Scottish writer Lorna Moon:
Dear Minstrel and Bard: Of the white silk hair and the clay-red eagle face...stay long with us to warm us in your glow. For writers there be by the thousands, and singers are as the sands of the seashore, but a radiant soul is to be held preciously upon the palm like an opal.
At one party, which the Los Angeles Times wrote was in "perfect keeping with the elaborate, old time California dinner," a Spanish tenor, bass and baritone sang old Spanish songs. A traditional banquet board "bore showers of Spanish poppies, red and yellow predominating suggestively in the decorative motif, and was centered with a baby bunny nestling in a grassy nest contained in a glass bowl." Lummis himself was typically decked out in an elaborate and eccentric costume reminiscent of a Spanish don. Most legendary of all were the gatherings described by biographer Mark Thompson:
The most intricately choreographed of the gatherings was called a Court of El Alcalde Mayor, named after the majestic sycamore tree in the center of El Alisal's courtyard where the events were held... Invited guests received an elaborately printed summons... naming the defendant--the visiting dignitary--who stood accused of "the High Misdemeanor of 'Not Knowing an Old California Good Time When You See it'." The plaintiff in the case was "The Good Old Days"... While the wine flowed, a prosecuting attorney would present the charges against the accused and a "defender of the poor" would speak up for the defendant before introducing his client. The defendant was then expected to make a speech absolving him or herself of the crime of not knowing an Old California Good Time. Lummis would pronounce the verdict, "Not Guilty, Come Again." Then the dinner would begin and afterward one of the resident troubadours at El Alisal, or perhaps a famous musician passing through town, would strike up a tune and everybody would join in as best they could, with Lummis lustily leading the way.
But even on days when there were no formal gatherings, life at El Alisal seemed more akin to a carnival than a home. A bewildering number of artists, writers, family members, workers and servants lived on the property.
Francisco Amante, a troubadour and handy man, lived with Lummis even after killing a teenager from Isleta during a fight. There were countless pets, including an African frog, a turtle, fish and many family dogs. Most vexing to Eve were the countless attractive private secretaries Lummis employed. They lived on the property and seemed to service Lummis in more ways than one.
However, many who visited the secluded castle spoke of the house as an oasis, a refuge from the outside world. "One Sunday after the rains, I came upon a house that spoke out loud of everything that really matters," one visitor wrote, "and I went on my way full of good things."
All The People That Ought To Be Here
The home he hungered for was never really his, and never really ours. -Tubrese Lummis Fiske ("Charles F. Lummis", 1975)
I went back to California today- the kind that used to be and that I have tried to hold on to and that we do revive here several times a year. It's the only way to live I think. -Charles Lummis ("Charles F. Lummis", 1975)
The castle may have been an oasis for guests, but it seemed more like a prison to the Lummis children. "Strangers were always coming to gape at the stone castle," they remembered, "pressing their noses against the screens until we felt like inmates of a zoo."
Lummis may have been gregarious and charming in public life, but in private he was authoritarian and cold. He forced his four children (including Bertha, an illegitimate daughter who came to live with him in 1905) to follow his very peculiar code of living, which included dressing in eccentric outfits, no haircuts, and not wearing shoes. He also enforced family bonding rituals, much to his exhausted family's chagrin:
Every night after supper he would settle down with his guitar to sing with us at El Alisal. But his wistful hope that we too would manifest the Latin miracle of happy-heartedness was never realized. He had forgotten that the Del Valles and the Chaveses sang because they were happy. There we sat like members of a chain gang, contributing only a grudging mumble, waiting to be set free.
By 1909, Eve had had it with Lummis's incessant entertaining and womanizing. She was tired of cooking and catering to her husband's guests, and sick of his patronizing secretaries. "I do not know of any other woman who would so continuously surround you with women you care for," she exploded. After she discovered proof of her husband's infidelity in his coded journal, she filed for divorce. She soon moved to San Francisco, taking Tubrese and Keith with her. Bertha, fed up with her father's controlling ways, also eventually left. Eight-year-old Quimu was left in Los Angeles with his father. The divorce would be exceedingly nasty, and negotiations would drag on until 1914.
Lummis quickly married his secretary, Gertrude. Life at El Alisal continued. But things had changed. Lummis, always a problem drinker, had descended into full blown alcoholism. He lost his job as city librarian, was running out of money, and fell out with many of the organizations he had helped create. His marriage to Gertrude failed (they finally divorced in 1923). He claimed he temporarily lost his sight, but the parties continued, even if they were now on a smaller scale.
During the 1920s, there was a resurgence of interest in all things Lummis. He was now sickly and infirm, looking decades older than a man in his sixties. His effort to keep El Alisal "the last ditch of the old California patriarchal days" was now seen as a charming, naïve conceit of a sentimental, brilliant old man. Visitors kept calling, the noises continued, and he never lost his knack for making influential new friends, such as Native American rights activist John Collier.
In his final years, he also became sweeter and more tolerant, and he mended fences with the family he had alienated during his years of frenetic glory.
"It's a scattery world," he wrote the year before he died, "but there's something in the blood to pull us together now and then. For the second time in 20 years, I have all four of my living children with me at one time, and it's a benediction. And [Quimu's wife] Betty to boot, and the two little granddaughters she has given me."
Lummis died at his beloved El Alisal on November 24th, 1928. Before his death, his daughter Tubrese played the guitar and sang for him the Spanish ballads he loved so much. His ashes were interred in a wall on the property, after a large memorial gathering:\
While several hundred old friends of the distinguished Californian who died last Sunday gathered in the patio to do him homage, the Jose Arias orchestra, the band of players Dr. Lummis had play for him many times during his life, struck up the soft strains of "Adios, Adios, Amores."(L.A. Times)
"Charles F. Lummis: The Man and His West," Tubrese Lummis Fiske and Keith Lummis
"American Character," Mark Thompson
"A Tramp Across the Continent," Charles F. Lummis
Discover more about Charles Lummis in Departures' Highland Park series.