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The Garbutt House in Silver Lake: Concrete Mansion that Capitalism Built

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hullam/Flickr/Creative Commons

It is one of those early mornings in December when the sky is a drab, opal grey. The hills that surround the Silver Lake Reservoir, like a hipper Geneva, are covered with houses of all architectural styles and in varying states of repair. I am trying to get a good view of the mansion that sits just a little higher than all the others. It is called Garbutt House (built 1926-1928), and is currently owned by Dov Charney, the controversial founder of American Apparel. Mere mortals, like me, cannot see the house from anywhere but below, since it is securely contained in the private, gated neighborhood of Hathaway Hills.

When it comes into view, I realize why I had a hard time spotting it. The 20+ room mansion is made entirely of concrete and is colored a steely grey, so that it almost blends in with the sky, in which it seems to sit. But once I see the house, even across the silvery reservoir, it is all I can see. It is substantial, masculine and cold, with clean lines and no ornamentation. People have a tough time classifying its style. "It is built in an irregular building plan and is designed in an eclectic manner including Tudor massing, Richardsonian rockwork and a 'stripped down' or reductive use of detailing, which recalls the early work of Irving Gill in Southern California," says one. It is like a citadel, a church, and to this spectator, vaguely like a 19th century mental institution.

This terminal uniqueness is perfectly understandable when you dig into the character of the man who built this overwhelming house on the hill. Frank A. A. Garbutt was a man for all seasons, with as many talents, careers and rock solid beliefs as any figure I have ever come across. He designed this fortress as a compound for his family, so that they could survive fires, earthquakes, and floods. He was a man who believed in self-sufficiency, toughness, and fighting for fairness to the nth degree. He was a man whose code of honor eventually turned him into a concrete man, unable to bend with the changing times.

The "Did" Did

...I met Sam Dewey, the Old L.A. County cashier, with my newly acquired lucky smile. To his inquiry as to how I was getting on, I told him I had just put over a big deal in eggs. He was glad to hear it, wanted to know why I had quit banking with them and volunteered that I still had $10 to my credit in an old account. It didn't take me long to draw out the $10 which I jingled in my pocket at every opportunity. I went home walking on air and radiating good luck to everyone I met. A short time after, I went into the diamond business. My first advertisement in the L.A. Times cost me one of those ten silver dollars. My first big diamond deal netted $50. The first year's business grossed $30,000. People always said that darned kid was lucky. But I had learned my lesson, which is the moral of this story. You can't make money talking about hard times. -- Frank A. Garbutt, Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1930 1
What is the use of a yacht to me if I cannot have some fun out of her? -- Frank A. Garbutt, Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1907 2
Portrait of Frank A. Garbutt
Portrait of Frank A. Garbutt

Frank A. Alderman Garbutt was born in 1868 in Mason City, Illinois. His father was a Harvard educated engineer, and his mother helped organize the Women's Christian Temperance Union. The family soon relocated to Colorado, where young Frank A. spent three years as a cowpuncher. The family then moved on to California. Handsome, athletic and manically competitive, Frank A. attended Stanford for a year, but the rigors of college life were not for his jumpy spirit. By 1888 he was making his own way, inventing oil drilling tools that he sold to others, and also used to drill his own wells. He married a woman named Emilie, and they soon had three children: Melodile, Theodora, and Frank E.

Frank A. was a golden, dashing, young man. By the 1890s he was a millionaire "oil king," and one of the most popular sporting men in L.A.'s evolving high society. Story after story in the L.A. Times (no doubt influenced by his deep friendship with Harry Chandler) describes Frank A. -- a boxer, automobilist, duck hunter, pioneer yachtsman and aviator -- with a chuckle and a tongue placed firmly in cheek.

Take for example the tale of Frank A., amateur detective. One night, asleep at his summer cottage in Playa Del Rey, Frank A. awoke to find a bewhiskered individual standing over his bed, holding a clam rake. Though Frank A. wanted to lie still, he instead jumped up and screamed, scaring the man off. He got up to investigate, and found a ladder and the culprit's matches scattered around its base.

Suddenly, the Sherlock Holmes' instinct took possession of Frank A. Garbutt, all the tremendous deductive powers which he believed lurked somewhere in his nature, came gurgling into his brain like a geyser. He found himself smiling at the simplicity of the problem before him; other men might have been baffled but not so he. 3

Soon, he and the rest of the Playa Del Rey beach colony were up in their "robes d'nuit," searching the beach with every makeshift weapon at their disposal, as they tried to keep the sea wind out of their pajama legs. Using footprints the colonists found their culprit, an old bum sleeping on the beach whose matches were the same as those found under the ladder. Ever the good sport, Frank A. let him go, asking the man, "You say you're from San Diego? Then the quicker you get back there the better." 4

Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1906
Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1906
Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1904
Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1904

When he wasn't solving petty crime, Frank A. was building fast machines. Workers in a mechanics shop in May 1904 laughed and winked at each other when Frank A. insisted that the new "mile a minute gasoline wagon" he had designed was not an "out and out racecar," even though he was a well-known racer at race tracks around town. 5 A month later he was flying by spectators and setting records at dusty Ascot Park near Gardena in his "lean little homemade bullet on wheels." 6 Shortly thereafter, at the insistence of Emilie, he switched to yachts and primitive speedboats.

In 1905, the unknown yachtsman announced his arrival on the scene. He won a heavily gambled-on race against the most prominent yachtsmen of Terminal Island. His mortified competitors cried foul, and issued a formal challenge to him in the Los Angeles Times. Frank A. agreed, and summarily beat them again, in a boat he had crafted himself. He named it "The Did." 7 By 1906, he had the fastest yacht in the west, which the family dedicated at a small ceremony that summer. "'I christen thee Skidbaldnir,' cried pretty Miss Melodile Garbutt, as she dashed a crystal bottle, filled with real Owens River Water, over the stem of the new, ninety- eight foot auxiliary power schooner." 8

Young Melodile had come up with the name after reading about a boat in Norse mythology that constantly changed sizes. It reminded her of plans for the yacht -- which constantly became bigger and more elaborate. This was typical of the Garbutt children, who were as clever and sporty as their father. Both Melodile and Theodora were expert rowers and sailors. Melodile was a particularly gifted rower and won many cups. She was sufficiently modest, and it was reported that she "never alludes to her prowess except before an admiring daddy and a stalwart young sister, who is the wrestling and savate [French boxing] champion of the Garbutt family." 9

While the children flourished, Frank A. seemed to have had his hand in every pot in the booming Western economy. He helped found both Union Oil and Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount), where he served as Vice President and managing director during the formative years of the film industry. He was forever monetizing his passions, whether it was buying and selling mines, writing short stories under a pen name, financing one of the country's first airplane factories (later Martin-Marrietta), building the Motordrome (one of the first circular auto racing tracks), organizing the 1932 Olympic games, running a ferry service between San Pedro and Terminal Island, organizing the Automobile Club of Southern California, and reviving and rebuilding the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which he would run for decades.

By the 1920s, Frank A. was one of the wonders of Los Angeles, still so handsome and in shape that it was rumored the teetotaler slept in a magic bed, which kept him forever young. In 1923, he and Melodile's husband, the shipbuilder Charles Hathaway, bought 36-acres of unspoiled land on the summit of "Dunnigan's Hill" in Silver Lake. Silver Lake at this time was the heart of the silent film community, and was home to many pioneering studios, including Famous Players-Lasky.

Here the family erected three homes, one for the Hathaways, one for Frank E. and his wife Princess, and one for Frank A., Emilie and Theodora. In addition to all his other talents, Frank A. was a "master builder." 10 He designed his own mansion, where the vibrant man would crystallize into an institution with very little compassion for those who had not been as lucky as he.

Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The Wine Becomes Vinegar

Age has not stolen one lock of his curling hair, now opal white, nor has it traced a single furrow on the high forehead or the cheeks. He has mellowed with age, like golden wine. One senses that he has lived, and has found life worth the living. He is not one of those in whom age has turned the wine of life in to vinegar. -- Los Angeles Times April 25, 1930 11
Some of my readers accuse me of being a millionaire stand patter anxious to keep my ill gotten gains at the expense of the poor. Such opinions would be "a laugh" if they were not so pathetically indicative of the character of their holders. I have earned millions; and spent millions but it has never been at the expense of a poor man. Every dollar ever spent even for pleasures has benefited some one less favorably situated. -- Frank A. Garbutt, Los Angeles Times July 7, 1935 12

The mansion on the hill was made entirely of concrete, an early 20th century fad heavily promoted by Thomas Edison. It was believed that concrete homes were not only more sanitary, but also fire and earthquake proof. Melodile later recalled "that the entire first floor was poured in one pouring that took two days and one night of steady pouring with three shifts of workers." 13 Frank A.'s fear of fire was so great that he included no fireplaces in the large home, and had steel doors installed. The first floor was entirely travertine, a limestone used in many ancient buildings, including the Coliseum. Details included fine teak woodwork and bronze door frames.

The family moved into the house in 1928. Here, the Garbutt-Hathaways and their growing broods could live in their bubble of excellence. Frank E., who helped his father run the Athletic Club, could come home and brag about the first time he tried to fly an airplane, and ended up turning loops because it was so easy for him. Theodora, who had "the green thumb of the family," could work in her extensive garden of exotic plants and spices. 14 Frank A. could obsess over his inventions, such as a better chewing gum than Wrigley's, and soapless detergent. Film crews were allowed on the property to use its pristine hills as an outdoor set.

But all the concrete in the world couldn't insulate Frank A. from the world changing around him. The populist politics brought about by the Great Depression seems to have rocked Frank A.'s winner-take-all, every-man-for-himself belief system to its core. Or, perhaps, time simply exposed his puritan, self-interested heart. Frank A. had certainly always been one to fight for what he believed was right. He did not think AAA was representing West Coast drivers well. So, he formed his own splinter group to fight for better terms. He did not think West Coast Olympians should have to travel to Chicago for trials. So, he wrote a letter to the head of the Olympic committee. "My dad always went into anything he did wholeheartedly," Melodile remembered. 15 And so, Frank A. began to fight the New Deal with all his might, through every avenue he could find.

Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

He wrote columns in the L.A. Times during the '30s that are the musings of a bitter and rather reactionary old man. His beloved wife, Emilie, died in 1934, and 1935 found him railing against everything known to man. People couldn't drive well anymore! Taxes were too dang high! Soup kitchens were Roosevelt's fault! Everyone in government was corrupt! Birth control was good because the poor were having children at a higher rate, and America would soon be overrun with "scrub stock!" 16 "The exploitation of the wealthy and well to do was made possible only by the ignorant of the majority!" 17 No one knew anything about boxing anymore! Huey Long was a communist! The American people wanted "something for nothing!" 18 Children were being taught bad habits! The President had a bad speaking voice!

In 1936, he started "Government Owners," a non-profit group that looked to uncover the secrets of "government control" and release classified information to the public. When workers in the dining room and kitchen at the Athletic Club went on a union-called strike in 1937, he took a stand that even his friends at the L.A. Times called "militant." He refused to meet with union reps, who claimed that workers at the club had been paid horribly for decades. In a hateful piece for the L.A. Times, Frank A. responded thusly:

Our kitchen and dining room help, many who have belonged to the union for 15 to 22 years ... suddenly, discovered we were unfair ... We don't want some bohunk who can't speak the English language parading in front of our club calling 'Loos Angeelees At-a-lectic Cloob oon fair to orgoonized labor.' We are afraid he will choke over the At-a-lectic Cloob ... Now watch the anonymous threats I will get. Maybe I will print some them for you. Only rats threaten anonymously. 19

He also attempted to form an "open shop party," to fight unfair union power "that destroys, creates dissension, hatred and class strife, and is contrary to our true principle of Americanism." 20 Frank A. died of a heart-attack in 1947, still a very active and wealthy man. The family continued to inhabit the compound on the hill in certain seasons until 1960, when it was sold to a rental corporation.

Garbutt House after purchase, prior to restoration | YouTube

The House on Hathaway Hill

Thus began the battle over the pristine, "park-like" 36-acre property that was now called Hathaway Hill. In the mid-'60s, a developer acquired the property. Over the next decade countless plans were considered, including ones to turn the property into a sea of condos, or a Park La Brea-like high rise community. Silver Lake homeowners and activists advocated turning the three abandoned homes into a school or community center, and preserving the surrounding tree-covered acreage as a city park. In 1978, the City Council finally approved a 97 single-family unit, gated development that would be called Hathaway Hills. Only the home of Frank A. would be preserved. The house was restored in 1982 and sold into private hands.

Before its restoration, the house was used as a movie set for horror films. Tales of hauntings were reported by film crews and neighbors in the newly developed Hathaway Hills. After passing through several different owners, the Garbutt House was bought by Dov Charney in 2006. It is reported that the house is often used as a dormitory for visiting American Apparel employees. It is also said that Charney, a modern day capitalist who stands for seemingly everything Frank A. opposed, has had a "sculpture of an extended middle finger in the front yard." 21

Frank A. would not be amused.

Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1982
Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1982
Entrance gate at Hathaway Hills Estates | Google Maps
Entrance gate at Hathaway Hills Estates | Google Maps

1 "Good luck vs. bad luck" Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1930: by frank a garbutt)
2 "Frank Garbutt scores freak" Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1907
3 "Robes d'nuit hot on trail Los Angeles Times, Aug 10, 1906
4 Ibid
5 "Garbutt builds mile a minute gasoline wagon" Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1904
6 "Begin to spin at matinees" Los Angeles Times, June 12, 1904
7 "This race will be for blood" Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1906
8 "Skidbaldnir is Launched" Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1907
9 "Racing shell easy for her" Los Angeles Times, Oct 15, 1905
10 "Old mansion in subdivision: Silver Lake home being restored" Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1982
11 "Garbutt portrait unveiled" Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1930
12 "Walking the streets" Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1935
13 "Old mansion in subdivision: Silver Lake home being restored" Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1982
14 "Southland sisters experts on herbs and spices" Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1959
15 "Old mansion in subdivision: Silver Lake home being restored" Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1982
16 "An argument for birth control" Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1935
17 Ibid.
18 "Something for nothing" Los Angeles Times, May 23, 1937
19 "Ultimatum served unions by Garbutt" Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1937
20"Plans for open shop party announced" Los Angeles Times, September 8, 1937
21 Curbed LA

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