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Last House Standing on Bunker Hill

One of the last remnants of the original Bunker Hill in 1968. Photo by William Reagh, courtesy of the California State Library.
One of the last remnants of the original Bunker Hill in 1968. Photo by William Reagh,  courtesy of the California State Library.

By the summer of 1969, bulldozers had cleared Bunker Hill of its Victorian mansions. Trucks had hauled its funicular, Angels Flight, to storage. Steam shovels had shaved 30 feet off its summit.

And yet for all its heavy machinery, the Community Redevelopment Agency couldn't touch Stuart Oliver's property.

Oliver's house, shade trees, and two adjoining rental units floated above a desert of virgin real estate -- bare earth from which the steel-and-glass towers of the Financial District would soon rise. Earthmovers had pared down the surrounding land by two stories, clawing into the earth up to the edges of Oliver's 7,940-square-foot parcel.

The resulting earthen stump was the final remnant of old Bunker Hill.

It's tempting to see in photographs like the one above an act of defiance, to cast the house's owner as a stubborn crusader against a misguided urban renewal scheme.

In truth, Oliver was a willing accomplice in Bunker Hill's redevelopment.

A decade after he and his wife moved into their modern domicile at 4th and Hope in 1949, the CRA began offering owners like the Olivers a chance to participate in the hill's transformation. Hold on to your land, it told them, and build something on it that conforms with our master plan. A shrewd businessman, Oliver signed an owner-participant agreement and drafted plans for a 150-unit apartment complex.

Interest in Bunker Hill real estate soon soared well beyond the CRA's initial expectations, however, prompting the agency to revise its master plan. Suddenly, modest apartment buildings such as what Oliver was proposing had no place on Bunker Hill, which the CRA envisioned as a forest of 50-story skyscrapers.

Oliver bickered with the CRA for ten years, during which his hilltop house became increasingly isolated. "It's not the friendly neighborhood it once was," a friend of Oliver's laconically remarked to the Times. Even the postman had trouble finding the address. Finally, in July 1969, Oliver let go of his own redevelopment dreams and sold his land (at a tidy profit) for half a million dollars.

The Olivers then vacated their lonely house, but they didn't move far. Their new home, the recently built Bunker Hill Towers complex, offered unobstructed views of their old. From the tower, they could have seen the bulldozers push their former house off its hilltop perch. They would have seen the steam shovels come next, clearing away the earthen stump to make way for the 55-story Security Pacific Plaza. From their new home, a product itself of redevelopment, they would have witnessed their old neighborhood's final days.

The house's modern architecture, seen here in 1954, contrasted with the Victorian architecture that predominated throughout much of pre-redevelopment Bunker Hill. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
The house's modern architecture, seen here in 1954, contrasted with the Victorian architecture that predominated throughout much of pre-redevelopment Bunker Hill.  Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
A steam shovel digs a trench for Fourth Street through Bunker Hill, directly beneath Stuart Oliver's house, in 1954. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
A steam shovel digs a trench for Fourth Street through Bunker Hill, directly beneath Stuart Oliver's house, in 1954.  Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
Oliver House on Bunker Hill, circa 1968
Barren land surrounds the house in this ca. 1968 photograph of Bunker Hill, taken from the Crocker-Citizens Tower. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo Archives. Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives collection.
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Oliver's house still rises stubbornly over the rest of Bunker Hill in this 1967 photograph, which looks south down Hope St. A few other remnant structures, including two historic hotels, also remained intact though 1969, but Oliver's was likely the last house standing. Courtesy of the William Reagh Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
By the time William Reagh took this photo in 1970, OIiver's house and the stub of Bunker Hill on which it once stood had been demolished. Courtesy of the William Reagh Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
By the time William Reagh took this photo in 1970, OIiver's house and the stub of Bunker Hill  on which it once stood had been demolished.  Courtesy of the William Reagh Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
An aerial view of Bunker Hill in 1955. A yellow arrow points to Oliver's house. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Los Angeles Examiner Collection.
An aerial view of Bunker Hill in 1955. A yellow arrow points to Oliver's house.  Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Los Angeles Examiner Collection.
An aerial view of Bunker Hill in 1970, shortly after Oliver's house was demolished. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.
An aerial view of Bunker Hill in 1970, shortly after Oliver's house was demolished.  Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

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