When you live in Southern California, time isn’t exactly linear.
You can be a perfectly modern-day man or woman and yet be completely immersed in the architecture, wardrobe, and traditions of a completely different time from days gone by.
Are you more of a Gatsby Girl? There’s a Roaring Twenties / Art Deco community for you.
Fancy yourself a WWII G.I. or a Civil War recruit born into the wrong decade (or century)? There are plenty of reenactments for you to attend as a spectator or go ahead and join the cavalry.
But if the era of Queen Victoria is more your bailiwick – if you’re an Anglophile who longs for the days of refined sensibilities and parlor visits in gingerbread cottages – you’ve got a special opportunity to completely immerse yourself in Victorian culture.
For the right price, you can actually buy, restore, and live in (sometimes after relocating) your own Victorian home in areas like Boyle Heights, West Adams, and Angelino Heights!
But if you’re not inclined to make such a huge (and immersive) commitment to living the Victorian lifestyle, here are five great Victorian house museums where you can, for a time, surround yourself with the customs and décor of the era ruled as much by Charles Dickens, Jane Eyre, corsets, and hoop skirts as by the Queen herself.
1. Heritage Square Museum, Los Angeles
Heritage Square Museum in Montecito Heights is probably the best example of orphaned Victorian treasures finding their "forever home" elsewhere. An entire outdoor museum of displaced 19th-century domiciles, it’s a bit of an anomaly – tucked away at the end of what looks like an access road, abutting the 110 freeway in Northeast L.A. It's full of vintage houses in one small concentrated area – something you don't see much in L.A. anymore. We have plenty of house museums, but this is a museum of houses – including the Perry Mansion, the Greek Revival / Italianate home of a former lumber baron. Once the largest house in L.A., the Perry Mansion was relocated to Heritage Square from its original location on Pleasant Avenue in Boyle Heights (earning it the nickname "Mount Pleasant"). The Hale House, on the other hand, didn't have to travel very far to get to Heritage Square. Built in 1887, this classic example of a Queen Anne / Eastlake style house with fish scale shingles, iron grillwork, and a corner turret was relocated from the foot of Mount Washington at what is now Figueroa Street. The dollhouse-like color scheme of the exterior is actually close to the original paint job, and was reproduced from paint uncovered during its extensive restoration after arriving at Heritage Square in 1970. A Queen Anne style house without the Eastlake details, the Valley Knudsen Garden Residence was originally built by a cabinetmaker, Richard E. Shaw, in Lincoln Heights. The unique roofline (which makes the second floor look like an attic) is French, and can also be seen along Paris boulevards.
2. Grier Musser Museum, Los Angeles
Here’s a creepy Victorian house that hasn’t yet been relocated to Heritage Square: a nice Queen Anne Victorian from 1898 and a Historic-Cultural Monument declared by the City of Los Angeles in 1987. It was built as a single-family home, but in the early 1900s, it was also used as a multi-unit boarding house and later as a doctor's office and a maternity hospital. At a passing glance at the outside, you'd never suspect what oddities can be found inside. But when you walk through the front door, it becomes very clear that this is no ordinary house museum. In fact, it wasn't even bought to be lived in, but rather to house an ever-growing collection of antiques and vintage décor – like lace curtains, etched glass lamps, gas-electric chandeliers, and an organ and tapestries, as well as family portraits and a grandfather clock. Its owner, Susan Tejada, is the granddaughter of Anna Grier-Musser, after whom she named the museum when she founded it with her mother (now deceased) and sister (who's no longer involved), both with their own proclivities for collecting. Shelves are chock-full of curios, as art and other period-appropriate decor nearly cover the pink walls completely. In fact, a visit to the Grier Musser Museum is really more about the knick-knacks than about the house itself. Porcelain dolls and doilies seem to dominate the space. The displays change with the seasons, so there's a rotation of trinkets and tchotchkes and objects d'art that move in and out of storage on a month-to-month basis (some of which are Victorian, but generally span various eras). After 30 years of running the museum, Susan has collected a treasure trove that distracts you a bit from the Victorian home's original wood floors, pocket doors, hardware, and moulding. But there's no other place that you can see such a menagerie of glass, porcelain, china, papier-mâché, and plastic tucked into every possible corner for display. Because Susan and her family live in the Grier Musser Museum, call a few days in advance so they can prepare for visitors.
3. The Bembridge House, Long Beach
Los Angeles is full of little bedroom communities that used to be cities – places that got gobbled up by a better-known neighboring municipality, and are now just a footnote on a historic plaque. Willmore City is one of those places. With Drake Park (then Knoll Park) at its heart, it was the first historic district of Long Beach. What's left of it is just one square mile in size, perched on a bluff over the L.A. River, across from the Port of L.A. and Terminal Island. The crown jewel of Willmore City – which has plenty of landmark homes in Mission, Craftsman, and Queen Anne architectural styles – is the historic Bembridge House, a Queen Anne Victorian with an original carriage house and aviary. An international concert pianist and local piano teacher, Dorothy Bembridge was an important part of the early development of Long Beach, its community for 80 years, and its current cultural heritage. She was a founder of the Long Beach Historical Society, and she saved her own house from demolition. Because Dorothy collected some things over time but never really got rid of anything, the house contains antiques from many different eras dating all the way back to the turn of the century, creating a narrative of her nearly 90 years, now frozen in time. There are a total of 18 rooms, including a very large attic housed on the third floor that was once converted into sleeping quarters as part of the coastal defense during times of war. Up there, you can walk right into the hexagonal turret, which resembles more of a witch's hat from the inside. The Bembridge House is now owned by Long Beach Heritage, which opens it up for tours and hosts occasional special events there, as well as a quilting club. Take the tour to learn more about why Dorothy may still haunt her beloved home.
4. The Dr. Willela Howe-Waffle House and Medical Museum, Santa Ana
The Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle House and Medical Museum was built (almost entirely of redwood) in 1889 as the home and office of physicians Alvin and Willella Howe-Waffle, though during World War II it was divided up into apartments (and has since been restored to its original appearance). It was originally located near the corner of North Bush Street and 7th Street (now Civic Center Drive) in the Orange County city of Santa Ana, but it was moved to the corner of North Sycamore and Civic Center Drive in 1975 to save it from demolition. In its former location is now a Burger King parking lot. Glazed ceramic tiles depicting hunting dogs overlook the fireplace, which is surrounded by imposing cast bronze figures and other mantle embellishments. In the medical museum, peruse the bottles of vintage tinctures, tonics, potions, and potential poisons – as well as antique surgical equipment and supplies and a turn-of-the-century wheelchair. Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle was one of the first female physicians in Orange County, in a time when it was very much of a man's profession. She lived and worked in the Queen Anne style house, and she died at a patient's bedside. However, its only reported hauntings are of a little boy running around upstairs and a gentleman who frequents one of the two parlors – who, apparently, stayed with the house instead of hanging out by the Burger King.
5. The Doheny Mansion, Los Angeles
You hear about the old Victorian mansions of L.A., but you don't get to see many of them, unless you go trick-or-treating in Angelino Heights or take a tour of Heritage Square Museum. Downtown L.A.'s Bunker Hill was razed and leveled decades ago, the derelict homes cleared out for modern 20th century development of the Music Center and the tall buildings of the "New Downtown." But there's always the Doheny campus of Mount Saint Mary's University, which actually utilizes a lot of these historic old buildings. Oil baron Edward L. Doheny was one of the most prominent residents in the area, having purchased the 22-room mansion at 8 Chester Place (now known as The Doheny Mansion) in 1901 and renovated it extensively over the next year. Like many elaborate homes of the Victorian Era, its style is eclectic – perhaps best described as French Chateauesque influenced by a Romantic Revival of Gothic, Moorish, and California Mission elements. This mélange of styles – both new and borrowed – created a kind of West Coast version of the East Coast palaces occupied by established industrial barons. The interior decor of the Great Hall features cherubs, marble columns, and 18th century style furniture – all part of Doheny’s Belle Epoque, a Gilded Age mansion for the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Cecil B. DeMille to visit. While not a house museum per se, you can take a tour – or, better yet, attend a concert hosted by the Da Camera Society under the incredible Tiffany stained glass in the Pompeian Room.