Bunker Hill—Home of the Stars!

Quick, how many former residents of Bunker Hill have appeared on United States currency? I can hear you now yelling “ooo! ooo! DeWitt Clinton!” but sorry Horshack, no, and you’re way off.

We’re talking about a woman, and on a coin. At which point you wise up and say “ahhhh, right—because I read this, I know that Susan B. Anthony was on Bunker Hill!” and while I’m impressed you remember that, strictly speaking Anthony was a houseguest on the Hill, not a resident.

The answer, of course, is Anna May Wong, of 351 South Flower and 241 North Figueroa Streets. She, who dons a new twenty-five cent piece:

As part of the American Women Quarters Program
Designer: Emily Damstra, AIP Designer — Sculptor: John P. McGraw, Medallic Artist
Damstra’s striking concept of AMW gazing directly at the viewer is lost in McGraw’s translation of the reflections in her pupils; on the coin she appears to be looking up to her right

At which point you ask, well now, was she ensconced in one of the famed Bunker Hill mansions? The answer would be no: she was born in a modest gabled structure on Flower, and where she grew up, 241 North Figueroa, was a simple, small, two-story wooden structure. I’m yet to find a decent photo of it, but we do have a drawing—

Los Angeles Times, 20 January 1936

This image appeared in one of the “Rediscovering Los Angeles” features in the Times, as penned by Timothy Turner and illustrated by Charles Owens.

Open air drying?
Woman in a cloche with her package of dirty shirts

How and why did Anna May live in this laundry?

Wong Sam-sing, 41, married Lee Gon-toy, 15, in San Francisco in 1901. They moved to Los Angeles, 117 East Marchessault Street, and had a daughter, Lew Ying (whom they called Lulu) in December 1902. About 1904 they moved into the thick of Bunker Hill, to 351 South Flower Street, where Wong Liu Tsong, whom they called Anna May, was born in January 1905.

Demolished in 1928, so, irritatingly difficult to find a photo of. Now the site of the World Trade Center. USC

The Wongs move into 241 North Figueroa in late 1907 (some sources state the Wongs moved into 241 in 1910, but they appear in directories at that address in 1908).

The 1910 Federal Census

The Wong family owned a laundry, as was typical of Chinese-Americans at the time, laundries being one of the few professions open to their race.

Like I said, we don’t have a decent photo of the structure, but at least we have a photo—

This shot, from 1938, was captured four years after the Wongs and their laundry had departed
Looking south on Figueroa across Temple, before the PWA-Deco grade separation built in the spring-summer of 1939
USC

Liu Tsong/Anna May labored at the laundry with her siblings and attended the California Street public school on Fort Moore. When she and Lulu were bullied at that school, her parents pulled them out and placed them in the Presbyterian Chinese Mission School, 766 Juan Street, in Chinatown.

Anna May became enamored of the motion pictures. When she was 14, she got a bit part in The Red Lantern. A couple years later she had dropped out of school, landed the lead in The Toll of the Sea, and the rest is history.

Turner’s predictably pre-PC depiction of the laundry runs like so:

The structure at 241 N. Figueroa was built in the summer-fall of 1907 by covered-wagon-pioneer Aurelia Jane Hargrave Corker (widow of John Roden Corker; Aurelia’s legal battle with her stepson over Corker’s estate made the papers in the late 80s-early 90s ) who lived at 139 South Figueroa. 241 was 20×70, and had a 200sf bedroom addition to the back in 1911.

Aerials and maps give us a sense of where this was:

August 1941. FrameFinder
X marks 241 South Figueroa in both images. The yellow lines on the bottom image indicate where Flower Street used to go
The 1950 Sanborn map shows 241 as “Vacant and Boarded”
241 in the 1953 Sanborn—now site of the “Los Angeles County Health Department Office Building”

As can be seen, 241 became the site of a large office building, designed by Novikoff Engineers and built in the spring of 1952.

Civil engineer George Victor Novikoff primarily designed warehouses and industrial tracts in 1950s Los Angeles, although his repertoire included banks and shopping centers. USC

And now you’re wondering, well why doesn’t that perfectly serviceable Late Moderne building look like that now? Because in 1972 it was remodeled so as to visually conform with the 1970 Arthur Froelich & Associates-designed County Health Department Central Administrative Offices at 313 North Figueroa.

Its 6000 square foot public health laboratory was touted as the most modern in the United States. Getty/Nadel
On another note, have you been to the gardens that flank the fourteen-story Health Dept HQ? They are by Raymond Elwin Page. Known as “the first landscape architect” (he initiated licensure for the profession) Page was famous for designing large swaths of Beverly Hills.  The Health Department gardens are an absolute treasure, remarkably intact and deserve better looking-after.

In Bunker Hill, Los Angeles there’s a whole section on famous folk who bunked on Bunker (I recently added James Oviatt to the list) including pioneering woman like Edith Head and Margrethe Mather. I didn’t make the Wong connection in time and it breaks my heart she didn’t make it into the book.

So while we rejoice that this groundbreaking icon, a trailblazing stalwart for representation, is honored on American currency, just remember…Bunker Hill!

Where Can You Buy the Perfect Hallowe’en Gift?

First, one must establish what gift is best, in this spookiest of holiday seasons—the answer being a copy of Bunker Noir!, of course, replete as it is with horrible horrors, terrible terrors, and all manner of wacky weirdness.

Now, you may purchase copies directly from me, and I have as well made them available via Amazon and eBay.

But what fun is that? I would suggest you take a trip down to Grand Central Market. Not only can you ride Angels Flight across the street, and chow at the market (I’m particularly fond of pupusas from Sarita’s, and recommend the work of Tacos Tumbras a Tomas), you can in fact pick up a Bunker Noir!…right there in the middle of the action!

Head on over to the information desk in the center of the market…
What’s that lurking???
Aha!

A Haunted History of the Oviatt Penthouse!

UPDATE! Due to overwhelming demand, the ADSLA has added ANOTHER tour! Yes, tickets for a November 6th ‘encore tour’ are now available. Buy soon: we anticipate them to sell out rapidly! Click here! https://artdecola.org/events-calendar/spooky-oviatt-tour-2022-encore

It is the Spooky Month! There’s certainly no dearth of spookified going-ons around town, but if I may make a suggestion: endeavor to take the Art Deco Society’s upcoming Spoooooooky Oviatt Penthouse tour!

The James Oviatt Building (Walker & Eisen, 1928) seen here emerging from the gaping hellmouth of Los Angeles

There are a number of reasons to do so—for example, if you’ve never been in the Oviatt penthouse, that’s some bucket-list-Art Deco right there, arguably the finest Deco interior in all Los Angeles. And if you have been inside, you ain’t seen nothing like this twist on the the tour, replete with tales of its resident g-g-g-ghosts!

This tour is being led by Marc Chevalier, who knows everything about the Oviatt Building in general, the penthouse in particular, and is hip to all the juicy details regarding it and its builder, James Oviatt.

But far be it from me to suggest something that doesn’t have a Bunker Hill connection—James Oviatt, on his arrival in Los Angeles, lived on Bunker Hill. In my book I cover some of the famed folk who bunked on Bunker Hill: Edith Head, Jack Webb, John Wayne, Lon Chaney, et al., but somehow haberdasher-to-the-stars James Oviatt was left off the list. So:

Oviatt was twenty-one when he came to Los Angeles in 1909.

He shacks up in a three-flat apartment house at 308-310 South Grand. There are two images of 308-10 in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles before and during its 1963 demolition:

A shot of the place about 1960, snapped by Arnold Hylen:

308/310 S Grand was built in 1902 by prosperous mining engineer Richard Carl Troeger, who lived with his family in the 310 (south, to the right) side, and rented out the 308 side (left). Here’s a spooky lady robbing people in 1920!

One can just imagine James going to work in 1909—suited up, heading out the door, during right down Third, taking Angels Flight down to Hill, crossing Broadway, to the Douglas Block at the corner of Third and Spring, where he was a window dresser at the C. C. Desmond haberdashery.

In 1910 Oviatt has made his way down to the flats, in a little two-year-old bungalow at 632 West 43rd Place. Evidently he realized “damn, it’s taking me forever to get to work” so in 1911 he’d moved back to Bunker Hill:

Oviatt returns to Grand Ave. about four blocks north of his old place at 308 South Grand, into the Carleton, 232-236 North Grand. The Carleton appears in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles on page 102.

James Zera Oviatt in the 1911 City Directory

The Carleton was designed and built in 1905 by Warren Chancellor Dickerson, who lived in and managed it until he passed in 1936, thereafter being managed by his widow Elmira. It was purchased by the Department of Water and Power after Elmira passed in 1942. The DWP intended its headquarters to go on that block, and demolished the Carleton in late 1950 (that and other adjoining blocks were later sold to the County for its Courthouse project, and the DWP built its General Office Building a bit further west).

Dickerson, born on Long Island and educated at the Cooper Institute, was an accomplished architect who in 1897-1900 designed, for example, most of the Longwood Historic District in the South Bronx, while at the same time was a prolific postcard photographer. Los Angeles Times, 7 May 1905

James Oviatt lived at the Carleton through 1911, until in 1912 he resettled into the brand-new Los Angeles Athletic Club. From there, of course, it is a tale of his glorious ascendancy, from boardinghouse to penthouse, before his downfall.

But back to the Carleton for a moment—I’m going to share something with you no-one has ever seen. It’s a shot by Arnold Hylen, standing on the porch of the Carleton looking north, captured about 1949.

You’re welcome

AAAAAAaaanyway, those then are two of the first places James Oviatt resided in Los Angeles, before fame and riches and building the world’s greatest penthouse. And now YOU are going on this tour:

And to do so all you have to do is click here:

https://artdecola.org/events-calendar/spooky-oviatt-tour-2022

A Serial Killer on Bunker Hill

There are many disparate, interconnected elements to the study of Old Bunker Hill. Component parts include the Hill’s architecture, and stories of its residents, and the famous tale of its slash-and-burn urban renewal. Then there’s crime. The true-crime genre often casts an eye on Bunker Hill—heck, there’s a website, and book, devoted solely to the subject of Bunker Hill’s crime—largely due to the intricacy and volume of criminal occurences, but also because your average Hill enthusiast’s initial exposure to Bunker Hill was likely via the hard-boiled prose of Chandler, or some Hill-filmed noir motion picture à la Criss Cross and Kiss Me Deadly.

Of all the Hill’s crime, arguably the grisliest criminal act ever perpetrated thereon was the 1937 Worden murders, committed by Robert Nixon and Howard Green. I consider the Worden slayings among the grisliest in all Los Angeles history, and that’s a tough crowd to join, our city having given the world the likes of Hickman and Manson and Ramirez.

So yes, a serial killer once visited Bunker Hill—but I write not of Liz of Angels Flight fame, nor real-life serial killer Stephen Nash, who lived on Bunker Hill (though he stabbed, but never actually killed, anyone there). Today we discuss Robert Nixon. Nixon will forever be tied to Bunker Hill in that he committed two of his multiple murders in the Hotel Astoria, 248 South Olive Street.

I wrote a bit about the Astoria killings in a piece for OnBunkerHill. Since I penned that post in 2008, there has been a Wikipedia page, begun in 2011. and a 2016 book partially concerning Nixon. The focus of the book is narrow and the Wikipedia page is flawed, thus accordingly, I shall endeavor to tackle the subject here (because no, editing Wiki pages is not a worm-can I shall ever seek to open).

Nixon and his doings warranted a two-page spread in Bunker Noir! — which I might add is available here. Nixon at the Astoria also made an appearance in the book Bunker Hill, Los Angeles.

About the arrangement of this post: being a Bunker Hill blog and all, in Part I, we cover the Olive Street Bunker Hill killings right off the bat. In Part II, we focus on the apartment-hotel-location in question, the Astoria at 248 South Olive Street.

But the April 1937 Astoria murders occurred about mid-way through Nixon’s vaster killing spree. Thus, after we tell the Worden murders tale, and recounting the Astoria’s history, in Part III we backtrack to detail Nixon’s story (early life, first Chicago crimes) leading up to Bunker Hill, and his continuing crimes in Chicago thereafter.

Part IV details the story post-capture. Parts V and VI are associated topics—V, the role Richard Wright’s novel Native Son has had in keeping interest in the Nixon case alive, and VI, a discourse on Elizabeth Dale’s 2016 book Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871–1971.

I. The Worden Murders

April 1937. Los Angeles was on edge. Over the last few weeks, women had been attacked at an alarming rate. A young mother raped and beaten to death down on Stanford, while her baby cried in the adjoining crib. Another woman raped and beaten near death on Ingraham—they say she’ll never fully recover. Women attacked in the Rosslyn and Barclay Hotels; women attacked in Monte Sano hospital. A whole collection of rapes, and thwarted attempts, in assorted apartment houses. In each case, the same suspect, a tall African American male. In each case, the woman had her skull beaten with a brick.

Edna Worden lived on Bunker Hill with her preteen daughter. It was Saturday night, and devout Christian Scientist Edna made certain little flaxen-haired twelve-year-old Marguerite said her prayers before bed. Sunday would bring rest and devotion, and Marguerite, a top student at nearby Belmont Junior High, would prepare for a big day Monday—her first attendance at a new school, a prestigious Beverly Hills academy for girls.

Edna A. Blood was born May 30, 1888 to Frank and Anna (née Downs) Blood in Manchester, New Hampshire. Edna graduated from Manchester Central High School, a top student, and became a schoolteacher. On August 21, 1925, 37-year-old schoolteacher Edna married Raymond Arthur Worden, 32, a woodsman, in Goffstown, NH. A daughter, Marguerite, arrived soon after. In 1930 Edna and Raymond were living in Keansburg, New Jersey; census records list Raymond’s vocation as stocks and bonds. By 1932, Edna and Raymond had moved to Los Angeles, living at 1616 West Eleventh St. Soon thereafter, Raymond—a WWI vet with pronounced wartime PTSD that left him nearly disabled—departed Los Angeles and he moved back to New York and divorced Edna, charging desertion. Raymond, unemployed, moved in with his mother in Arlington, New York.

In September 1936 Edna and Marguerite were newly ensconced in their modest two-room apartment in the Astoria, 248 South Olive Street. The Astoria had been among the finest residential hotels in Los Angeles, once; thirty years after its opening, it had become a bit faded, but still suitable for the genteel and decorous, despite their financial straits. Edna made a meager but respectable living as a WPA worker, and took in a bit of money from Volunteers of America, and once in a while erstwhile husband Raymond sent a few bucks for Marguerite’s schooling. Edna and Marguerite’s humble apartment, room 206 at the Astoria, $18.75 a month, had two beds and a little kitchen. Edna was dutifully cultured; their rooms were crowded with books, in particular the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Scott, Milton, Dante, Byron, Poe and the Greek philosophers. In her spare time Edna worked on manuscripts for the Christian Science Monitor; a portrait of Mary Baker Eddy hung on the wall, keeping watch over Edna’s good works. In the corner was a blackboard, where little Marguerite kept a record of the time and length of her prayers—”7:45am – six minutes.”

The night of Saturday April 3rd, 1937, the Worden women went to bed; Marguerite clutched her wee rag doll. From a light fixture hung Marguerite’s freshly washed and starched blue gingham dress, which she would wear to Sunday school, or perhaps to her new school come Monday.

But that was not to be.

John D. A. Riley, elevator operator at the Astoria, had for months and without fail received a special early-morning Sunday visitor. Early each and every Sunday, when the newspaper arrived, little Marguerite would run to Riley and collect the Sunday comic supplement. This Sunday, April 4, she did not come to fetch the funnies. He already had a bad feeling; he had passed by the Worden’s room at six a.m. and had heard an odd noise…not quite like snoring, more like a gurgling. Or even a moan. He would later describe is as a “sigh, something like a nightmare.”

The hour got later—perhaps they had already made their way to church?—but at 12:30pm, when mother and daughter had not returned from services, Riley fetched the building’s manager, J. E. Harrigan. Harrigan climbed up on a stepladder to peer over the transom. What he saw was horror beyond compare.

Harrigan called LAPD who hurriedly sent Detective Lieutenants Thomas R. Bryan and Sosten R. Lopez. They encountered a ghastly scene. Edna Worden was nude, the lower half of her body on her bed, her head hanging down to the floor, her torn blue-striped nightgown pushed up to her neck, blood and gore around her smashed skull.

Similarly, preteen Marguerite had had her pajama bottoms torn off, and her pajama top pushed up to her neck. Her face was covered with a sticky, bloody pillow atop which lay a gore-caked brick. When investigators pulled the pillow from her face, they found her nose caved in and repeated blows to her right temple.

Edna’s purse was empty and discarded on the floor.

The Detectives called for a Coroner’s deputy, who arrived and determined the little girl had been dead for some hours, but that Edna has lived through the ordeal until comparatively recently. A detachment of officers arrived in short order—Police Chemist Ray Pinker, Officer J. B. Larbaig of the Fingerprint Bureau, and Detective Lieutenants Thad Brown and Miles Ledbetter. Uniformed officers cordoned off Bunker Hill, lining Olive and Clay Streets.

Pinker ascertained the killer or killers had entered through the kitchen window, pulling the upper half of the double-hung window down from the top. Pinker found twelve-inch footprints of stockinged feet, and made casts. Lopez discovered a one-third-full milk bottle on a ledge near the window, and then noticed the windowsill had a circle in the dust, indicating the bottle had been moved from the sill. Lopez immediately determined it had a greasy fingerprint smudge, and it was sent to the Research Laboratory for minute investigation. There, Lieutenant Millerd G. Gaskell lifted two prints from the bottle. Detective Lieutenants Bryan, and Raymond E. Giese, were put on the case full-time.

Given the state of the naked woman and child, with their bedclothes pushed up to their necks, and the child spread-eagle, it was stated in the press that they had been raped. Autopsy Surgeon Dr. Andrew Fremont Wagner deduced that while there was evidence of preteen Marguerite being attacked sexually, her attacker failed to complete the job.

For weeks thereafter, the homicide squad of twenty-four detectives, plus four squads of LAPD detectives, and fifty men from Metropolitan Division, in prowl cars and on foot, some in uniform and others plainclothes, spread out across the city in a human dragnet. Dozens of suspects were brought to LAPD Central (a stone’s throw from Bunker Hill at 318 West First St.) and had their fingerprints checked. Those picked up were almost entirely Black—multiple recent attacks and killings with a similar modus operandi invariably involved eyewitness accounts of a Black man fleeing the scene—though the net caught not only African American men but, for example, Don Raul de Vedas, a young violinist who late one night “accidentally” wandered into the bedroom of Bernice Cooper at 109 North Grand Avenue; and David Madrid, who was captured in the Little Sisters of the Poor home for the aged, 2700 East First St., strangling 74-year-old Mary Houlihan, because he was gripped by a “midnight urge to kill.” LAPD looked especially at car washers, as prints in the Worden and previous attacks involved automobile grease. After the Worden assaults, brick attacks abruptly ceased, and it was believed the suspect(s) left town.

A month into a fruitless investigation, Bryan and Giese, at the direction of Captain Wallis, prepared a circular letter and mailed copies of it to the police departments of more than 300 cities (including Mexico, Hawaii, Cuba and Canada), inquiring as to whether similar crimes, with similar perpetrators and MO (Black men; fire escapes and windows; robbery, rape, and murder; and bricks, always bricks), had occurred in their jurisdictions. They received a lot of responses, but only one city stood out as having a very similar series of outrages—Chicago.

On May 18, 1937, Bryan and Giese wrote to Chicago Chief of Detectives John L. Sullivan in search of a matching fingerprint. Unfortunately, a partial latent left at the rape attempt, purse looting, and murder of Mrs. Florence Thompson Castle—beaten to death by a brick-wielding killer in June 1936—was too smeared to be conclusive. Bryan and Giese, however, were certain the same killer was working in both Los Angeles and Chicago.

Not ten days later, on May 27th, 1938, Chicago wife and mother Mrs. Florence Johnson was attacked and murdered by a brickbat-wielding killer, from which Chicago picked up a man, identifying himself as one Thomas Crosby; he is covered in scratches and fresh blood (he insisted he had been killing chickens, but lab work quickly identified the blood on him as human).

After which LA’s Lt. Bryan read in the Hollywood Citizen News all about Crosby and, reading his description, looked into the name and, sure enough, there had been a Los Angeles arrest of Thomas Crosby on a juvenile burglary charge. And, sure enough, his fingerprints from juvie matched those left at the Worden murder, as well as prints left at the attack on Zoe Damrell, a week before the Worden killings. Lieutenant Bryan wired Chicago chief Sullivan to detain Crosby immediately; Crosby turned out to be one Robert Nixon. Sullivan fingerprinted Nixon, and his prints matched the Worden killings. The Brickbat Slayer had been captured.

Nixon and Green walked west up Second Street, turned south on Clay Street, and crawled up the dirt embankment between the Astoria apartments at 248 South Olive (left) and its neighbor the Blackstone at 244, and up into the Worden’s Astoria window, here
The window into which the killers gained ingress. We are looking down from near Olive, between the Astoria (r) and Blackstone (l). Three detectives stand on Clay Street. Hill Street structures in the distance. To further clarify, take a look at this—
The little bedroom with two beds pushed against each other. Marguerite’s rag doll, mute witness to the horror

II. The Astoria

The Astoria soon after its opening, 1906

In the summer of 1903 William Steppe Collins—the oil, orange, and real estate magnate (when he developed Newport Beach, all of Balboa Island was named “Collins Island”)—announced plans to build a grand hotel on Bunker Hill, called The Collins. On a 73×165′ Olive Street lot, two lots north of Third and the upper Angels Flight location, extending eastward to Clay Street, was to be a grand nine-story hotel, with rooftop gardens and dining room, topped by a massive belfry from which chimes would ring the hour.

The Collins’s architect was Arthur L. Haley. Its initial incarnation, left, was published in the Times, June 21 1903. A subsequent version published in the Evening Express October 3 1903, shows Haley has re-imagined the Collins with more Moorish flair

However, by the spring of 1904, the hotel failed to materialized and W. S. Collins was being sued for breach of contract. Alfred T. Finney (manager of Bunker Hill’s Hotel Normandie [which would be renamed the Nugent and later, the New Grand]) had signed a lease for the forthcoming Collins, and began renting the empty Hill Street lot that lay immediately east of the proposed Collins, so that the hotel could have a park and ornamental gardens. Collins countered that his inability to build the structure wasn’t his fault, but the City’s: they wouldn’t allow a 135′ wooden structure, rather, 65′ was as high as they would allow a wooden structure, and it was too expensive for Collins to build in steel-reinforced concrete, so, the rentals on a smaller building didn’t pencil out to cover construction costs.

Collins sold the unimproved lot to local real estate man Edwin W. Smith in May 1905. By July Smith had pulled permits for a hotel he shall name The Astoria. It was built in mere months and opened in January 1906.

Right, Los Angeles Times, 17 December 1905; Left, Los Angeles Herald, 14 February 1906

The architect for the Astoria is Albert Julius Daniels. Yes I know, I state in Bunker Hill Los Angeles that the Astoria’s architect is Arthur L. Haley. I’m not normally prone to misattribution so that blunder causes me no lack of shame; said mistake stems, I have deduced, from Haley having been on board to design the lot’s initial structure, and the fact that most of the Mission Revival buildings on the Hill are Haley’s. (Fact is, I never quite bought the Astoria as a Haley, so my Daniels discovery didn’t shock me. Haley was far too serious about his Mission Revival to include bay windows, e.g., Haley’s Mission at Second and Olive and his Munn at 438 South Olive.)

A. J. Daniels is less remembered than Haley, but he bears study. Let’s look at, for example, the house Daniels built at 1050 South Bonnie Brae in 1908, for he and his wife Ruby. It’s a handsome home, featuring some standard Edwardian styling, with its shingle and bay windows and prominent gabling.

From here

Then, flash forward to 1913, and the home Daniels built for himself and new wife Mary (Ruby having passed in 1910—she died on the operating table at Clara Barton—yes, that Clara Barton on Bunker Hill). Daniel’s house is a really rather remarkable Prairie structure at 2523 Tenth Avenue:

One wonders what Daniels would have gone on to do, had he not died in November 1913 at age 56

I’m not here to write an essay about Albert Julius Daniels, so suffice it to say, he designed the Astoria. As such, back to the Astoria:

The Astoria in 1945. Note the Blackstone (Walter Jesse Saunders, 1916) has been constructed to the north; it is between the Blackstone and Astoria that Robert Nixon creeped his way into the Worden apartment. Note as well that the Hillcrest Apartments to the south has had its rooftop balustrade and finials removed, and received a nasty stucco job
The Astoria in 1955, shot by Leonard Nadel
In foreground, the Elks Lodge across Third Street, at 300 South Olive, undergoing demolition in September 1962. The blue-grey bay-window’d backend of the Astoria can only look on, fearful of the future. The Hillcrest, between the Astoria and the Elks Lodge, had already been demolished in September 1961. Shot by Walker Evans
The Astoria between late 1961 (the demolition of the neighboring Hillcrest) and mid-1963 (the demolition of the Astoria). George Mann This shot was also captured by Arnold Hylen . The neighboring Blackstone Apartments was demolished in June-July 1964.
The Astoria, taken through eminent domain by the Community Redevelopment Agency, undergoes demolition, mid 1963.
The demolition of the Astoria, captured in Edmund Penney’s Angels Flight

IIIa. The Works of Robert Nixon

Robert Nixon was born in Tallulah, Louisiana, the seat of Madison Parish. While it is often stated he was born in 1919, there is evidence he was born closer to 1914: when picked up for burglary offenses, Nixon gave his age as a juvenile because they “went easier” on juveniles. No mention is ever made of Nixon having a father, but his mother worked as a cook for Andrew Jackson Sevier, the Sheriff of Madison Parish. Much of Nixon’s early life is murky, given the inconsistent and contradictory stories he told about himself. As best put together, he may have moved to Chicago in 1933 to live with his brother, or he may have stayed in Louisiana until 1935, when he finished fifth grade. He may have gone to Los Angeles at the same time, or perhaps to Chicago; his brother moved to New York, after whick Nixon drifted to Reno to Oakland and down to Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, during the first half of 1937, Nixon lived at 803 South Central, in a three-story apartment hotel. Nixon, after returning to Chicago in mid-1937, stated that from July to September 1937, he worked as a chauffeur for a “prominent Chicago wholesale businessman” (who remained unnamed); but also stated he had been a chauffeur beginning in 1933 (when he was ostensibly thirteen or fourteen years old). He claimed that he had not needed to resort to crime because he had saved “several hundred dollars” as a chauffeur, but subsequently claimed he had made that money working as an extra in two Hollywood movies, Souls at Sea and Slave Ship—which paid $17.50 a week.

IIIb. Nixon in Chicago, 1936.

June 29, 1936. Florence Thompson Castle, 24 worked at a nightclub called the Palace Gardens, at North Clark and Ohio Streets; in the 1930s North Clark was a gaudy land of hotcha joints known as “the Barbary Coast.” A former nightclub singer until derailed by a throat ailment, she became a hostess—or, in the parlance of the times, a B-Girl, or “come on girl”. It was her job to keep the gentlemen drinking, and buying her drinks—though the bartender always swapped her whisky for iced tea. For this, Florence netted 30% of what her male-customer-friends spent on her drinks. After work on a Monday night at 3:00am she walked east down Ohio, to her apartment in the Devonshire Hotel (once all mobbed up, now known as the Freehand).

Robert Nixon worked in the Palace Gardens as a porter, shining patron’s shoes. “I thought Mrs. Castle was the most beautiful woman in the world,” Nixon would later state to investigators. “Sometimes I shined her shoes, and after a while I began to speak to her. One night, I asked to see her home. She was angry and told me not to talk to her anymore.”

Nixon followed her to the Devonshire, witnessed her enter and waited until a light went on. That is how he ascertained which room was hers. He climbed the fire escape and brought a brick into the room. There he encountered Florence and her young son Jimmy, 7. Nixon ripped off Florence’s nightgown, and Jimmy lay beside his mother, watching, as Nixon attempted rape and then cracked Jimmy’s mother’s skull open with repeated blows from a brick, hitting her so hard as to split the weapon in two.

Nixon took Florence’s lipstick and wrote “Black Legon Game” and a skull and crossbones on the mirror. Nixon would later admit “there was a lot at the time about the Black Legion in Detroit, so I wrote that stuff on the mirror to fool the cops.”

At 5:30am Jimmy went down to see the Elvin Richardson, the lobby clerk. He said his name was Jimmy Thompson, and he lived in room 814, and a big Black man had done something to his mama, and now she couldn’t wake up. Detectives rushed to the scene and found Florence nude, her torn silk nightgown discarded in the corner, her head split open, the discarded brick pieces sticky with blood and blonde hair. Luckily, Sergeant James Conlan of the Bureau of Identification lifted a full set of right-hand prints from the window sill.

Florence Thompson Castle, June 15, 1912-June 29, 1936
Little Jimmy, who lay next to her as she was beaten to death
Sergeant Edward Stepk holds the brick that spelled death for Florence Castle Thompson
Captain William O’Brien examines the mirror on which Nixon wrote a cryptic message

September 25, 1936. Alda Deery, twenty-three years old, was preparing for bed in her room, No. 515, at the Washington Hotel, 167 West Washington Street. A dancer from New York, Alda had just performed four stage shows in the “September Varieties” at the Chicago Theater, then out for drinks at the Three Deuces. Robert Nixon came up the fire escape, through her window, and hit her in the face with a brick. He tore her grey dress down the front and raped her. He used the brick to beat her unconscious and used one of her stockings to strangle her. Alda’s roomate, Dorothy Ryan, a 24-year-old singer in the varieties show, in adjoining room 515a, heard groaning at 4:30am and smelled smoke, so went in to check on her. She found barely alive, quickly losing blood and blue from strangulation. Authorities rushed to the scene and found Alda’s clothes in a pile in her closet, had been set aflame. Alda described a large Black man with a southern accent. She recovered, and by 1940 was living with her mother back in New York on West 98th St., and pursuing her career as a nightclub singer.

Alda Deery had appeared on Broadway in Fine and Dandy in 1930

IIId. Los Angeles January—June 21st, 1937

January 25, 1937. Xabie Alice Clark Koll, 42, wife of real estate developer Harvey W. Koll, had gone into Monte Sano hospital for an operation. At 3:30am she woke to a man above her, who beat her head with a brick. Her screams caused Nixon to flee.

February 2, 1937. Elizabeth Ries, 71, and elderly visitor from Akron, had checked into Room 415 of the Barclay Hotel, 103 West Fourth Street. At 2:00am Nixon climbed onto her fire escape and into her window, and with a brick, fractured her skull from the top of her head to the base of her left ear. The contents of her purse were scattered over the fire escape. She awoke from a coma six weeks later, deaf in her left ear, but alive; she survived till 1953.

Akron Beacon Journal, 4 February 1937

February 14, 1937. Mr. H. D. Nash and wife, visitors to Los Angeles checked into the Rosslyn Hotel, 100 West Fifth Street, were startled to find Nixon looting their room; Nixon fled out the window and down the fire escape, leaving a brick behind.

February 16, 1937. Miss Lola Torres was asleep in her ground-floor apartment on South Santee Street. The crash of an ashtray woke her, and she screamed as she saw a man climbing through her window. Screams awakened neighbors who saw the perpetrator, a Black man, approximately six feet tall and twenty-five years of age, running toward Maple Street. Unconfirmed as Nixon, but fits the profile.

March 2, 1937. Rose Valdez lived at 651 Stanford with her husband Florencio and four-month old baby, Flora. It’s 11:00am on a Tuesday morning, and apartment manager Pauline Fowler had been disturbed by an endless stretch of the baby’s piteous wailing from Apartment 4. Other tenants began to complain so she went to investigate, but knocks on the Valdez’s door produced no answer—only more baby cries.

Fowler let herself in with a pass-key and was met with a dreadful scene. Nixon had left Rose nude, her nightgown pushed up to her neck, her legs hideously spread. A pillow, soaked in blood, covered her face. Rose had been brutally raped, then beaten to death with a basal skull fracture, the bloody brickbat found discarded beneath the sink.

Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1937
Looking down the side alley along 651 Stanford, at the window through which Nixon entered.
Rose’s dresser, powdered for fingerprints

March 27, 1937. Harry Stead at 515 Wall Street found a man climbing through his window at 2:00am. When he confronted the intruder, the intruder dropped his brick and ran. Probable Nixon occurrence.

March 28, 1937. Zoe Gehde Damrell was not so lucky. Robert Nixon and pal Howard Jones Green were casing Wilshire Boulvevard for apartment houses to burgle. They came upon an alleyway between a small house and an apartment building at 1026 Ingraham Street. Nixon boosted Green up onto his shoulders and then Green lifted Nixon into apartment 105. They snapped on the light and encountered Mrs. Zoe Damrell, 45. While Green looted her pocketbook and stole the wristwatch off the nightstand, Nixon beat Damrell in the head and face with a brick. While she survived the attack, she suffered a fractured skull and permanent brain damage. She died in 1945, at the age of 53.

1026 Ingraham, a four-story apartment house built in 1922, where Zoe Damrell survived an encounter with Robert Nixon

April 4, 1937. The Worden Murders. Saturday night, Robert Nixon, Howard Jones Green, and Edgar Black shot pool and then went to an all-night Main Street theater. Nixon and Green departed about 3:00am Sunday morning, and walked up Second Street, looking for a place to rob. Nixon and Green saw a light in the Astoria, and peeped it. Then Nixon picked up a brick, removed the milk bottle on the window ledge, removed the screen, and crawled in the window.

Edna Worden was dispatched with great ferocity, Nixon and Green netting all of seven dollars from her purse. Nixon, or Green, or both, stripped and attempted penetration on preteen Marquerite, but were unsuccessful in their efforts. After murdering both woman and girl, it was time to skip town.

Inside the Worden apartment. Left to right, Detective Lieutenants Miles Ledbetter, Thad Brown and Thomas Bryan
Robert Nixon’s partner in Los Angeles crime, Howard Jones Green

IIIc. Chicago, Further Attacks, and Capture

July 16, 1937. Betty Bryant, 28, was in her room on the fifth floor at the Hotel Lorraine, 411 South Wabash. Her husband was on the road and she was alone. Nixon climbed the fire escape through her window, raped and beat her. At 2:00am a hotel bellboy heard a faint cry for help. The bellboy grabbed the manager and a passkey and they were met with a horrible scene—the room spattered with blood, Betty unconscious, a discarded brick on the floor.

Hotel Lorraine photograph from here.

August 15, 1937. Virginia Austin, 25, a doll designer for New York’s Fleischaker & Baum, moved to Chicago to demonstrate puppets she had carved herself, in a local department store. Nixon crawled up the fire escape into room 414 of the Washington Hotel, 167 Washington, where he had previously raped, beaten, and strangled dancer Alda Deery, and set her room on fire, in September 1936. Nixon beat Virginia with a brick, raped her, and stole $3 from her purse.

August 16, 1937. Florence Palmowski, a student nurse at the Chicago Hospital, 811 East 49th Street, was taking a short rest in her room, which she shared with a girl named Anna Kuchta, when a man stepped from the fire escape through the window into her room. She screamed and the prowler fled.

Florence Palmowski
A detective considers the window

August 21, 1937. Anna Kuchta, 19, another student nurse at Chicago Hospital and Florence Palmowski’s roomate, was at the switchboard at 4:00am. It was five days after Florence’s screams had scared off an intruder who had climbed into the window via the fire escape. Anna went to the room to take a quick nap, since she had to be back on duty at 6:00am. Florence Palmowski entered the room and encountered the same hulking dark youth who’d crawled through the window five nights before: Robert Nixon. Nixon fled back through the window, and when Florence snapped on the light she discovered Anna dead, nude save for her stockings and white shoes, brutally raped, her skull crushed, Nixon’s blood-stained brick abandoned on the windowsill.

Anna Kuchta, July 26, 1918 — August 21, 1937
A detective at the fire escape window of the Palmokski/Kuchta room
Anna Kuchta, and Florence Palmowski, who found Anna’s body

Prints found on Kuchta’s lamp matched those found in the Florence Thompson Castle killing. Police fanned out across the city, guarding the fire escapes at all hotels, hospitals, and other institutions where women lived. This made things pretty hot for Robert Nixon, who laid low, until…

May 27, 1938. Mrs. Florence Johnson, 34, a registered nurse, wife of a Chicago fireman, and mother to little Kenneth and Florence, was sleeping in the porch of her ground floor apartment at 4631 Lake Park Avenue. Robert Nixon and Earl Hicks, a friend Nixon had made in Chicago in the summer of 1937, entered through the children’s bedroom windown, traversed the apartment, found Florence and attacked her (although Dr. F. K. James stated she had been criminally assaulted, coroner’s assistant Thomas Carter, who performed the autopsy, concluded her sexual assault had not been fully realized) though when she screamed Hicks fled. Nixon remained and proceeded to crack her skull open with repeated poundings of a brick. Then Florence’s sister Margaret Whitton entered the room, whereupon Nixon dropped the brick and fled.

Florence Johnson, for whose murder Nixon was electrocuted
The structure still stands
Chicago PD points to the window, Acme Newspictures, 27 May 1938

Police were immediately alerted and found Nixon running along the sidewalk four blocks away, the south side of 47th between Ellis and Greenwood, covered in scratches and wet blood. He insisted that he had just been plucking chickens. He was taken in for questioning and his shirt turned over to Professor Clarence Muelberger of Chicago University, who later that day ascertained the blood was human, not chicken. Nixon’s footprints matched those left outside Florence Johnson’s home, and his fingerprints matched those left at the brickbat slayings of the Wordens, Florence Thompson Castle, and Anna Kuchta. The Brickbat Slayer’s reign of terror had ended.

IV. Confession, Trial, Conviction, Prison, Execution

Nixon originally provided his alias, Thomas Crosby, to Chicago authorities. “Thomas Crosby” had been picked up in Los Angeles three times in 1937 (burglary in February, purse snatching in March, and picked up as a robbery suspect April 23rd, nineteen days after the Worden murders), but because he had asserted he was a juvenile, those records weren’t looked at after the Valdez/Worden murders. At LAPD, juvenile prints were not placed in the regular criminal files, but in a locked cabinet, with no access to anyone but the Captain, a system employed for the protection of youthful law breakers. Juvenile records were, also, not checked since eyewitnesses usually described the attacker as about 25 years old (Nixon was, an argument can be made, 24 years old at the time of the attacks, but had lied about his age when picked up in 1937).

After Nixon’s April 23rd 1937 robbery arrest, he admitted that he, together with Howard Jones Green and Edgar Black, had brutally beaten a Japanese man named C. Kono and robbed him of seven dollars. The victim suffered a fractured nose, a severe cut over one eye and serious contusions.

It was then Nixon indicated himself to be a juvenile. Nixon was declared a ward of the Juvenile Court and committed to the Preston School of Industry, but pleaded so hard to be sent back to his parents in Tallulah, Louisiana that the sentence was suspended and the Chief County Probation Officer put him on a train home. Nixon got home, committed several burglaries, and fled back to Chicago.

When Lieutenant Bryan read of the Florence Johnson brickbat murder arrest of Crosby—Black, 5’11”, 140lbs—the physical description and MO convinced him “Crosby” was their man. Nixon’s prints were sent from Chicago and they matched those left at the Worden murder site perfectly. Even if found not guilty of first-degree murder in Chicago, Nixon would be extradited to California and certainly go to the gas chamber at San Quentin.

Friday, May 27, 1938, Robert Nixon had murdered Florence Johnson about 5:30am. When Nixon was seized immediately thereafter, he gave up the location of Hicks, and made a confession 11:00pm Saturday night, the 28th. He and Hicks then confessed again, together, two hours later, at 1:00am Sunday morning.

Sunday, May 29th, at 4:45pm, Nixon and Hicks walked detectives through the Johnson killing.

May 29th, 1938, Nixon and Hicks walk detectives through the Johnson murder
Nixon stated that he had taken an apple from Florence Johnson’s kitchen, ate a couple bites, and tossed it on the way out. At which point he found it again with ease.

Nixon, under questioning, when presented with the fingerprint evidence in the 1936 Thompson Castle murder, admitted it freely. He also gave up the whereabouts of his Los Angeles confederate Howard Jones Green, who had traveled to Chicago to be with Nixon, in a lodging house on 46th Street. Nixon was told he had left fingerprint evidence at the rape and killing of Anna Kuchta and thus admitted that attack, describing it in detail to the police stenographer.

Hicks was seized in a poolroom near South Michigan Avenue and 47th. He confessed immediately to being there but insisted Nixon had slain the young mother. Police believed this account; after all, Nixon had confessed to the vicious bludgeoning in the Castle and Kuchta murders; Hicks, a small man, had a long record as a petty thief, but no apparent inclination to murder.

Nixon drew a map of the Washington hotel for investigators, then confessed to raping and beating Alda Deery and Virginia Austin. He subsequently produced a map of the Lorraine Hotel, and confessed to the violent attack on Betty Bryant.

A man named Thomas McCall was in prison for Nixon’s attack on Virginia Austin, despite Virginia Austin asserting that her attacker was Black, and that he had climbed up the fire escape (McCall lived in the hotel). Though Nixon later attempted to repudiate his confession when later faced with McCall, McCall was released from Stateville and given full apologies.

May 31, 1938: Nixon and Hicks sign statements confessing to Florence Johnson’s murder, witnessed by members of the Grand Jury, Charles H. E. Arnold, William Caunt and Timothy Deneen.

Tuesday, May 31, 1938. After confessing to multiple murders to Chicago PD, Nixon and Hicks sign confessions for the Grand Jury. Meanwhile, LAPD Lieutenants Bryan and Gaskell arrived in Chicago at 6:00pm. Bryan brought with him a telegram sent to LAPD Homicide Captain Bert Wallis, from Sheriff A. J. Sevier of Tallulah, Louisiana:

Robert Nixon, negro, born July 19, 1919, has been a sneak thief and house burglar since he was six years old. Had no legal punishment suitable except chastisement. His mother is a cook. She worked for me while Robert was committing burglaries of residences here. Robert has been traveling between your city, Chicago, and here for many years. He came here from your city last July. Nothing but death will stop his career.

(Note that the 1919 DOB contradicts what Chicago Chief Sullivan was told by authorities in Louisiana Vital Records, that Nixon was twenty-four, making him born in 1914.)

LAPD Lieutenants Thomas Bryan (left) and Millerd G. Gaskell (right), during a discussion of the case with Deputy Chief of Detectives Walter Storms in Chicago.

June 3, 1938, Nixon and Hicks were taken from jail to perform reenactments of other Chicago crimes. First, Nixon scaled the wall and jumped onto the fire escape at Chicago Hospital, and into the room where he raped and murdered Anne Kuchta. Before he entered he drew a map of the room which showed a guitar case and souvenir walking cane, elements of the scene that had never been released to the public.

Robert Nixon demonstrates how he approached Anna Kuchta lying on the bed

Nixon was then taken to the Lorraine Hotel, of which he had penned a map:

There Nixon demonstrated how he had raped Betty Bryant in the Lorraine Hotel.

Nixon was taken to the Devonshire Hotel where, before a large crowd, he reenacted how he scaled the outside of the building to gain ingress into Florence Thompson Castle’s apartment in June 1936 :

The fire escape still exists behind the whilom Devonshire

After Nixon agreed to reenact the Castle killing, Assitant State’s Attorney John S. Boyle tried an experiment: he had all the furniture rearranged. After Nixon scaled the twenty-foot brick wall, reached the fire escape, and clambored into the room, he called attention of police to the fact that the furniture had been moved around.

Friday, June 4, 1938, was finally confronted by the Los Angeles detectives. Nixon drew a map of the Worden murders and confessed that he and Green, whom he’d known from Tallulah, LA since he was eight years old, had committed the killings. Green originally denied involvement, but on June 6, in the presence of Bryan, Gaskell, Sullivan, and Assistant State’s Attorney John S. Boyle, admitted his part, and returned with them to Los Angeles on June 17, 1938. On the train back to Los Angeles, he repudiated his participation in the Worden slayings, but admitted the beating of the Japanese man, and the attack on Zoe Damrell.

Nixon and Hicks were indicted for the murder of Florence Johnson. On January 27, 1939, the Hon. Judge John C. Lewe sentenced Hicks, who appeared as a states witness against Nixon, to fourteen years imprisonment, for his part in the Florence Johnson killing.

Nixon and Earl Hicks

Howard Green was convicted of Assault with a Deadly Weapon and Burglary in the Zoe Damrell attack. He was sentenced October 11, 1938, and received at San Quentin February 18, 1939. Green was paroled November 28, 1941, and found work at the Richmond shipyard during WWII. Green returned to San Quentin December 28, 1948, on a charge of Grand Theft, and was transferred to Folsom June 26, 1950.

Howard Jones Green

Nixon was convicted by the Cook County Criminal Court on August 6, 1938, and was sentenced to die in the electric chair October 21st. Immediately before he was to die, in an attempt to “clear his conscience,” Nixon called authorities to his cell and copped to the murder of Rose Valdez.

New York Daily News, October 23, 1938

He received eight stays of execution, and was electrocuted on June 16, 1939.

The Episcopal Chaplain at the Cook County Jail, Rev. Albert E. Selcer, comforts Nixon in his final hours, October 1938. Appeals and stays postponed his date with the electric chair until June

V. The Racist Press

The deeds of Robert Nixon and his killer compatriots would likely be forgotten, had it not been for author Richard Wright basing his popular novel Native Son on Nixon. Today, it is often said that Wright was moved to pen his book (which argues that Black men commit heinous crimes as a reaction to systemic racism) because the mainstream press surrounding Nixon was uniformly racist—and yet, Wright never stated such. Wright did mention in “How Bigger was Born,” published in the September 1940 Negro Digest, that “many of the newspaper items and some of the incidents in Native Son are but fictionalized versions of the Robert Nixon case and rewrites of news stories from the Chicago Tribune.”

The first person to contend there existed a surfeit of racist press was Arnold Rampersad, in his 1992 introduction to Native Son (Rampersad himself never spoke to Wright; the introduction was penned thirty years after Wright’s death) which states of Wright’s process: “securing virtually all the newspaper clippings about the Nixon case, Wright used many of its details in his novel. These details included copious examples of raw white racism, especially in depicting the black defendant as hardly more than an animal.” Thus people frequently repeat Rampersad’s claim about Wright, and that the press was widely racist, and point to the infamous article in the June 1938 Tribune, “Brick Slayer is Likened to Jungle Beast” as being characteristic of the press of the day.

This article, on page six of the Tribune, famously described Nixon to a “jungle Negro” reminiscent of the giant ape from Murders in the Rue Morgue

To be strictly honest, however, there is scant evidence of a “racist press.” There was, certainly, this one article (above), replete with lurid racist depictions of Nixon’s simian nature, up to and including snarling with bared teeth. It was penned by Charles Richard Leavelle, 32, an Oklahoma-born reporter for the Tribune, best known as editor and biographer for 1944’s The Dyess Story; Leavelle would die a decade after the Nixon “Jungle Beast” article at age 42.

Granted, there were times Nixon was referred to as The Brick Moron

31 May 1938

—but every serial killer gets a colorful sobriquet, and in Nixon’s case it referenced his style of killing and purported low IQ, not his race. (You might say “look, they call him a Negro!” but remember, even the Los Angeles Times used Negro as a descriptive, commonly, into the 1970s; the same holds true for the word colored [hence, for example, the NAACP].) Moreover, there are only five individual press stories wherein Nixon is called “Brick Moron”. All other stories about Nixon, which run in the hundreds, refer to him, quite accurately, as “The Brick Killer” or some variation thereof.

In short, despite the prevailing narrative, there is little evidence that there existed an overtly racist media repeatedly demonizing Nixon for his race. Apart from Leavelle’s ugly, lengthy screed, there does in fact exist one mention of Nixon’s “jungle” strength and agility, after Nixon lunged at and choked Florence Castle Thompson’s widower in court on 6 June 1938, the day after Leavelle’s “jungle” article. This is not to suggest there wasn’t racism in Chicago; the Great Migration led to an explosion of Chicago’s Black populace, and subsequent racial tensions led to all manner of ugliness. Nevertheless, except for Leavelle’s now-famous piece, contemporary reporting was not replete with racist tropes and language, despite repeated recent assertions otherwise:

The suggestion that media coverage was uniformly racist, based on there having been one overtly racist article, is roughly analogous to the common assertion that many families were forcibly evicted from Chavez Ravine, when the sum total of families forcibly evicted from Chavez Ravine stands at precisely…one

Whatever the merits of Native Son—James Baldwin most famously derided Wright’s work for reducing Bigger Thomas to a simple stereotype without agency, and a descendant of Stowe’s Uncle Tom—for our purposes, ultimately Native Son is a remarkable record of Robert Nixon. Bigger Thomas (“Thomas” from Nixon’s alias, Thomas Crosby) and his Hicks-like buddy hang out at pool halls, commit robberies, and ultimately murders (like Robert Nixon, who scrawled “Black Leg(i)on Game” on the mirror to throw investigators off track, Bigger scrawls a hammer and sickle to throw suspicion on Communists; there are many such details Wright took, e.g., both Nixon and Thomas worked as chauffeurs, etc.). Bigger rapes his girlfriend Bessie, then beats her to death with a brick; when he gets close to white girl Mary (his sexual excitation over Mary, excised from the 1940 edition), he kills her. Wright’s gift is the insight into Nixon’s mind: Bigger “did not feel sorry for Mary; she was not real to him, not a human being; he had not known her long or well enough for that. He felt that his murder of her was more than amply justified” (Native Son, p. 243). Bigger goes to the chair unrepentant, he states what he killed for “must have been good” and smiles.

VI. The Dale Book

A few years ago Elizabeth Dale, a professor of history and law at the University of Florida, produced Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871-1971 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2016). In its 151 pages, Dale devotes 75 to Nixon’s crimes, his trial, and appeals. Absurdly simplified: Dale’s premises are that a) police torture is bad—and on that I think we can all agree—and b) Robert Nixon was the victim of police torture, and as such, his confessions should have been inadmissible, and Nixon therefore should have been set free. This, despite the conclusive Nixon fingerprint evidence from his multiple murders; and the conclusive footprint evidence; that moments after a murder he was the lone man running through a neighborhood, covered in scratches and human blood; that Nixon performed multiple reencactments, which contained actions only the killer could have known; that he was fingered by his compatriots, and positively identified by victims; and of course he provided multiple solid confessions, all of which contained information, again, known only to the killer.

Not to say that police torture doesn’t exist (in fact, Thomas McCall spent six months in jail for one of Nixon’s rapes because, McCall contended, he’d only confessed so as to cease beatings at the hands of the Chicago PD—and it was Nixon’s surprise confession that he had raped Virginia Austin, that freed McCall). But consider: Nixon’s primary claim was that they’d hung him out the window from the eleventh floor of police headquarters, when, it was proven, the building’s windows were on hinges and only opened a mere five inches, barely enough room to put a fist out the window, much less a man. Moreover the people Nixon claimed beat him, in the rooms he was held and at the times he was held, were shown by log books to have not been in the building. Nixon claimed in court that he was stripped naked, hung by his wrists, burned with hot light bulbs, beaten on his sides with fists, and sapped on his legs and knees with blackjacks. And yet no abuse was observed on Nixon. Nixon and Hicks were examined privately by Walter Adams, the African-American Clinic Director of Provident Hospital, and William McKee, African American psychiatrist at Cook County’s Institute of Juvenile Research of Cook County. Nixon’s confessions were made in the presence of state’s attorneys (including African American state’s attorneys) and they, and later members of the Grand Jury, repeatedly spoke to Nixon, asking if he was being treated well. He always replied that he was, and showed no signs of harm. A stream of attorneys, doctors, officers, etc. gave testimony during appeals that they had asked if any one had mistreated Nixon/Hicks in any way or forced them to make the statements, and they said they had not.

Nixon’s many claims of abuse were refuted by some forty sworn witnesses, among whom, besides police officers, were jailers and janitors and secretaries and guards working lockup. The judge, when faced with Nixon’s confused, contradictory, and often factually impossible recitation of abuses, acknowledged its implausibility, but still ruled it admissible, and allowed the jury to consider it: jurors would thus determine themselves whether Nixon had been beaten, and if he had, to discount his confession as evidence (reflecting the recently-decided Brown v. Mississippi). The jury found the tale unbelievable, accepting his confession and thereafter in a unanimous vote found him guilty, and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. Which he did, after seven reprieves, in June 1939, with Florence Johnson’s husband Elmer seated in the third row.

You might want to argue that the fix was in, that in all probability Nixon had shoddy legal defense representation, atop which, counsel for the prosecution was dirty. Yet, Nixon was defended by the esteemed Joseph E. Clayton, Jr., a top criminal defense lawyer (who is less remembered than his wife), whose co-counsel was Yale-trained Charles Burton, executive director of the National Negro Congress. And while the prosecution was mostly white, among those on the case was Edward Wilson, the African American lawyer and Assistant State’s Attorney. And while the jury was white, during jury selection Nixon’s defense made no objection.

And so, what began as a quick post about a 1937 Bunker Hill crime has blossomed into some 8,300+ words about its perpetrator. I presume the preceding is the now the definitive account on the subject, but, if you have further information on Nixon or his crimes, please do not hesitate to write me at oldbunkerhill@gmail.com.

I Got a Job!

You read that right, I have in fact secured gainful employment. Which is tough since I’m basically unemployable: there are evidently few wishing to engage my kind, whose lot in life is one endless discourse involving Bunker Hill. (That, coupled with this relentless need to go on and on about community mausolea and Richardsonian Romanesque and the Richfield, or any of my other pet obsessions, like Andrew Jackson Downing or Sir Thomas Urquhart or Hugo Eckener or antique embalming bottles or…you get the idea.)

And yet, I have finally fulfilled my destiny as…railroad conductor! Or at least the trolley operator of Old Bunker Hill, after all, what else should I be doing besides manning Angels Flight?

Yes, under my able hand, Sinai and Olivet shall now ferry funicular fanatics (and occasional actual commuter) up and down Bunker Hill—under my hand and dutifully watchful eye.

That being said, I really only got the job because I already had the hat:

Angels Flight operator, 2022 & 1962

The shot of Flight operator Al Borgus plying his trade, above, is a screengrab from the absurdly important document Angels Flight, a thirteen-minute 16mm short from filmmaker Edmund Penney. Which, why look! here it is:

With editing by William T. Cartwright and cinematography by Sven Walnum

So, come visit me at Angels Flight! Though I won’t be able to chat…my attention is on Sinai and Olivet.

Always.

The Richelieu

I picked up a nifty old photo the other day and thought what the heck, I’ll give it a quick scan and toss it on the blog, you know, just to share. Of course one thing lead to another, and here we’ve ended up with 2800 words and about as many pictures. Ladies and gentlemen, today we talk about the Richelieu, and my new theory regarding one Mister Walter Ferris…

I. Robert Larkins & the Richelieu

As mentioned, I’ve acquired an amateur scrapbook snap, from 1905 or so, which looks like this:

We know it postdates 1902, in that the Melrose Annex (Thomas J. McCarthy, 1902) can be glimpsed at left
Verso, “Richelieu Hotel, my first home. What memories that place holds for me.”

The Richelieu, 142 South Grand Avenue. The Richelieu is a bit of a mystery because unlike its neighbor-to-the-north the Melrose—built by Marc W. Connor, designed by the firm of Joseph Cather Newsom—there isn’t a lot of information about the Richelieu’s builder, and none regarding its architect. (As such, this post will be heavy on 142’s builder and possible architect; to read cool stuff about the Richelieu’s junkies and shut-ins and suicides, see Christina Rice’s piece on the Rich here.)

We begin with Robert Larkins. Robert Larkins was born in October 1842, in New York, to Harvey and Helen (née Page) Larkins, both of whom hailed from England. By 1880 Robert Larkins, now a lumber dealer, was settled in Chicago. He lived there with wife Helen (formerly Helen Dana, and I agree, it’s a bit weird he married a woman with his mother’s forename), and their children Augusta, Robert Jr., and Gracie, who are 21, 7, and 1, respectively. In the late-mid 1880s, like so many midwesterners, the Larkins clan lit out for the booming, sunny, orange-scented climes Los Angeles.

In the spring of ’88 the Larkins’ purchase a sightly lot on Grand Avenue, near Second Street, from Nathan Wilson Stowell, who sold them part of his property (Stowell’s house was on the corner of Second and Grand).

Los Angeles Times, 18 April 1888
Lot 10, Block G, then and now. (Grand is listed as Charity on the map; it was renamed Grand in February 1887)

Upon said plot, they build “one of the finest residences in the city”—

Los Angeles Times, 4 Oct 1888
The 1888 Sanborn Map has the Larkins plot indicated with “Excavation for Dwg [dwelling]”

Next door, at 130, Marc W. Connor’s famed Melrose is completed about six months later:

Los Angeles Herald, 28 February 1889
From the 1894 Sanborn Map
There’s the Melrose at left, the Larkins/Richelieu center, and just a bit of Nathan Stowell’s home, which was demolished in 1938 and replaced by a Streamline apartment house. View the entirety of this image in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles on p. 101.
The image I recently acquired shows the south face of the Richelieu; more often than not the Richelieu is seen from the north, looking south, as is the case with this image. At far right here’s a bit of Stowell’s home again. I am yet to see an actual image of Nathan Stowell’s house at 144 South Grand, and I know someone, somewhere, has one, and if I don’t see it, I will literally die. The whole of this image can be seen in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles on p. 100.
August 1941. (Off-topic and I’m still pointing out again, Nathan Stowell’s house at 144 ←this is as close as I have come to finding an image of the damn thing, so get me a photograph of this house for my birthday, ya bums, which in 1941 had recently been replaced by a Moderne apartment building.)

Oh yeah, right. So I bought an old photograph. Let’s look at the image in question.

I think it’s pretty swell. As I mentioned above, how often do you see the entirety of its south facade? The Richelieu is a superlative structure as it typifies 1888 so very well: the variegated shingle, the patterned chimney, the vast porches with all their spindlework, and those crazy ornamented gables.

Let’s pick out a couple elements to look at specifically:

First of all, looks like the wonderful carved panel was tricolor, with a dark frame and background, lighter carved foliage relief, and a much lighter “L” worked into the “RL” (for Robert Larkins). By the early 1950s it was beige and black, and mid-50s was all beige:

As seen in June 1954 and April 1957
Carved initials being an architectural element shared by the Richelieu and its neighbor the Melrose—RL for Robert Larkins and an interlocking MWC for Marc William Connor.

And look at the incredible shingle work on the roof:

Which was still extant when Hylen shot this image in the late 1940s; note as well the bicolor-painted “shields” in the dormers
The Rich got a reroofing about 1953

Also, I think this is the only image of the house with hanging plants on the porch:

I just think it’s a really nice touch

If you’re wondering what happened to this magnificent house, take a gander in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles where I pair one of my Richelieu Kodachromes with a Theodore Hall shot of it undergoing demolition in 1957:

II. Was it Always the Richelieu?

We’ve long been burdened with the nagging question, did Larkins build 142 to be the Richelieu? Or did he build it as his residence, and then it became the Richelieu? The structure is after all mentioned as his “residence” in the papers in the late 80s, and then something funny happens between 1891 and ’92:

Here we are in the City Directory, 1891. No mention in the directory of a Richelieu, just this lumber fellow living at 142
In 1892, however, it’s called the Richelieu. Note that the property is managed not by Robert A Larkins, Sr., but by twenty-year-old Junior: Robert Elmer Larkins (24 July 1872-15 June 1944)
The earliest known mention of it being called “The Richelieu,” Evening Herald, 27 December 1891.

Robert Sr. abandons Los Angeles soon after. In 1893, Helen sells the Richelieu:

Los Angeles Evening Express, 29 November 1893

On December 1, 1894 Robert Sr. marries Delia Gallup in Ionia, Michigan. In the 1900 Census he’s living with Delia in Stanton, Mich. (He dies in Stanton in 1924; she in 1939.) In 1900, Robert’s erstwhile wife, Helen Larkins, is living at 229 Soto Street with her now-married son Robert Elmer. In 1900 she lists herself in the directories by her lonesome, but by 1902 calls herself widowed. I think she did so because, well, of course you would. That is, however, unless Larkins had died; and I’m mistaking the Michigan Larkins with the Los Angeles Larkins. I doubt that, though, because what are the odds that there are two Robert Larkins, both lumber dealers, both born in New York around 1840? With no obituary for the first one?

In any event, we know the Larkins home was the Richelieu very soon after its construction, and given up by Helen Larkins not soon after that. By 1900 it was run by the Eppersons and full of boarders:

Mrs. Helen Epperson (is there some reason every woman in this era is named Helen?) manages the place, with her three kids, one Irish and two Chinese servants, and seventeen boarders, all European-American, with the notable exception of author Adachi Kinnosuke. Now I know what you’re saying, “gosh Nathan, wouldn’t a whole host of your questions about the Richelieu be answered if you looked at the 1890 census?” The answer to that being yes, yes they freakin’ would.

III. The Architect of the Richelieu (and the Melrose, and Beyond)

Whatever mysteries may exist regarding Larkins, the real source of wonder is the possible architect of the Richelieu. And I have a new theory. First of all, let’s take a look at what I wrote in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles:

Salient points being, I say the Melrose is Newsom, and attribute the Richelileu to, possibly, Bradbeer & Ferris.

Mind you, nothing said in that caption is incorrect—though yes it’s up in the air whether Larkins kept boarders/called it the Richelieu initially, or that happened about three years into the house’s life—but I have of late developed more nuanced (nuanced being a euphemism for complicated) understanding as regards calling Connor’s place Newsom, and attributing Larkins’ house to Bradbeer & Ferris.

What I’ve come to is, there’s a LOT more to be discovered about this Walter Ferris fellow.

First of all, when I say of the Richelieu “its form suggests the hand of Bradbeer and Ferris,” that’s true to a point, but, there was no “Bradbeer & Ferris” during the construction of the Richelieu in 1888. Rather, there at the time existed Brown & Bradbeer, as James Horace Bradbeer was partnered with Allen B. Brown (not Carroll Herkimer Brown, as many references incorrectly state). And at the time, Ferris was a draughtsman at Newsom & Newsom (from 1882—1890, moving with Joseph C. Newsom to Los Angeles when J. C. set up the southern branch office in 1886, and remaining with J. C. when the Newsom partnership dissolved and it became just JC Newsom, Architect in January 1888). In early 1891 Joseph Cather closed his Los Angeles office and returned north; Ferris had partnered with William Otis Merithew in August 1890. Bradbeer dissolved his partnership with Allen Brown in February 1890.

Los Angeles Times, 13 April 1890

Important to note: of Ferris, “among the buildings he has designed in this city may be mentioned the Bryson-Bonebreak block, [and] the Bradbury mansion…” Of course the Bryson-Bonebreak and Bradbury mansion are two of the best-known structures of downtown Victorian Los Angeles, and they’ve always been considered “J. C. Newsom,” which is fair, since they were born of that firm. If this is to be believed though, they are product of Walter Ferris, “the original designer” for J. C. Newsom.

Los Angeles Evening Express, 31 December 1891

A year and a half later, in another paper, quite similar statements about Ferris; it reiterates he drew the plans for traditional “Newsom” structures the Bryson-Bonebreak, Bradbury and the California Bank bldg.

But look what else, it makes note of some residences from the firm of Merithew & Ferris. First among those listed is the house of mining magnate Otto Alexander Stassforth. Which brings us to this vexating document:

Ghostie rests comfortably in his Los Angeles home courtesy of F. E. Browne’s Steel Dome Hot Air Furnace

In 1896 F. E. Browne published a book of illustrated testimonials speaking to the wonders of his line of hot air furnaces, stoves, coffee urns, lamp heaters, and the like. Many homes are depicted—each containing within a giant cast-iron Browne coal furnace, of course—along with the architects of said homes. Lots of homes by Edelman and Roehrig; institutional applications by Morgan & Walls and Eisen & Hunt.

And I call it a vexating document because some of the architect attributions—specifically, those of seven homes noted as being by “Bradbeer & Ferris”—seemed off. For example, as I mentioned above, the Stassforth residence. We know it to be Merithew & Ferris. And yet in Browne’s book:

Ergo, what we have established, is that a house on which Ferris worked, under the Merithew & Ferris umbrella, is listed as Brabeer & Ferris, when it is not.

Here’s another one:

This house, 2703 Hoover, was built by Alfred James Salisbury, a Ventura lumberman, in 1891, though he didn’t hang on to it very long, and it soon became the home of W. V. Hedges (he didn’t hang on to it long, either, as it became the Cumnock School of Oratory in 1897). Browne’s book, again, pegs a Merithew & Ferris as a Bradbeer & Ferris; heck the HCM nomination says it’s Bradbeer & Ferris, but it is most assuredly not, it’s from the firm of Merithew & Ferris (in an August 1893 mention about the newly-formed duo of Bradbeer & Ferris, the author notes specifically that Ferris had previously designed the Salisbury).

Now here’s where it gets really interesting:

Behold, the house of Henry L. Williams, president of Pacific Oil Refining and Supply. It had been built by lawyer and businessman James R. Boal in 1887. Its architect? Newsom & Newsom; it even appears in J. C. Newsom’s Artistic Buildings and Homes of Los Angeles, though it is attributed to Bradbeer & Ferris.

Note the differences between 1887 and 1896—especially the enlarged porch (which looks much like the Richelieu porch) on the south (and which removed a rather outdated Empirish mansard over the bay), and the addition of some rather “Bradbeer & Ferris” dormers to the tower

So, in Browne’s book we have a Newsom being touted as a Ferris, because Ferris had been a designer/draftsman at Newsom’s in ’87.

And now, to put us solidly back onto Bunker Hill, with our friends the Melrose and Richelieu:

Here it is. The Melrose, seven years old in 1896, being attributed to Bradbeer & Ferris. Which always bugged me something fierce. WHY would they say the Melrose was Bradbeer & Ferris? When it is correctly known as a Newsom—after all, there was that whole brouhaha about Newsom and Connor over the house in November 1889:

Then, I came to comprehend the whole thing about Ferris designing for Newsom. It stands to reason that when the Browne book was being compiled Ferris said “well of course the Melrose is mine!” Must have been easier to get his due as Newsom had moved back up north. (Maybe it irked Ferris that Bradbeer received partial credit for something he did under Newsom? Relatedly, what did Merithew think of a wholly Merithew & Ferris being billed as Bradbeer & Ferris?)

For the record, quick biographical notes about Ferris: Walter B. Ferris was born in England in August 1861 (says the 1900 census; his grave marker states he was born in 1860). He emigrated to California in 1882, and set to work with the Newsoms in San Francisco/Oakland, moving to Los Angeles with Joseph Cather in ’86 and marrying Bertha in 1888. His partnership with Bradbeer lasted until 1897. By 1900 he was living back up in Oakland. He dies in Alameda, Feb 26 1932 at the age of 71.

That then is my theory: when you see a purported Newsom—especially those examples imbued with Ferrisian touches—you may not be wrong to deem it a Ferris. What are these Ferrisian touches? Well consider the most famous Bradbeer & Ferris of all, the Wright-Mooers House. It is often held up as our typical Southern California Victorian archetype. Heck, here it is in an article about Bunker Hill, despite not being on Bunker Hill:

Los Angeles Times Sunday Home Supplement, October 22, 1961

Now ain’t that a form we’ve seen before—

Of all the Ferrisian touches, across multiple periods of employment, with Newsom, his partnership with Merithew, and partnership with Bradbeer, these kind of tower dormers are what really reek of “Ferris shorthand”

Another common element is carved panel, and, via the vagaries of connoisseurship, Junior Berenson that I am, declare these to be of the same hand:

The Bradbury mansion (bottom and top left) had carved panels of desert cactus, and California oak and orange trees; the Bradbury has been stated to be Ferris, as has the Melrose and, one wonders, the Richelieu, which utilized the same artisan

And then of course there’s the whole issue of how Newsom—Ferris?—handled porch railings—

An 1888 house Newsom did on spec at 820 West Ninth Street, and the entry of the Richelieu. L, from Artistic Buildings, R, Theodore Hall

There’s a case to be made that Walter Ferris was greater in the development of our built environment than previously believed, up to and including the Melrose and Richelieu and Bradbury, and acted as the primary driver behind his two subsequent partnerships with Merithew and Bradbeer. What I lack in proof I more than make up for in theoretical and empirical evidence, but, without proof, it’s a theory only good for this blog, but, I very much hope and trust more work will be done on the subject in the future.

And that, my friends, is my very long way of saying, look at this neat photo I found.

Larby Larb, America’s Oldest Cat, nostalgically reminiscences o’er living in the Richelieu, working feverishly in her youth to restore the Bourbon Democrats to Washington, after the corrupt regime of “that tariff-happy Harrison”

Bunker Hill WALKING TOUR!

The good folk at Esotouric—who, with the rest of the world, have been huddled in the collective basement these last couple years—are back with a vengeance! There are new tours to be had, and among the first is a walking tour of Bunker Hill.

As in, sign up for the tour, meet the group next Saturday, and spend the morning (and into the afternoon) walking around, and talking about, Bunker Hill’s past, present, and future. I’m leading the tour, jabbering away for a solid three hours, so, I guarantee a good time. In all honesty I’m second banana to the native son of Bunker Hill, Mr. Gordon Pattison, who will be there to tell you how it really was.

Because I like to do things with pictures, let me go over this for you again:

1) Click here and follow the directions → *click!*

2) Meet at Grand Central Market next Saturday:

Strictly speaking we’re meeting juuust south of GCM, in fact, right where it says “Pensioners Welcome”

3) And then we go up on the Hill. Excelsior!

Here’s the group walking west on Third from Olive. Hey! Stay together!
Images via Nadel at the Getty.

And that’s it. See you there!

The Wills Mansion

Most of Bunker Hill’s lost houses are known, and beloved, for being Queen Anne. The Hill had some two-dozen first rate Queen Anne structures, famed for their asymmetrical facades and profusion of gingerbread. Bunker Hill’s “top five” (if their appearance and reappearance on those “Old LA” Facebook groups is any indication) are the Crocker, Rose, Melrose, Castle and Bradbury. What’s not to love? Look at all those towers and porches and gingerbread!

Less well known is the Wills Mansion. It’s not in the “heart” of Bunker Hill, but rather, up on its northern reaches in the Fort Moore Hill area. It was not designed with that overtly romantic character so commonly associated with Queen Anne, devoid, as it was, of turretts and spindlework—rather, it is a large Shingle style house of remarkable architecture and history, and Shingle Style gets barely a nod here in Los Angeles.

The house soon after its completion, ca. 1887. This image, from the Los Angeles Public Library, was reproduced in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles on p. 87.

Pennsylvania attorney John Alexander Wills came to Los Angeles in 1884 and built this large shingled home on the northern edge of Bunker Hill in the Fort Hill neighborhood, on a large lot bounded by Buena Vista, Rock and Fort Streets.  

Los Angeles Times, 29 April 1886
Los Angeles Times, 28 September 1886

The house was designed by Saunders & Saunders, the husband-and-wife team of Charles Willard and Mary Alston Channing Saunders. (Though Caroline Severance informs us that the architect was, specifically, very much Mary on her own.) The Saunders team are perhaps best known for Villa Miramar, the incredible 1888 Shingle-style Santa Monica resort of Senator John Percival Jones:

Villa Miramar from Ocean Avenue. It was demolished in 1938. Wikimedia
LAPL
East facade of Villa Miramar, from Nevada Ave., now Wilshire Blvd. Huntington

Watters points out in his indispensable Houses of Los Angeles 1885-1919 that Mary Saunders, raised and trained in Rhode Island, had as her inspiration Robert Goelet’s Newport cottage (McKim, Mead & White, 1883), and that Miramar’s wide gable on the east facade was likely derived from Newport’s William Watts Sherman house (H. H. Richardson, 1875).

Charles and Mary Saunders’ house, on Walnut in Pasadena, was another Shingle wonder:

Mary Channing Saunders, architect. Now the site of a Honda dealership. Huntington

Had the Wills house survived, it would have been among the very few Shingles in our part of the world. Those that do exist are usually in the rarefied climes around Pasadena, like the McNally house in Altadena, and William Stanton’s Grace Hill, both designed by Frederick Roehrig.

The east facade of the Wills’, looking south across the south/east lawn, with the Baker house across Fort Moore Place in the distance. This image is cropped from a boudoir card, part of the “Gardens of Los Angeles at Midwinter” series published by James B. Blanchard & Co. about 1895. Reproduced in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles on p. 159.

So: Dr. John Wills, wife Charlotte, son William LeMoyne Wills and daughter Madeleine Frances moved into their vast manse, with its commanding view above the Plaza, in October 1886. The Wills family helped establish the Cremation Society of Southern California, and built the first crematory west of the Mississippi, in Rosedale Cemetery, in 1887. John Wills died in 1894 and the 1900 Federal Census shows Charlotte, William L. and Madeline F. living there with their four servants. 

After the death of patriarch John, the house went to Charlotte, who put it in trust to the two children. There was some squabbling, and a court case, so Charlotte dissolved the trust in 1903 and gifted the house to Madeline Frances, best known as “Fanny.”

Unlike many of the grand homes of the 1880s, the Wills house was never converted to apartments—in the 1920s the society pages made note of Fanny Wills’s lavish mahjong parties, complete with Chinese girls in authentic dress. Miss Wills was a famed suffragist; Susan B. Anthony was a noted house-guest.

Fanny Wills continued to live in the house until it was doomed by progress. The early 1930s saw North Spring Street extended as part of the Civic Center expansion, which cut much of the eastern edge of the hill. As the shovels dug they neared closer to the Wills house, called “one of the loveliest mansions ever built in Los Angeles” by the Los Angeles Times.

Fanny Wills took the County to court over the valuation of her property; experts testified her house and three lots were worth $275,000 ($4,189,254 USD 2018). The County gave her $165,000 ($2,513,552 USD 2018), condemned the property, and removed the social queen from her home in December 1930.

Los Angeles Times, 23 March 1930
Times, 23 March 1930

Before we go any further, we must answer the question, where was this house, anyway? It was on the corner of Rock Street, which would become Fort Moore Place, and Fort Street, which would become Broadway:

The 1894 Sanborn map
Castelar has become Hill Street, and Bellevue has become Cesar Chavez, and Spring St, which once stopped at Temple, was cut through, taking over New High and taking out Buena Vista. Anyway, red arrow says it was riiiiight about here. Only, now it would be floating way up in the air.

Now, through the magic of aero-plane photography, let’s look at exactly how the poor house got eaten away at before its ignominious end.

January 1, 1929. Compare to the Sanborn two images above. New High at very bottom, and notice how Buena Vista actually peters out to become a dirt road leading to Bellevue/Sunset.
Notice how one ascends the majestic, Canary Island Date Palm-lined driveway up from the corner of Buena Vista and Rock Streets. The actual address of the house was 101 Buena Vista; this number was changed to 501 N Buena Vista with the Los Angeles street-renumbering ordinance of 1889; it thereafter became 501 Justicia Street when the street was renamed
January 29, 1934: Spring Street barrels through where Buena Vista used to be. The skinny street with the bend, bottom, is what remains of New High. The County did quite a job of defoliating the Wills’ yard.

August 14, 1941: and then it was gone. New HIgh, bottom, wiped out and Spring Street was made an overpass, a decade later when the Hollywood Freeway cut through. This and other aerials, above, from the UCSB Air Photos collection

So what happened to her? Progress! Spring Street must be straightened! The corner of Spring and Sunset was slated for a County office building. The dirt was needed as fill for the forthcoming Union Station.

19 April 1934
UCLA
Times, 11 December 1930
1 April 1934
1 April 1934
1 April 1934
The south facade, shot from the Milo Baker house, 1934
A similar shot of the south facade as seen from a Baker house veranda. LAPL

The real reason I wanted to do a post on the Wills mansion is because, well, I picked up some nifty negatives of the east façade, shot in April 1934, and they allow us to peer nice and close at some of the details.

The arrow indicates our photographer’s position. Now, you see that x-marks-the-spot up there? This aerial has captured the 1934 mining operation, in search of the lost gold of the Lizard People. The mining tower can be seen in the distance, here:

The tale of the Lizard People is covered, of course, in Bunker Noir!get yours today!

Some more tidbits:

Nifty detailing in that gable, and check out the eyebrow window—which you’ll note Mary also used to similar effect in her Pasadena house pictured above
Great leaded glass window, which we presume utilized stained glass, but it’s hard to tell
Leaded glass on the front door, too
The view from that balcony would be incredible—east over the Plaza, the burgeoning city and mountains beyond. Note the way the staggered shingle blends into the straight-edge shingle. And the color differentiation between those and the shingle above!

Looking south on Spring Street from Sunset:

Spring St has gone through, though the hillside east of the Broadway tunnel remains…for now. UCLA

And what’s that lurking o’er? It’s the Wills house! The rarely seen north side! Signs and wonders!

An image of the west façade alludes us still, of course. The giant sign in the background, btw, was a block south above the entrance of the Broadway tunnel
And, the only known image of its north AND west façade! Denver PL
And, just to give you an idea how it towered over the Plaza—
Two eyebrow dormers…makes the balcony between them sort of a third eyeUCLA

POSTSCRIPT

After this post went live, I got to thinking about poor old Madeleine Frances “Fanny” Wills. Aged, white of hair, shuffled off to her slow descent into senility and madness. Somewhere…out in the country. Somewhere mysterious, alone, with no-one to know where she’d gone. That’s how the papers made it seem, and that is, after all, what she said:

The country? Like…San Bernardino?

Only, that’s not what happened at all. Age 73 when her property was condemned and she was evicted, and she pulled up stakes and moved off the hill and into the void, Madeline Frances Wills was replete with pep and vinegar. First thing she did when they kicked her out in 1930 was say screw it, I’m going to Hawaii! (She departed Wilmington on January 11, 1930 and returned March 4—what I wouldn’t give to see shots of her wearing a lei beneath the Aloha Tower.)

Then, on her return, she purchased a house at 1075 Rose Avenue, San Marino. According to the 1940 census, which lists home values, the houses in the neighborhood ran in the $4,000-$7,000 range; Fanny’s was valued at $25,000. (The numbers on Rose jump from the 700 block to the 2000 block abruptly, so I’m having trouble finding the house, but, working on it.) 1075 was an enchanted place and, we should note, said Eden was not completely manless:

Times, 10 April 1934

Before her passing in August 1940, Fanny was in the papers continuously both here and up north, visiting her sistren in the League of Women Voters and hosting events at her picturesque San Marino home:

Holy cats, Carrie Chapman Catt and Esther Caukin Brunauer

Fanny passes August 18, 1940:

And, through the fall of 1940, many papers carried the story about how somewhere—”out there”—was a lucky fellow who would collect $250 ($5,220 USD2022) a month from Fanny’s will—

Should once conclude this George Baird is the “George Baer” she took in, in 1934?

Until finally, in mid-November, the real George Baird stood up:

Fanny is cremated (as we might imagine, given her family’s history vis-à-vis cremation) and her remains are also somewhere “out there” and thus we are unable to visit her. (Unlike her brother William, another San Marinoan, who’s at San Gabriel cemetery—and who was married to Susan Glassell Patton, whose mother was Susan Thornton Glassell Smith, whose husband George Hugh Smith built an incredible house three doors down Broadway from the Wills’s AND whose brother Andrew Glassell Jr., built an incredible house on Buena Vista a stone’s throw from the Wills mansion…but that’s a story for another time).

Cooper Do-Nuts, Pt. III

I hate to be that guy, but I mean, come on.

The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council passed a letter requesting City leaders to formally recognize the site of the Cooper Do-Nuts Riot, specifically, at 215 South Main:

Irrespective of issues to be had with the alleged Cooper Do-Nut Riot (covered at length here and here)—the story always involves said uprising occurring on the 500 block of Main Street.

How and why DLANC elected to memorialize the Cooper’s Do-Nuts at 215 South Main is a mystery. After all, while there is conjecture as to whether the 500-block-of-South-Main-event even occurred (besides, there was no Cooper’s down there, and lone recounter Rechy has come out and said the story did not happen at a Cooper’s) the choice of 215 South Main as a location is in fact impossible, in that there was no Cooper’s there either, during the time Rechy contends the event transpired.

As in: the first Cooper Donuts—as evolved from the Evans Cafeteria—was at 215 South Main, in the Albert Cohn Building. That structure was demolished in toto, January 1958. On a corner of the newly-blacktopped parking lot, the Cooper Donut folk built a little standalone shop, which opened in late October 1959. Rechy has stated that the uprising occurred in both May 1958 and May 1959. Whichever it may have been, there was in any event no Cooper’s at 215 South Main between January 1958 and October 1959.

Evidentiary whatnot: the demolition permit from November 1957, the application to build the new structure in January 1959, which passed final inspection and received its Certificate of Occupancy in October 1959.

Again, to be clear:

213-223 South Main, the Albert Cohn block, seen in the 1953 Sanborn map, top, made a parking lot in January 1958. Below, in the recent aerial, note the presence of the little 1959 donut stand adjacent the Higgins Building.

Ok? Sorry to be persnickety about the thing, but a group like the DLANC, with their hearts in the right place and all, are still not allowed to play recklessly with historical truth. No-one is. This guy taught me that, and I stand by it.

ADDENDUM

After I penned the above post a couple weeks ago, the good folk over at Esotouric linked to it on Reddit. That post prompted this reply, and, though not going to do a whole ‘nother post about it, I do feel the need to address it.

Let’s “unpack this” as the kids say. First of all, Ms. Dilberian contends “it seems they are not creating a monument to the riot that may or may not have happened but rather focusing more on the fact that Cooper Do-nuts was a safe haven for all, regardless of their gender affiliation” although, in fact, the opposite is true. The DLANC letter, and the Facebook post to which Ms. Dilberian links, are solely about creating a monument to the riot, and not focused on any “safe haven” element; that idea goes unmentioned in both documents.

Secondly, the site of the first Cooper Do-nuts was not demolished by Jack and Margaret Evans—Ms. Dilberian states Evans Cafeteria structure was “torn down and rebuilt as a Cooper Do-nuts by the same owners”—when that structure was, rather, demolished by the building’s owner, Martin Lee, Inc. (In fairness, Ms. Dilberian’s syntax is unclear, so we don’t know whether she intended to connote the “same owners” tore down and rebuilt, or just rebuilt.)

In any event, the new structure was not completed “before early 1959” since the building permit was applied for in early 1959 and the location didn’t even get its Certificate of Occupancy, thus allowing it to open, until the late fall.

Lastly, one point is correct—said location stands to this day, which I pointed out in my post from over a year ago:

As we know, there was no uprising at Cooper’s, especially given as the one and only witness we have to any such event has stated it was not at Cooper’s.

With that out of the way, what we are now led to believe is that Cooper’s was unique for its inclusivity:

from here

And we are supposed to accept that Jack C. Evans was a 1950s ally to the trans community because…why? We have no evidence, save for the family says so. Is there an oral history they took from Jack before he passed? Are there eyewitness declarations? (Mind you, oral histories are routinely contradicted by archival evidence, and anyone in the legal or law enforcement biz will inform you that eyewitness testimony is the most unreliable of evidence.)

Ms. Dilberian, who started today’s conversation, is Evans family, after all, her being wed to Keith Evans, Jack’s grandson. The move to push the City to designate a “Cooper’s Do-nut Square” is motivated, it would seem, by the need to shine a kind, modern light on the family. However, the contention that these 1950s Evanses were trailblazing LGBTQIA+ supporters seems…forced.

Consider, there were twenty-six Cooper locations in Los Angeles, and they were all “safe havens”? With, presumably, the one at Second and Main as top safe haven banana, despite its location directly across from the Cathedral of St. Vibiana and the Union Rescue Mission. Point being, it’s a bit much to imagine men in tight capris, their shirts knotted at the midriff (as Rechy describes young donut aficionados) parading, seventy years ago, directly across from the seat of the Archdiocese, and rubbing elbows with the Rescue Mission habitués, which (unlike today) consisted of hard-bitten older white alcoholics.

On top of which, the gay bars were three blocks south, closer to The Run. (Yes, Survey LA’s LGBT Historic Context Statement states that in the 1940s there was one gay bar in the area—Smitty’s at 242 South Main, but even that claim is suspect, in that a) the Navy went out of its way to state Smitty’s was not included on the infamous “off limits to military personnel” list, and b) it was the scene of b-girl busts, which, had the arrests been same-sex, would certainly have made what was already lengthy coverage all the more newsworthy.)

So, again, we have only the family to believe. The remaining Evanses are proud of some sort of legacy, but their grasp on history is, perhaps, tenuous: for example, the above screengrab states that Jack and Marge were married in 1955, whereas the 1950 census shows them to already be husband and wife.

Ultimately, history is about evidence, and in discerning the wheat from the chaff we build a hypothesis, from which we gauge likelihood. As my buddy the forensic scientist says “all your history is just forensic science with more goddamn epistemology.” And the Cooper tale keeps being, over and over again, added to and morphed into ever-increasing unlikelihood, raising repeated questions of belief vs. knowledge, and piling on more of that g-d epistemology. In short, one sniff test after another, it just smells worse and worse.

The Great Wall of Bunker Hill

While Bunker Hill was famously wiped clean, it does contain a small quantity of interesting archaeological sites. The telling soil contours at Second and Hill. A remaining bit of retaining wall at Fourth and Olive. Less known (or at least not as yet mentioned by me) is the retaining wall at Fourth and Hill.

You may be familiar with this wall; let’s say you’ve gone to Angels Flight and on your stroll back to the car parked beneath Pershing Square—you passed by, glanced over and wondered hey, is that, something?

It most certainly is. Today our wall hides behind chainlink because once, it was part of a park, but the City couldn’t figure out how to keep the park clean of needles and human feces, so they closed it off for all and sundry. It’s still filled with needles and human feces, of course—the only difference being regl’ar folk are kept at bay.

To understand our wall, we have to go way back, to Old Hill Street. It was once quite residential—

Left to right, 337, 333, 331/329, 325, and 321 South Hill Street, ca. 1890. Huntington Library. A similar image may be found in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles.

Hill Street grew increasingly commercial. During the uptick of building that occurred after the fallout from the financial crashes of 1893 and ’96, but before the next downturn of 1907, there was a good bit of construction. Note in the comparison between the 1894 and 1906 Sanborn maps, how the area has much of its yellow (wooden) street frontage removed, and replaced by pink (brick) structures.

Sanborn Maps at the Library of Congress

And note, for our purposes, the STONE WALL 20′ that come 1906 (I believe the wall was built ca. 1903) runs from 343 South Hill, to the north. That stone wall still exists, here:

The Sanborn map of 1953. The Sanborn folk have it a bit wrong; the wall extended to the end of 329
From the air, August 1941. UCSB

So: you say, Nathan, there were once buildings lining Hill Street, north of Fourth? Really? What did they look like?

Left to right: Mary Doran Block, AKA Pembroke Hotel, 339-343 S Hill (Austin and Brown, 1904); Anna Higgins Steere Block, AKA California Eclectic Medical College/Los Angeles College of Osteopothy, 333-337 South Hill (Robert Brown Young, 1904); and the Dunn-Albright-Ames Block, 331-329 South Hill (Albert C. Martin, 1913). Note the Nick Peters neon boxer on the Steere Block! Boy I wonder if he had animated boxing arms. The signage was fabricated by Interstate Neon, an outfit in Van Nuys, and installed in early 1954.
The larger image. From left, Roberts Block, 353-355 South Hill (Robert Brown Young, 1904); the Gilbert S. Wright Block, AKA the University Club, 349-351 South Hill (John Parkinson, 1904); the Wright & Callender block, 354-347 South Hill (Parkinson & Bergstrom, 1905). This image was shot by Leonard Nadel in November 1955. Getty
Looking from the other side, in an image by Hall at the Huntington. Between the previous image and this one, notice the removal of the cornice from the Pembroke Hotel; owner David Rissman shed the structure of John C. Austin’s wonderfully ornate corbeled cornice in February 1956 to conform with the City’s parapet ordinance (similarly, see here for a 1939/1963 comparison of the Steere and Dunn-Albright-Ames block—remember, whenever you feel underwhelmed by a building, consider what may have been done to the parapet). This image gets a full page in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles—plus there’s a nifty shot of the Pembroke’s pool parlor (note Larby looking at it here). This image was shot by Hall in 1962; the structures, purchased by the CRA, were demolished in 1963.

So the block went on minding its own business, surviving through the decades—heck, few if any people knew that stone retaining wall lurked behind…until the structures were demolished via the Community Redevelopment Agency’s bulldozer policy, leaving and revealing the wall once hidden behind 329-343 South Hill St. If you really wanted to crawl behind there, you’d see this:

Behind the Pembroke during its demolition, May 1963. CRA

Here for example is the void left by the removal of the Steere Block, leaving A. C. Martin’s Dunn-Albright-Ames all on its lonesome:

Note the jutting retaining wall buttress at far left.

And soon all the structures were at the bottom of a landfill, leaving only our wall:

A slide from my collection, ca. 1975
Side note: the area was used to great effect in 1978’s Escape from Witch Mountain. That large Moreton Bay Fig tree looming over Clay Street was supposed to be saved and moved down the block to Angelus Plaza; from what I can tell it never made that trip… Compare the tree on Clay in this shot to it on its lonesome two images above
Another mid-70s slide from my collection
Did I call these buttresses? Strictly speaking this type of engaged buttress would be called a counterfort.
Compare to today. Via Bing Maps.
Top, “Retaining Wall Park” in its glory days. Middle and bottom, its degeneration after ten years of being fenced off.
Much of the time the Hill Street retaining wall lies hidden behind foliage, but WE know it’s there, lurking, reminding us of Hill Street’s urban past…

My pressing need to write about/share photos of this wall stems, of course, from the wall’s fate: imminent destruction. Of course, that corner of Fourth and Hill has long been the proposed site of…something.

In this curious rendering, the new track of Angels Flight spans Hill Street; one boards from atop Grand Central Market?
Note the placement of Angels Flight near the corner of Fourth and Hill, rather than further north up Hill Street

Then, when the California Plaza project got underway, there were plans for three matching towers, with one on the Fourth and Hill property:

Office Tower I being One California Plaza; Office Tower II being Two California Plaza; Office Tower III, unrealized.
Members of development team Cadillac-Fairview, and Shapell Government Housing, Inc., admire their model in the early 1980s. The proposed lower third tower, behind pointing guy’s shirt cuff.

That third tower, however, fell victim to the economic downturn of the early 1990s. Downtown Los Angeles, especially, through the 1990s, experienced an office glut and high vacancy rates. Despite eventual recovery from the 90s recession, the property went undeveloped and became a park (briefly famed as a location in 500 Days of Summer). Finally, about six weeks ago, the City rubberstamped the Angels Landing development.

Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2022

Thus, at some point in the near future, expect a vast number of demolition crews with earth movers to begin tearing up the parcel, and, in time, it will look (presumably) something like this:

Note in the rendering the vast shadow our new tower will cast over the hundreds of elderly in Angelus Plaza

Thereafter, this remaining remnant of Edwardian-era Hill Street will be gone. Of course, we still still have our beloved Angels Flight clattering adjacent, but, that notwithstanding…I for one will be sad to see this piece of vintage Bunker Hill erased.