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).

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