The President of Bunker Hill

Happy Presidents’ Day! Yes, I know it’s really Washington’s Birthday (it irks me George is not celebrated specifically, he being my first cousin) but, I’ll accept it. After all, who morphed Washington’s Birthday into Presidents’ Day? The mighty Angeleno, that’s who: among those many things invented in Los Angeles, Presidents’ Day is among them, as it exists due to the tireless efforts of one Mr. Harold Stonebridge Fischer, he of Compton, California.

What do presidents have to do with our topic at hand? Well, among the many notable folk who have lived on or visited Bunker Hill—my recent post about Anna May Wong being one example—it is asserted by some that President William McKinley has a connection to the Hill. McKinley purportedly stayed in one of its most recognized landmarks, the Melrose Hotel, or, at least, made a Very Important Speech from the Melrose’s porch. Heck, I reported as much in this 2008 post.

The source of that information is a couple of unnamed little-old-ladies who got to chatting with Times reporter Ray Hebert on Grand Avenue in June 1957.

Los Angeles Times, 03 June 1957

While chatting with Hebert, and the fellow salvaging sinks and whatnot from the doomed Melrose, one of the ladies stated she remembered standing on that very sidewalk watching McKinley on that very porch, “as if it were yesterday.”

McKinley on Bunker Hill would be a huge deal for us Bunker wonks. Love him or hate him—many being divided over his annexation of Hawaii, freeing Cuba, or purchasing the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico—McKinley was arguably the first “modern” president, and we must admire his administration for its monetary policy and a trade reciprocity that shrewdly pulled America out of the crippling 1890s economic depression. All that notwithstanding, I just get all giddy over the fact that McKinley was on Bunker Hill in one of my favorite buildings.

But, of course, it never happened. It’s a neat story, but then so is “there was a streetcar conspiracy!” and “the Dodgers kicked people out of Chavez Ravine!” and those tales aren’t true, either. More analogous is the assertion that “Teddy Roosevelt stayed at the King Edward Hotel!” which, as has been pointed out, didn’t happen either. (Not that no-one ever stayed at the Melrose; it was the hotel of choice for any number of illustrious personages, e.g. Marshall Independence Ludington, though, he’s not exactly McKinley, is he.)

At this point, you might be wondering, what is this Melrose Hotel which McKinley did not in fact visit?

The Melrose, 130 South Grand, the Richelieu at 142 at right, to its south…both now being the location of this

The Melrose was built in the spring of 1889, for Marc William Connor, designed by the firm of Joseph Cather Newsom. For reasons I go into here, I’m of the opinion that it is from the hand of Walter Ferris, Newsom’s draughtsman.

The Melrose soldiered on through the decades, gaining a second building to its north in 1902, remaining elegant to the end, before its 1957 demolition by the County.

An image by George Mann, circa 1955, LAPL

There were a few notes in the news about the end of the Melrose. The 1957 Times article that spoke of McKinley’s presence described the old gal as grotesque and alarming and not unlike a snake, but worst of all, “out of place,” the true sin in mid-Century America:

Of all the colossal effrontery

In April 1957 the papers had made note of Lucy Davis, sole remaining resident of the venerable Melrose, being removed from her long-time home. In those blurbs, not only McKinley but old “Rough and Ready” Roosevelt himself bunked therein!

San Bernardino County Sun, 10 April 1957

As I linked to above, Teddy Roosevelt was comfortably ensconced in the Westminster, not the Melrose (nor the King Edward). The question then being, if McKinley didn‘t stay at the Melrose, where was he?

McKinley made his way to the Van Nuys, two blocks south and five blocks east, well off of Bunker Hill.

Los Angeles Times, 9 May 1901

Mind you, McKinley didn’t stay at the Van Nuys; he bunked with fellow Ohioan Harrison Gray Otis at The Bivouac. Members of his entourage, like George Cortelyou, though, stayed at the Van Nuys. A good summation of the 1901 McKinley trip is here.

But still, the little-old-ladies of 1957 insisted they had seen a McKinley speech. And they did, delivered from the balcony of the Van Nuys Hotel:

Los Angeles Times, 09 May 1901

During his welcome reception at the Van Nuys, McKinley decided the throngs deserved an impromptu address, and asked Milo Potter where he might find the nearest suitable balcony. The President was ushered to the balcony of room 22, near the northeast corner of the second floor. That would be here:

Yep, the McKinley Balcony still extant! Should have a plaque upon’t


So. No McKinley on Old Bunker Hill. “Awww,” you say, “now I’m sad. Surely at least one president visited Bunker Hill…”

Well, fear not! In October 1880 we were graced by the presence of Rutherford B. Hayes, who stayed at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, on Main near Temple, and then visited the northern reaches of Bunker Hill when he attended the agricultural fair at the Horticultural Pavilion. (You may claim that the Pavilion having been north of Temple Street, its location should rightly be called Fort Moore Hill rather than Bunker Hill, but, I consider the Fort Moore area a northern district of Bunker Hill, and, it being my blog, so there.)

From the Pacific Rural Press, 14 September 1878. The Pavilion’s architect was Ezra Kysor, in his brief stint as Kysor & Hennesy, before he joined forces with Octavius Morgan in 1880. Only the central hall was built; those wings remained on the drafting table.
Under construction in mid-1878
Los Angeles Evening Express, 23 October 1880

Hayes spoke to a packed pavilion and then went off to look at all the boostery produce. Then he and his party dined at the New England Kitchen in the pavilion. Even in 1880, Los Angeles had theme restaurants; forty years before the immersive experience of the Jail Café, the ladies of the New England Kitchen dressed in Colonial garb.

Naturally, I contacted the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library, asking after any images that might exist of his Los Angeles trip. Unfortunately, while library archives contain some images of Hayes on his 1880 Western Trip, those images are of his adventures around Yosemite and Menlo Park.

As for the Horticultural Pavilion: it is oft said that the structure burned down, as so stated by Sarah Bixby in Adobe Days. However, its end was in actuality much less dramatic. The pavilion could never meet its mortgage, and it was pulled down in the spring of 1882. The area on which it stood was redeveloped as residential:

Before and after: looking west on Temple Street, in ca. 1878 and ca. 1895. Hill Street runs along the bottom of both images and I’ve paired the matching structures. Now, it’s this.

There has been no shortage of presidential trips to Los Angeles over the years, but I’m yet to discover further evidence of presidential appearances in predemolition Bunker Hill, apart from Hayes.

Bunker Hill adjacent, though…

…here, for example, is Harry Truman cruising south on Spring Street in a 1949 Lincoln Cosmopolitan. There’s the old Hall of Records, and just to its left in the distance, one can make out the scrubby hill where Court Flight used to ply her trade. The square structure with the nine windows is the backside of the Stevens Apts, at 150 North Hill, the corner of Hill and Court Street. LAPL

Presidents still come to our fair city, visit downtown, and it often gets saucy, but none have the moxie (nor the mighty beard) as President Hayes, our Chief Executive of Old Bunker Hill.

13 thoughts on “The President of Bunker Hill

  1. I remember seeing the Melrose being torn down on that sad day in 1957. I also remember at the time hearing and believing the tale of President McKinley having stayed here on his visit to Los Angeles. A couple of years ago, remember Casey Stengel who said “You could look it up,” I went online and read extensive contemporary newspaper reports of McKinley’s visit. Citing these original sources, I can corroborate Nathan’s report. McKinley never went to the Melrose. “You could look it up.” Good job once again Nathan!


  2. Great read! Thanks Nathan!

    Besides the Victorians moved to Heritage Square, were there any other Bunker Hill structures relocated and saved?

    Fun Fact: I’m related to Rutherford B Hayes. I think he was the brother of my greatx5 grandmother. We share the same middle name: Birchard


    1. I’m glad you asked! There’s also a house from the 500 block of Flower that was relocated to Echo Park, but, I consider the 500 block of Flower to be juuuuust the other side of the “border.”

      More importantly, your middle name is BIRCHARD? That is literally the coolest thing I’ve ever heard! I know exactly who your greatx5 grandmother was—Fanny Arabella Hayes!

      If Fanny was your lineal grandmother, I believe that makes RBH your first cousin, just as Washington is mine (with all those “removeds”). Hayes is ALSO my cousin, but a sixth cousin five times removed. (RBH’s greatx5 grandfather was Joseph Loomis Sr., whose great x5 granddaughter was Julia Bacon Estillette, who was my x2 great-grandmother.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. OMG are we cousins?! LOL.
        We are related via RBH’s mother, Sophia Hayes (Birchard). And my great grandmothers maiden name was Birchard. I need to ask my mom for the details.

        Also a Washington connection on my dad’s side. ( via Rev. War / Pennsylvania Colony)

        Presidents Day! Whew!


  3. What fun to go over— Colonel Eddy (builder of Angel’s Flight) first L.A. home in the Temple St. panorama lower left side— with all the arches

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What Presidents’ Day fun! While we’re at it, I can’t let it go by without mentioning my Presidential cousins: Martin Van Buren and, wait for it, Barack Obama.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That sure is a lot of change in 17 years on Temple Street. One can see the escarpment on the north side of Temple totally flattened in the later photo. So I guess they’ve been tearing down Bunker Hill long before the 1950s and 60s.


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