Introduction and Contents

WHILE NOT SURPRISING in a metropolis as far-flung as Los Angeles, the city's West Adams district is at best a dim entity to much of its populace—indeed, if known, it seems to be an embarrassing artifact, almost malevolent in its antiquity. Now somewhere near the lower end of the continuum between a poor cousin with bad teeth and a richer one from back East who prefers to keep her original chins and dress like a prison matron, West Adams is at odds with a certain self-conscious civic imperative demanding gaudy, ever-forward momentum. Walled off 50 years ago by freeways, resurgent only by fits and starts, the district, still home to the University of Southern California after 132 years, can nevertheless be found to speak in the hushed tones of dispossessed gentility. Mercifully, Chester Place, its signature gated street, was saved by the oily Dohenys and remains to this day. Genteel by L.A. standards, the Dohenys possessed the power to bend the path of the Harbor Freeway when it threatened to plow through their domain in the late 1940s. This power was part of the deep need of the matriarch to control her environment, a bent that would be the saving grace of the compound that is now Mount St. Mary's College. In bequeathing Chester Place to the school, Estelle Doheny—a telephone operator who rose to be a countess if only of the papal kind—gave West Adams a centerpiece that remains to suggest the once salubrious streetscape of its adjacent, threadbare older sibling, St. James Park.

Los Angeles Herald, December 3, 1888

The dusty outpost of Los Angeles was already rich enough in promise to lure Americans on an uncomfortable ride west even before the railroad boom of the 1880s, but once competitive train fares from Kansas City reached $1 in 1887, scores of developers went into high gear to accommodate a deluge. The land dealings had begun earlier with, among others, the acquisitive Henry Hancock, a New Hampshire lawyer who had acquired a 35-acre tract north and west of Adams and Figueroa in 1855 (and whose name would mark the neighborhood to which many West Adams families would later move). New Jerseyan Nathan Vail bought at least part of this land from Hancock in 1876, nine years on selling the tract and the house he had built on it to Charles Silent, a native of Germany and former federal judge in the Arizona Territory with whom Vail had various real estate dealings in the land frenzy of the mid 1880s. (One of their schemes may account for Chester Place's still-extant iron-and-stone Adams Street gates, built well before that subdivision opened in 1899 and at odds with the simple wooden farmhouse Vail had built 20 years before.) Soon after buying Vail's property, Silent was persuaded to part with the western half of his holdings by wily investors George Wilson King, Frederick Harkness, and John Downey Harvey, nephew of former California governor John G. Downey. The trio went after the genteel set attracted to the more bucolic suburban reaches south of downtown that were opening up as the horsecars and the zanjas—the water-supply ditches from the Los Angeles River—were extended in this direction; improvements to their St. James Park subdivision began in 1887. Opened the next year, though hampered by a late '80s housing bust and the Panic of 1893, the development was centered on the small square of a new private residential park of the same name. (The developers would quit-claim the central grassy square to the city about three years later.) St. James Park was advertised as "the most elegant location for private residences in the city." The first houses to rise, if slowly, around the square were typical of the commodious Victorians being built elsewhere in Los Angeles at the time. As economic conditions improved in the '90s, Judge Silent, observing the revived activity in St. James Park from next door, decided in 1899 to move his house out of the path of his driveway, and, utilizing the grand gates at Adams Street built in the prior decade, extend the lane north to 23rd Street. This lane became Chester Place, named for one of Silent's sons; one source has it that St. James Park was similarly named for another of Silent's sons, though it seems likely that the son-inspired naming of St. James Park has been confused with Chester Place, as biographies of the judge do not include a son named James. More likely the name was bestowed on the park and the development just because it sounded dignified and redolent of aristocratic London precincts. To quote the Los Angeles Herald of September 4, 1887, on the subject: "Our readers will remember the beautiful St. James Park in London.... It is the intention of the owners of the delightful square in our good city of the Queen of the Angeles to reproduce, under fair skies and more lofty surroundings, this chef d'oeuvre of European landscape beauty."

Early on, St. James Park was a frequent destination of tourist excursions 
from downtown Los Angeles. The name may have had a stately 
English air, but the lamps added a Parisian touch: Seen here is 
one of several installed when the Park was first laid out. 
Its base reads "18 ST. JAMES PARK 87."

While not completely vaporized as was West Adams's Berkeley Square two miles to its west, St. James Park today contains only one major intact house among the 15-odd that once surrounded the square. Here, as next door in Chester Place and just a bit later in Berkeley Square, lived scions, burghers, society matrons, and even, no doubt rankling the mere Papal Countess Doheny, an actual German baroness: high-toned Angelenos no doubt happy not to be subject to the dictates of Estelle Doheny in her fiefdom one street over. In any case, it is hardly arguable that without the civic vision and energy of the erstwhile denizens of the ancient private streets of West Adams, including the Dohenys, there would be, for better or worse, no modern Los Angeles—and no newer residential heights to the north and west from which to look down on its faded precincts. In due course, in the manner of our companion blog on Berkeley Square, will come the stories of the houses and the lives, of the development and the demise, of St. James Park.

Set your GPS: The location of St. James Park

1 St. James Park: The Mercer / Wagar / Gates House

3 St. James Park: The Eugene Payson Clark House

9 St. James Park: The Braly / Woolwine / Eli P. Clark House

12 St. James Park: The Day / Meyler / Cheap House

20 St. James Park: The Baroness Von Zimmerman / William Hayes Perry House

27 St. James Park: The Stearns / Dockweiler / Robinson House

38 St. James Park: The Braly / Russell / Johnston / Tobeler House

Illustrations: A Visit to Old Los AngelesLos Angeles HeraldUSCDL;
others credited in individual posts