27 St. James Park


COLONEL JOHN ELDREDGE STEARNS, of Eastern stock by way of Chicago and Nampa, Idaho, was one of many thousands of Midwesterners who chose Los Angeles for retirement before the city itself was retired from the list of desirable California localities for passing one's golden years. The Colonel, described in some accounts as a Civil War veteran though he would have been 13 years old at the time of Appomattox and was now just 48, allowed himself plenty of golden years, though he was no dilettante. He'd left Chicago as a young man to pursue mining, agriculture, and railroading in Colorado and Idaho, helping to establish and serving as the first mayor of Nampa. He was at one time manager of the Boise, Nampa, and Owyhee Railroad that contributed to the growth of the town by bringing in the buyers of the real estate in which the Colonel also dealt. 

Mary Pickford arrives at the Boston home of "Jarvis Pendleton" in 1919. Perhaps it was daughter of the house
Katherine and her new husband, recently settled at #27, who talked her parents into allowing their home
to stand in for the East Coast in Daddy-Long-Legs. Actually, Hollywood had already invaded the
neighborhood: Fatty Arbuckle had moved in around the corner at 649 West Adams
Street that year. The famous scandals came two years later—with few
exceptions, actors would no longer be received in local Society.

Whatever the mythology or reality of his adolescent participation in the Civil War, Stearns apparently always maintained a hunger for adventure. Quitting his various interests in Idaho, he looked west again—southwestward, that is—arriving in Los Angeles in 1897 with his wife, Julia, and the youngest of their four daughters, Katherine, who'd been born in Nampa seven years before. As a young man, the Colonel was not interested in living in a downtown hotel and whiling away his time on a bench in Central Park (later Pershing Square). Apparently Stearns had done well in developing Nampa. He sought out the most promising young architect in Los Angeles, a man who was poised to bring the city architecturally and thus economically out of the shadow of San Francisco: John B. Parkinson, an Englishman who had himself arrived in town recently, just five years before, by way of Winnipeg, Minneapolis, Napa, and Seattle. He was the architect of several major downtown buildings by this time, the Homer Laughlin/Grand Central Market among them; his residential commissions, including his own (the history of which is here), would turn out to be few as the demand for his designs for large office structures multiplied. But it seems that Colonel Stearns's charm, or his budget and domestic ambitions, perhaps, persuaded Parkinson to come up with a sober American design for the substantial ¾-acre lot Stearns had bought in St. James Park. 

Essentially unaltered to this day, 27 St. James Park has a counterpart in Beverly
Hills (if not as old, in a different architectural style): the history
of the Frank C. Winter house is here.

It is not unlikely that when Colonel Stearns visited Parkinson's downtown offices to discuss his new house, he might have seen some preliminary sketches of the architect's own house that would be built on St. Paul Avenue in 1901. In spite of his Chicago roots, it seems that the advanced Prairie-influenced Mission Revival of Parkinson's house did not appeal to Stearns, who decided on a Colonial Revival design for his own. This newly popular (and socially safer) American style was symmetrical and gingerbread-free but retained the vertical lines of the Victorian style it superseded—vertical lines the Prairie Style radically repudiated. The Colonel, Julia, and 10-year-old Katherine moved into 27 St. James Park when it was completed in 1900, and with their lavish and columned new calling card, seem to have quickly assumed Old Guard status in Los Angeles without ever having to undergo any sort of lengthy vetting process by Society gatekeepers—such was upward mobility in the not-so-old New West. Parkinson included in his designs for #27 sympathetic outbuildings for cook and carriages; the Colonel also had a greenhouse built for the orchids he tended when not trying to catch the biggest tuna of the year, every year, off Catalina. Life was grander and lusher under the palms than it could ever have become if the Stearnses had remained in Idaho.

The 1900s proceeded at a genteel pace at #27 as Katherine grew up; while they had made a splash with their house, there is actually only the tamest of newspaper coverage of the Stearns household, unlike that of some of their neighbors such as the ostentatious Baroness von Zimmerman and the Modini-Woods, who had not heard of the rule that one's name should appear in the paper just three times in life. As the Colonel puttered among his orchids and reeled in tuna and Julia entertained other smart Los Angeles matrons regularly at home or saw them at the Friday Morning Club, Katherine attended Marlborough, then just around the corner, before she was sent east to Farmington. There was considerable travel. The summer season happily coincided for the Stearnses with tuna season; happily, for the Colonel, at least, who could revel among the testosterone of the Los Angeles oligarchy at the Tuna Club. He was immediately accepted by the local pooh-bahs into the best clubs upon arrival in the city—perhaps in no small part due to the sobriety and good taste of his house at 27 St. James Park. White columns have that effect—would acceptance have been so speedy had he chosen something flat-roofed and "arty"? At any rate, it was a genteel existence, one that ripened the family for capturing the biggest tuna of all in an eventual merger with true members of the Los Angeles ancien régime.

Duels to debutantes in three generations: Before the transcontinental railroad arrived in Los Angeles,
 Buffalo might not have seemed so bad after all: L.A. was one rough and dusty town. Henry 
Dockweiler's saloon interests lasted into the 1880s, by which time his sons
had moved into more sober if less exciting professions, including
  bookkeeping, surveying, engineering, plumbing, and law.

As did multitudes, the Dockweilers came to California for the gold and the sun if not the tuna. After the progenitors, Henry Dockweiler and Margaretha Sugg, arrived in Upstate New York, separately from Bavaria and Alsace, respectively, they no doubt wondered where the promised land was. The two met in Buffalo, with Henry then setting out to seek his fortune with the Forty-Niners. The odds of success in the High Sierra were about as good as winning the Powerball today, and Henry didn't succeed. But his pioneer drive and reports of California gold in other forms wooed Margaretha to Los Angeles—tiny, dusty, and the antithesis of Buffalo—and they were married there in 1861. Henry's great vitality was then put toward establishing the family name in civic, political, and religious endeavors. His business interests came to include the Lafayette Hotel and, despite serious Catholic piety, a saloon. Two of Henry and Margaretha's four sons were no less builders of L.A. than their father: John Henry dealt in the supply and drainage of water, building the city's first sewer. He served as City Engineer for much of the '90s. He and his wife, Mattie, had no children. But that's where his brother Isidore came in. In addition to becoming a powerhouse attorney in Los Angeles, a serious force in California and national Democratic politics as well as in local Catholic politics, Isidore and his wife, Gertrude (née Reeve), had 13 children. Of the 11 who survived infancy, many took up the family call to civic duty. Very few families anywhere could count on such discipline from even one child, much less many. Isidore, born in 1868 and baptized in the Plaza church, lived in a serious house with his brood at 957 West Adams Street; his son Thomas Aloysius Joseph Dockweiler likely eventually became aware of a certain Miss Katherine Stearns of the big white house just two blocks away at 27 St. James Park. Katherine was 17 months older, and not getting any younger. One can only imagine the commotion in the Stearns household when Thomas came calling, and not this time to ask if she wanted to roll hoops through the Park; the stakes were high: Either Katherine, ancient in her 28th year, would enthrall her family with a brilliant marriage, or she might just become Catherine Sloper. She did good: Thomas and Katherine were married on December 10, 1917, at the old St. Vincent's Church at Grand Avenue and Washington, where most solemn family occasions were celebrated. The war was on, and Lieutenant Dockweiler departed in short order for Kelly Field in San Antonio. After the Armistice, he returned to #27; most young couples wish to establish their own homes, and many who grew up in West Adams did, nearby in the recent subdivisions of starter houses on the numbered avenues in the western reaches of the district. But when one set of parents have a big house in its own park, on a park, and there are only three people living in it...perhaps inevitably, #27 thenceforth became the Stearns-Dockweiler house. To mark the union of families, a ironwork "D"s were placed over "S"s on some chimneys of #27, where the monograms remain today—it's not like is has been very long since a "D," at least, has lived in the house.

Before he married Katherine, Thomas had joined his father at Dockweiler, founded 1889. The firm became became Dockweiler & Dockweiler—repeating the name in the title six times might have been overkill, but at one time the firm did include five of Isidore's sons. Life at home was fairly quiet, though the population of #27 did expand by two. Julia Stearns Dockweiler was born on July 12, 1919; John Eldredge Stearns Dockweiler arrived on December 23, 1925. The 1920s at #27 were not an unbroken series of standard life events, however. There was mayhem:

As reported flippantly in the Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1924

Once the bodies were removed, the Chinese rug was cleaned, and the walls were washed, life settled down to normal, though there was another, if less dramatic, expiration: Colonel Stearns died on March 23, 1927, at age 75. After services at #27, he was sent east to be buried in his native Chicago. In addition to his days at Dockweiler & Dockweiler downtown in the Van Nuys building, Thomas served as president of the city’s Social Services Commission and was for several years a member of the State Committee of Bar Examiners. As was his father, he was a prominent Catholic layman; both were appointed Knights of St. Gregory. No word on whether Katherine was ever considered to be a papal countess, as was her neighbor Estelle Doheny over in Chester Place. (Add the Baroness von Zimmerman across the park at #20, the Countess von Beroldingen, and the Princess Pignatelli, who would come on the West Adams scene later—who knew Los Angeles had a Mardi Gras' worth of tin royalty?)

Julia Stearns went to her reward at the age of 75 on November 18, 1935, dying at home. A mass was said the next day at St. Vincent's. The "S" remained on the chimney, but Dockweiler was now the name on the doorbell: Thomas, Katherine, Julia, and John showed no signs of leaving St. James Park though West Adams was declining (for reasons described here) and fashion had moved on to newer districts such as Hancock Park. Julia would soon be attending Manhattanville in New York, returning to make her debut with a tea in her honor at #27. She would be asked to join the Junior League. Then war would come and bandages would be rolled alongside other young ladies of good breeding. Her volunteer work continued for a lifetime: In later years her efforts would include the presidency of the Los Angeles Orphange Guild. 

December 3, 1939: Miss Otis Regrets? An exemplary daughter of
upper-middle-class urban California, put on the market by her
parents in 1939. Remaining on the shelf, Miss Dockweiler
went on to lead a full life. After 70 years at #27, she
died at 87 in Los Angeles on November 7, 2006.

John would be sent east for his education, Catholic all the way: boarding at Canterbury in Connecticut, and then on to Notre Dame. After receiving his M.D. from Cornell and doing coursework in Cuba, he returned dutifully to settle in Los Angeles, marrying Winifred B. Longyear in 1951—a girl perhaps predictably in the loop of all things locally, conventionally top-drawer haute bourgeoisie. Although...sometimes the mating rituals of this often reactionary ilk can actually sound radical, even avant-garde—to wit, the latest Mrs. Dockweiler's outfits for her bridal attendants, per the Times: "Taffeta, in an electric sky-blue shade, was worn uniformly.... Made with a bouffant ballerina effect, the gowns bore pleated panels edged with embroidered scallops...the short-sleeved fitted bodices had scalloped necklines and were all over embroidery in self-toned [?] silk. Small caps bound with velvet in an irregular line, short gloves and faille [?] pumps completed the costume." The mind reels, but God bless matrimonial tradition. One supposes.

The 1950s saw the decline of West Adams turn precipitous; more big houses were cut up into apartments or demolished and replaced with boxy apartment buildings. The Harbor Freeway came though just blocks to the east. The crowning blow to West Adams came in the form of another freeway opened in the early 1960s, the Santa Monica, four blocks to the north. It cut the district asunder, and any idea of St. James Park surviving as a pocket of fashion was gone. But the mother and daughter still at #27 carried on unfazed. Thomas had died young on November 11, 1978; Katherine lived to age 98. After her mother died on March 14, 1988, Julia, who never married, chose to bring to a close nearly 90 years of family life at #27, once and always the signature house of St. James Park. She sold it to the Robinson family in 1990. Into better hands, it seems, the house could not have fallen. It is lovingly maintained by the Robinsons, who offer some rooms for rent that are coveted by students from U.S.C. The house is Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #434 and is rightly described by its owners as the finest private residence in the area, changed though the district may be from the day #27 was completed in 1900.

The west side of the house today

The east side

The north side

A small original building, presumably once the cook's quarters, which
 the current owners refer to as the "Colonel's Cottage."

Carriage house detail

The portico of 27 St. James Park, 112 years after it was built and 93 years
after Mary Pickford called. The screen career of the house, begun in
the silent era, extends to recent appearances in, among other
television productions, "JAG", "Cold Case", "Judging Amy",
"Six Feet Under", "House", "The District", and "NCIS".

Illustrations: LAPL 1; Silent Movie Archive 2, 3; Kansas Sebastian 4, 6, 9-14;
Michael Dorausch 5; Los Angeles Times 7, 8