104 Fremont Place

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Thorstein Velben's The Theory of the Leisure Class was published in 1899 at the end of the Victorian era and its now-celebrated architectural excesses; "conspicuous consumption" was the book's pithy takeaway phrase. New money's overweening need to overbuild in Los Angeles and elsewhere today is nothing novel, even if the quality and taste levels are clearly wanting without the craftsmen of a century ago, however high the budget. Between the larger Victorian piles of turn-of-the-20th-century West Adams and the current excruciating Westside penchant for resort-hotels-as-homes, there was a similar eclectic proliferation of what are today called McMansions along the central Wilshire corridor. Fremont Place had its full share of houses with many more bedrooms than were needed by the families that built them; even many successful childless couples wished to live in palaces, apparently just for the sense of having a moat.

Among those original Fremont Place builders who never had children but wished to live large were Charles and Florence Wild of #104. Spurning the tired Mediterranean fad of the 1920s, the Wilds went more interior French when they accepted eminent architect Elmer Grey's proposal for a Norman manor house on their 200-by-200-foot lot in 1930, the recent Wall Street crash be damned. As described in the Times on May 18, 1930, three days after the Department of Building and Safety issued a permit to begin, the house—with four master suites for one master—would have six bathrooms "and three additional toilet rooms," a clue to either the weak bladders or laziness of Mr. and Mrs. Wild, if not just the extravagance. Five more rooms and still more johns were to be built over a garage at the rear, for staff; altogether there were accommodations for six cars. A pool with dressing rooms was also planned...perhaps it has always been that new money has wished to lived at an Aman resort.


Architect Elmer Grey's rendering of the proposed 104 Fremont Place appeared in the Times
on May 18, 1930, along with details of the house's design. Its walls were to
be of whitewashed "Adoblar" brick, its steeply pitched roof covered in Vermont
slate graduated in thickness from eaves to peaks; metal casement
windows were specified throughout. 
John B. Holtzclaw, a top
decorator of the time, was to design the principal
downstairs rooms; Donald B. Harrison
was to be the general contractor.


Reflecting Los Angeles as a whole, Fremont Place was where many a Midwesterner came to reinvent or retire. Some were from humble backgrounds; for some, like the Wilds, there was less of an economic impetus to go west than climatic. The son of a Milwaukee banker and real estate man, Charles John Wild eventually went to work in a foundry, where he found his calling. Apparently putting in long hours to succeed and sharp in combining metal-casting skills with business acumen, Wild, pushing 40, was not to settle down into wedlock until 1915. Making several big changes in his life at one time, soon after marrying another Milwaukee native, Florence Dickson, youngest daughter of a tea and coffee merchant, Wild accepted a position as manager of the Warman Steel Casting Company in distant sunny Southern California. With the rise of San Pedro and Long Beach as ports cutting down on the number of ships calling at the resort of Redondo Beach, the town wooed industry to make up the economic losses; Warman incorporated there in 1911, but it grew fast and didn't stay long. Perhaps it was Wild who engineered a move not long after going to work for the company; by 1917 new facilities were under construction closer to downtown Los Angeles. The Wilds were soon living in the city, renting dentist Robert Updegraff's house at 1414 South Gramercy Place; they would later buy it and stay there until their great residential statement was completed a mile to the northwest in 1931.


Soon after Charles J. Wild moved west to go to work for Warman,
the company relocated to Boyle (now State) and Slauson
 avenues in Los Angeles's chief industrial zone.


While the Wilds did not have children of their own, they did have family. There appear to have been plans all along to have Florence's widowed mother and divorced older sister Jane join the household. Mrs. Dickson and Jane Milroy had come to California in the '20s after the departures of their husbands, renting a house on Wilton Place for themselves and Mrs. Milroy's daughter, Peggy. Once 104 Fremont Place was completed, Charles's in-laws had moved in, Mrs. Dickson if only briefly: She died in the new house on January 19, 1932. Once the black armbands and veils were dispensed with, there would be considerable activity in the house afterward—bridge parties, teas, debutante receptions, all the usual upper-middle-class ritual entertainments. Charles no doubt sought shelter at the office, where he had been widening his business activities over the years. One of his ventures outside of Warman was the organization of the Moreland Aircraft Corporation with truck manufacturer George Elmer Moreland and William Lacy, among others. Another pursuit, one less successful, was joining an effort with, among others, hotelier George Hart of 107 Fremont Place across the street to create a new downtown social club. Meant to "revolutionize club life" (according to its promotional literature), it was apparently an attempt to trump the established California and Jonathan clubs; but while the Morgan, Walls & Clements–designed Deauville Beach Club in Santa Monica opened in 1927 with Wild's participation (and that of, among others, industrialist Horace G. Miller and banker Fred Swensen of Berkeley Square), plans for a similarly palatial downtown counterpart at Sixth and Flower by the same architects quickly fizzled. (Morgan, Walls did soon build on the downtown Deauville site—construction was begun on their dazzling lost black-and-gold Richfield Oil building in 1928.) Charles seemed happiest out of his nest of hens, keeping busy and making money to pay the party bills and the live-in staff at 104, which included a cook and at least two maids. Perhaps, though, the overhead was becoming onerous.


A series of advertisements in the Times during 1926 was about as far as the
Deauville City Club got to fruition. Members of the more established
Old Guard clubs appear to have been unimpressed by the
proposed organization's promises to "revolutionize"
club life in Los Angeles. The Deauville site
at the northwest corner of Sixth and
Flower was soon occupied by the
the famous Richfield Building,
destroyed in 1969.


While the Depression years were days of high cotton for the Wilds, dark soap-operatic clouds began to roll in over 104 Fremont Place with the coming of a new decade. At a garden tea on July 30, 1940, Peggy Milroy's engagement to Thomas Parker of Portland was announced; a fall wedding was planned. There was a ceremony on September 21, but not one with a dozen bridesmaids and the lavish Fremont Place reception one might have expected. Peggy and Tom instead eloped to Yuma, the Gretna Green of the southwest. Then, before Peggy was divorced and remarried 10 years later, Charles Wild, after an unspecified but lingering illness, had had enough. Overwork at the plant was said to have contributed to his troubles, which, it could be speculated, were compounded by personal financial worries despite Warman's recent acquisition of defense contracts. One clue was the appearance of a large classified advertisement in the Times on March 9, 1941, offering for sale an "unusual 18th century French chateau"; 104 Fremont Place, apparently much older than anyone knew, was on the market. Sadly, on a Sunday night two weeks later, while the rest of the family was at the movies and servants either having been let go or in far reaches of the house, the Wild patriarch stole up to the attic—where there happened to be an accessible gas pipe—and called it a day at age 62.



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The somewhat noir scenario of Big Daddy–and-his-extended-family-under-a-cloud resumed at 104 Fremont Place as soon as the widow Wild was out of the house and a new clan had moved in. Something about 104 appears to have attracted ambitious, Midwestern-bred industrialists. Durrie Coy Burnett was a native of Nebraska who studied law—his first calling—practicing briefly in Lincoln before giving in to the lure of the American west. Weather was often a secondary consideration to migrants, of course; while sunny, salubrious California was always a draw, there was opportunity up and down the Pacific Coast, including along its gloomier stretches. Coy, as he was known, had set up a practice in Portland by early 1912. Just when he made the acquaintance of his future bride, the year-older Mildred Kingsbury, is unclear. Although an eastern Nebraska native herself, by 1910, at age 23, she was living in Southern California at Long Beach with her younger sister Maud, their father Castello still back in Grand Island. Whether friendly from earlier days in Nebraska or whether they met, say, on a business trip of Coy's to the Southland, he and Mildred were married by 1917; afterward they brought Castello Kingsbury out to live with them in Portland. The extended family's future, however, lay back at the sunnier end of the coast. 

A key piece of Los Angeles history—perhaps the most important piece—would, tangentially, bring Coy Burnett to Southern California. To supply material for its famous aqueduct from the Owens Valley, the rapacious city built a concrete plant at Monolith in the Tehachapi Valley in 1908; after the waterway opened on November 5, 1913, the plant, though still capable of supplying product to other city projects, became the subject of conflict between those who thought Los Angeles should retain ownership and those who didn't—among those who didn't was the famous father of the aqueduct, William Mulholland. After a good six years of wrangling, a proposal by Coy Burnett and Portland shipbuilder Fred Ballin and others was accepted, one which would entail the investors' addition of potash-production equipment to the plant for a six-month trial; after that time the United States Potash Company could either retain the operation or return it to the city in its updated state. The Monolith Portland Cement Company was born—"Portland," by the way, being derived from an island in the English Channel rather than from the Oregon city—and Coy Burnett went from being a mere professional to a mogul. With the new venture based in Los Angeles, the Burnett clan moved south to the new Lafayette Square subdivision, a last gasp of West Adams development and one of dozens of developments vying for affluent homeowners in 1920. After the heyday of old West Adams and with the city's population well on the way to doubling, no one knew exactly where fashion would settle. The Burnetts would remain on Wellington Road for a few years before leaving Los Angeles for the highest ridge down in Del Mar—perhaps Mildred missed the beach—where the family would come to maintain a large presence for decades to come. Castello and Maud Kingsbury remained in Los Angeles, and it seems that Coy made the trip south only on weekends, maintaining rooms successively at the Los Angeles Country Club, the Ambassador, and the Biltmore to tend to business at his downtown offices.

By 1930 there were four Burnett children growing up in a house designed by Richard Requa on the family's 23-acre seat in San Diego County, tended by five live-in servants; the property's eventual surrounding wall, said to have been built for ophidiophobic youngest daughter Valentine—born on February 14, 1929—would come to inspire the name of the estate: Snakewall. The builders of Southern California were men of great energy, and Coy Burnett was no exception. Despite the time required to zigzag from the city to Kern County to Del Mar in pre-freeway California, he still managed to build both business and family in splendid ways, fueled by good fortune that appears to have been little affected by the Depression years. There were family trips to Hawaii, a staple destination of affluent Californians; in the summer of 1929 the entire family sailed to Europe, including four-month old Valentine, 84-year-old Castello, and at least two servants. While it is not altogether clear as to why the Burnetts decided to move their main residence back to Los Angeles during the war years, the Japanese threat to the coast was no doubt a major factor; at any rate, the coincidental availability of 104 Fremont Place at the time of Pearl Harbor and the false but frightening Battle of Los Angeles 11 weeks later presented the Burnetts with a palatial solution to security and coming wartime travel restrictions. Though it turned out to be safe from external threats, the old Wild house was to be where the lives of the Burnetts would take on many new permutations and dark complications.

During the 1930s, the extended family had resumed living together at Snakewall, including 94-year-old Castello Kingsbury and the unmarried 50-year-old Maud. Also appearing to be headed for spinsterhood, but soon to lead a much more exciting and daring life, was the Burnetts' eldest child, Kingsbury, born in Portland in 1916. Enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps in July 1943, she trained at Camp LeJeune as a weather observer; as the war was ending, she was a sergeant in the Aviation Women's Reserve Squadron at a base in the Mojave. Traveling extensively on her own after the war, she married Willard H. Gooding in 1956; meanwhile, her younger sister Anne, born in Los Angeles in 1920, appears to have been no less adept at self-determination. In October 1940, she and fellow U.S.C. student John Howard Craig eloped to Yuma before he left to join the service. Their son Christopher King Craig was born on July 7, 1942, around the time of the Burnett clan's move to Fremont Place and a year or so after Castello, the baby's tough old bird of a great-grandfather, died at 95. While there would be three more Craig children, tragedy struck in March 1944 when 20-month-old Christopher drowned in a stream on his grandfather's Kern County ranch, making the war years especially gloomy on Fremont Place. Even with the end of hostilities, there was little time for peace at 104: Coy's only son, Coy Jr., recently a naval officer and now at U.S.C., died of mysterious causes in April 1946. A family by now used to taking the best as well as the worst of life in stride, some members were reported to have shed their mourning duds in time for the opening of the Del Mar Turf Club's 1946 season in August. It seems that with Coy's energy (and, of course, his talent for making money) behind them, it was full speed ahead to happy times, no matter what; two Augusts later, the youngest Burnett, Valentine, was married to Lloyd Winton Rentsch in the garden of 104. Things were relatively rosy for the next few years.

The Burnett square footage in Fremont Place expanded greatly in 1952 with Coy's acquisition of #107. Languishing across the street, the old George Hart house was scooped up for a bargain price in what appears to have been a ploy to lure the Craigs, who had moved out of 104 to Santa Monica after the war, back to the Place. It could be that John Howard Craig was having a hard time providing Anne with the life to which she had become accustomed starting at birth; although he may have accepted the rise in housing status unselfconsciously, it also may not have helped his self-esteem to have had a controlling father-in-law in essence pay to put a roof over his family's head. As related in our story of 107 Fremont Place, the life of the Craigs would come apart sadly within a few years owing to another suicide on the block; the Burnetts would push on, however, for nearly two more decades. Anne would bring a second husband to live at 107 in 1958 and stay after he left a decade later; after Coy Burnett died at home at 104 on December 7, 1971, the family began to leave Fremont Place after nearly 30 years. Mildred Burnett moved to an apartment at Park La Brea before dying on October 3, 1974; Anne Burnett Craig Amacker moved, eventually, to Scottsdale. Both 104 and 107 were put on a market not helped by the post-Watts, post-Manson mood of 1970s Los Angeles; but they did sell and today the two houses stand in a rejuvenated Fremont Place now in its second century.


Vintage 104 Fremont Place as seen in the 2011 film The Artist



George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller
(Bérénice Bejo) at the front door of 104 Fremont Place,
above and below; the ironwork "B"s are presumed to date
from the house's Burnett years and may have been
replacements for the prior tenants' "W"s.


A scene from The Artist reveals the house's northside porte cochère





Illustrations: Private Collection; LATSony Pictures