88 Fremont Place

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The South was well represented in Fremont Place by one of the pulchritudinous Hobson brothers, Alabamans of distinguished plantation stock and of high achievement themselves. Richmond Pearson Hobson was practically a rock star in his day, according to accounts of his heroism during the Spanish-American War. Although his mission to block the Spanish fleet within Santiago harbor by deliberately sinking the American collier Merrimac proved ineffective, his risk-taking and few weeks in Spanish captivity—and good looks, which were likely exploited by Hearst's infamous coverage of the war as much as anything else—resulted in a postwar rail tour of the states on which screaming ladies met him at every station. Referred to by contemporary wags as "The Hero of the Merry Smack" and by historians as the "Most Kissed Man in America" and a "Sex Symbol of the Victorian Age," he later proved to be less fun. Although he had his progressive moments—perhaps remembering his adoring fans, he was, as an Alabama representative from 1907 to 1915, the only U.S. congressman from the Deep South to vote yes on an early women's suffrage bill—he went on to become "The Father of American Prohibition." Sounding very 1950s, he made a new career of finding evil, including Communism, under every rock, not just in saloons. After leaving Washington, he moved to Los Angeles, where he found his pulpit and perhaps models among the showy McPhersons and Sundays of the day. The Times and other papers followed his anti-booze and anti-narcotics crusades assiduously. One of his younger brothers, James, no less beautiful in countenance and similarly militarily distinguished, followed him to the West Coast soon after retiring from the Army. It was James M. Hobson who built 88 Fremont Place.


James Marcellus Hobson Junior at West Point


It was, actually, in a custom of the day meant to give a level of security to wives, Mary Grace Williamson Moran Hobson who was given ownership of #88. Her name appears on the permit for its construction issued by the Department of Buildings on December 4, 1923. Though born on the Kansas side of Kansas City, she had had something of an adventurous life before she met Lieutenant Hobson in 1913. She had been married before, for one thing, at the age of 19 in 1903 to 44-year-old William Moran, a longtime family friend and one of Seattle's famous shipbuilding brothers that included a mayor of the city. William Moran died in 1909. Returning to her parents' fruit farm—they had moved west to Fullerton—she then appears to have set off on something of a round-the-world trip. James, after West Point, had become a career officer; he was traveling from the Philippines when he reportedly met his future wife in Colombo. They were married at the Williamson farm on October 2, 1913. Mary Margaret arrived the following August 22, James Marcellus Hobson Junior on May 21, 1917. (While the custom was once to adjust suffixes when an elder died, the baby was actually the Third, as his grandfather, a distinguished Alabama judge, had started the line.) The family moved around quite a bit; Mary Margaret had been born at Vancouver Barracks, Washington, and James Junior in San Francisco. In 1920 the family was living in Havana, where Lieutenant Colonel Hobson had been detailed by the War Department as Military Attaché. By August 1921, Grace and the children were back in Fullerton. James wasn't to arrive back in California until the next summer. After he was demobbed, he and Grace saw a future not on a farm but up the Red Car line in Los Angeles. The James and Grace rented at house at 1519 South Gramercy Place. With Richmond and his wife Griselda established in the city socially (if soberly), they were in, and a significant new house of their own would seal the deal.


James, Grace, and the children in Havana, 1920


After purchasing the northerly portion of Fremont Place's Lot 90, the Hobsons chose seasoned Los Angeles architect Thornton Fitzhugh to design their new house. Though he had a number of residences as well as the Mayfair Apartments in his portfolio, Fitzhugh was better known for his mastery of reinforced concrete, such as he used in the 1906 Pacific Electric Building, still standing on Main Street. While the foundation of the Hobson house was of the material, its walls appear to be of standard two-by-four construction clad in stucco. Interestingly, Grace is listed on the building permit as acting as her own contractor. No doubt competent on her own, she might also have felt confident with the connections newly available to her through James's civilian occupation: While Hobson did not officially retire from the Army until June 21, 1930, he appears to have taken a position with a real estate firm, the C. M. Conant Company, which advertised itself as "Specialists in Wilshire Properties." There was a family crisis just days after building permits for #88 were issued: Richmond's son and a friend were feared lost in a storm in the Sierra Madre, a scare followed by worry over the safety of Richmond and James who'd gone looking for them. All were found.

Once moved into #88, her first permanent home in many years, Grace pursued the usual activities of Los Angeles society matrons, including teas, luncheons, and lectures at the Ebell, still down on Figueroa Street but to open its new clubhouse just outside the gates of Fremont Place in October 1927. Mary Margaret was enrolled at Marlborough, which, indicative of Old Los Angeles's move to newer western suburbs, had relocated from West Adams to its current location a few blocks north of the Place in 1916. Grace's brother Harold Williamson lived with the family during the mid '20s while he attended U.S.C. and was president of its graduate school. James eventually joined his brother's crusade, becoming secretary-treasurer of the very serious International Narcotic Education Association but taking pleasure as an avid tennis player. Bright student Mary Margaret went off to Stanford without even having to take an entrance examination; all seemed copacetic at #88 despite the onset of the Depression. The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in December 1933, however, may have precipitated a big change in the Hobsons' Los Angeles life, hitting the brothers' temperance efforts hard; bookings for Richmond's lectures no doubt slipped. Along with many other Fremont Place houses, #88 may have become something of a white elephant.

It is unclear as to whether James and Grace decided to rent or sell their house, but, after they moved back to the fruit farm in Fullerton, a couple named Knupp, claiming to a Times society reporter to have practically created the very earth of Tulare County, moved in. Guy Knupp had been the city attorney of Porterville and was now becoming established in private practice in Los Angeles. His wife Jessie was a Christian Science practitioner, although, despite there being dozens of local churches of that faith (near the height of its 1920s popularity), their daughter Ellenor was married at Immanuel Presbyterian on April 12, 1935, a reception following at #88. After the big show, much covered by newspapers as if a press agent was involved, the Knupps then moved onto another rental. Leasing the house by September 1936—again, landlord, uncertain—were Milton and Marguerite Patrick, apparently as big a deal on Catalina as the Knupps had been in Tulare County. On the 29th of that month they gave a housewarming dinner-dance with an impressive guest list that included Bannings, Torrances, Brants, O'Melvenys, and the Bradner Lees. The Patricks were still renting #88 in 1941, though summering, as usual, out on their Pacific isle. It could be that the house was still in the possession of the Hobsons, who remained out on the farm. But whoever may have been the owner, the first time #88 appears to have been offered for sale after having been rented for a decade was in October 1944. Classified ads at the end of that month noted a reduced price—now $25,000—and that the owner "wants quick action." Whether he got it or the price is not certain, but by 1946, wholesale milliner Brayton Witherell—he was the western manager for Knox hats—was in residence. It seems that it wasn't until late 1951 that #88 would have its first long-term occupant. The house appeared again for sale in the Times in the fall of that year, the asking price now $32,500; answering the call were the very Southwest Blue Book Andrew E. Crowells, who had been living recently at 96 Fremont Place and would make some alterations to their new house immediately. The family would retain ownership of #88 for decades. Structural engineer Farrel T. Miles, who might have been able to attest to the quality of Thornton Fitzhugh's design and the quality of construction, acquired #88 in the mid-'70s, adding a pool in 1977, though he appears to have put it on the market soon after: Real estate data indicate that a sale on October 2, 1978, brought $365,000. Subsequent owners have expanded the kitchen and carried out renovations that appear to have muted some of the house's original charm.


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James Hobson died on Christmas Eve 1940 in San Francisco and was buried in the National Cemetery there. Grace joined him after her death on January 15, 1961. Curiously, no birth date is inscribed; records vary as to this detail by as much as six years, although it is unlikely that she married her first husband at the age of 13. Both Mary Margaret and James became educators. Perhaps having fond memories of an Army childhood, having indeed been born on a base, Mary Margaret moved to Schofield Barracks in Honolulu to teach children of servicemen. In Hawaii she met and married Howard de Vis-Norton, born and raised there, and they had two children. She died in Los Angeles on December 27, 1988.


The entrance to 88 Fremont Place was altered with a small 1952 addition fitted into the
northwest corner of the house; other modifications appear to have reduced
the effect of architect Thornton Fitzhugh's original 1923 design. 



Illustrations: Private Collection; AncestryMagnolia Grove; Carlos Antonio