109 Fremont Place

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The large lot at the southwest corner of Westerly Drive—the early designation of the north-south roadway now referred to as Fremont Place West—and Ninth Street remained empty, as did much of Fremont Place itself, until the 1920s. With the increased pressure on housing as Los Angeles's population began another decade's doubling, many remaining swells of West Adams and other districts close to downtown were cashing out of their aging houses and neighborhoods and looking north and west for more modern suburban settings. Developers of random lots all over what was then called the city's West End saw opportunity, putting up many speculative houses across Fremont Place and Windsor Square, both opened in 1911, and in recently developed Hancock Park. While there are indications that he was one such random speculator, it is difficult to be certain whether Asreal Merselman planned to flip the house he was intending to build on the northerly portion of Fremont Place's Lot 111 or to keep it for his own use. On March 11, 1924, the Department of Buildings issued him a permit for a $30,000 house at 109 Westerly Drive; in any case, nine months later, on December 10, Merselman died in Los Angeles. He could not have lived in the house very long even if he had ever had a chance to move in.


George W. Walker, cigar man turned banker


Asreal Merselman's choice of architect-contractor for #109 was one of the quieter builders in the city, generally of somewhat modest residences in grand neighborhoods. In addition to designing and building for others such as Mr. Merselman, Wilford A. McCutcheon (more often than not referred to as "W. A." or "Wilfred" but known to have signed himself "Wilford") was in the habit of building houses and often living in them until completing the next, though this was not the case with #109, being owned as it was by Mr. Merselman. In 1918 McCutcheon built and lived in what became the Frank Borzage house at 3974 Wilshire Boulevard; while working on 109 Fremont Place in 1924, he was living at 136 North Rossmore, which he'd completed the year before.


Following the late 1924 death of the man who commissioned 109 Fremont Place earlier in the
year, the house was placed on the market to close his estate. This advertisement
appeared in the Los Angeles Times and other papers during February 1925.


By February 1925, 109 Fremont Place was in the hands of the Frank Meline Company, major dealers in residential Wilshire District real estate. The house was featured in display advertisements that month headlined MUST SELL TO CLOSE ESTATE. If he didn't catch the ads, the house would likely have been brought to George Winfield Walker's attention by his fellow banker J. Dabney Day, who'd settled in Fremont Place a few years before, first at #89 and then at #129. Day was the president of Citizens National Bank and board member of its subsidiary Citizens Trust and Savings Bank, the presidency of which was once held and was re-assumed in April 1923 by George Walker after the departure of scandal-plagued Orra Monnette of 3101 Wilshire Boulevard. A brand-new house was certainly in order.


Before and briefly overlapping with his banking career, George W. Walker was a wholesale
and retail cigar dealer. At the height of his success in tobacco, he lived in a house in
one of the early suburbs west of downtown; like the neighborhood, the big
asymmetrical gable of 1125 South Lake Street was a precursor of

Walker's later home three miles west in Fremont Place.
The picture above appeared on June 4, 1905,
in the Los Angeles Sunday Times.


Twenty years before, the high rollers of Los Angeles, eager to put distance between home and work and with electric streetcars to ease the commute, sought new suburban neighborhoods such as those that make up today's Pico-Union district. After arriving in the city in 1891 from Tombstone, Arizona, to build a big business in wholesale and retail cigars—also serving as police commissioner during Mayor Meredith P. Snyder's second term—Albany, New York, native George Walker had in 1904 built the English-style house still at 1125 South Lake Street, one with a prominent front gable not dissimilar to that of his future 109 Fremont Place. Pico-Union, today—like West Adams—slowly reviving, was beginning to fade in the early '20s. What had once seemed to prosperous men such as Walker neighborhoods of spacious streets now seemed tightly urban, the houses dated and drafty, no longer quite suitable for ambitious muckety-mucks. Formally entering the business in 1912, he'd become a leading banker by the time of his 1924 move to what would have been, before Wilshire Boulevard was paved and automobiles outpaced streetcars, an impossibly far-flung place to live. Had he lived longer—into the turbulent '60s and '70s when Fremont Place was actually in danger of becoming another Pico-Union (or bulldozed altogether for an office park)—George Walker might have moved on up a notch to an even roomier suburb on the Westside such as Bel-Air. Fortunately, the old West End managed a recovery, its neighborhoods more or less managing to hold their appeal against the farther-flung competition.

Once George and Margaret Walker and their divorced daughter Ethelwyn Hyter moved into 109 Fremont Place, life for the family had assumed a cast far removed from Tombstone and even Lake Street. There were entertainments in the house of the usual kind—business-related dinners and Ebell club ladies in for tea, for example—at least until 59-year-old Margaret died of pneumonia at home on July 15, 1927. Ethelwyn—taking her father along for the ride—picked herself up rather quickly. In early November, father and daughter sailed on the City of Los Angeles to Honolulu, where Ethelwyn married Mississippi-born Chicago banker William N. Jarnagin. Perhaps in respect to the memory of the late Mrs. Walker, the marriage was not revealed to society writers until February. Mr. Jarnagin began to split his time between Chicago and Los Angeles, where he became a director of Citizens National Bank, of which his father-in-law would become chairman of the board in 1935. At the time of his fatal heart attack at #109 on May 16, 1943, at the age of 81, George was also president of the Oceanic Oil Company and a member of the board of trustees at U.S.C. The funeral was held at the house on the 19th. Ethelwyn would keep #109, living there more than her husband, who seems for unspecified reasons to have taken to living in a sanitarium. There were protracted legal proceedings over many millions of dollars following Ethelwyn's death at 62 on January 2, 1951; lawyers for the invalid William wanted a bigger piece of his wife's and her father's pies. While there wouldn't be a final settlement until November 1954, the house at 109 Fremont Place began appearing in classified ads, "priced for quick sale," in late 1952. Still on the market the following spring, it would soon be bought by printer and stationery manufacturer Claude W. Ritter. His family left #109 after he died in 1967. A later owner was legendary velvet-voiced singer Lou Rawls. 


Many houses on Fremont Place are larger than they appear from the curb. Number 109's first
long-term owner, banker George W. Walker, added 500 square feet to it in late 1925.
The building permit for this work described the house's exterior veneer as
having exposed metal ties on each brick in every fifth course.



Illustrations: LAT; Private Collection