64 Fremont Place


The idea of Los Angeles as a winter resort—as something like Santa Barbara—can be difficult to conjure a century after the scent of oranges began to disappear, but the city was once as much a draw for prosperous retirees from the east as it was for businessmen just starting their careers. East Coasters of both inherited and self-made money came to build second residences and sometimes permanent ones. Midwestern Babbitts were drawn away from snow and tornadoes to the safe Anglo-Saxon "whitewashed adobe" (to borrow William Deverell's phrase) that Los Angeles had so determinedly become; among the builders of commodious houses in West Adams, along Wilshire Boulevard, and in the new West End suburbs of the 1910s and '20s were more than a few plains-bred burghers, some childless and with few blood ties back east, who came to establish their final bourgeois beachheads. One straightforwardly named couple seemingly plucked right out of the famous Lynd studies of 1920s "Middletown" were William and May Johnson, who arrived in Southern California from Missouri to build the Mediterranean-style but thoroughly American 64 Fremont Place in 1920.

All four of William and May Johnson's parents were born in Illinois, as were they; once the couple married in 1888, they struck out for Kansas City, where William established himself as a fire-insurance agent. Even after his business prospered greatly, the Johnsons, who once owned their own house in Pendleton Heights until after losing a baby, preferred the comforts of hotel living, spending years at the Woodlea and later the Muehlebach. It wasn't until William retired at 60 and the couple decided to move west that they wanted their own house again. Once in Los Angeles, the Johnsons bunked at the Bryson while they looked for a lot, which they found rather quickly in Fremont Place. The prolific local architects Mendel Meyer and Philip Holler (also known by the name of their firm's construction arm, the Milwaukee Building Company) were favorite designers among buyers of lots in the Place, 107 and 108 being two of their commissions; perhaps the Johnsons chose Meyer & Holler for their new house after admiring 108, being built around the corner from their lot in 1919. The Department of Buildings issued a construction permit for 62 on March 5, 1920, that specified a 12-room dwelling with a tile roof; a large house for two people, it delivered what the Johnsons seem to have wanted—an only slightly ostentatious statement of arrival.

The Johnsons do not appear to have been much interested in society, as were many Fremont Placers, whose slightest news of entertaining or travel was noted in the press; living quietly, any gatherings they may have had at 64 appear to have gone unchronicled. After William died at home on May 2, 1935—his wife's 74th birthday—no club or lodge memberships or charitable endeavors were mentioned in his small obituary. Neither were any family members. One wonders if there was a certain sad stasis in the lives of the Johnsons after the loss of their child. At any rate, May remained at home in Fremont Place until her death, which came on January 13, 1943. She was 81 when she retreated to join her husband in a Forest Lawn mausoleum.

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After its original owners departed, it is not clear how long 64 Fremont Place may have remained unoccupied, or who may have emptied it of the Johnsons' possessions. A curious note about the next owner, James Thomas Holmes II, is that he appears to have arrived in Los Angeles at the same time—1919—as had the Johnsons, and, although there appears to be no link between the two families before the sale of the Fremont Place house, he once lived in Kansas City. Holmes was born there on December 1, 1890, to the daughter of his namesake grandfather, one of that breed of Gilded Age men referred to as capitalists. Moving to St. Louis following his father's death in 1908 and his mother's remarriage, Holmes went on to graduate from M.I.T. in 1914, after which he went to work in Philadelphia. Going from there to Los Angeles, he would make a strong reputation in his field in short order. He also soon met Esther Roen, a Nebraskan whose own accomplished family had come to California in 1910, settling in Hollywood. James and Esther were married in 1922.

After his post-college years working for a large East coast firm, James Holmes was ready to open his own company, which he did once he arrived in Los Angeles. With Carl Sanborn he formed Holmes & Sanborn, mechanical and electrical engineers; among their projects were the Asbury apartments and Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel and Grauman's Egyptian Theatre, all of which still stand. Although the offices of Holmes & Sanborn were downtown, the Holmeses moved all the way out to distant to Beverly Hills. Their house, an unpretentious early one miraculously still standing at 521 North Bedford Drive, would have been a long commute for James, but he would endure it for over 20 years, even after he regrouped and opened a new operation with a new partner in 1933 following an extended tour of Europe with Esther. Holmes's new venture coupled his experience in mechanical and electrical engineering with D. Lee Narver's structural expertise; Holmes & Narver began with a contract to direct the reconstruction of downtown Santa Ana after the March 10, 1933, Long Beach earthquake. Over the years, the company grew to become an engineering and construction giant of international reputation, still in business as part of Los Angeles–based AECOM, the Fortune 500 technology infrastructure and support services firm. 

As the new western reaches of Los Angeles began to achieve full density in the late '30s—with suburbs now extending far beyond the vicinity of Fremont Place, which had only 20 years before constituted the West End of the city—Holmes would have finally have found it too long of a slog to the office in the days before the Santa Monica Freeway. The arrival on the market of a manageable house, lived in contentedly for nearly 25 years by another childless couple of Midwestern roots, became the solution. James's commute downtown was cut by half. The Holmses do not appear to have thrown any more parties at 64 Fremont Place than had the Johnsons, but they were to stay in the house even longer. As the city began to experience the tumult of the 1960s—white flight accelerated by the Watts Riots, culminating in the pall cast by the Tate-LaBianca murders—Fremont Place and its adjacent neighborhhoods, now in a close-in district, saw declines in attractiveness. The Holmeses witnessed the arc of Los Angeles from a city of orange-scented air to one of crime and choking smog before they died, James on December 11, 1970, having turned 80 ten days before. Esther remained at 64 until her death at 76 on October 13, 1973, after which she joined her husband at Hollywood Cemetery.

Illustration: LAT, May 9, 1920