82 Fremont Place
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With the population of Los Angeles in the midst of more than doubling during the 1920s, the Russell Brown Company of Houston—prolific builders of large houses in Texas since 1903—had the audacity to muscle in on a market already well served by at least half a dozen seasoned local architects. It was rare for larger houses in L.A. to be built on spec, but this appears to have been a successful tactic of the firm for two decades; with more than a few lots in Fremont Place still empty, their owners having yet to build or receive offers they couldn't refuse, Russell Brown saw a way to make a statement of intent to conquer right near the heart of the new "uptown" of the city. The company understood the penchant of affluent Houstonians and Dallasites for English styles suggesting something other than Texas dust and bet that California had similar strivings. Buying Lot 82 on a gamble in 1923, perhaps paying a premium in order to make inroads, the firm could very well have brought a tested design with them from River Oaks or Highland Park; on August 24, 1923, the Department of Buildings issued permits to begin construction of a 10-room residence and a garage on the site. When the house was completed is unclear, but it appears to have lingered until advertising was ramped up in mid-1925. A romanticized drawing in Russell Brown display ads in the Times bore all the bits and pieces of Old Albion, including half-timbering, clinker brick, an oriel window, an arrowslit, and a Gothic arch or two. The only thing missing from 82 Fremont Place was a barley-sugar chimney—and a buyer. The drawing if not a price reduction turned the trick within a few months.
While many members of the "Old Guard" of Los Angeles appear to have had a preference for ungated Windsor Square and Hancock Park over Fremont Place when relocating from older districts, there were certainly exceptions. One of these was an attorney to—and from—the local power structure, which was still thriving in pre-Depression Southern California. Edwin Alvin Meserve was a native Californian of pioneer stock, born in Sacramento County on July 28, 1863. His father Alvin Rand Meserve was a merchant who moved his family to Santa Cruz when Edwin was five months old; 13 years later, once the Southern Pacific had reached Los Angeles, the Meserves moved south to land Alvin had bought several years before from one of the original grantees of the Rancho San Jose near the townsite of Pomoma. Living in the old Palomares family adobe there, Edwin was schooled locally before being sent into the city to live in a boarding house for a senior year at Los Angeles High School, from which he was graduated in 1880. Working for two years afterward as a hand at ranches in both the San Fernando and Pomona valleys, Edwin then went back north to San Francisco to enter Cal's Hastings College of the Law; he was bright enough to be admitted to the bar by examination a year before he received his LL.B. in 1886. Remaining north to clerk for a local law firm until the next spring, Meserve was then drawn back to Southern California to work for land developers in San Bernardino County and to address the personal side of life: He married his first wife, Montrealer Helen Davis, on June 28, 1887. While what came to be called the Inland Empire was now served by transcontinental lines and developing accordingly, the real action and center of power was clearly to be at the railroad nexus of Los Angeles.
|Perhaps only in Southern California would the progenitor of a|
venerable law firm be depicted wearing a bright blue suit:
Edwin Alvin Meserve, founder of Meserve, Mumper &
Hughes LLP, with offices in downtown
Los Angeles since 1889.
In September 1889, Edwin and Helen, by now in a delicate condition, moved to the city, taking up residence at the Ardmour at Sixth and Fort (the latter street to be renamed Broadway the next year). On October 1, Edwin opened his office in the Law Building on Temple Street near the new County Courthouse; six days later, his son Shirley Edwin Meserve was born. It seems that American-plan hotel living appealed to the family, apparently as yet uninterested in the growing west-side suburbs that were drawing residents from the core of the city. As the '90s began, downtown's commercial boundaries were quickly moving south. Some residents actually picked up their houses and moved them to the neighborhood known today known as Pico-Union; others bought or built new houses and left their old ones to the wrecking ball to be replaced by multistory office buildings. The Meserves would be staying downtown through the decade and beyond—moving from the Ardmour to the Lincoln on Hill Street and then to the Locke a block north—though with an interesting change on the distaff side after Helen died of meningitis at home on the evening of January 5, 1898. She was 33.
It appears that Edwin Meserve's world was small during his early career. He never lived far from the office or courthouse and seems to have preferred hotel convenience and not having to deal with the maintenance and time demands of a private house. He was back in court within days of Helen's death; it seems that little Shirley was being looked after by the proprietors of the Locke, Reuben and Julia Locke, and perhaps with special care by their daughter Mabelle. After waiting a respectable year plus a little more for good measure, Edwin did the expedient thing and married 36-year-old Mabelle at the Locke on September 20, 1899. It wouldn't be until the Hotel Locke was condemned for tunnel building in 1902 and Reuben and Julia moved to back to Long Beach—to which they had first come west from Massachusetts to help found in the early '80s—that Edwin and Mabelle gave in to suburbia. In early 1903, they found 1247 Arapahoe Street, just one house away from the streetcar on Pico. Content there for four years, the Meserves then found a need for more room; an orphaned seven-year-old niece, Margaret McKenzie, had come to live with the family. A few blocks away and still convenient to the Los Angeles Railway was 1333 South Westlake Avenue, where the family, with a few comings and goings, would remain until their move to Fremont Place. Shirley went off to Berkeley three years later, beginning his preparations to join his father in the practice of law at home in Los Angeles. After Reuben Locke died in 1915, Julia moved back in with her daughter and son-in-law. It was a period of some unhappiness for the family: Just before he turned 23, Shirley had married the well-connected Edith Porter of Alameda, with their son Edwin Alvin Meserve II arriving in March 1914. A second son, John Robert, turned up on Halloween 1916; the following April 22, Edith, in distress after not having recovered from a recent unspecified operation, slashed her throat with a penknife at her parents' house in Alameda. She died two days later, with the San Francisco Chronicle giving the tragedy considerable ink while it appears to have remained hush-hush in Southern California. In what were obviously very difficult circumstances, Shirley sorted out his life out by parking his boys, probably sensibly, with his in-laws and returning to work at Meserve & Meserve (today the honorable 126-year-old firm of Meserve, Mumper & Hughes). In a further echo of his father's having lost a first wife and wasting not much more than the expected period of mourning to take a new consort, Shirley married Leigh Whittemore, daughter of millionaire railroad builder and attorney Charles O. Whittemore, on June 1, 1918.
While it would be several years before the youngest Meserves returned to Los Angeles to live with their father and stepmother, the reconstituted family appears to have been a happy one—and no doubt a source of renewed happiness for Edwin, Mabelle, Julia, and Margaret over on Westlake Avenue, where, as in one Los Angeles neighborhood after another, pressures of urban growth were being felt. With the city expanding at a dizzying rate, there were always to be new western suburbs, the old ones becoming denser and being absorbed one after the other into the general description of "downtown." It could have been in particular a porch climber on Westlake Avenue in August 1922 that induced the Meserves to begin to think about leaving what was no longer a suburban district for the perceived safety of one of the newest developments in the most recently designated West End three miles to the northwest; while there was no violence and the only thing of value stolen in the robbery was a recently won golf trophy—Edwin had learned to relax by now, joining organizations including that nexus of power, the California Club, as well as the best country clubs including the Los Angeles, Midwick, and Crags—the Meserves would be settling into 82 Fremont Place three years later.
Edwin Meserve would live in the new house for the rest of his life. Now rather than walk or take a streetcar to his office in the Union Oil Building (and later the Richfield and General Petroleum buildings), he would have to drive to work down Wilshire or be driven by the family chauffeur. He maintained a sober schedule of keeping up with one of his realms of expertise—water-rights law so crucial to Los Angeles—as well as defending wronged wives (including Mrs. Kenneth Ormiston, whose husband ran off with Sister Aimee McPherson in her famous 1926 disappearing act) or rich husbands threatened by greedy wives, and all and sundry legal concerns of the oligarchy (corporations defending their hegemonies and fellow power brokers and any of their children who might have gotten themselves into entitled personal messes). Meserve most certainly remained sober out of the office as well as in it, his family having been for years associated with, his mother especially, the Carrie Nations of Southern California. Dutiful to the notion of noblesse oblige, he served terms as president of the Community Chest and chairman of the Salvation Army governing board. He headed the Los Angeles Bar Association during 1920-1921 and, later—notably—the Fremont Place Association. Meserve was also a man of sufficient ego to run twice for the United States Senate, losing in 1910 and entering and withdrawing from the race in 1920. While he was by all accounts a man of honor and a fine attorney, one is left with the vague impression of a less than wholly congenial man, perhaps a little too doctrinaire for some of the more well-rounded of his fellow civic boosters and power brokers—one of those men who might not have been much fun at a party or at the club bar, but who at the same time managed to command respect.
|An appeal from three of Los Angeles's most prominent Old Guard activists appeared in the|
Examiner on October 29, 1927: from left to right, industrialist William Lacy, whose
own English house once stood on Wilshire Boulevard at Vermont before being
moved to a lot on Plymouth Boulevard not far from 82 Fremont Place; the
indefatigable Kate Crutcher, the force behind Childrens Hospital; and
Edwin A. Meserve, still wearing detachable collars. Their
cause at the time was the fourth annual
Community Chest Drive.
On August 29, 1930, 90-year-old Julia Locke, still living with the Meserves and now also at 82 Fremont Place, died; in January 1932, Elizabeth Meserve, Edwin's temperence-advocate mother, expired after a tragic accident at her Oak Street apartment in which her clothes caught a fireplace spark; PIONEER WOMAN DEAD OF SHOCK read large headlines in the Times. Then Mabelle Meserve had a sudden fatal heart attack at home on September 9, 1933. It was reported that scores attended her funeral. No doubt Edwin soldiered on at the office through his own personal depression years; still in residence as a companion to Edwin at #82 was Margaret McKenzie, who had had a career as a public school teacher and volunteer worker. "On May 4, 1935," according to a short biography by John Steven McGroarty, "Edwin A. Meserve completed his 50 years as an admitted attorney, during which time he has practiced before the Supreme Court of the United States, the subordinate courts of the United States in the states of California, Arizona and Nevada, and in all of the courts of the State of California. He is still actively engaged in the practice of the law...." To celebrate, Edwin, Margaret, Shirley, and Leigh took a trip to Hawaii on the Malolo in July. As for #82, it seems that Edwin saw no need to leave. By 1940 a nurse, Alice Shreve, had joined the household, although this was not a harbinger of death; as his obituary would cite, Edwin remained active in his law practice until he was nearly 90. The end did come on May 9, 1955, noted by the press as being the result of "complications of old age." With Margaret at his bedside, he died peacefully in his sleep at 82 Fremont Place. Described by the Times at the end as liking to recall "the time in school when he predicted that horse streetcars would one day run as far south as 10th and Main streets," Edwin Meserve was one of those men who had the privilege to see Los Angeles grow from near pueblo to metropolis, all the while helping build it.
By the fall of 1956, Margaret had moved to an apartment in Beverly Hills and the house at 82 Fremont Place had new owners. In a reverse of the usual east-to-west migration, Dr. Richard Dillon and his wife Patricia Duque Dillon moved from Pacific Palisades; with work on the Santa Monica Freeway yet to begin and years from completion, its sapping of the vitality of Wilshire business and residential districts was still at least a decade or two away. It was one thing when it was Dr. Dillon who commuted from Capri Drive to his office downtown—he was the staff physician for Standard Oil of California—but now that Pat had been elected president of the Junior League, it was too much driving for two busy people. The Dillons would stay active and at #82 until a few years before the doctor died in January 1974.
|Appearing to be largely unaltered since its construction 90 years ago, details of the design|
of 82 Fremont Place are evident in a recent view. The Russell Brown Company,
developers recently arrived from Texas, were sensitive to the local
vernacular, including a fondness for clinker brick surfaces.