by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Five more days until the Victorian Fair and here’s another post dealing with Victorian-era Los Angeles . . .
In later Victorian-era Los Angeles, the landscape started to change dramatically, especially during the boom years of the late 1880s. The massive growth and development of the region included some significant investment in residential gardens and landscaping, as well as public areas like the expanded park system that brought in several major additions like Westlake, Eastlake (Lincoln), and Hollenbeck parks, among others.
One of the hottest areas of the city for development was to the south and west of downtown, an area that first became known when Agricultural (now Exposition) Park was established there by 1870. A decade later, the Methodist-affiliated University of Southern California opened its doors. However, with the completion of the Santa Fe transcontinental railroad line directly to Los Angeles, the floodgates were opened for the great Boom of the Eighties that rose up in 1886 and peaked the following two years. Large estates and mansions lined Figueroa Avenue, Adams Boulevard and other nearby streets and some of these had very impressive landscaping.
For about a decade, one of the most talked-about private gardens in the city was what was commonly referred to as the “Longstreet Place.” This was a section of land surveyed in the late 1850s as one of many 35-acre tracts in the southern hinterlands around the small town of Los Angeles. For many years, it has often erroneously been described as the property of Confederal General James Longstreet–who actually lived in Georgia after the war. Instead, it was a distant relative who bought the place.
This was Charles A. Longstreet, a distant relative of the Civil War general wrongly believed to be the owner of the 35-acre estate. In fact, Charles was from Syracuse, New York, where his father, Cornelius, was a highly successful clothing manufacturer. Charles was born in 1837 and joined his father in the business, then went to New York to work in his profession with his father’s substantial assistance.
In December 1873, however, Charles came out to Los Angeles, probably for health reasons and likely because of tuberculosis. In fact, the greater Los Angeles region was known, as one book title referred to it, as a “health-seeker’s paradise.” The balmy and dry climate attracted many who suffered from lung ailments and other problems and sanitaria were established throughout the region.
Another attraction, certainly, was the fact that Los Angeles was in the midst of its first growth boom, which started about 1868 and was roaring by the time Longstreet came to town.
Charles’ young wife, Lucy Eddy and their three sons, Tyler, Dennis and Guy, joined him at the end of the month and year. After a stay in a Los Angeles hotel, Charles purchased for $2,500 his 35-acre spread, bounded by Grand Avenue, Figueroa Street, Adams Boulevard and 23rd Street. On his property, he built a substantial Italianate mansion, that was projected to cost $20,000, a large amount, in a 1 January 1875 newspaper article about new buildings in town.
More prominent, however, was the astonishing array of plantings laid out on the estate. Oranges were planted in a grove, but it was the ornamental landscape that drew a good deal of attention. An 1886 article in the Los Angeles Times included this vivid description:
The lovely avenue of palms [leading to the home] stretches out in tropical beauty, and along it is a grand background of orange trees and a well-trimmed hedge of brightest green, its thousand leaves stirring in the breeze in cool and murmurous whispers. At the terminus of this avenue the green strown lawns stretch out on either hand, brilliant with borders and gay parterres of flowers. Among other noticeable things is a tall and symmetrical rose bush, bearing roses of many shades and hues, all budded upon the parent stem. There are walks between green hedges leading to quiet summer arches, trees of every variety . . . there are symphonies in color in the blossoming stars . . . and dowers from the tropics, as well as those that have been nursed in the heart of the cooler temperate zone, budding and blending their fragrance and beauty in this garden of delight.
A good many commercially produced photographs, mainly stereographic, were produced by several local photographers and the Homestead’s collection has a good sampling of these. By the time, however, that the estate was starting to get more and more publicity, Charles Longstreet died, his death taking place in December 1877, just four years after his arrival. His body was shipped back to his hometown and placed in a massive and dramatic pyramidal Longstreet family mausoleum at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse.
His widow and three sons remained at the mansion, but it took several years to move through probate. The renown the estate generated led to some prominent visitors, including Union General William Tecumseh Sherman of Civil War fame and Sidney Dillon, the powerful head of the Union Pacific Railroad.
In 1884, Longstreet’s estate was settled and, by then, some of the first subdivisions of the larger 35-acre parcels were taking place in the surrounding area. Then came the railroad line and the resulting boom. The mansion was rented out, including to a French nobleman, Baron Roignat.
By mid-1886, the decision was made to sell off a substantial part of the “Longstreet Place” to C.T. Richards and Edward Records, who hired agents and subdivided lots that were quickly placed on the red-hot market. On 28 July, the first day of sales, it was reported that 56 of the 106 lots (ranging from $700 to $1800 in price) put up for sale were taken, totaling $65,000 in net receipts.
In early November, the mansion with 7 1/2 acres of the gardens and 56 lots surrounding it were sold to a syndicate including the Los Angeles Improvement Company and some Bay Area investors. The remaining lots from the first round of subdivided property were pulled from the market and then repackaged along with the “home place”, including the mansion, a servants’ house, stables, hot house, a gas house with machinery, a water tank house with a steam pump and more. Also offered was furniture and furnishings, horses and carriages, rare plants, agricultural implements and other material.
The auction for the newly configured tract and the home, described as “a perfect paradise of the rarest beauty” and “a place fit for the home of a prince” was at the end of the month and featured free Tally-Ho coach transportation from the Spring Street office of the Los Angeles Improvement Company to the site and a free lunch. That day’s proceeds netted nearly $100,000. What didn’t sell was the house and 19 lots around it, which were then listed at $25,000. It was rumored that the home would be the core of a larger hotel, but this was never realized. The home remained on the property as a residence within the tract for years to come.
As to the Longstreet family, there were a series of intriguing twists to their story. Lucy Longstreet remained in Los Angeles and lived the life of a socialite, frequently traveling to Europe and other locales within the United States, engaging in charity work, and so on, until her death in 1917. As to her three sons, their lives were punctuated by controversy and tragedy.
The eldest, named for his grandather, but generally known as Tyler, married María Antonia Wilcox, one of the Argüellos, a well-known San Diego family with roots to the earliest days of Spanish California. Yet, the marriage broke down and ended in divorce in 1898 as Tyler wandered the Americas for a decade, living in Arizona (where he was reported to have gone when a Los Angeles man sued him for failure to repay a loan, but Tyler left to avoid being served), Mexico and other areas, and engaging in unspecified business deals.
He ended his short life in Australia, where he died in Melbourne in 1917 from tuberculosis, as perhaps his father did. His next of kin was listed as powerful Los Angeles attorney Henry O’Melveny. Notably, there was a comment that Tyler “was for about ten months prior to his death dependent on charity” and O’Melveny stated “he requested me to bring his plight” to several persons, including relatives of his mother and a man appropriately surnamed “Poor.”
Guy and Dennis Longstreet were, apparently, playboys of some repute in their younger adulthood. They were reported to have taken part in a roaring weekend at the Hotel Arcadia in Santa Monica the same year the Longstreet estate was sold and which led to a scandalous elopement of friends. Five years later, a newspaper article titled “The High Rollers” mentioned the brothers as participants in a party in Los Angeles that included “two young women of rapid tendencies.”
Guy, too, was divorced after he wandered down to Mexico and then headed for Guatemala, where he became, it was reported, a colonel of artillery in the nation’s army and a close friend of dictator Jose Barrios. When Barrios was assassinated in February 1898, Guy fled for Los Angeles, but then headed for China. He was evidently working for a British and American development in syndicate when he became ill in late 1902 and returned to Los Angeles, where he died from complications of the unstated problem.
Finally, there was Dennis, who attended Columbia University’s law school and set up practice in New York. It is not know whether he overcame his youthful tendency for indiscretion, but in the first decade of the 20th century he was deemed insane and sent to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in White Plains, near New York City, where he remained for many years until his death in 1930.
The story of the “Longstreet Place” is a fascinating part of Victorian-era Los Angeles and it took a long road from Syracuse, New York to the City of Angels with strange stops in Mexico, Guatemala, Hong Kong and Australia!
Amazingly, there is still a very visible element of the Longstreet landscape still with us. The Orthopaedic Institute for Children is on the site today and part of “the lovely avenue of palms” mentioned in the 1886 article and seen in many photos is intact.
Check back for more Victorian Fair-related posts this week!