by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Workman House and La Casa Nueva are, architecturally and in terms of the history of their owners, distinctive dwellings, and the Homestead’s collection includes artifacts about other homes that reflect unusual architectural styles and interesting histories. One of these is the Thomas D. Stimson House, which has stood on Figueroa Street near U.S.C. for nearly 130 years. The museum has three photographs of the unusual dwelling, which is the only one left on a street once noted for its fine estates.
Designed by Carroll H. Brown, the nearly 13,000 square foot Romanesque style mansion, including a distinctive tower, was finished in 1891, shortly after Stimson moved to Los Angeles, allegedly at a cost of well in excess of $125,000. Still in his late 20s when he completed the plans for the home, Brown was not one of the best known of the city’s architects, but he designed other mansions for the well-heeled in Los Angeles, including those for William Andrews Clark, Montana mining magnate and U.S. senator, as well as the original home of the exclusive California Club, and Stimson’s six-story office building at Third and Spring Street.
Stimson was born in New York in 1828, but migrated to central western Michigan, where he got involved in lumbering about 1850. He lived in Big Rapids, north of Grand Rapids, but also having extensive interests in Muskegon on the shores of Lake Michigan. An ill-fated endeavor in oil in Canada led to a financial failure during the Civil War years, but Stimson returned to the lumber industry and gradually expanded his enterprise.
Having lumber mills and yards in Big Rapids, Muskegon and Chicago, Stimson recognized, by the early 1880s, that his future in the Midwest was limited by a decline in the quality of lumber, mainly pine, and he researched new areas of interest. He decided, in concert with several sons who were in business with him, to relocate to Seattle, then part of Washington Territory, in 1889.
Quickly, Stimson built an empire with ample supplies of spruce, fir and redwood forests in Washington, Oregon and northern California. The Stimson Lumber Company was under the day-to-day management of some of his sons, so Thomas lived in Chicago and then, in 1890, relocated to Los Angeles, perhaps for health reasons, as so many others did.
The 20 August 1891 edition of the Los Angeles Herald, which offered an article on improving real estate conditions (there were some ups and many downs during the decade, which included a national depression in 1893 and several years of local drought), included an interview with Stimson. The reporter did note that “one of the newcomers [to the city] is Mr. T.D. Stimson, a retired lumber merchant of Chicago . . . [who] is now building a magnificent residence on Figueroa street.”
The article went on to quote Stimson at length about his purchasing of over $150,000 worth of downtown property, including where his Stimson Block would soon be built, and his feelings on the future growth of Los Angeles. While Stimson opined that business prospects were better than in the East, he lamented “the wild excitement of real estate men” as “a bad thing for this city.” Referring to speculators harrassing him at every turn, Stimson remarked
They still have the wings of the boom and flap them on the slightest provocation.
Notably, when Stimson registered to vote in Los Angeles County in 1892, he gave his occupation as “farmer,” rather than something like “capitalist,” so he apparently preferred to keep a lower profile in his efforts in local real estate. However, his stay in the city was short and Stimson died on 31 January 1898 at age 69.
The house did remain in the hands of his widow for less than a decade and then was sold to local engineer Albert Solano (the Solano-Reeve papers at the Huntington Library are a rich source of materials including maps and other surveying materials) and then to Edward Maier, owner of a well-known local brewery and the Vernon Tigers baseball team from the Pacific Coast League. After a stint during World War II as a U.S.C. frat house, the Estelle Doheny, widow of oil tycoon Edward Doheny, bought the home because the noise caused by the frat boys was disturbing the peace around her home next door.
Mrs. Doheny then left the home to a Roman Catholic nuns’ order and it was used as a convent and then a student residence for Mount St. Mary’s College, headquartered in the Doheny’s mansion at nearby Chester Place, and is still owned by the archdiocese. It is now on the city’s list of cultural landmarks, as well as on the National Register of Historic Places.
As for Stimson’s legacy, it remains not just with the house, but the fact that the Stimson Lumber Company is still in operation. For more information on the residence, here is an interesting and informative blog post. The home also has a Facebook page.