No Place Like Home: Harrison Gray Otis’ “The Bivouac,” Los Angeles, ca. 1900

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On Thursday, I attended the annual luncheon of First Century Families, an organization formed in 1939 and composed of descendants of residents of Los Angeles prior to 1881 and during its first 100 years of existence.  The event, held in recent years at the California Club downtown, generally has interesting summaries of the stories of these families and this year’s presentation, on the Otis and Chandler families who ran the Los Angeles Times as a powerful force in Los Angeles political and economic life for decades was no exception.

Much has been written about Harrison Gray Otis, born in Unionville, Ohio (near Lake Erie northeast of Cleveland) in 1837.  Otis, who worked as a newspaper printer as a young man, married Elizabeth Wetherby in 1859 and the couple had five children with three daughters living into adulthood.

Otis moved to Louisville and worked for a newspaper there.  During that period, he, a lifelong Republican, was a delegate from Kentucky at the 1860 national convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln, Otis served in the Union Army in the Civil War.  He went back to Ohio to enlist in an infantry regiment and then transferred as a captain to another regiment.  He was wounded twice in battle and mustered out after war’s end in July 1865 as a brevet lieutenant colonel.  During the Spanish-American War, in 1898, Otis, who was in his sixties and who was rejected for Assistant Secretary of War, was appointed brigadier general of volunteers in the Philippines and commanded a brigade.

Otis partner Times_Aug_1__1882_
An ad in the Times on 1 August 1882 with Otis added as a partner of the firm with original founders Yarnell, Caystile and Mathes.  Note the opening lines of a poem by Eliza Otis.

Otis returned to his home state after the war and was reporter for the House of Representatives in Ohio, but then moved to Washington, D.C. for a period before heading west.  He settled for a time in Santa Barbara, operating a newspaper there for a few years.  After a stint in Alaska as a government official, he returned to Santa Barbara and journalism.

On a visit to Los Angeles, he met the owners of a newly launched newspaper, the Times, and took a position as editor in summer 1882, about a half-year after the paper began publication.  Within a few years, in 1886 as the great Boom of the Eighties was underway, the paper was reorganized and Otis became president and general manager, a title he retained for the rest of his life.

Otis built the Times into the dominant news sheet in the rapidly growing city and his conservative political positions and rabidly pro-business attitude were neatly aligned with those of many of Los Angeles’ power brokers.  His son-in-law, Harry Chandler, who started with the Times after Otis noticed his success with a contracted delivery firm, rose rapidly in the ranks and assisted his father-in-law in running the paper.

SV 235 Gen Otis Residence L A 2013.997.1.1
This circa 1900 stereoscopic photograph from the museum’s holdings shows Otis’ eclectic “The Bivouac.”  Completed in 1897, the house was donated at the end of 1916 to the City of Los Angeles for the Otis Institute of Art, later the Otis College of Art and Design.  The building was torn down in 1956 and replaced with a new college building.  In 1997, the school moved to Westchester and an elementary school, including a Los Angeles County Museum of Art gallery, is there now.

In October 1910, the firm anti-union (euphemistically termed “open shop”) position of Otis and the Times made him and his paper the target of radical unionists.  The paper’s headquarters were bombed, killing 21 people, and an attempt was made to destroy Otis’ home, which he called “The Bivouac,” but the plot there failed.  In the aftermath of the Times bombing, which led to the conviction of the McNamara brothers for the terrorist attack, Otis’ paper became even more successful and powerful.

Otis not only prospered as a newspaper titan, but he also had extensive real estate interests.  Paramount of these was his investment, along with Chandler, and others in San Fernando Valley land that was largely undeveloped, but the Suburban Homes Corporation syndicate had “inside information” about the coming of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which would supply water to the purchased property.  When the water started flowing in 1913, the investors made a mint.

Widowed in the early 1900s, Otis donated his home, completed in 1897, to the city to be used for the Otis Art Institute, an extension of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.)  Renamed the Otis College of Art and Design, the facility operated in “The Bivouac” until the structure was razed in the mid-1950s and a new structure built there.

HG Otis 1900 census
The listing for Otis, his wife and other family in the 1900 census at “The Bivouac” at 2401 Wilshire Boulevard.

In 1997, the college moved to its current site, a former IBM facility, in Westchester, near Los Angeles International Airport, and the old site became Charles White Elementary School.  There is a Los Angeles County Museum of Art gallery there, which continues the site’s ties to art a century after the Otis Institute opened.

Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a stereoscopic photograph of “The Bivouac,” which was an eclectic architectural specimen, with dominant Mission Revival features, such as an arched facade and tile roof, blended with Greek Revival elements, like the front portico and its columns, pediments and cornice work.  Note the canvas cover over a balcony over the porte cochere.

A carriage house, which has less of the Mission Revival emphasis as the main residence, sat at the rear of the property at its west extremity.  One wonders if the gent carrying the valise and walking down Wilshire towards the park was added to the photo.  Given the advance of ivy on the walls and growth of other landscaping, the image appears to be from a few years after the house was finished, so about 1900.

HG Otis obit _Times_Jul_31__1917_
A section devoted to the passing of Otis, Times, 31 July 1917.

The house was one of the first built in the new subdivision of Gaylord Wilshire and sits just west of what was then Westlake and is now MacArthur Park.  This became a very fashionable area for the well-off and Otis’ early settlement there appears to have induced others to purchase, build and live in the tract.  Otis donated the house at the end of 1916 and moved in with his daughter Marian and son-in-law Harry Chandler, dying about a half year later in July 1917.

An excellent and very detailed blog post about “The Bivouac” can be found on a blog devoted to Wilshire Boulevard.

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