by Paul R. Spitzzeri
He’s a forgotten name today, but, in the 1920s, there was no more successful real estate developer in a booming greater Los Angeles than Frank L. Meline. Simultaneously, Meline’s powerhouse firm developed such prominent places as Bel-Air, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, and a host of others in the region. He expanded his enterprise to form The Meline Bond and Mortgage Company, an unusual move for a residential developer in that he could issue his own mortgages for projects developed by his realty company.
Another sign of his knack for promotion was in 1925 with the creation of the publication, The Realty Digest, subtitled “An Exponent of Progress.” Befitting the attitude of power brokers of the day in the City of Angels, the magazine proclaimed, “Los Angeles, at her present rate of growth, will one day be the first city in America—perhaps in the world.” It added that “social and political leaders must, therefore, establish homes befitting their station in life.”
To that end, Realty Digest was launched “to spread the truth over an ever-widening area, in the interests of better homes” to any who would take the free publication and subscribe to its ideas and ideals. Notably, the July 1926 issue of the magazine, tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection, was leavened, in its promotion of Meline projects, with a healthy dose of history.
For example, the lead article wasn’t about homes or gardens, the natural content of the publication. Rather, it was “Los Angeles As It Was In The Beginning,” by John Steven McGroarty, poet, playwright, journalist and historian. Best known as the author of The Mission Play, a passion play based at Mission San Gabriel for many years (Walter P. Temple was an enthusiastic supporter and large contributor, along with the likes of Henry E. Huntington, to the Mission Playhouse, completed in 1927, and stills standing near the mission), McGroarty waxed poetic about the Roman Catholic heritage of the origins of the city and made the strange statement that the founders (he stated 46, the commonly accepted number is 44) of the pueblo had “the blood of four races in their veins—red man, black men, yellow men, and white men.”
Another bit of history was Syl MacDowell’s third part of the “Under Four Flags” series, noting that Los Angeles had the flags of Spain, Mexico, the short-lived impromptu Bear Flag Republic during the Mexican-American War, and the United States. MacDowell’s piece ended with Los Angeles in the 1850s and stated that “like ancient Troy, Los Angeles is growing toward the sea.” Of course, many of Meline’s project happened to be in that direction.
Boosterism was a huge part of the promotion of greater Los Angeles, so a reprint of Edgar Lloyd Hampton’s second part of “Los Angeles—The Miracle City,” issued in the strangely named Current History magazine, lionized the remarkable growth of the metropolis. It provided statistics on shipping, mineral resources, and farm products; pointed out the dramatic increase of infrastructure, including utilities and the development of Los Angeles Harbor; and noted spectacular growth in oil and other areas, including, of course, real estate.
With respect to homes and home sites, landscape architect and nursery owner William T. Miller contributed “Put Some Point in Your Home Landscape But Not Too Much,” an admonition to use plantings that reached upward, such as cypresses, deodars, and other plantings that add visual vertical interest, but cautioned not to overdo it. Speaking of which, Miller’s prose tried too hard to be sprightly and modern by invoking popular bandleader Paul Whiteman’s new book, Book of Jazz, to talk about how local gardens could benefit from “benign jazz” and then proceeded to overdo the reference by talking about what was “good jazz” and “bad jazz” in ornamental landscaping.
More to Meline’s business side is an article on “Real Estate Financing: Its Possibilities and Opportunities.” Specifically, the piece promoted mortgage lenders, because “ALL OF THEIR DOLLARS ARE WORKING ALL THE TIME—THEY HAVE NO IDLE RESERVE [caps included]/” Noting that “it has often been said, and wisely enough, that Real Estate is the basis of wealth,” the article added that profits on mortgages were remarkable, but especially when successful institutions “turn their capital a number of times over each year, making a profit on each ‘turn-over.'”
That is, once a mortgage was issued and a fee of 2-10% is garnered, “the company then takes the mortgage and turns it into cash.” It can then be sold to a mortgage buyer, while large loans could have collateral trust notes or gold bonds issued against it and these sold to bond buyers. Equity derived from these transactions could then be used to buy more mortgages and more turn-over transactions generated significant profits.
The demand for mortgages and bonds and the profit potential led Meline, who’d handled mortgages, trust deeds and building loans “as an accommodation” for clients, decided to form the Meline Bond and Mortgage Company, capitalized at $3 million, but there was the likelihood of increasing that to $4.5 million. 7% preferred and convertible stock was issued at a par value of $100.
Other pieces included a plan for a small, but attractive English country home, a description of the Los Angeles Athletic Club golf course in Santa Monica Canyon, where, of course, Meline had developments like Castellammare, by its designer George C. Thomas, Jr.—this is now the famed Riviera Country Club; how state real estate license law worked; how movies promoted manufactured products for homes; and editorial remarks under the heading of “Constructive Dreaming” about “the indomitable spirit of California working co-operatively for the things we need and want that is making this state the most watched section of the world.”
Naturally, there are many advertisements in the publication, including from the construction trade, but the most striking are for Meline Company projects, such as Beverly Hills and Beverly Hills Heights, Brentwood and Highland Hills of Brentwood, Bel-Air, California Riviera (between Santa Monica and Rustic canyons), Castellammare, Benmar Hills (Burbank), and more.
The inside back cover was crowned with the word “Integrity” and the ad was to show the stability and strength of The Frank Meline Company, with nearly $1.6 million in assets and surplus and undivided profit of over half that. With its subdivisions, insurance, industrial and business property, property management and mortgage loans, the firm would, it assured readers, make sure that “responsibility and security are the keynotes” of the business.
The dizzying heights of the boom of the Twenties, however, culminated in a dramatic decline by the Great Depression. Meline’s high-end developments, however, provided him a tremendous level of profit, though the pace of production diminished significantly. Still, he remained active through that period until he sold his company three years before his death in 1944.
What is not well-known, however, are the powerful developer’s humble and interesting origins, almost none of which is mentioned in his obituary. In the late 1830s, a Scottish doctor and Presbyterian minister named Robert Kalley stopped for his health at the Madeira Islands, a Portuguese possession in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of northwest Africa.
Kalley’s missionary activity was so successful that some 1,000 residents converted from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism and were quickly and decisively discriminated against by the majority. In summer 1846, violence flared up and the converts ran for their lives into hill areas until a ship could be secured to take them elsewhere.
The first destination for many was the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, but the conditions there were brutal for the transplants. Due to their Presbyterian faith, some 600 wound up, in 1849, migrating to, of all places, Springfield, the state capital of Illinois (and home to future president Abraham Lincoln.) The Illinois State Journal was moved to ask:
What are six hundred human beings worth? How much ought we to expend to give so many wandering exiles a home and shelter from persecution?
These are questions that seem all-too-timely and relevant just now. Of course, if the Portuguese had remained Catholics, the sympathy likely would have been non-existent.
In any case, Joseph and Mary Fortado Meline (possibly Molina originally) were among the colonists who settled in the Springfield area, where he worked as a farmer. In 1874, Frank Louis Meline (the surname was adopted later) was born. By 1900, he was still living in that city with his sister and brother-in-law and worked as a salesman, though in what specifically is not known. He obviously was highly skilled in sales, but it was some years after Meline came to Los Angeles in 1902 that he became a decorator, architect, and builder. Some of his early projects were in the Windsor Square neighborhood of Los Angeles, west of downtown and he was also founder, in 1915, of a laundry service that provided home pick-up and delivery.
Meline’s big break came when he was hired by Alphonzo Bell, whose mother was the sister of banker and real estate developer John E. Hollenbeck (whose work was best known in Boyle Heights and through his Hollenbeck Block and Hotel in downtown Los Angeles—he also, however, bought thousands of acres of Rancho La Puente and Hollenbeck Avenue in West Covina is a reminder of that.)
Bell, who realized a fortune in oil from his family’s properties at Santa Fe Springs in the very early Twenties, amassed major landholdings in what became Bel-Air, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, and Pacific Palisades and hired Meline to develop the tracts that allowed the latter to flourish. Meline, who does not appear to have been licensed, designed many homes in these tracts, and some still survive. He also served on the Board of Harbor Commissioners for the City of Los Angeles in the Twenties.
Despite his prominence in high-end residential real estate development in the 1920s, the story of Frank L. Meline is little known, including his Portuguese origins in the Illinois heartland. This issue of Realty Digest is a remarkable product of his very successful career, especially in the development of tiny areas of great wealth on the Westside.