by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the first year of the 20th century and as a new growth and development boom shook greater Los Angeles, one of many areas in which suburbanization radiated out from downtown Los Angeles was Hollywood. In the first decade of the century, several prominent figures had large estates in the community, including Broadway department store owner Arthur Letts, French-born painter Paul de Longpre, the Bernheimer brothers and their “Yamashiro”, and prominent developer Hobart J. Whitley, who, with his wife, bestowed Hollywood’s name while on their honeymoon in 1886 as the renowned Boom of the Eighties was underway..
Another well-known estate in the community was Vista del Mar, the property of Albert Griffin Bartlett. Born in 1850 in Axmouth, England, a seaside village in the southwest county of Devon fronting the English Channel, Bartlett moved with his family to Canada and, when he was five years old, to Adrian, Michigan, southwest of Detroit.
In 1871, Bartlett moved west to San Francisco and remained there for a few years and then headed south, landing in Ventura. There, he and younger brother Charles became merchants and specialzed in jewelry, clocks, watches, and silverware though musical instruments were also on offer. In late 1882, just after he married Mae McKeeby of Ventura, he came to Los Angeles with a stock of jewelry and musical goods purchased in San Francisco and opened Bartlett Brothers, which he ran while Charles, an investor, remained in Ventura. Early on the firm called itself a “Jewelry and Music Emporium” and “The Great Watch House.”
Bartlett Brothers remained in operation through the end of the century, including a period with a partner named Clark, but it turned completely to the sale of musical instruments, sheet music and other items, with pianos a particular specialty. By 1900, however, the firm was reorganized as Bartlett Music Company and the following year it was incorporated with $100,000 in stock, with Charles, Bartlett’s brother-in-law and three others as directors.
The Bartlett Music Company prospered as the middle class grew and instruments like pianos, which were mass produced, became more affordable. Bartlett and his firm also became major patrons of music in Los Angeles and put on many concerts featuring local and visiting musicians, some of the latter famed ones like opera singer Adelina Patti.
Late in his life, Bartlett was the founding president of the Pioneer Musicians Club, which included the noted local conductor Harley Hamilton as vice-president. Moreover, his two daughters, Florence and Bessie, were talented musicians and the latter created the Bartlett-Frankel Quartet (the last was her married name), which gained some renown in Los Angeles.
In 1922, Bartlett merged his business with that of his near-neighbor Arthur Letts (who died shortly afterward) and The Broadway acquired the inventory of the Bartlett firm and sold the instruments and other material in its downtown store. By then, Bartlett had expanded heavily into real estate, in addition to his Vista del Mar property.
One major acquisition, in fall 1921, was the Union Oil Building, the tallest in Los Angeles when it was erected at the northwest corner of Spring and 7th streets, the financial district of the city, in 1911 by capitalist and newspaper publisher Edwin T. Earl. Designed by John Parkinson and partner Edwin Bergstrom, the $700,000 Beaux Arts-style structure was headquarters of the oil company that started in Santa Paula in the 1880s and was a major regional producer.
Bartlett and his brother bought the structure from the Earl heirs for a reported $2 million with the prominent realty firm of R.A. Rowan and Company handling the sale. Renamed the A.G. Bartlett Building, the structure still stands today and, in 2002, was remodeled with 130 lofts in the upper stories and first-floor retail spaces.
Bartlett was also a civic figure, serving on the city’s Board of Education in the 1890s, early in his residency in the city, helping to organize the Planning Commission and serving as its president, and, then, late in life, being appointed by Mayor George Cryer to serve on the Public Service Commission. He was a president of the Building Owners’ Association and the Los Angeles Men’s City Club.
The acquisition of the seven-acre Vista del Mar tract, formerly on a subdivision by ex-mayor Jose Mascarel and a partner, by Bartlett was about 1900. The following spring, it was reported that he was sinking wells on the parcel to try and bring water to it. Within a couple of years, probably in 1902, he completed the imposing Mission Revival mansion (similar in appearance to de Longpre’s residence) on an elevation with broad views, including, yes, to the sea, and surrounded by heavily landscaped grounds.
Vista del Mar became a showplace and the venue for many social events over the years, especially musicales and the like, and, in 1910, Bartlett added a pipe organ to the massive music room in the mansion. His daughters were especially well-integrated into the smart set of Los Angeles’ growing upper class.
When, in 1906, the younger of the pair, Bessie, made her society debut “as a dramatic reader” of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream with about four hundred of the city’s well-to-do in attendance, the house and grounds were described in some detail:
The Bartlett home, “Vista del Mar,” stands on one of the high hills in Hollywood, and is surrounded by beautiful grounds, a winding drive leading from Prospect Avenue [now Hollywood Boulevard] to the mission-style residence above. This evening the driveway gleamed with electric lights and colored lanterns, and the house itself was alight in every room. Automobiles met the guests at the gateway, and conveyed them to a natural auditorium west of the house on which faced one of the wide stone porches, with overhanging gallery above. This porch had been transformed into a bower of green, with a curtain of smilax screening the doorway, behind which was a grand piano.
Young men in Greek costume served as ushers and women dressed in a similar style posed in the gallery. Among the former was Bessie’s future husband Cecil Frankel, while the latter included two daughters of Arthur Letts and her sister. Bessie, who’d studied the previous two years in New York focusing on vocal performance and drama, was accompanied by New York-based pianist Archibald Sessions, whose son Roger became a very prominent composer.
Reference to the “beautiful grounds” in the article only hinted at the imposing and impressive landscaping for which Vista del Mar, like the de Longpre and Letts estates, was well-known. In 1909, a Los Angeles Herald Sunday Section feature on Hollywood and its public and private gardens noted that the Bartlett property featured an astounding 75,000 carnations and 30,000 roses. The grounds were open to the public on Sundays.
Vista del Mar continued to be a place for musical events, salons, and other functions and as Bessie Bartlett Frankel became a prominent personage in local serious music, she was the hostess and performer at many of the musicales held at the estate. After World War I, however, Los Angeles and its environs entered into another of the many booms that have characterized regional history over the decades, and massive changes were in store.
Speaking of store, Bartlett decided to relinquish the presidency of the business he’d run for nearly forty years and devote himself to real estate, specifically, the acquisition of the Union Oil building and plans for his Vista del Mar property. In 1920, it was announced that a 350-room hotel was to be built on the landscaped grounds adjacent to the mansion, and the project was particularly compared to a project then in process and known as the California Hotel, a Wilshire Boulevard property that soon was renamed the Ambassador Hotel.
The land, on Hollywood Boulevard between Vine on the west and Gower on the east with Yucca Street to the north, was to include bungalows as well as the four-winged hotel building with retail spaces along the boulevard and Vista del Mar Avenue, the east end of the site. An expansive lobby, library and music room (with a pipe organ,) breakfast room, dining room and a ballroom were to be off the entrance.
As for the landscaping and its menagerie of trees and plants, it was reported that “an effort will be made to preserve all of them by moving them to the best advantage” as part of an expanded landscape. Apparently, Bartlett had been considering such a project for years and the rapid growth of Hollywood, which became the filmmaking capital of the world in the previous decade or so presented an opprtunity to act.
The project, however, was never completed and Bartlett died on 6 February 1923 at age 73 “from congestion of the lungs” following a two-month period of very poor health. Notably, the obituary stated that he’d curtailed his business activities twenty years prior, or about the time he built his estate, because of health issues, though “during the last dozen years he appeared in the best of health and participated in many notable civic projects.” As a measure of Barlett’s prominence, honorary pallbearers included such prominent figures as banker Marco Hellman, real estate developer William May Garland, city water engineer William Mulholland, and railway and real estate titan Eli P. Clark, among others.
While the hotel project was shelved, his widow and daughters, represented by Bessie’s insurance executive husband, Cecil Frankel, sold the remaining seven acres of Vista del Mar in August 1927 for $1.350,000 to a syndicate of more than two dozen investors, including film star Antonio Moreno and his wife, oil heiress Daisy Canfield (whose Moreno Heights in Los Feliz was a real estate project of that era.) It was reported that the price per acre was the highest ever recorded in Los Angeles history.
Among the plans was to extend Argyle Avenue north from Hollywood Boulevard through the tract, which was part of an overall traffic plan for the increasingly busy area near Caheunga Pass, the main route into much of the developing San Fernando Valley. Five acres were to placed on the market immediately, while two acres, including the mansion “and the magnificent shrubbery with which it is surrounded” were to be “reserved for a major development, the nature of which will not be made public for some time.”
In fact, it was noted that the grounds were used for a government agricultural experiment station with all manner of rare plants from around the world and that “the collection at the present time is valued at approximately $100,000, and contains varieties said to be in existence [at] no other place on the continent.” Purportedly, de Longpre’s first paintings of roses, his bread-and-butter subject, were from those grown on the Bartlett property.
It was reported that, when Vista del Mar was opened in 1901, a sick Bartlett got out of bed and went with Mae to see the property. So impressed by what he saw, it was stated that, “in a voice so weak as to be scarcely be distinguishable to Mrs. Bartlett, he commanded, ‘Take it!’ when the price of $3600 an acre was stated.” The purchase in 1927 was for an astounding $193,000 per acre.
The mansion survived another few years and was razed early in the 1930s. Mae Bartlett, who moved into the Biltmore Hotel in downtown for a period later lived with each of her daughters and died in 1940. The Vista del Mar site today is partially covered by the Eastown apartment complex and is near the Pantages and Fonda theaters and the iconic Capital Records building.
Tonight’s highlighted photograph from the Homestead’s collection is a circa 1906 real photo postcard of Vista del Mar, showing the palatial home atop a knoll with extensive terraced landscaping around it. The view appears to be from an elevated position along Prospect Avenue (Hollywood Boulevard) looking northeast with the Santa Monica Mountains in the background and taller peaks, perhaps the Verdugo Mountains, behind those.
The rural, bucolic scene seems a world away from the busy, bustling Hollywood of over 110 years later, though even two decades after the house’s completion, massive changes in the area were well underway.