No Place Like Home: Charles F. Lummis’ El Alisal in “Harper’s Weekly,” 1 September 1900.

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From 2008-2016, I had the privilege of serving on the board of the Historical Society of Southern California, including as second vice-president. For all but the last year or so of my tenue, the HSSC had its headquarters, dating back a half-century to 1965, at El Alisal, the remarkable hand-built stone dwelling of the irrepressible Charles F. Lummis, whose four decades in Los Angeles included his serving as the city librarian, editor of The Land of Sunshine, renamed Out West early in the 20th century, founder of The Southwest Museum, activist for southern California Indians, preserver of missions and other pre-American landmarks, writer, raconteur and much else.

In the late 1890s, Lummis purchased three acres along the Arroyo Seco between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena and, with boulders from the watercourse and other materials, hand built his residence, named for a grove of alder trees. I’d been to functions, book sales and other events before I joined the HSSC board, but it was certainly a great treat to attend regular board meetings and Society functions at the house. An unfortunate rupture with the City of Los Angeles and its Department of Recreation and Parks led to the Society moving from the house and I haven’t been back since, though, hopefully, there is a viable, stable and secure future for the historic landmark.

Los Angeles Herald, 29 November 1898.

The featured object from the Museum’s collection for this post is the 1 September edition of the popular national magazine, Harper’s Weekly, and, specifically, an article on “A Hand-made House” that showed, author Alice J. Stevens, “that Mr. Lummis can build and is building a house as well as books, with same master-hand and original brain.” Construction began in late 1898 with Lummis assisted by a twelve-year old Indian boy, whose name went unmentioned, and the Los Angeles Herald of 29 November 1898 provided some early detail. It observed that:

Charlie Lummis, in his dislike of the conventional and from his desire to have a house exactly to his taste, is building one with his own hands—on which will be the most striking, probably in the city. . . The building is to be of stone, two stories high, in the shape of a “U,” the open space enclosing a huge sycamore tree, which will be in the center of the patio . . . It is built of large stones, really bowlders [sic], encased in cement, thus forming the walls.

The piece went on to note that the floors were to be made of cement, the roof of Spanish tile, “and the doors of marvels of antique beauty, being from old churches and temples in Mexico.” The front door lock was reported to be from a Mexican cathedral and it was added that “Mr. Lummis has no tackle or help,” though the young Indian was later mentioned in accounts. Apparently, Lummis simply spat on his hands and pushed rocks to get them into place and it was concluded that “he is as powerful muscularly as he is acute mentally, so that it can be readily seen that it is nothing but play for him to build a stone house.”

Los Angeles Record, 7 December 1898.

A much more detailed discussion of El Alisal came in the 10 December 1899 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which Juan del Rio recorded that Lummis returned to Los Angeles in 1893 after an arduous excursion to South America to pursue his literary career, including The Land of Sunshine, but his home closer to downtown was hemmed in by neighbors and, for a man long used to the vast solitudes of the Andes, and fond, also, of manual worlds to conquer, this was getting too crowded.”

This motivated Lummis to buy his spread of “wild land” along the Arroyo Seco, which, while within city limits, was “untamed as a corner of the desert.” Del Rio wrote that his subject planted a couple hundred fruit trees and 1,500 eucalyptus for hedges on three sides with the fourth bordered by lemon trees, put up a wire fence, and built a four-room “camp house” in which to reside while he embarked on El Alisal. In September 1898, he sent his wife and young son “away out of the dust and turmoil,” while he took his collection of native and other artifacts, his library and other items and camped on the “thumb-nail ranch” with his daughter, Turbese, and a pair of Indian children, a boy and a girl, for “helpers.”

San Francisco Chronicle, 10 December 1899.

Del Rio noted, on his visit, that the stones used by Lummis weighed from 50 to 1,500 pounds each and also observed that he and the Indian children spoke to each other in their native language, but Lummis insisted that “we do not keep servants” and that “these children are of my family while here,” staying a year at a time, being educated by him along with his own progeny, before returning to their families and tribes. When the author inquired whether Lummis really intended “to build such an enormous pile yourself,” the rejoinder was that, to counterbalance up to ten hours of daily work at his desk, the challenging labor of construction meant that El Alisal was Lummis’ gymnasium.

Lummis told del Rio “I want a house that will stand a thousand years” and “I want it to teach honest as well as beautiful architecture.” To encase all the living and the memories that went with that, he added that the right dwelling must have “thick, dry walls to balance the temperature, a tight roof, rooms big enough for their purpose, perfect light, ventilation, and drainage—these are the fundamentals.” Asked about where he got his plan, Lummis replied, “I’ve been getting it for more than fifteen years,” although he was quick to note that “the basis, of course, is the general Spanish patio plan” and he pointed to the “Alcalde Mayor,” the massive sycamore around which the structure was erected and which “is the heart and center of the house.” Moreover, “it will be in every room, for the house goes around the four sides of it” while each room faced the outdoors on two sides, meaning there were no “interior” spaces.

Del Rio asked Lummis why he didn’t just hire a builder so he could spend more time writing and the rejoinder was “any fool can write a book, and most of them seem to be doing it. But it takes a man to build a four-inch dovetail door.” Further, he averred, “it takes more brains than any book I can write” because building El Alisal “is doing what I don’t know” even as he still wrote his books “after office hours.” Five rooms were basically completed and Lummis considered the structure to be 20% finished and he intended to make the roof tiles from his own labor. Meanwhile, the use of stone (400 tons in the walls) and cement meant easy cleaning as “you can turn the hose on floors, walls and ceiling. Housecleaning has no terrors here.”

Cedar and pine were the main hardwoods for ceilings and joists and the massive front door weighed about 1,000 pounds with its ancient and heavy lock, while other locks, keys and doors and window knobs were picked up from the builder’s many travels. Fireplaces were to use half the fuel of more common ones and, strangely, Lummis insisted that “stairs and women do not mix well,” so the pair of upstairs rooms were “for his own exclusive lair, forbidden to women.” One of the more remarkable decorative elements was the “transparency window” comprised of “perhaps the rarest group of thirty-seven negatives ever bunched—the pick of the enormous number of photographs made by Lummis in North, Central and South America.”

When discussing his hand-crafted work, Lummis rhetorically asked del Rio what hands were for, “to fold in your lap?” and continued that these appendages were “made to do anything on earth and do it well.” The writer marveled at how the 5’7″ inch builder, “as agile as a cat,” rolled 300-pound boulders to a ladder, place the rock on a knee and then carry it up to where it needed placing. As for the massive beams, he did this with only the assistance of the Indian children. It was stated that Lummis worked on the building all day and, after a 6 p.m dinner, went to his desk and pursued his literary efforts until 4 a.m. This, purportedly, was every day of the year with 21 of the 24 hours devoted to work and Lummis proudly asked his guest, “do I seem to be breaking?”

For Lummis, hard work was not the problem, but worry most assuredly was (in 1887, after three years of constant endeavor as the city editor of the Los Angeles Times, for which he worked after walking solo from Ohio to the Angel City, he temporarily lost the use of an arm, apparently due to the stress of his work.) Lummis had a sharp tongue for some visitors who asked if he worked for the builder, rejoining, “he’s the hardest boss I ever did work for [and] even kicks if I stop to talk to kind-hearted people who come round to ask him why he doesn’t build a civilized house.” When a couple of gents wondered, without knowing to whom they spoke, the walls weren’t plastered, the answer was “I fetched my home here precisely so that a certain class of people mightn’t see it.” The writer concluded that El Alisal “will be not only a noble piece of architecture, but a monument to the patience, love and skill of a very uncommon man.”

As for Stevens’ piece in Harper’s Weekly, she encountered him hard at work and said that “Mr. Lummis is never too busy to welcome a friend or give a kindly greeting to a guest.” She observed that he placed the boulders, mixed the mortar, cut and trimmed the lumber, planned every detail, so that “when completed it will be not only original and characteristic of him, but all that may be desired for comfort and utility.” She referred to the building of the structure around the “fourfold sycamore” and that a fountain would be added, while Stevens noted the ceilings, fireplaces, windows, including the negatives. Lummis, she noted “has been over a year working on this building, with the help of a twelve-year-old Indian boy, and has finished enough for occupancy this winter.”

Describing the project as one part practicality and another sentimentality, Stevens quoted the builder as proclaiming,

a man’s home should be part of himself. It should be enduring, and fit to endure. Life and death will hallow it; it mellows with the generations—if it outlast them. It should be good architecture, honest construction, comfortable, convenient, fire-proof, burglar-proof, time-proof; a possession, not a taskmaster. Something at least of the owner’s individuality (presuming him to have some) should inform it. Some activity of his head, heart, and hands should make it really his . . . The more of himself he can put into it, the better for it and for him—even for purely selfish motives. Every one knows that the thing he has made is more genuinely his than the thing he has bought. The creative thrill is so fine and keen; it is sheer pitiful to see a man get a home off the bargain-counter, and miss nearly all the joy he might just as well have of it.

Stevens noted that the entirety of El Alisal was done with “deliberate intention” and that it was to last for a millennium, while no mason or carpenter could surpass the quality so that the structure was “to resist a harder earthquake than California ever had.” She added that “the plans are, as it were, a composite photograph of literally thousands of old dwellings, forts, temples” from all over the Americas.

Lummis was quoted as asking “Strange?” about these myriad influences and then answering, “Not at all. They are not really incongruous to start with. All these folk built sincerely and for use—not to sell nor show off.” He then stated that “were were given hearts and hands to put into our work” but “instead, we put them in our pockets and hire a union man to make work for himself out of what might be fun for us.”

Stevens repeated the claim about women and stairs in discussing the “mezzanine ‘den'” on the second floor, but went on to observe that “everything about this home has a story—and a story personal to the owner” making El Alisal “a sort of stenographic summary of Mr. Lummis’s life—if a longhand record of his perseverance and love.” She noted the origins of details, like door hinges, door knobs, the front door lock and “this mellow old bench [that] was carved by a Franciscan missionary in New Mexico in 1720, and has been for more than a century the ceremonial seat of Pueblo governors.” Far from the bric-a-brac that were found in most houses, Lummis’ collections were “personal memorabilia of wanderings, exploration, excavation, contact with primitive peoples.” When the house was done, in five years, Lummis was also to make his own furniture.

With respect to the woodwork, the writer pointed out the Lummis employed some 600 hours (fifty days of twelve hours’ labor) on making rough-hewn doors and windows, including using a type of chisel of his own invention. He created “a peculiar and beautiful waviness” in much of the finish and pronounced it to be “a moonlight finish,” leading Stevens to comment that “indeed it does at once remind one of a rippling moonlit lake.” Some elements were charred over a campfire and rubbed “until they shone like satin “while the “till they shine like satin, while the grain of the wood is brought out most exquisitely.”

The piece ended with the writer stating that Lummis kept up his intense schedule so that, someday, “this man, long buffeted by the wilderness, will presently have a home to suit him; a beautiful home, and as uncommon as his labors upon it.” His family, Stevens continued, camped on the site and they ate their meals outside on the wide porch, while visitors of all kinds, whether artists, authors, ethnologists, historians and professors joined them and were “coolly bedded down at night upon the floor.” Finally, if “the Indian maid stalls at the range,” Lummis leapt into action to help prepare meals and exclaimed, “Why not? I would be ashamed to be unable to do whatever needs doing in any contingency.”

It does seem pretty clear, on a close reading of Stevens’ article, that she regurgitated much that was in del Rio’s piece, with only slight reworking in many cases, though there are some portions that appear to be completely her own work. In any case, these two essays are very interesting early published references to a house that, whether it lasts a thousand years or not, still stands as a testament to one of the more unusual figures of late 19th and early 20th century Los Angeles, however it may be used in the future.

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