No Place Like Home: A Quartet of Photos of a Fire at the James C. Drake House, Los Angeles, 1 November 1909

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

File this under the growing list of posts on this blog where the surface value of the artifact is enhanced by what is found underneath/behind/elsewhere through a little bit of poking around. In this case, the featured objects are four real photo postcards of Los Angeles Fire Department personnel battling a blaze at what is identified from inscriptions as the “Residence of J.C. Drake / 2715 So. Hoover / Nov. 1, 1909.” The owner of the dwelling was James C. Drake, a prominent Angeleno, of whom we’ll discuss more below.

The images are interesting on their own as on-the-scene documents of firefighters dealing with the conflagration consuming a substantial shingle-sided house in the West Adams district just north of the University of Southern California. A couple of views include personnel on the upper levels of the ravaged residence (three of them are identified by last name and another with an initial by inscriptions placed where they stood at the upper level), while another shows a group of firefighters, dressed in their helmets and heavy coats, spraying the building with a hose. Remarkably, the fourth view shows, in the completely destroyed attic level, two women—perhaps one of the Drake family and one of the maids—walking among the ruins.

The enumeration of the Drake family at their first house at 2715 S. Hoover Avenue in Los Angeles during the 1900 census.

It turned out, though, that the fire garnered a significant amount of press coverage, both because of the prominence of the owner and because of allegations he made in casting blame for the fact that the structure was a complete loss. The Los Angeles Record of 2 November, for example, quoted Drake as saying,

I believe that the total loss of my residence property . . . is due in a very large measure to the refusal of the Sunset telephone operator to give my wife the fire station until she ascertained and announced the proper number. I consider that the management of a telephone company who makes and enforces such a rule as that is grossly negligent of his duty and unfit for the position he occupies.

I feel also like censuring the fire department for the fact that it didn’t bring more men and equipment to the scene of the fire, not only on account of my loss, but because of the other property that was put in such imminent danger.

One assumes that Drake was unaware that someone associated with the LAFD took these photos, because he might well have been even further angered that the images were taken of his burned-out house. The blaze erupted about 1:30 p.m., though the paper added, “despite the best efforts of the department, as well as hundreds of neighbors and friends, the beautiful structure was totally ruined. It was reported that the fire started in a “defective chimney,” but the delay, again, was allegedly because the operator purportedly insisting on having Mrs. Drake confirm the call number.

Los Angeles Herald, 23 April 1908.

Moreover, it was stated that a house across the street on the east side of Hoover caught fire as did two houses to the street, Portland, further east of that, but continuous spraying with garden hoses were said to have saved these structures. As for Drake place, it was asserted that it was “one of the finest and most elaborately furnished” houses “in the exclusive section in which it is located” and its value was pegged at $20,000. Family, neighbors and students from a nearby women’s school managed to salvage jewelry and artwork.

An official from the Sunset Telephone Company responded to the allegations made by Drake, telling the Record that “the call from Mrs. Drake was received by one of our oldest operators” who “tried to connect with the fire department, but they were talking to another party.” The operator contacted a supervisor and the two tried the department again and found the line busy, but continued efforts were made until they finally got through after “many minutes had passed.”

In its coverage, the Los Angeles Herald praised the women students and two Los Angeles Police Department patrol officers for their efforts in saving much of the Drake family’s belongings and added that it was believed the conflagration was “caused by crossed wires in the attic.” By the time firefighters arrived, flames were seen at nearly every window in the edifice. While Mrs. Drake and her two children, a son and daughter, were home, they were in the first floor and were only aware of what happened when a passerby ran in to say the fire was bursting through the roof.

Patrolman James Bean, who, with his partner Roy Hickok, were busily assisting in saving items from the ground floor, was then notified by Mrs. Drake that there was a bag with a large amount of cash and diamond-set jewels in a second-floor desk that she was intending to take to a safe deposit box at a bank. The two officers “braved the dense cloud of smokes and the flames which by that time had enveloped almost the entire second floor” and managed to find the desk and retrieve the valuables. As they exited, the female students rushed in to save items from the first floor.

Los Angeles Times, 2 November 1909.

With respect to the LAFD presence, the Herald reported that, after their arrival, “a number of streams of water were being directed on the burning house,” while some personnel turned to retrieving furnishings.” It was noted that “before the flames became so hot as to prevent their entering the building nearly all the most valuable furnishings, including a massive sideboard, were saved.” There was a very close call as “two firemen from Engine company No. 8 had a narrow escape from death when a burning gable at the front of the house became detached and fell with a crash, barely missing them.” This company’s engine house was located, from 1900 to 1950, on Hoover north of Washington Boulevard, about a mile or so north.

The Los Angeles Express reiterated what the Record reported concerning Drake’s casting blame on the phone company, saying that half the responsibility was borne by the utility ignoring the fact that his wife was in distress and could not recall their number, while he also took the LAFD to task “for not making use of more of the fire plugs in the vicinity.” The phone company manager told the paper he’d never heard of such a complaint, but didn’t want to comment further until he could investigate, though he added, “the operators have orders to connect people with the police department and the fire department at any time without any question.” If there was an investigation, nothing could be located in the local press.

Los Angeles Express, 2 November 1909.

The account of the Los Angeles Times did not materially differ from that in other press reports, though it stated the only person at the residence were Mrs. Drake and two female maids, but it, characteristically employed more dramatic language in its rendering of the blaze. The “fair students” of the school “forgot their social standing” as they rushed to help save items, while police and fire personnel “faced death as if it were an everyday occurrence.

Bean and Hickok, in particular, were deemed “the heroes of the occasion” while Drake rushed home from the bank in which he was an officer (and probably the intended destination of the valuables) and “arrived in an automobile at top speed, just in time to see pretty young girls tugging at pieces of furniture much too heavy for them to move.” More evocative language concerned the shower of sparks raining in the vicinity, the clanging of the fire engine bells, the “great streams” of water “poured into the seething mass,” the crashing of the roof cornice that almost hit the firefighters, the blows to separate pieces of that sideboard so it could be removed from the house, and more.

The end of the Times report was that the Drakes took refuge at the residence of Mrs. Drake’s sister, Mrs. Randolph Miner, a Tudor house on Adams that still stands next to St. Vincent De Paul Roman Catholic Church. From here, our story goes into the interesting background of the Drake family and we start with James C. Drake, who raced home in his auto to find his house fully engulfed and who blamed the phone company and fire department (though it bears noting that there were crossed electrical wires in the attic, which shows a deplorable lack of caution by an electrician).

Drake was born in 1858 in the hamlet of Cincinnati, Arkansas, located in the northwestern corner of the state near the Oklahoma border. In 1876, he secured an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland and graduated four years later, after which he spent a baker’s dozen of years with the Navy on ships throughout much of the world. After marrying, he was appointed a Naval ordinance inspector in San Francisco and served there for two years before coming to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Herald, 2 November 1909.

Upon settling in the Angel City, he was hired as an auditor of the Los Angeles Water Company and then took a job as vice-president of the First National Bank of Los Angeles, remaining a key officer with the institution for over two decades, while also serving as president of the Los Angeles Trust Company, later the Los Angeles Trust and Savings Bank.

Because of his extensive seafaring experience, he became involved with the development of what became the Port of Los Angeles. Other business interests included directorships with Southern California Edison, Southern California Telephone Company, Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company and several others, while he was an avid club member, including with the Los Angeles Athletic, California, Los Angeles County, Bolsa Chica Gun and other clubs.

Los Angeles Record, 2 November 1909.

During the First World War, Drake was said to be a prime mover in the establishment of the Army’s balloon school at Arcadia, while he also had a hand in the creation of March Field near Riverside and the naval training facility and submarine base at San Pedro. In fact, it was stated that his incessant activities during the conflict led to the breakdown of his health that resulted in his death at age 63 in 1921.

The Los Angeles Express, in a brief tribute after his passing, noted that Drake was, for a quarter century, “identified in creative fashion not only with great private but great public enterprises, giving generously of his time and talents to the growth and maintenance of the common welfare.” After specifically lauding his work with the harbor, the paper ended its encomium by observing that “when men of his public spirit pass every public interest suffers loss.”

In 1893, Drake married Frances (Fanny) Wilcox, who was born in 1865 on the Rancho La Punta, situated off San Diego Bay, and which was granted to Santiago Argüello, a prominent Californio who had a part to play in the 1842 grant to John Rowland for the Rancho La Puente when Argüello was the prefect of the Los Angeles District. He was married to María Guadalupe Estudillo, member of another well-known family in pre-American California, and their daughter María Antonia (1835-1909) married Alfred H. Wilcox (1823-1883), a Connecticut native who was a ship captain and partner in two early steamboat companies plying the Colorado River and Pacific Coast and made a small fortune in Arizona mining.

Fanny was one of four children, including Alfred, Jr., who later owned Wilcox Realty Company, which, in 1896, erected the five-story Wilcox Building at the southeast corner of Spring and 2nd streets in downtown Los Angeles, of which only the ground floor remains following damage from the Sylmar earthquake of 1971; Tulita, who married Randolph Miner, another Navy veteran who was a prominent utility company official, and Los Angeles Harbor promoter; and Maria Antonia, or Mary, whose marriage to C. Tyler Longstreet, of the family whose house and gardens were famous in 1870s and 1880s Los Angeles, was ill-fated, as he ran off to Australia where he died impoverished of tuberculosis.

Times, 11 May 1931.

Fanny Wilcox and James Drake built their house on Hoover Street in the late 1890s and raised their two children, son (James) Wilcox and daughter Daphne, there until the 1909 fire. The family rented a house up a block or so while they built a new, even more imposing mansion that was said to cost around $100,000 to construct and which was erected with the choicest brick, stone, marble and wood and sported a copper mansard-style roof. Among the many valuables that were saved from the conflagration that destroyed the prior residence were items from the Argüello family.

The Drakes remained in the unique structure for several years until James’ death in 1921. A decade later, Fanny had the massive dwelling moved and even included much of the landscaping with it—accomplished at the remarkable cost of $150,000—to the exclusive Fremont Place tract south of Wilshire Boulevard between Crenshaw and Rimpau boulevards. She’d only been in the relocated residence for several months, however, when she died of a stroke in 1931 at age 66.

One other notable detail is that Daphne Drake, in 1915, married Sayre Macneil, whose grandfather was Jonathan R. Slauson, one of the most prominent of 19th century Los Angeles capitalists and who was a professor at Harvard Law School when Thomas W. Temple II attended the prestigious legal training ground from 1926 to 1929. As was stated at the beginning of this post, you never know what a little digging might reveal beneath the surface or behind the scenes when it comes to a great number of the artifacts in the Homestead’s collection and this quartet of photos is certainly an excellent example.

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