by Paul R. Spitzzeri
She was one of the most remarkable women in greater Los Angeles for much of the 20th century, though she is not as well remembered as she should be, and Adela Rogers St. Johns (1894-1988), a journalist, screenwriter, short story writer and keen observer of the human condition, though tied for much of her life to the film industry and the media, had a brief country estate near Whittier that is the focus of this post.
Specifically, the property, known as “Shallow Brook Farm” when it was established in 1926, was featured in the November 1929 issue of California Arts & Architecture magazine, which resulted in a merger that year between Pacific Coast Architect, California Southland, and California Home Owner. The managing editor of the publication was Mabel Urmy Seares, featured in a post on this blog covering a 1926 issue of California Southland, while another post here highlighted the June 1929 edition of California Arts and Architecture.
Women formed an important part of the roster of writers with articles on books, the opera, film and other subjects. In fact, there is other great content, including articles on the recently completed casino on Santa Catalina Island and we’ll return to discuss the rest of the magazine in a future post. St. Johns and her estate, however, are of such interest on their own that we’ll deal specifically with them here.
The two pages devoted in the magazine to the property include a half-dozen photos of the house, designed by John R. Kibbey, who was active in Phoenix for about a decade before taking a job in 1922 designing sets for Hollywood studios and which is likely where he met St. Johns, and the well-known landscape architect Charles Gibbs Adams, a native of the San Gabriel area who did extensive work for the University of Southern California, the Will Keith Kellogg estate near Pomona where Cal Poly is now, the Robinson Gardens in Beverly Hills and many film actors.
The article referred to the place, situated “on the banks of the San Jose Creek near the Puente Hills” as “The Friendly Farm,” which may have been a change in name due to St. Johns’ change in spouses (more below.) In any case, it was stated that the estate “is in reality an extensive walnut ranch” and that “the ranch house is pleasantly placed between some of the fine walnut trees, and a group of stately eucalypti.” Adams was credited for having “woven various elements of buildings and site into a thoroughly satisfying ensemble.”
Brief as this description was, we are fortunate that the Whittier News published a lengthy feature on the estate in its 15 March 1926 edition, while an early 1980s piece in the East Whittier Review provided some information on the later history of the property. The reason why a location near Whittier was selected had to do with St. Johns’ first husband, Ivan, who was born in Iowa, lived in Pomona (where his father was a merchant) and then, after his father’s death, resided in the Quaker City, where his mother ran a milliner’s shop and Ivan worked in a clothing store.
After getting hired by the Whittier News, however, Ivan was launched into the world of journalist and print media and was soon hired by the Los Angeles Express, where he quickly fell into a romance with Adela Rogers, daughter of one of the Angel City’s best-known lawyers, Earl Rogers, whose work as a defense attorney for such notables as Griffith J. Griffith, Mayor Charles E. Sebastian, boxer Jess Willard and the famous attorney Clarence Darrow in his trial for bribing jury members in the Los Angeles Times dynamiting case, led him to be the model for attorney Erle Stanley Gardner’s famous character Perry Mason.
Raised by her father after a divorce, Adela, was an avid reader and writer as a child and published her first story at nine years of age in a Times short-story contest for children. Yet, she didn’t complete her education at Hollywood High School and she often said her schooling was with the flotsam and jetsam of humanity she saw in her father’s very busy office and in the courtrooms where he found such success. Purportedly, Earl Rogers told his daughter “a woman must be trained to earn a living for herself and her children, or she will be a slave.”
To that end, Adela, who first tried a career as a stage actor, was hired when not yet 18 to be a cub reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner and then was sent back to Los Angeles to work for his newly launched Examiner there. In an autobiography, she stated,
I was supposed to make people weep over their fallen sister; or homeless babies or underdogs in the pound; or a mother who killed herself because she spent her kids’ Christmas money on a new dress and we must get a tree and presents for them. We dramatized all this in the newspapers as it is now dramatized on the stage and in best-selling novels. Ours was real.
She also quickly got into film scenario writing and got to know the Hollywood film industry in great detail thanks to her knack for dealing with people and their stories. While she developed into a prominent screenwriter, she also worked for Photoplay, one of the biggest movie fan magazines of the era, and continued writing fiction.
She left newspaper reporting as a full-time job because she could do the other work at home and this was because she married Ivan St. Johns (who was also the secretary of Mayor Meredith P. Snyder from 1919 to 1921) when she was 19 and quickly had a daughter and son with him and she wanted to spent time with her children.
With the wealth she generated from her film-related endeavors, Adela was able to purchase a 15-acre walnut ranch on the east bank of San José Creek after it turned southwest from rounding the northwest edge of the Puente Hills near the former Workman Mill property and headed towards a junction with the San Gabriel River. Undoubtedly, the site was selected because it was far from Los Angeles and Hollywood and because Ivan was a former Whittier resident.
The 15 March 1926 edition of the Whittier News discussed in detail the “Shallow Brook Farm” estate and noted,
Mrs. St. John[s], who is better known to the reading public as Adela Rogers St. John[s], wanted a home in the country, as far from the maddening [madding] crowd and automobile traffic as she could go and still retain a close contact with her work, which at present is closely associated with the motion picture colony of Hollywood.
It was added that the recent publication of her first novel, The Skyrocket, which was quickly made into a movie directed by Marshall Neilan, meant that “the vision of just the home she desired grew clearer.” That is, it needed to be by running water, mountains and have space enough “for a commodious home of the old English pattern.” A swimming pool, tennis court and stables for horses, as well as kennels for the family canines were required.
Ivan, it was added, often used an old swimming hole near a bridge that crossed the creek—San Gabriel Boulevard once crossed the San Gabriel River almost directly west of the property and the Temple family’s homestead is just over a mile away. The couple drove out to the grove and Adela “fell in love with the spot at once” and Kibbey was hired to design the home with the eucalyptus trees providing a picturesque backdrop. The week prior to the publication of the article, the St. Johns family moved into their 20-room residence, the contractor of which was Ralph Thynnes of Whittier, who began his work in August 1925.
Among the notable elements were redwood beams made to look hand-hewn, while the six-inch wide floor boards were also crafted to make them look to be a century or so old and “with just enough unevenness to give the suggestion of age.” The substantial living room of some 750 square feet featured a massive fireplace, six feet deep and 14 feet wide with two flues, copied from one in England and which also had ornamental iron work and a door hidden in a recess from which logs could be brought directly from outdoors. A terrace outside the room overlooked Adams’ gardens and the creek, while the San Gabriels could be viewed in the distance.
A study and workroom for Adela was another feature of the L-shaped dwelling, which had a central corridor, described as one long room, along its two wings and which had brick floors and many windows. The master bedroom, a dressing room and bathroom, kitchen, butler’s pantry and two servants’ bedrooms were also on the first floor, while next to the latter and, while separate, was linked by a brick wall and heavy timber gate, was the garage. The second floor featured four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a playroom for the St. Johns children, while the steeply pitched roof allowed for plenty of closets.
It was obvious that Adela’s favorite room was the study and library, which was the first shown to the reporter from the News. It had massive hewn timbers for exposed beams “and its marvelous views of the creek and mountains and gardens” along with walls of books and original drawings of the characters from The Skyrocket. The reporter, however, favored the living room which was denoted as “almost perfect.”
As for the grounds, they were considered “in harmony with the brick walls of the house” as the kennels, pool, stables for a quintet of horses, tennis court were in various stages of construction, excepting the latter which was finished. The St. Johns’ were said to be eagerly anticipating the building of bridle paths. With all of this, the piece concluded,
The new home at “Shallow Brook Farm” is ideal in many respects and is a distinct addition to the district. Its arrangement, inside and out, reflects many days of careful study on the part of the owners and the architect, and painstaking building on the part of Ralph M. Thynnes, the contractor. Mr. Thynnes depended upon Whittier workmen and Whittier firms for practically every sub-contract, and the results have more than justified his faith.
Yet, after almost exactly a year, the thirteen-year marriage of the couple fell apart, as Adela was, in March 1927, granted an interlocutory decree for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty. A week after the final judgment was issued in March 1928 (Ivan died of a heart attack just seven years later at just 46), with Adela getting full custody of the children, she married Richard F. Hyland, who recently, at 27 and following winning a team gold medal in rugby at the 1924 Olympics in Amsterdam, completed a stellar athletic career at Stanford University, where he was best known for his football exploits. Known as “Tricky Dicky” because of his slick cuts in the open field, Hyland appeared in the 1927 and 1928 Rose Bowl games, in which the team tied Alabama 6-6 in the former and defeated Pittsburg 7-6 in the latter.
He met St. Johns on the set of the 1927 movie “The Drop Kick,” where Hyland was interviewed by Adela while he served as a technical director for the gridiron movie starring Richard Barthelmess, with small roles by future film gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and a young recent USC football player formerly known as Marion Morrison, but trying to get his big break as John Wayne. Adela added his name to hers so that it was “Adela Rogers St. Johns Hyland” and the couple settled in at the ranch that, evidently, they rechristened “The Friendly Farm” and where they welcomed their son, Richard, Jr., who took the St. Johns name.
Yet, their ownership of the estate was brief. A beachfront Malibu property was acquired, obviously meeting the requirements of water and mountains, as well as distance from noise and crowds, that Adela required. The marriage, too, did not last more than a half-dozen years and Adela had one more unsuccessful marriage that ended in the early 1940s after a few years. She did, however, return to the Hearst syndicate as a reporter, including covering sports, as well as a 16-part series of the effects of the Great Depression, with Adela posing as an indigent going to employment agencies, sleeping on park benches ad in cheap hotels, and getting charitable assistance.
She was then known as “The World’s Greatest Girl Reporter,” though she was in her forties and she remained with Hearst for more than 15 years, including in London, New York and Washington and ending with a six-part series in 1948 on the recently assassinated Mohandas K. Gandhi. After that, Adela worked for a time for MGM as a story adviser, taught journalism at UCLA for a couple of years, and spent more time writing books.
In her later years, the outspoken Adela made frequent appearances on television talk shows and, for example, criticized women who underwent cosmetic surgery—something she railed against in the early 1930s when it came to face lifts—telling one fellow guest, “you may want to present to the world a blank sheet of paper, proving that you’ve written nothing on it the years you’ve lived. I would rather they could see on my face that I have lived, loved and had one hell of a time, bad and good.”
In 1976, at 82, she accepted a one-time assignment from the Hearst company to cover the trial of Patty Hearst, her old boss’s granddaughter, who was accused of bank robbery for the Symbionese Liberation Army after it kidnapped her. A year later, she founded a literary club and kept writing until not long before her death in 1988 at age 94. Her Times obituary ended with the quote that,
90% of the people are better than they think they are. Humanity, as a whole, I think, does better, thinks better and treats each other better than they really think they do.
As for the Whittier-area estate, it was acquired by widow Emma Alexander, who’d long lived in the vicinity and owned a dairy with her late husband. She and her sons moved into the house and, after she left to go into town, a son and daughter-in-law occupied the dwelling. For twenty years, the daughter-in-law, Audrey Alexander, lived there, but, after her death in 1979, it sat unused until it was acquired by the Oltmans Construction Company.
The firm apparently hoped to keep the house as part of its new headquarters, but determined it was not feasible to do so, though it used some of the redwood and oak in the interior and kept some of the landscaping. A 1981 newspaper article discussed in detail what remained in the edifice, which remained “an architectural delight” despite its rundown state. Notably, the reporter observed that the abandoned site was still, but there was plenty of sound from the nearby Interstate 605, which runs immediately to the west.
Oltmans remains on the site today, which is a sliver of unincorporated Los Angeles County, with portions of the City of Industry just a stone’s throw away. Nearby is Rose Hills Memorial Park, which opened in 1914, and going through the area today it can be hard to visualize the rural atmosphere that drew Adela Rogers St. Johns when she and her first husband built the estate shown in the pages of California Arts and Architecture 93 years ago.