by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is always great when someone reads about the Homestead’s collection on our blog or in some other way and reaches out to the Museum so that a donation is eventually made. Such was the case when Colorado resident Jennifer Allison recently contacted us about some architectural plans prepared by her great-grandfather Anton W. Riewe for a proposed house for Antonio Merlo at nearby Avocado Heights, a short distance west of the Homestead.
When Jennifer got in touch, her interest was in finding out if the house still stood so she could send the drawings to the current owner. The plans did not have an address and, in fact, identified the location only as “Tract 4680, Puente,” though a quick search found that Merlo and his family resided on Fifth Avenue during the 1920s and 1930s.
The question was whether the house was ever built, because when I drove the length of that street from Valley Boulevard south to its end next to San José Creek and the Union Pacific (former San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake) railroad tracks, nothing anything remotely resembling the structure could be found. This led to the supposition that, either the structure was razed and replaced or that it was never actually constructed.
In any case, knowing that the building did not exist, Jennifer was happy to make a gift of the plans to the Homestead and it turns out that there is some interesting regional history associated with her ancestor and with Antonio Merlo, which form the basis for this post, illustrated, of course, with images of the drawings, which depict an eclectic blend of Mission Revival, Spanish Colonial Revival and Neo-Classical architectural styles.
Anton W. Riewe (1865-1940) was born to German (Prussian) immigrants William Riewe, a carpenter and contractor, and Agnes Kohr in St. Louis, a city with a long tradition of migrants from that European nation. In fact, an early home for the family, now partly a pretzel shop, is across Interstate 55 from the Anheuser-Busch brewery. In 1888, he married Emily Gross, whose father was German and whose mother was Swiss, and the couple had a son, Adolphus.
By the late 1890s, it appears that Anton may have worked with his father and older brother Charles in the contracting business and then formed a partnership with his sibling in that line. Tony, as he was commonly known, continued on his own and identified his vocation as “architect” in the 1900 census.
During the first decade of the 20th century, Riewe was frequently cited for his design and construction projects in areas southwest of downtown and, in fall 1904, incorporated his namesake company, which, when his father died the following year, succeeded the elder Riewe’s business—this latter known, since 1870, for erecting many fine houses, as well as factories, commercial structures and halls in the south and southwest portions of St. Louis.
In 1910, Riewe, his wife and son relocated to Los Angeles and for the first half of the Teens was often mentioned in Angel City newspapers for his designs for structures, almost always apartment houses, which were certainly in demand as the city and region grew by leaps and bounds at the time. In addition to work in Los Angeles, Riewe had projects in Long Beach, including a hotel, and in Santa Monica.
Yet, after summer 1915, his name cannot be found in media references at all, though he continued to be listed as an architect and contractor in the censuses of 1920, 1930 and 1940 as he resided at the address, near Vermont and Slauson avenues south of Exposition Park in south Los Angeles, shown in the plans. Even if there was no located record to any work Riewe did after the mid-Teens, it is known that his plans for Merlo at Avocado Heights had to come after 1920 because, in that year’s census, Merlo was residing in what became the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, but, by 1922 was in Avocado Heights.
Antonio Merlo (1889-1957) hailed from Bosconero, Italy, north of Turin, in the far northwestern region of the country not far from the borders with France and Switzerland and was born to Giuseppe (Joseph) Merlo and Domenica Maria Gardetto, who were both from the same area. In February 1903, Antonio and his father sailed from LeHavre on the northwest coast of France and arrived in New York to join Giuseppe’s brother Felice (Felix), who’d left Italy in spring 1900 and was in Los Angeles since early in 1902. A third Merlo brother, also Antonio, migrated to the United States in 1900, months after Felice, and ended up in Los Angeles.
It appears the Merlos began by residing in a neighborhood just east of Chinatown, which is where Union Station was later built, before moving to a street in a canyon at the east end of the Elysian Hills. There were many Italians congregated in this section around and north of the Plaza, the historic center of Los Angeles, and Antonio, along with his father and good many Italians on Casanova Rd. and other streets in their community, worked in a nearby brickyard, as shown in the 1910 census.
By 1920, Merlo, who married Natalina Aprato, a native of Trinidad, at the south edge of Colorado near the New Mexican border and born from Italian immigrants and had a son, Joseph, was a farmhand in the Malibu township, but in what became the tony neighborhood of Brentwood. He was listed next to the family of widower Clara Woodruff, whose son Sidney, became a prominent developer, including of Hollywoodland, Dana Point and elsewhere in greater Los Angeles.
In short order, Merlo acquired land at Avocado Heights and operated a vineyard and winery. Even though national Prohibition of most manufacturing, sale and consumption of alcohol was banner just prior, there were some exceptions, such as for sacramental and medicinal wines, as well as cooking sherry and other products.
Being out in the boondocks, however, meant that there were plenty of winemakers, including many Italians in that section and in the La Puente Valley generally, who could not resist the profits of bootlegging. So, in the Los Angeles Record of 13 March 1922, it was recorded that
A stock of wines valued at $10,000 is to be seized Monday [that day], according to Prohibition Agent [F.A.] Hazeltine, following the arrest of Antonio Merlo at Whittier.
Merlo operates a winery there. Also, it was said, he was operating a large still back of the winery. He was charged with violating the Volstead Act [the enabling legislation passed by Congress for Prohibition].
The Whittier reference concerned the fact that the nearest post office was in the Quaker City and nearby unincorporated areas are still in the Whittier area code. The Los Angeles Times of the same day reported that retiring federal agent “sang his swan song as an enforcement officer” when he raided the Merlo winery with two Whittier police officers. It was noted that the still was of 30 gallons capacity and illicit brandy and wine were nabbed, while the operator was hauled to the county lockup.
In its coverage, also from the 13th, the Whittier News added that “a large proportion of the liquor which has made its appearance in Whittier lately is believed to have come from this winery, which is located about a mile north of where the Puente road [Workman Mill] crosses the Salt Lake [soon the Union Pacific] tracks.”
Not only this, but the paper commented that local law enforcement personnel “have had their suspicions of the place for a long time, as it was visited by a large number of automobiles” including when the raid was launched and three cars “came in to get supplies of liquor, and received an unexpected welcome.” Officers searched the house and a cellar and took out bottles of brandy, while the still was found in a shack over a hill and Hazeltine praised Whittier officials for their assistance in busting Merlo’s operation.
There was clearly too much money in the illegal enterprise, and, whatever fine was levied was probably considered well worth the risk, because, not quite a year later, in February 1923, county and federal investigators and agents seized 3,800 gallons of contraband wine. The vino was taken to El Monte and poured into the sewers, while Merlo was driven to [La] Puente and pled guilty before the justice of the peace in that town, who imposed a $500 fine (though consider the value of the wine in relation to that penalty.
Merlo’s wife, who was released when Antonio pled guilty, and a man named only as Duasti (Guasti?), a customer from the Los Nietos Social Club who was taken to jail in Long Beach, were also arrested. Federal Internal Revenue Bureau agent H.W. Riley was said to have gone to the Avocado Heights winery on a hunch the day prior and then returned with a trio of county investigators.
While they found the 900 gallons in a warehouse for which Merlo had a permit, they located a basement under a chicken house, where two barrels contained 200 additional gallons. In the adjacent yard were buried 500 quart-sized bottles of wine, while concealed beneath a pile of brush were a pair of substantial vats of wine. The Times of 21 February published two photos of a quintet of officials with barrels as well as the hundreds of bottles.
Undaunted, Merlo returned to his undoubtedly very profitable side hustle and, in December 1924, the Times briefly reported that
Two Puente vineyardists were placed under arrest yesterday by Federal prohibition agents and charged with having more wine in their possession than their permits allowed. Those arrested were Antonio Merlo and Joe Mazzitti, the latter asserted to have had 8500 gallons of wine when he had been restricted to 4500 gallons [nothing was said as to how much overstock Merlo had].
Merlo (who, unsurprisingly, supported “dry” political office seekers before Prohibition was repealed in 1933) had a couple of other legal dustups, including in 1931 when the avid hunter was nabbed for illegally seeking game in a refuge in the mountains above San Dimas and two years later when he was found liable in a civil suit over a car accident.
Yet, he was also a 32nd degree mason of the Scottish Rite, a Plymouth and De Soto car dealer in Whittier and, after 1935, moved to El Monte and operated a liquor store once it was perfectly legal to sell wine, beer and hard liquor. Merlo, whose son Joseph was briefly a motion picture actor, lived in east Pasadena when he died at age 67 in 1957.
Even if the house designed by Riewe for Merlo was never built, there is still plenty of interesting history tangentially found about the two men, including the latter’s Prohibition-era busts. Still, it would have been great to have located the structure, which (perhaps) could have been referred to as “The House That Bootleg Booze Built”! It would hardly have been the only such example in our region at the time.