Lummis House

Sometimes, a random conversation can lead to an amazing adventure.  At least when you’re a growing historic house museum buff and you’re looking for new places to visit in your own backyard.

Let me explain:  I was working our annual Cowboy Festival (don’t ask) and one of my volunteers approached me with the question: “what is the name of the Lummis House?”  Now, I only comprehended the first half of that question.  Partially because I was on Day #4 of five 13+ hour work days, and partially because I had no idea what the Lummis House was.

The main entrance to el Alisal - the stone-faced castle built by Charles Lummis between 1898 and 1904.

The main entrance to el Alisal – the stone-faced castle built by Charles Lummis between 1898 and 1904.

I assumed she was referring to Charles Lummis, a prominent Angeleno from the early 20th century, who among other notable achievements, founded the first museum in Los Angeles.  I am familiar with him through my own museum – my guy was also a prominent Angeleno (sort of) from the early 20th century – and after 4 years of working at my historic house, I have started to pick up useless information on other big wigs from the early 1900s in the area.

I knew Lummis founded the Southwest Museum sometime after 1900.  I also vaguely recalled that he was involved in libraries.  I did not know, however, that he had built a home near what is now Pasadena and that his former residence is now a museum.  After my volunteer patiently explained this to me, I whipped out that holiest of holy relics – my Samsung S4 – and promptly entered “Charles Lummis home Los Angeles” in Google.

And I love Google for at least this reason:  once that almighty power starts to figure out what you’re looking for, it automatically creates a drop-down list of options.  As I entered “Charles Lummis” the drop-down immediately started adding words like “castle home” and “Los Angeles” for me.

A castle?

Here in Los Angeles?

Now, I was intrigued beyond measure.  Sure enough, I tracked down a few different sites that have entries on the Lummis home, and not only could I answer my volunteer’s initial question – the name is El Alisal – I decided in the space of a few heartbeats that I needed to visit this place.

So after a 14-hour day, I rushed home to J and asked him if he wanted to come with me.  He’s not the historic house buff that I am, but he loves old architecture, and he especially loves learning about wealthy eccentrics that build lavish estates to show off that wealth to the world.  He agreed instantly.

And yesterday (Sunday, April 27) was our day.  We headed up the historic 110 freeway to the Highland Park / South Pasadena area, and within moments, we were parked and wandering through lush gardens heading towards what we hoped was the main entrance.  What beautiful, peaceful, serene surroundings.  Tall leafy trees, wildflowers …. And a stone gateway that opens onto these gardens to boot!  As we walked the pathways following the signs, we started to see the stone façade of the house.  Within minutes, we were outside the front door with our jaws hanging down to the ground.

What a gorgeous house!  Yes, built entirely from stone – which, we learned from our guide, came from the nearby Arroyo Seco, a branch of the Los Angeles River – it does resemble a small version of a medieval castle.  We wandered inside where the thick concrete walls and floors created a light and airy feel.  Trying to take it all in, our eyes were drawn to the ceilings where we could see the beautiful wood beams and wood chandeliers, and then we saw the wood-framed windows that grace the towers (yes, towers) and provide little sitting nooks inside the main rooms.

A shot of Lummis' castle tower and bell cote; the bell hanging in the bell cote is one of the original bells from the Mission San Gabriel.

A shot of Lummis’ castle tower and bell cote; the bell hanging in the bell cote is one of the original bells from the Mission San Gabriel.

And the house was made all the more spectacular as we learned more about Lummis.  He was born Charles Fletcher Lummis in 1859 in Massachusetts to a prominent Anglo Saxon Protestant family.  His childhood was heavily influenced by the prejudices of the time – he was taught the Spanish were the root of all evil and the “Indians” were savages.  He nursed his own hatred for both of these populations through most of his adolescence and into his young adult years when he became a student at Harvard University.  He married a fellow student in 1880, and the following year, Lummis dropped out of Harvard and moved to Ohio to manage his father-in-law’s farm.  Farm work was not his thing, and he quickly secured a job working for a local newspaper.

Seeking adventure, Lummis decided to travel to California … on foot.  He would walk the entire 3500+ miles from Ohio and write about his travels for the Los Angeles Times.  The nascent newspaper agreed to pay Lummis $5 a week for his submissions and to hire him on when he reached el Pueblo de la Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles. He left Ohio on September 12, 1884 and after 143 days he wandered into Los Angeles with the Los Angeles Times editor-in-chief by his side.  His travels left their mark; experiences with Mexican citizens and Native American nations forever altered his perceptions of both the Spanish empire and the indigenous populations of North America.  He was impressed by the former’s level of education (the Spanish had established universities in North America a full 100 years before Harvard was founded) and the latter’s art and culture.  He would dedicate the rest of his life to preserving California’s Spanish past and Native American culture.

He traveled around the Southwest, especially after suffering a stroke in 1887 when he was only 29-years-old, trying to capture and preserve Native American traditions.  With a passionate interest in photography, he was one of the first to photograph the Southwest Pueblo Indians, and he transcribed many of their oral traditions, thus saving an important cultural heritage from possible extinction.

Among Lummis' many accomplishments, this little booklet here was one of his first.  It is a collection of his poetry printed on birch bark.  It was such a hit that he sold something like 14,000 copies of it when it was first published.

Among Lummis’ many accomplishments, this little booklet here was one of his first. It is a collection of his poetry printed on birch bark. It was such a hit that he sold something like 14,000 copies of it when it was first published (while still a student at Harvard in the early 1880s).

When he returned to Los Angeles in 1893, Lummis returned to editorial work, taking on the editor-in-chief position for a new monthly journal, The Land of Sunshine (later renamed Out West).  The money he earned from the success of the publication led to his founding of The Landmark’s Club, which was dedicated to preserving the old Spanish Missions, and the Sequoyah League, which was a crusading organization dedicated to changing the United States’ Indian policies.

During his time in the Southwest, Lummis was also exposed to archaeology, and in 1903, he founded The Southwest Society, a Southern California chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America, and set about to preserve Native American heritage, Spanish California, and contemporary Mexican culture.  He wanted to build a museum that would rival others across the world, and that dream was realized in 1914 with the opening of the Southwest Museum.

In between 1903 and 1914, however, Lummis was appointed City Librarian for Los Angeles.  Ambitious in all his undertakings, he instituted many reforms in the system – installing water coolers, raising salaries, establishing rooftop gardens, and moving the library to a larger space (twice).  He resigned from the post in 1910, but in his short time, he had founded a Center of Western History Research, built up the library’s reference and rare book collections, and established a Library Senate.

No wonder the man only slept a few hours each night.

After leaving the library, Lummis served on the Board of Directors for his new Southwest Museum until 1915, when tensions amongst the Board members forced him out.  He then dedicated the rest of his life to his preservation work and his research projects.  He passed away on November 25, 1928.

This is a shot of one corner of Lummis' museo inside el Alisal - the rounded corner is the interior of the circular tower.  The fireplace to the right was hand-carved by Lummis, a passionate woodworker.

This is a shot of one corner of Lummis’ museo inside el Alisal – the rounded corner is the interior of the circular tower. The fireplace to the right was hand-carved by Lummis, a passionate woodworker.

In the midst of all his undertakings, Lummis decided to build a house for himself that would last a thousand years.  In 1895, he purchased a few acres of property near the Arroyo Seco and three years later started work on his castle.  He chose the land, and the location of his castle, because he fell in love with a giant sycamore tree on the property, and it was this tree that inspired the name of the house; el Alisal is Spanish for the Place of the Sycamore.

Interestingly enough, the Arroyo Seco, as I mentioned, was a small river that fed into the larger Los Angeles River.  Since the Arroyo was dry for most of the year, the locals used it as a road; horse-drawn carriages were often seen trekking over the smooth river stones Lummis would later use for his house heading south towards el Pueblo de la Nuestra Senora Reina de los Angeles or heading back north to the wealthy suburbs that later became San Marino and Pasadena.  Later a foot path was forged alongside the Arroyo, and then later still, that foot path was paved and widened to become a road.  Widened again.  And again.  And today that widened and paved foot path is the 110 freeway, one of the first freeways in the United States.

Anyway, Lummis used some of those giant stones from the river bed of the Arroyo Seco as the face of the house, and laid it out in an L shape with a circular tower and a bell cote.  The interiors, as previously mentioned, are thick concrete, and the ceilings are redwood with large cedar logs that he burned and rubbed with pitch to seal them.  The doors are solid wood, thick, and hand-carved by Lummis himself.  He managed to integrate a few key artifacts into the home; the door to the guest bedroom contains a piece of wood from the original San Fernando Mission.  Today, that piece of wood, first hewn and installed in the Mission’s smoke room in 1797, is so old it is near petrified.  In the bell cote, an original bell from the Mission San Gabriel now hangs, although a giant crack along the side prevents the bell from ringing.  On his front door, he has a copy of a flourish used by 16th century Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, who conquered the Incan empire in the 1530s.  The calligraphic swirl appears to contain the letter “L” superimposed over the letter “C.”  Lummis saw his own initials and had the flourish installed.

This plain plank of wood has an incredible history; it is from the original Mission San Fernando, built in 1797, and was installed in the Mission's smoke room.  Now, well over 200 years old, the wood is starting to petrify in some areas...

This plain plank of wood has an incredible history; it is from the original Mission San Fernando, built in 1797, and was installed in the Mission’s smoke room. Now, well over 200 years old, the wood is starting to petrify in some areas…

The central part of Lummis’ el Alisal was the museo.  Today, the great room is the center of the Museum.  And Lummis intended it as a museum for his personal collections.  He stocked the large room with his collections of artifacts and his library of books, reveling as he did so that now his beloved possessions would have a permanent home.

And he continued to add on.  He built a second story that included an attic and a room for one of his beloved daughters.  He added a patio and verandah around the giant sycamore that captivated Lummis the first time he laid eyes on the property.  He installed a stage in the courtyard for his guests to use as a platform for entertaining.  Good friend Will Rogers was known to perform lariat tricks on that very stage.  Lummis loved woodworking, and he hand-carved many of the features inside the home, including the doors, the wood fireplaces, and a gorgeous antique sideboard in the Dining Room.

The house was considered finished in 1904, but Lummis himself never claimed he was finally done working on it.  And when he died in 1928, his body was cremated near his beloved sycamore and his ashes are now buried in a wall overlooking the verandah and courtyard.  Hopefully, he will rest there for a thousand years as he fervently wished.

So talk about incredible.  What an adventure into the past.  What a fascinating historical figure.  As I mentioned in the beginning, I am vaguely familiar with Lummis, but now I am inspired.  To go from a childhood rooted in hate to a legacy of crusading for the preservation of the past is a remarkable story.  And what an incredible, gorgeous, delightful, spectacular castle home!  Right here in Los Angeles.  Who knew?

So bring it on, volunteers!  Ask me those random questions or start those random conversations, because I’m always ready to go on another adventure into the past!

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