A History Of West Adams Told Through Its Iconic Architecture
One of the most realistic depictions of Los Angeles comes in the form of a television show. It’s not a mid-2010s sad-comedy of L.A.'s depressing psycho-geography, nor is it a mid-2000s reality show of L.A. as harbinger of loosening social mores. It’s Six Feet Under, the HBO classic from 2001 to 2005. The show’s legacy is one of beautifully crafted family melodrama. It painted hauntingly nuanced portraits of the Fisher family, dipping in and out of the family’s grief, loss, and growth, demonstrating how the boundary between life and death is often more fluid than we care to believe. It also made an icon of its main set piece: the Fisher family funeral home.
The Auguste Marquis Residence. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)
The Fisher & Sons (later, Fisher & Diaz) Funeral Home sits at 2302 West 25th Street, right off Arlington Avenue. It's a grand Victorian-style house with a wraparound porch and a massive front yard. It's officially known as the Auguste Marquis Residence, built in 1904 for the eponymous wealthy Swiss gold miner. The house now serves as the headquarters for the Filipino Federation of America, a "quasi-religious" group and one of the first Filipino organizations in the nation.
The house has remained in tact, in spite of its different encounters with wealth, spirituality, and media, and in spite of the different families and groups walking through its doors. It also sits right in the center of West Adams, the neighborhood that roughly occupies a region bordered by Figueroa Street on the east, Pico Boulevard on the north, West Boulevard on the west, and Jefferson Boulevard on the south. When most people think of wealth in Los Angeles—the kind of wealth that would afford a house as grandiose as the Auguste Marquis Residence—they do not think of West Adams. The L.A. Times' Mapping L.A. project gives it a median income of $38,209, which is low for Los Angeles (note: the L.A. Times cuts off the neighborhood at Crenshaw Boulevard, therefore only covering half of the area the West Adams Heritage Association says the neighborhood encompasses). Jefferson Park, a neighborhood within the West Adams area, has an even lower median income of $32,654.
How did West Adams go from a neighborhood of Victorian mansions to a neighborhood where the median income is less than a third of what is necessary to buy a house in contemporary L.A.?
For an answer, or at least the outline of one, we can look to the buildings themselves.
West Adams is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. By the turn of the 20th century, it was already the go-to neighborhood for wealthy transplants to Southern California. People like Auguste Marquis brought money to Los Angeles and built their businesses in the city. The rise of streetcars, as well the large plots of land in Los Angeles, encouraged the development of West Adams into one of the first commuter neighborhoods of the city. The wealthy wanted to return home to stately mansions where they escape downtown and enjoy the leisure time afforded to them after moving to L.A. from the post-Civil War regions of the eastern U.S.
In true make-the-West-what-you-want-of-it style, the mansions of these businessmen ran the gamut of architectural styles. Marquis preferred Queen Anne, but the neighborhood includes other subsets of Victorian architecture as well as Craftsman homes, Spanish Revival homes, and Beaux-Arts homes. For one businessman in particular, building a house in West Adams was an opportunity to advance the very item on which he was making his fortune: hollow terra cotta building blocks.
Lycurgus Lindsay was a Midwest born-and-raised businessman who moved to Los Angeles seeking out any business opportunity under the desert sun. He came across the Western Art Tile Company and became its President; not long after, they started production on the apparently groundbreaking innovation of the aforementioned hollow terra cotta building blocks. Lindsay, a rich, rich man, developed the plans for his own estate while serving as president of Western Art, seeking out the help of architect Charles F. Whittlesey to build the unique home. Once the mansion at 3424 West Adams Boulevard was finished, American Carpenter and Builder featured it in its October 1913 issue for being both earthquake and fire proof (a fairly impressive claim in 1913). The large house contrasted with the architecture in the area, featuring a Vienna Secession aesthetic, which prioritizes geometry and abstraction, instead of the revivalist or arts and crafts style of Lindsay's neighbors.
Lindsay himself only lived in the house for a few years; according to rumors, actor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle moved in soon after him and lived there in the late 1910s. The house now sits behind a Polish church, which maintains the property.
After 1945, West Adams transitioned from the majority white demographic of Lindsay's era to a majority black neighborhood (whites were moving further west into communities like Brentwood and Beverly Hills; this parallels the white flight that would occur in Compton in the 1950s). The change started with affluent black Angelenos—specifically famous entertainers of the area, like Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, who could afford to buy homes in the wealthy area. Enough black artists moved to the area to have it dubbed Sugar Hill; it encompassed the small section of West Adams roughly between Western Avenue, Normandie Boulevard, Adams Boulevard, and Washington Boulevard. At the time, though, it technically wasn't legal for these artists to buy these properties; Los Angeles was still deep in the throes of its racist housing covenants. So, when Sugar Hill grew in popularity, the remaining white residents of West Adams began to cry foul. McDaniel and the other residents hired attorney and journalist Loren Miller to represent them in a case against the white homeowners, eventually winning and setting the precedent to take down racist housing laws in the country (Miller eventually went on to argue in the Shelley v. Kraemer case, in which the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional to enforce restrictive real estate laws).
This win reflected the types of housing opportunities West Adams presented to black families in Los Angeles. Josh Sides, in his book L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, explains how:
In Compton, West Adams, and the community of Leimert Park, on the far western edge of South Central, African American families found better housing stock, reduced crime, greater integration, and better schools than they had experienced in South Central and Watts. For these families, daily life more closely approximated the mythical Southern California lifestyle of comfort and peace.
The economic success of these black communities led to the rapid development of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance company. The Life Insurance company started in the mid 1920s when William Nickerson Jr. and a couple other businessmen moved to Los Angeles and realized none of the black citizens were able to buy life insurance. The trio sought to create a company to insure the black community, which no white-owned insurance companies would do, and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance company was born. It served the Sugar Hill and West Adams neighborhoods for years, solidifying itself as the largest black-owned insurance company in the Western U.S. The business grew until it needed to seek out a larger office. Enter: the official Golden State Mutual Life Insurance company headquarters at 1999 West Adams Boulevard.
The building's architect, Paul Revere Williams, was a high-profile black architect who had built homes for several celebrities including Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. Building the winged, statuesque structure for Golden State Mutual was a celebration of black economic power in Los Angeles. Golden State knew its worth to the community as well; it would go on to invest in a massive collection of black art and murals that were on display in its offices until the company went into financial decline in the 2000s. Before that decline, though, West Adams was an icon of black neighborhood and community viability. It represented an opportunity and lifestyle for citizens who were otherwise marginalized across Southern California.
The bubble of West Adams wouldn't last forever, though, and the course started to turn when the ever-imposing cult of the vehicle came charging through the neighborhood. In the 1950s, the Santa Monica Freeway broke ground. The freeway to the sea was a huge undertaking for the city, involving the merging of state and national transportation infrastructure, and the freeway's route through Los Angeles was the largest point of contention in its development. It also cut straight through West Adams. Sides describes the community's response:
"Early in 1954, the California State Highway Commission selected a freeway route that cut a 500-foot-wide swath through what the California Eagle proudly described as the “most prosperous, best kept and most beautiful Negro-owned property in the country,” including Sugar Hill. Believing that the selection of this route was at best insensitive and at worst racially motivated, a group of West Adams residents immediately formed the Adams-Washington Freeway Committee, choosing several delegates to present the community’s grievances to the commission in Sacramento."
The group cited black Angeleno's difficulty with buying homes in other neighborhoods, and suggested the Commission move the freeway north of Washington Boulevard, to a community that was still predominantly white. The Commission delayed its decision, but ultimately kept the original plan. As a result, the freeway bisected the thriving West Adams neighborhood. By January 1965, the Santa Monica Freeway finally reached the ocean, leaving upturned neighborhoods in its wake.
Meanwhile, southeast of West Adams, the community of Watts was facing its own level of housing discrimination. It came to a head in August of 1965, when a black man was beaten by police officers after being pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving. The Watts community rose up in rebellion against a system that was constricting black communities to certain neighborhoods in L.A., and subsequently denying them their civil rights.
Watts faced a post-riots economic decline, with businesses destroyed and wealthier black families choosing to move out of the neighborhood as crime rose and resources suffered. A similar effect happened in West Adams after the freeway cut through the neighborhood—affluent black families started moving into communities like Baldwin Hills, and West Adams (which at this point was literally a fractured neighborhood) no longer sustained an economically robust community. The decline would reverberate through the decades. Golden State Mutual closed in 2009, and the building was in disrepair by 2011.
Disrepair was common; before the decline of Golden State Mutual, the Wells-Halliday mansion at 2146 West Adams Boulevard had to be saved from demolition in 1989 by the West Adams Historic Association. Three and a half years after it was saved, the Wells-Halliday mansion was repurposed as the Carl Bean AIDS Care Center. The home itself, a 12-room Dutch Colonial estate, was built for Eliza W. Halliday in 1901. Halliday was the widow of a "Civil War millionaire," according to Curbed, and she lived in the mansion until about 1920.
At the time of the mansion's conversion, "HIV and AIDS increasingly took a toll on blacks and Latinos in the community," noted the L.A. Times. The beauty and elegance of the home made it a warm place for AIDS patients to live out the final days of their lives. When the center first opened, Michael Weinstein (yes, that Michael Weinstein) said, "Having a combination of old and new is what makes the hospice work. The patients feel like they belong: This is, after all, their last home." The center was named for Carl Bean, a black gay minister and the founder of the Minority AIDS Project. The Center eventually closed in 2006 after serving the community for 23 years (it closed amid allegations that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation was overcharging the County for operating funds). At the time of its closure, AIDS activist Tony Wafford told the L.A. Times that "[t]he facility was critical in raising awareness of AIDS in the black community."
The present-day West Adams, like many L.A. neighborhoods, is both a reflection of the past and a beacon for the future. As of the 2000 census, the neighborhood is between 30-50% black and around 50% Latino, depending on the section of the neighborhood. It has come full-circle in housing relevance, becoming one of the most competitive home-buying neighborhoods in the nation this year. The current median home price for the neighborhood is $550,688, according to Redfin.
Sixty years ago the Santa Monica Freeway completely upended the neighborhood make-up. Now, the Expo Line follows a similar geographic path, bringing development in its wake. The effects of this development are still in nascent stages, but the neighborhood has seen some early signs of what the change will look like; last year, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center, formerly the first black-owned hospital in Los Angeles, was turned into an on-site art exhibit called Human Condition. It was curated by a local art broker and advisor named John Wolf, who declares himself committed to "assisting private clients and corporations in creating outstanding collections of fine art." West Adams isn't foreign to corporate-owned art; the art collection in the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company's building was one of the biggest collections of black art in the nation. It had to auction off 94 of the pieces in 2007 when the company faced bankruptcy. Human Condition featured artists like Matthew Day Jackson, Jenny Holzer, David Benjamin Sherry, Gregory Crewdson, and Chantal Joffe, all of whom are white.