These Historic Homes Are Windows Into SoCal’s Fascinating Past

From a sprawling estate in City of Industry to a gum magnate’s mansion in Pasadena, there’s a lot of history in these walls

Home isn’t just where the heart is—it’s often where history dwells as well. Los Angeles has long been a place where pioneers started over, intent on building a new life—and a new way of life—for themselves and their families. This evolution of style and substance is often clearly reflected in the homes they built, in the architects they chose, and the gardens they planted. Today, a precious few of these homes are open to the public, offering a fascinating glimpse into each owner’s unique version of the ever-changing California dream.

Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum: A Priceless Gem Amidst the Office Parks

Off Don Julian Road in the City of Industry sits the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum. The museum boasts two large homes built by the same family during radically different eras. Also on the property is the rancho graveyard, where family members and friends, including California’s last Mexican governor, Pio Pico, and his wife, Maria, were reburied after their graves were desecrated at the old Calvary Cemetery in L.A.

It all started with pioneers William and Nicolasa Workman. He was English, she was Mexican, and they arrived in Los Angeles County in 1841. Workman and business partner John Rowland soon gained control of the massive Rancho La Puente and prospered in the cattle boom of the 1850s.

The Workmans built the unassuming rancho adobe that still stands with their own hands. Their daughter, Antonia Margarita married F.P.F Temple, who was from an even older pioneering California family, giving them stature in small, tight-knit Los Angeles. The rapidly expanding family soon broadened its business portfolio, buying downtown real estate, forming banks, opening wineries, and raising sheep. In the 1870s, the family adobe was expanded, remodeled, and given high Victorian trimming to reflect its residents’ status. But overall, the adobe has an air of sadness, probably because William Workman lost a lot of his land, and his fortune, to the infamous Lucky Baldwin. He shot himself in his longtime home in 1876.

A similar boom resulted in the second home on the property, the magnificent La Casa Nueva. This florid, art-deco tinged Spanish-Colonial Revival masterpiece was built by Water P. Temple, the grandson of William Workman. Temple had fought to get back some of the land he felt was stolen from his family and succeeded. In 1914, oil was found on the property, and the Workman-Temple clan was again wildly wealthy. To reassert the family’s stature and to celebrate his family’s rich history, Temple hired Roy Selden Price and the celebrated firm of Walker and Eisen to design this new mansion, which included a movie theater, pool, and tennis court. In 1927, the family moved in.

Like a curse, their residency would be short-lived. Temple lost his fortune and his new home during the Depression. Today both homes are open to the public—the history of one California family, surrounded by warehouses, office parks, and factories.

15415 Don Julian Rd., City of Industry.

Phillips Mansion: Deep South Elegance in the Wilds of the West

When it was built in 1875, this brick New Orleans-style home was considered a mansion. It had 12 rooms, precious wood accents, and was as cool as an adobe because of the brick. The homestead of the influential Phillips family, it was the gathering place for the lost town of Spadra (now part of Pomona). There were holiday parties hosted by the Phillips family, baptisms in the family pond, and even an on-property schoolhouse for the local children.

The lord of the Phillips manor was patriarch Louis Phillips. Originally from Prussia, the thrifty, humble Phillips settled in Los Angeles in the early 1850s and wisely bought up many lots in downtown Los Angeles. He also ranched, and eventually became the outright owner of 12,000 acres of the former Rancho San Jose in the Pomona Valley. “Neighborly and large-hearted,” he had helped settle the rough and agrarian town of Spadra, a rural outpost filled with many expatriates from the American South. It is believed that Phillips spent some of his youth in Louisiana, which may account for his and his sociable wife Esther’s choice to build a Deep South mansion on the hardscrabble western frontier.

For all its grandeur—the home had gas lights throughout, a luxurious novelty at the time—many of the Phillipses’ friends wondered why they chose to live so far from Los Angeles proper. According to an article about L.A.’s wealthiest citizens in the Los Angeles Times:

“There is no doubt that the richest property holder in the county today is Louis Phillips, who lives so quietly out at Spadra…Phillips has for several years had the largest receipts of any businessman in this part of the state.”

Louis Phillips died in his beloved home in 1900. The Phillipses held onto the family homestead for years. After it was sold, it was divided into apartments. Today it’s owned by the Historical Society of Pomona Valley, but, because of earthquake damage, it’s only opened to the public occasionally for tours and special events. The mansion and nearby Spadra Cemetery—supposedly closed to the public but easy to access—are ghostly relics of a vanished town and a forgotten L.A. pioneer.

2640 Pomona Blvd., Pomona.

Arden: The Enchanted Hideaway of a Theatrical Dynamo

The exceptionally talented Polish actress Helena Modjeska was a star in Victorian Europe, but she wanted something more. The forward-thinking Modjeska was tired of repressive European regimes, so in 1876, she and her husband, Count Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, came to California with hopes of “new scenery and the possibility of settling down somewhere in the land of freedom.”

After numerous hardships—the couple and their European friends made a failed stab at starting a socialist farming commune—they were invited to eastern Orange County, to the Santiago Canyon cabin of their friends Maria and Joseph Pleasants, nestled in a valley below the Santa Ana Mountains. Modjeska was instantly smitten with the picturesque scene. “The whole picture looked more like fantastic stage scenery than a real thing,” she wrote in her autobiography. “And looking at it, my imagination carried me far, far, beyond the hills, back to the footlights again.”

After successfully conquering the American stage, Modjeska bought the Pleasants’ ranch in 1888 and began turning it into her retreat from life on the road. “I called it ‘Arden,’” she recalled, “because like the ‘Forest of Arden’ in As You Like It, everything that Shakespeare speaks of was on the spot—oak trees, running brooks, palms, snakes, and even lions—of course California lions—really pumas.”

The Pleasants’ primitive cabin was expanded and transformed into a sprawling fairytale cottage by the famous New York architect Stanford White (who was later killed by a romantic rival, resulting in one of the many “trials of the century”). The grounds were turned into a lush, rambling garden with fountains, nooks and even a swimming pond. The Los Angeles Times described the enchanting result:

“The very house and the out-buildings are blended in the landscape, and the beauty of the low, rambling white house amid a shade of great spreading live oaks and palms, surrounded by closely cropped lawns of blue grass, beds of luxuriant flowers of every hue, climbing vines about the piazzas, and over trellises, the walks and driveways, as smooth as asphalt, that curve in and out of lawns and flower beds, is difficult to tell.”

When they were in residence, Modjeska and her Count frequently entertained, creating an atmosphere where “the whole air seemed charged with gaiety and romance,” according to former head gardener Theodore Payne.

“What do I do when at my mountain home?” Modjeska said. “Why, I do just what I like.” Arden was truly a refuge for Modjeska and an extension of the artistic way she lived her life. “I have acted Lady Macbeth and Portia now for many years,” she once said. “The lines have a charm that’s like my California home. I never wish to forget or cease to be fond of either.”

Sadly the Count, like many dubious royals, was a poor money manager and financial woes forced the couple to sell Arden in 1909. Modjeska died in a cottage in Newport Beach that very year. Today you can tour Arden, a National Historic Landmark now owned by Orange County. It is as magical and graceful as ever, and you can stroll down the same butterfly-flecked, rose bush-thick path that Modjeska loved to walk while rehearsing her lines.

29042 Modjeska Canyon Rd., Silverado.

Wrigley Mansion: The Winter Mansion of a Chewing Gum Magnate

Today, it is known as Tournament House, the headquarters of the Tournament of Roses. But this Pasadena mansion, one of the last surviving homes that graces what was once Pasadena’s Millionaires Row, was the winter home of the Wrigley family for many years.

Completed in 1906, this 22-room Italian Revival mansion was designed by noted SoCal architect G. Lawrence Stimson for his father, developer George W. Stimson. However, the Stimsons sold the house to William Wrigley Jr. and his wife, Ada, in 1914.

It was just the sort of gilded luxury the Midwestern Wrigleys desired. There were mahogany doors, European chandeliers, walnut and bronze accents, and a porcelain tub so big it had to be hoisted through a window. The family had made its fortune in chewing gum and intended to enjoy the fortune in the most pleasant atmosphere possible. “Coming to Southern California is like taking up golf,” William Wrigley told the L.A. Times. “Once you start, you can never give it up.”

The family owned many properties—including its private fiefdom of Catalina Island—but the graceful Pasadena mansion quickly became Ada’s favorite. She adored watching the Rose Parade from her vast front porch and stayed in the home for decades after her husband’s death in 1932. In fact, by the time she died in the mansion in 1958, many of the homes on Millionaires Row had been torn down or converted into apartments.

The Wrigley family soon donated the home to the Tournament of Roses, which represented all that Ada loved about Pasadena. “The birth of the world-famous Tournament of Roses took place across the street from this property more than 70 years ago,” Phillip K. Wrigley said. “The donors believe it is in the public interest to provide a home for said association that will be a credit to the City of Pasadena in the years to come.”

Today there are weekly public tours of the mansion from February through August. Visitors can see the public rose garden; the “Queen’s room,” featuring crowns of past Rose Parade Queens; and the bathroom where, in 1964, former president Dwight Eisenhower became trapped for quite a long time behind a sliding door.

391 Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena.

The Clarke Estate: The Progressive Dream Snuffed Out by Progress

Out in Santa Fe Springs in southeast Los Angeles County, is a fascinating modern home, surrounded by particularly congested urban sprawl. White and angular, made of poured concrete, the house was designed by modernist architect Irving Gill in 1921. It was commissioned by Marie Rankin Clarke, a brilliant, daring woman who believed that on the West Coast of America “lay the unrivaled opportunity for the building of a great civilization.” Early California progressives were interested in embracing rather than overpowering nature through architecture and lifestyle.

Originally from Iowa, Marie and her wealthy husband, the equally independent thinker Chauncey Dwight Clarke, came to Southern California in 1904. Marie was an expert horsewoman, high spirited and highly interested in everything from the arts, gardening, Eastern religion, charity, and shooting. “Whenever she set her sights on a philanthropic or cultural target,” columnist Ed Ainsworth recalled, “she always managed to bullseye that, too.”

In 1914, the Clarkes bought over 60 acres ranch land in rural Santa Fe Springs, once known for its warm spring resorts. They chose Gill to design their home because his revolutionary aesthetic perfectly matched their own. “We should build our house simple, plain and substantial as a boulder,” he once wrote of his philosophy, “then leave the ornamentation of it to Nature, who will tone it with lichens, chisel it with storms, make it gracious and friendly with vines and flower shadows as she does the stone in the meadow.”

The home, miles away from the bustle of the city, soon became a gathering place for the avant-garde elite. Its design was Spanish and multi-cultural, with an open-air courtyard and a plethora of Asian imported bamboo. The estate’s biographer, George R. Martin, wrote, “With its gardens, orange trees, and bridle paths, it became one of the show places of Southern California.”

But the Clarkes were soon visited by a rather messy guest—oil. In 1921, oil was discovered in Santa Fe Springs. Two years later, the first derrick went up on the Clarke Estate. The Clarkes were now richer, but their rural paradise was no more. They moved to the Coachella Valley, and Maria would occasionally return to throw a party or host a movie night for friends and staff. The home stayed in the family until 1986, when it was sold to the town of Santa Fe Springs for $2 million. Today it is open to the public, a thought-provoking reminder of the California that might have been.

10211 Pioneer Blvd., Santa Fe Springs.

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