2607 Wilshire Boulevard


This imaginative house—built before prosperous Angelenos embraced the safe "Stockbroker Tudor" style after the turn of the 20th century—was one of the first in Gaylord Wilshire's original subdivision and was owned by three and occupied by two once-big Los Angeles names. Designed by Oliver P. Dennis & Lyman Farwell, it was completed in the fall of 1897 at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Coronado for Judge Clinton Norman Sterry.

There were few corners of the country that Clinton Sterry hadn't lived in before taking up permanent residence in Los Angeles just a year before moving to Wilshire Boulevard. Unusually mobile for a man of his era, Sterry was born near Ashtabula, Ohio, on April 8, 1843, and raised from infancy in coastal Connecticut. In 1855 Sterry's clergyman father moved his family to Lake City, Minnesota, where he lived until returning to Ohio for college. After a year at Oberlin he joined Union forces in the Civil War, fighting for the duration and attaining a captaincy. After Appomattox Sterry earned his law degree at Ann Arbor, practicing back in Lake City before finally settling—so it seemed—in Emporia, Kansas, in 1873. It was there that his legal reputation would be made. Befitting such a mobile man, the railroad called Sterry, though not for him to hop the freights. In need of attorneys after pushing west in a big way after 1880, the Santa Fe hired the judge in 1882; 10 years later he became the road's chief attorney for New Mexico and then finally, in 1896, for all Santa Fe lines west of Albuquerque, prompting his move to Los Angeles that October. Sometimes referred to as Captain and often as Judge—he'd had a stint as a judge pro tem at one point back in Kansas—Sterry and his family lived first in St. James Park in a house apparently leased while more permanent arrangements were being made.

What might have persuaded the Sterrys to choose the very new Wilshire tract over the established West Adams district is unclear. It might have been a very persuasive Gaylord Wilshire selling Clinton on his subdivision after lunch at the California Club—it is a tribute to the railroad man that he'd been taken into the city's most exclusive men's organization even before he moved to town permanently. The Wilshire Boulevard Tract was barren prairie when it opened, but then so was just about every new tract in Los Angeles before water was piped in as part of development. What seems to have been least attractive about Wilshire's subdivision was the presence of the west end of the unsightly derricks and occasional stench of the Los Angeles City Oil Field belt in the blocks just to the north. Gaylord was nothing if not a salesman: Not only did he sell a sizable plot to Sterry—two full lots and half of another—but so too did Sterry move forward in a big way when he commissioned a major house on land far from the settled, verdant, and distinctly unindustrial bon ton precincts southwest of downtown. Sterry began assembling his corner by first purchasing Lot 8 in March 1897; in June, in the name of Mrs. Sterry, Lot 7, just to the north, and half of the 70-foot Lot 9 to the west were secured. Construction must have begun forthwith, Dennis & Farwell's design perhaps having already been commissioned. Building permits for a three-story house and a barn were issued in September; on October 15, the Times reported that, in pace with Henderson Hayward's 2501 Wilshire a block east, the Sterrys' Venetian-tinged palazzo was nearing completion.

Dennis & Farwell's interpretation of an Italian chimney pot added to the singularity of the
Sterry house. The derricks of 
the Los Angeles City Oil Field that bedeviled
 early Wilshire lot purchasers 
can be seen to the north.

The rest of the Sterry family was sought after socially just as much as Clinton had been; for them, Los Angeles—still just a dusty town of 102,500 in 1900—must have seemed wildly cosmopolitan compared to even dustier Albuquerque. Being rich and possessed of a grand new house requiring five live-in servants in a city of shallow roots was a large calling card, of course, as was the propensity of Louise Sterry to entertain tirelessly. The four Sterry offspring were another asset in establishing a presence. Norman and Nora were 19 and 18, respectively, when they moved into 2607; Ruth was 14 and the caboose, Philip, was 2. While the family was together on Wilshire Boulevard there was the scourge of an ever expanding city—hammer blows would not let up for decades to come as thousands and thousands of houses were built. How exactly that other bane of the Wilshire tract had not been addressed before it came to a lawsuit is unclear, but Hiram Higgins put his foot down after he bought the Wilshire tract's Lot 10 and the west half of Lot 9 next door to the Sterrys in 1897 and then took a lungful of petroleum- rather than orange-scented air. In early 1899, members of the Westlake Improvement and Protective Association sought to fend off the approach of derricks by asking the city council to pass an ordinance limiting their proximity. The ordinance passed, but compliance was indifferent. Higgins would not build 2619 on his property until 1902, apparently by then satisfied that "great volumes of noxious smokes, gases and smells that at times render the neighborhood almost uninhabitable," as he contended in a lawsuit filed in December 1899, had blown away for good. Interestingly, Higgins's attorney was his neighbor and interested party, Judge Clinton N. Sterry. Aside from hammering and odors, the early years of the earliest segment of Wilshire Boulevard were punctuated by another urban ill. Reports of porchclimbers and yeggmen were rife in the best Los Angeles neighborhoods even more than century ago; on December 4, 1901, a burglar broke into 2607 and made off with a purse containing 20 cents. 

The Sterrys' family life on Wilshire Boulevard would be torn asunder by much worse than a thief. Clinton had broken his arm in the summer of 1901 but was otherwise in as good health as a man of prosperity and girth in the Victorian and Edwardian ages could be. It was a shock to his family when he died unexpectedly on May 23, 1903. Norman, who would go on to be a renowned Los Angeles attorney-to-the-stars, was just receiving his law degree at Ann Arbor; in 1923 he would build 134 South Rossmore Avenue in Hancock Park. Like her sister, Nora was mentioned constantly in society columns, but neither ever married despite their exposure. Nora instead became a teacher and school principal who also devoted endless hours of hands-on time to the betterment of the citizens of the ignored Los Angeles barrio. Eventually becoming president of the Los Angeles County Board of Education, she was honored after her death by the renaming of the Sawtelle Boulevard School as Nora Sterry Elementary. Ruth pursued a career as a newspaperwoman, early on becoming a reporter for the Herald as well as a poet of some repute. Whereas their brothers became white-shoe attorneys (à la Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher), like Clinton Sterry very much on the side of the establishment, the sisters along with their mother became extraordinarily progressive civic activists of great tenacity. The sisters also each boldly became single mothers, Ruth adopting an orphaned Belgian girl the year her father died, Nora adopting a boy whose mother was a poor Russian Jewish widow. It seems that after putting in many hours smiling in Los Angeles's most genteel parlors, the sisters had determined that the city's poor needed more help than rich matrons needed assistance pouring tea.

A year after Clinton died, mother of the clan Louise Sterry decided to leave the Boulevard. With her children disinclined to leave home due to temperament or in Philip's case, age, perhaps the reason was a lingering scent of oil rather than having too much space. Given Wilshire Boulevard's infancy in 1904, the West Adams district was still preferred by most prosperous Angelenos for its settled air. Mrs. Sterry would sell 2607 in September, the same month buying a house off Adams Street at 2632 Ellendale Place. The Sterrys remained close: Louise, Norman, Nora, Ruth, and Philip were all living together on Ellendale Place during the '00s; when Norman married in 1909, his wife, Josephine, moved in too. The Ellendale house would remain in the family for another 37 years, during which time 2607 Wilshire would see many comings and goings.

While largely unremembered, Daniel Murphy
did once have a Catholic high school
on South Detroit Street named
for him. It closed in 2008.

An illustration of the ambivalence bedeviling the rich when it came to deciding on desirable early-20th-century Los Angeles neighborhoods was Daniel Murphy's hedge of bets in acquiring properties both in the West Adams district and on Wilshire Boulevard during 1903 and 1904. In September 1904, a year after buying an existing house on a large lot on Adams Street, the über Irish-Catholic millionaire purchased 2607 Wilshire from the estate of Clinton Sterry, for whom he had recently served as a pallbearer. Born in Pennsylvania in 1855, Murphy began his rise by wildcatting in Oklahoma. After moving to California with the Southern Pacific, his Gilded Age drive turned all he touched, appropriately enough, to gold. After developing the railroad stop of Needles into a town in the 1880s, he financed the reorganization of the California Portland Cement Company in 1894 and then founded the Brea Cañon Oil Company, all of which provided the means to speculate in land. A largely forgotten Los Angeles legend, Murphy was no mere high-living plutocrat. His rather unilateral philanthropy—he became the largest single contributor to the Los Angeles Catholic diocese—became famous, earning him one of those curious Catholic mockregal titles, his being Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. Perhaps the Venetian suggestions of 2607 Wilshire appealed to a growing sense of power; at any rate, while he made the effort to enlarge the Sterry house from 14 to 17 rooms, he would ultimately decide that as fashionable as Gaylord Wilshire's subdivision might be, the baronial dimensions of his property in the much more established old-guard Adams District would allow for a grander in-town estate rather than would a mere suburban lot. It would be four years before he replaced the exisiting house at 2076 West Adams Street with a large Italian Renaissance mansion and elaborate gardens for his wife, Antoinette. Perhaps it was she who rejected the Sterry house. In any case, while all along staying at their Adams district house on Orchard Avenue, along came a third Big Swinging Dick to take 2607 Wilshire off of the Murphys' hands in May 1905.

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While Clinton Sterry died too young to enjoy his home for very long and Daniel Murphy never actually occupied 2607 Wilshire Boulevard, the house's longest-term tenant prior to its ignominious transformation into a boarding establishment was another man from the east. A New Yorker with much more in his financial and social quiver than either Sterry or Murphy when they arrived to take up permanent residence on the West Coast, Isaac Milbank had lately been vice-president and general manager of the New York Condensed Milk Company, founded in 1858 by his uncle Jeremiah Milbank (who supplied the capital) and Gail Borden and later, as the famed Borden Company, progenitor of Elsie the Cow. Ties between the Milbank and Borden families were tight. Of Gail Borden's daughter Philadelphia Borden Johnson's seven children, one son was named Milbank after his grandfather's business partner and a daughter, Virginia, would marry Isaac Milbank. It was Milbank Johnson, who became a prominent Southern California physician, and his older brother Gail Borden Johnson who had first arrived in Southern California circa 1890, soon setting up a shoe manufacturing business in Alhambra. By some accounts for reasons of his health, Isaac and Virginia began to visit California frequently after the turn of the century, often being mentioned in newspaper accounts of social events. It wasn't until after the January 1905 death of their firstborn son, Lawrence, of appendicitis while at boarding school in New Hampshire that the Isaac Milbanks decided to move west permanently. In May of that year, contracts were signed with Daniel Murphy for the sale of 2607 Wilshire to Virginia for $50,000—the amount Murphy had paid the Sterry estate eight months before plus $20,000 for the expansion. (Although it was at the time common for a husband to place the deed of a house in his wife's name, it may well have been Mrs. Milbank's separate funds that paid for the transaction, also not uncommon if the wife was rich in her own right.) From that time, the Milbanks seemed hardly to have ever looked back east. Los Angeles was home.

Once at home on Wilshire Boulevard, the Milbanks proceeded to turn a suburban lot into an in-town estate after all, even into somewhat of a family compound. Nichols Milbank arrived in Los Angeles around the time of his older brother's purchase of 2607; after he bought the house at 615 South Coronado, four lots north, the siblings proceeded acquire the three empty intervening lots in March 1906 on which a rose garden and tennis courts were built. In a move that would become a habit, Isaac had been speculating in area property recently. The previous November, as part of a syndicate, he'd bought a 35-acre tract a few blocks north of Wilshire that was developed into Upper Rampart Heights.

Assimilating into "come one come all" California with ease, Isaac Milbank, his health and spirits apparently restored, assumed a business and social position as though to Los Angeles born. While of Baptist heritage, in Los Angeles Milbank worshipped among his ruling-class equals at St. John's Episcopal on Adams Street. He was a booster of aviation in the Southland and, just before his death, a member of the investment group that developed the Biltmore. He was a member, naturally, of the California, the Athletic, the Los Angeles and Wilshire Country clubs, as well as of the very selective Bolsa Chica Gun Club. Over the years, he would become a director of the German-American Trust & Savings Bank (Guaranty Trust & Savings after April 1917) with his brother-in-law Gail B. Johnson and Joseph Burkhard of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance and Union Oil and an investor in the California Delta Farms and Sinaloa Land development projects with Lee Allen Phillips, among other men.

The Milbank roost in Gaylord Wilshire's original tract lasted eight years. Clearly enjoying his role as a builder of Los Angeles, Isaac was inspired when in 1904 the opportunity arose to acquire the property occupied by the Los Angeles Country Club prior to opening its present Westside clubhouse in 1911. Platting of streets and building on the rolling plain bounded roughly by 10th Street (now Olympic Boulevard), Pico Street (now Pico Boulevard), Western Avenue, and Crenshaw Boulevard began even before the club vacated the district to which it bequeathed its legacy, though a legacy little known today. Isaac Milbank hired G. Lawrence Stimson to build an extravagant new residence at 3340 Country Club Drive at the center of the area dubbed Country Club Park, to which his family moved in 1913 and which still stands, as does his Craftsman Santa Monica vacation house built two years before. Nichols Milbank also left the old neighborhood, moving by 1915 into cousin Eleanor Milbank Anderson Tanner's specially-built, super-sanitary house at 671 Wilshire Place after a divorce caused in part by the extreme overprotection of her daughter Betty, called "The Human Orchid" by the press.

The 1913 Milbank house is still the centerpiece of Los Angeles's Country Club Park District

Isaac Milbank, the very definition of the archaic term "capitalist," had been born on June 27, 1864, in Fairfield, Connecticut; he died in Los Angeles on August 13, 1922, with 2607 Wilshire Boulevard long left behind. as part of what became a tradition of dizzyingly short lives of some of the most substantial houses ever built in the city, the old Sterry house had only a few years to stand by 1922. Following the departure of the Milbanks, 2607 appears after a few years to have become the property of Lillian H. Eustis, a young widow who had had experience running boarding houses. She filled the old Venetian palazzo's 17 rooms with all manner of lodgers, including the remarkable Angeleno Helen Mathewson, child- and animal-welfare crusader, anti-slum advocate, holder of a window-design patent, and at one time proprietor of the famous Hershey Arms hotel just across Wilshire Boulevard. The house was filled with boarders at least until 1922, after which the northside lots of the 2600 block of Wilshire would be cleared once again after barely a generation. The 1902 Higgins-Verbeck house next door at 2619 was moved to Windsor Square to make way for the Arcady apartments (now the Wilshire Royale) in 1923. Not long after, the Sterry-Murphy-Milbank-Eustis house left its lot; sadly, only a small outbuilding was saved and moved to the El Sereno district. A demolition permit for the house was issued by the Department of Buildings on May 19, 1924; an aerial photograph taken after 2619's move and prior to the long-delayed construction of the Arcady (it didn't open until late 1927) reveals only dust.

1925: The Higgins-Verbeck house stood on the now-bare northeast corner of Wilshire and
Rampart boulevards until July 1923; at lower left are the towers of the 1906 Hershey
Arms and across Rampart is the 1912 Bryson. Once the Sterry house was gone
from the lot at the extreme lower right, William Rinehart opened a car-repair
 shop on it soon after this photograph was taken. It wasn't for another
 25 years that a more substantial use for the property was found.

Rather than an opulent apartment house to join the 1906 Hershey Arms, the 1912 Bryson, and the Arcady, the northwest corner of Wilshire and Coronado appears to have only been graced by an automobile repair shop opened in 1925 and in place for the next 26 years. Some architectural relief would come in 1952 with the opening of the sleek and still-extant Remington-Rand showroom designed by Welton Becket, but Venetian opulence and plutocrats were never to return to the original blocks of Wilshire Boulevard.

In a reversal of the usual replacement of Wilshire Boulevard residences with taller
buildings, such as the Arcady/Wilshire Royale's of 2619 (the Bryson is just to
its left), Welton Becket's still-extant 1952 Remington-Rand showroom

is half as tall as the Sterry house that once stood on its corner. 

Illustrations: The Art Institute of ChicagoHistory of the Bench and Bar of CaliforniaUSCDLLAPL; Country Club Park Neighborhood Association;
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