2966 Wilshire Boulevard


Clothier John Bismark Berner bought Lot 10 of the Sunset Park Tract in February 1905, six months after marrying Elizabeth Rath. Train & Williams, one of Los Angeles's top firms, was commissioned to design 2966 Wilshire for the site; the Department of Buildings issued permits to begin construction on October 22, 1906. Describing "beauty in Elizabethan style"—referring to the house, not to Mrs. Rath—the Los Angeles Herald featured it in a story after completion. It was one of many residences on the boulevard and in other new suburban districts that would employ half-timbering; the style, perhaps a bid toward antiquity to counteract the newness of the city, became practically a boulevard trademark. It was not long after moving in that Mr. Berner was forced to withdraw from his downtown firm, Matheson & Berner, for reasons of ill health. He died of a brain tumor at 39 on January 19, 1911. Rather amazingly, Mrs. Berner was still listed at 2966 Wilshire in the Los Angeles city directory issued in January 1969, giving her the great distinction of having by far the longest tenure on the boulevard by an original builder.

The Berner/Rath house, pictured circa 1930, is now surrounded by trade, some of it in former
residences, some of it in brand-new buildings. The 150-foot long, three-story Kellogg
building was now two doors west and the 241-foot-tall Bullock's-Wilshire had
opened at the end of the block in September 1929. Installation of the
Wilshire Special streetlamps, one of which appears here, began in
1928; they would in time stretch from Grand Street to Fairfax
Avenue. The tops of those in front of the Berner
house would be replaced in the late 1950s.

Having emigrated from Germany to Iowa before 1870, led by their clergyman father, the Berner family arrived in Los Angeles in 1893 after years spent at Emanuel F. Berner's callings to Dubuque, Ackley, and Des Moines. Born in 1871, John Berner was employed as a shipping clerk at the Des Moines dry goods wholesaler Israel Brothers in the few years before his family's move west. Once in Los Angeles, he joined the well-established and highly esteemed Coulter's as a salesman while his father became a pastor with the Evangelical Association. (Pioneer Los Angeles dry-goods merchant Benjamin F. Coulter was also a minister of evangelical stripe; perhaps there was some sort of evangelical/dry-goods mafia.) In the immigrant clannishness of the day—and today—the Reverend Berner and his wife naturally kept their family close. Their children, including John, remained at home well into their 30s, first at 720 South Olive and then at 942 Wall Street. Kate's widowed sister Adelaide Kopp lived with them around the turn of the century, as did assorted nephews. The young men of the family all appear to have worked in dry goods or in the furniture business. Emanuel died in 1897; two years later John, sporting a left hand with a crooked finger per the "distinguishing marks" on his voter registration, felt experienced enough after his rigorous Coulter's training to strike out with a partner, John L. Matheson, to form the firm of Matheson & Berner, clothiers to men and women. Apparently there was more money than you'd think in shirtwaists and suits—or else the woman Berner was to soon marry came with a sizable dowry.

As pictured in 1907: Victorian darkness would linger in western interior design for years,
even in sunny Southern California. One wonders if the Berner's Steinway, bric-a-brac,
 and rockers remained in place for the next 65 or so years until Elizabeth
Berner left 2966 Wilshire for a Pasadena nursing home.

Thirty-one-year-old Elizabeth Rath was from Iowa herself—Ackley, in fact. The Raths appear to have been considerably richer than the Berners, but given Ackley's tiny size and the closeness of Iowa's German-American community, it seems likely that John Berner knew his fiancée from their younger years. Elizabeth's extended family was in grain and lumber; her father, John, had then turned to banking. In 1891, one of Elizabeth's five brothers, John Washington Rath, had with a cousin founded the Rath Packing Company in Waterloo, one of the more important and, with its Indian-head trademark, familiar of such American concerns until its demise in 1985. John Berner and Elizabeth were married in the summer of 1904, just after his mother died on July 14, and on returning from their honeymoon they moved into their own rather large house at 1356 South Flower Street. Both John and his siblings, and John and Elizabeth separately and together, bought and sold a number of Los Angeles properties
before and after their marriage. It appears that the Berners may have
considered building on Vermont Avenue near Sixth Street at one point, but the covenants pertaining to Wilshire Boulevard, then newly establishing itself residentially beyond its original four-block stretch west of Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, would likely have seemed more favorable than Vermont for residential investment, as the latter was before long being considered for widening and transit.

After the death of his partner, unlucky John L. Matheson took on his brother Lewis
and continued in business in a new location. After Lewis was killed by an
automobile in front of John's eyes and Hobart Boulevard home
in 1914, Matheson Inc. carried on until John died in 1929.

The house the Berners ultimately built at 2966 Wilshire was not small, but it was certainly more delicate than the many baronial "Stockbroker Tudor" houses rising on Wilshire just to its west. But like them, it treated the California sunshine sought by people from places such as Iowa as though it were snow. It would be decades before a newer generation of more native Angelenos would open up its architecture fully to the outdoors. Sadly, John would be able to enjoy the smell of new wood for little more than three years before he died. Even before 1911, 2966 Wilshire had begun attracting more of Elizabeth's Iowa family after winter visits, and before long, the house became very much the Rath house. Her brothers Walter and Howard, eventually investment brokers together, were living at 2966 by 1910. Before long Walter married and moved to Pasadena, but Howard stayed as late as until his marriage at 42 in 1927. After that, Elizabeth's maiden sisters Amelia and Clara turned annual visits from Iowa into permanent residency on Wilshire Boulevard even as the thoroughfare's commercial years swung into high gear: Bullock's-Wilshire just up the street opened on September 26, 1929. The house had by that time already been surrounded by fashionable shops and restaurants in other old residences for at least five years. The Kelloggs two doors away at 3002 replaced their house with the large double-lot commercial structure, still there today, in 1930, and the also still-extant Clark Building next to it housing the Stendahl Galleries replaced 3006 a year later. The Town House apartment hotel opened across Wilshire in 1929 a few weeks before Bullock's. Remarkably, the three Rath sisters would live together at 2966 Wilshire for nearly 30 years amid the hubub until the oldest, Amelia, died in 1957. Given that it was still a residence, it seems unlikely that 2966 was concealed by a commercial appendage in the front yard as was the Hadley house that still stands obscured next door at 2976. After Clara died in 1965, Mrs. John B. Berner, who had moved in by 1907 and was now in her 90s, remained. It appears that she left the house by the end of the decade to live at the Don Carlos nursing home in Pasadena near her brother Howard and his son, O'Melveny & Myers attorney Howard G. Rath Jr., until she died at 98 on December 11, 1971. Leaving 2966 must have been wrenching for Mrs. Berner; this was a woman who had been willing to pay property taxes on a residence in what had long since become a commercial zone. The now 65-year-old "Elizabethan beauty" could not charm anyone else to pay a premium to live in it. Permits for its demolition were issued by the Department of Building and Safety on April 18, 1975. According to the county assessor, the ignoble structure now standing on Lot 10 of the Sunset Park tract was built in 1983.

Looking from Commonwealth Avenue toward the southwest,
some detail of 2966 Wilshire Boulevard can be seen prior to 1928.
The lot just to its east now held a billboard; the telephone pole would
soon be replaced by underground conduits and new streetlamps. Below
in all of its mercifully mostly hidden '80s architecture is the current

2966 as of June 2014. John Parkinson's Bullock's-Wilshire,
now the Southwestern Law School, stands tall at right.

Illustrations: CDNC; Huntington Digital LibraryLAPL; Google Street View