3189 Wilshire Boulevard





3189 Wilshire Boulevard

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Having been born in Illinois in 1843 and seemingly skeptical of such pretension, Ida Helena Haraszthy Hancock was for a long time less concerned than her ambitious father and some historians with the spurious image of her family as members of titled Hungarian nobility. For decades she was too busy suffering the indignities and even physical toil involved in being wildly land-poor, her net worth then largely composed of 2,400 acres of what is today central Los Angeles. It wasn't until some time toward the turn of the 20th century, when the portion of the Rancho La Brea acquired by her late husband, Henry Hancock, was exploited fully in a modern way by their son Allan, that Ida decided life in a palace would perhaps not be such a bad idea after all. 


Although she lived at 3189 Wilshire Boulevard for just a few years, the house's long gestation
made Ida Helena Haraszthy Hancock Ross synonymous with it by the time of her death, as
seen in an illustration accompanying her large obituary in the Los Angeles Times of
March 16, 1913. She is flanked by her husband and son, who preceded and
succeeded her in colorful contributions to Southern California history.


New Hampshire–born Henry Hancock was a land surveyor and lawyer who arrived in Los Angeles in 1852 in the first days of California statehood and attendant national euphoria over new opportunities for reinvention and for the acquisition of that great western currency, land. As a Deputy United States Surveyor, he was called on to delineate the official boundaries of the city, giving him an advantage in terms of possible personal gain of valuable territory; his legal training would have provided the "inside information" to make any acquisitions easy and ironclad...so it might seem to the cynical. The Rancho La Brea had been acquired by native Portuguese Antonio Jose Rocha and a partner in 1828. When American authorities demanded that rancheros prove their claims, unverified boundaries presented a problem, which is where the skills of Henry Hancock came into play. Hired by the Rochas family to confirm its title, Hancock's fees mounted. Payment was made if not extracted in the form of rancho acreage; by late 1860, Henry Hancock and his brother John had acquired the balance, Don Antonio Jose Rocha's son turning the deed over on November 16. Yet legal wrangling over who owned exactly how much continued all the way until 1877 when the Supreme Court made the final decision. John Hancock wound up with 1,200 acres; Henry's 2,400 acres—now Ida's—included the La Brea Tar Pits.


After decades in her modest Rancho La Brea house next to scientifically and financially
 lucrative but odoriferous tar pits, seen here looking toward the Hollywood Hills as oil
gushed, Ida Hancock and her son Allan yearned, like Veda Pierce, to get away
from "everything that smells of grease." Next stop, Wilshire Boulevard.


After Henry Hancock died in 1883, his widow, a girl of the prairie rather than of a palace in Pest, kept the rancho together, living in a frame house the couple had built near the now-famous La Brea Tar Pits at the center of the spread. By the time of his death, Hancock had begun to do some subdividing of the vast property as well to commercialize the asphalt beds. Despite growing up breathing tar fumes, the Hancock's surviving son, born on July 26, 1875, in San Francisco and christened Allan Richard George—his twin Harry died in infancy—only became more interested in petroleum exploration after some of the men who would be founders of Union Oil had attempted unsuccessfully to find black gold on part of the rancho under lease from his mother. According to John R. Kielbasa in his Historic Adobes of Los Angeles County,


"By the turn of the century, oil development on the subdivided portions of the rancho increased. Twenty-five year old George Allan Hancock, the son of Major Henry Hancock, took an interest in oil production and went to work for the Salt Lake Oil Company. While so employed, he learned more about the industry and oil exploration. In 1902...Ida Hancock leased a part of her interest in Rancho La Brea to the Salt Lake Company. Soon they struck "black gold" and the Salt Lake Field was born.... In 1906, George Allan Hancock wanted to apply his newly acquired oil expertise and decided to make his own go at it. He borrowed $10,000 from his mother to finance the business, known as the La Brea Oil Company, and soon started drilling. His venture paid off, and by February 1907, he had over seventy wells, which produced close to 300 barrels a day. This made the Hancocks one of the wealthiest families in California."

Once Ida Hancock came around to her son's modern Gilded Age ideas about wealth, the comforts it could bring as well as its possibilities in terms of philanthropy, she decided that it was time to live large. While she hadn't been dressing in calico and muddy boots for some time, by now entertaining friends as a fixture of nascent Los Angeles Society closer to town in Gaylord Wilshire's original subdivision at her family's house at 683 South Carondelet Street, her own holdings were then still too distant and her standard of living now too elevated to consider permanent residence on her own rustic and industrialized Rancho La Brea. While anyone could see that the future of Los Angeles lay to the west, even the most astute, such Ida Hancock and Allan, the true manager of family arrangements, couldn't foresee the rapid pace of civic development. If they had, the Hancocks, mother accustomed to living with her son and his family, might not have bothered to buy Lots 9, 10, and 11 totaling three-quarters of an acre at the northeast corner of Wilshire and Vermont from Clara Shatto in January 1908 as the site for their new house. By the time of its completion, precincts closer to the Rancho were being developed with high-end housing. Windsor Square opened in 1911; abutting it to the west would come before long the Hancock's own Hancock Park subdivision, still intact at the southeast corner of the old Rancho La Brea. Within a decade of its completion, Ida Hancock's over-the-top and less delicate knockoff of the Villa Medici in Rome would find itself on one of the busiest and least salubrious intersections in the entire bustling city of Los Angeles.


The Times revealed details of the Italian Renaissance Revival Hancock house, to be
Los Angeles's largest residence once completed, as early as March 1, 1908.


The "Villa Madama," as the house came to be called—perhaps actually a play on "Villa Medici"—wasn't built on the model of any known Hungarian palace. Who knew much of Hungary? Its architect was Englishman John C. W. Austin, who'd come to Los Angeles in 1894 and quickly established himself as a master of works through successive eras, from the 1902 Fremont Hotel to commodious residences to civic buildings (the current 1928 City Hall, with John Parkinson and Albert C. Martin) and corporate buildings (NBC's 1938 Radio City in Hollywood). As a designer of his time, Austin would have been familiar with the Italian landmark from which real estate writers in the Times and the Herald claimed the architect had derived his less delicate California version, which actually seems to have been more of a knockoff of a Newport cottage knockoff of the original. The Times suggested that inspiration came from "visions of sunny Italy, and the beautiful villas of the Medici and the Borghese," with the Arch of Constantine providing Austin with a model for its Wilshire Boulevard entrance. Mrs. Hancock signed her first contracts with Austin in May 1908; the Department of Buildings issued a permit for a 25-room, 94-by-130-foot residence to "Madam Ida Hancock" on August 10. There was apparently no rush to finish, or couldn't be, given the scope of the commission. Besides, there were diversions. Having waited a quarter of a century to find a man who might rival the romantic stature of Henry Hancock, Ida took a second husband in the form of onetime California Supreme Court judge and now U.S. Circuit Court Judge Erskine Mayo Ross, also a developer of Glendale, on June 2, 1909, in the priest's house at St. Vibiana's. Ida's men were heroic. Her father, Agoston Haraszthy, was no less than the "Father of Modern Viticulture" in California. A man of outsized ambition, boom and bust (he died bankrupt in Nicaragua), considerable talent, and little aversion to risk, Haraszthy did nothing to discourage the title of "count" bestowed on him in Wisconsin on his trajectory toward California by German immigrants impressed with his confidence; the Haraszthys were of the upper classes but untitled and less than rich, accounting as such conditions often did for their emigration. Movers and shakers of the 19th century with big personalities—men, at least—were often accorded honorifics derived from mythology ("Count" Agoston Haraszthy), Civil War service ("Major" Henry Hancock), an interest in the sea ("Captain" G. Allan Hancock), as well as from actual present-day service (Judge Ross).


The entrance hall of 3189 Wilshire Boulevard, referred to as the Reception Hall once
reinstalled in its new setting at U.S.C., is enhanced by marble, an unsually placed
bullseye mirror, stained glass originally rendered by Münchner
Leon Zettler in
1865, with
 additional decoration by Austrian muralist Othmar Brioschi.
The four rooms removed from the Hancock house comprise
the university's Hancock Memorial Museum.


One wonders what Ida thought she'd do all alone, except when entertaining, at her new house at 3189 Wilshire Boulevard, all that echoing marble calling for companionship. According to newspaper coverage of her marriage, Ida, having moved from Count to Major to Judge, would be occupying her new quarters by the fall of 1909. In the meantime, the bridegroom gave up his room at the California Club for a bridal suite at the Van Nuys on Main Street. Once ensconced in their new digs, there would be, sadly, just a few short years for the builder of the Villa Madama to enjoy its gilded grandeur. Several years of only mildly debilitating stomach trouble turned serious in the winter of 1913. Ida Hancock Ross died at home on the morning of March 15.


G. Allan Hancock had married Genevieve Mullen of the Mullen & Bluett department-store family
in a 1901 wedding described by the Times as having had a white-and-gold theme; the
music room of the Villa Madama, called the Music Salon 
in its reinstallation at
U.S.C., glows in the same scheme. Pier mirrors, Louis XV furniture covered
in Aubusson and damask, a Wurlitzer worthy of the Roxy, and
an accompanists' balcony enhance one of Los Angeles's
grandest, longest-lived, and least-known spaces.
Casals, Piatigorsky, and Heifetz are all said
to have played here over the years.


After his wife's burial at Calvary Cemetery, Judge Ross returned to live at the California Club. The extended Hancock clan, Ida and Allan and his family, long accustomed to living together, had most likely originally intended to occupy the eight-bedroom 3189—its elaborate "Music Salon" tailor-made for musicophile Allan—but it seems that the growing seriousness of Judge Ross's attentions to the matriarch as the house was being built caused several changes of plans. Allan bought Lots 11 and 12 of Shatto Place, just north of his mother's palazzo rising on the corner, and in late 1909 built 626 South Vermont on the northerly site. As it turned out, this house, also designed by Austin, was retained until 1921 but rented; the Hancocks remained in the family's Carondelet Street house after Judge and Mrs. Ross moved into 3189. It wasn't until after her death that the Allan Hancocks finally moved into the Villa Madama themselves.


Dominating the library's Edwardian scheme is an exuberant fireplace, apparently a wooden
version of one in the Great Hall at Warwick Castle. In ribbon relief above the hearth

is carved "TIS MY HOME AND YOURS, MY FRIEND"; the Haraszthy coat of arms
is above it on the chimneypiece. Portraits of Ida Hancock Ross and her son
hang in a library long on charm but curiously short on reading material.


Allan Hancock's intelligent management of his patrimony made him very, very rich. He was, as were many oil and land developers of the time, the founder of a bank, in his case a precursor of San Francisco's Bank of the West. Passionately interested in motorcars, he was a founder of, and served a term as president of, the Automobile Club of Southern California; even more passionate about music, Hancock became a cellist of some repute, playing with the Los Angeles Symphony, which he served as both treasurer and president over the years. In 1916, he donated Hancock Park, a rectangle surrounding the by-now-famous tar pits, to Los Angeles County. The 23-acre park, site of L.A.C.M.A. and still confused a century later with the subdivision of the same name to the east, was intended to help preserve the pits and the paleontological discoveries made on the Rancho La Brea. Hancock spent weekends on his yacht and whatever spare time he had at the usual ruling-class clubs such as the California, the Uplifters, and the Bohemian. In 1901 a wedding described by the Times as having a white-and-gold theme—Allan's colors, it would seem—Hancock had married Genevieve Deane Mullen of the Mullen & Bluett department store family; following the pattern of a number of retail families in Los Angeles in which women played a roll in business (among them the Coulters, the Overells, and the Brents), Mrs. Hancock served, at least officially, as a vice president of Mullen & Bluett. And a third generation of Hancocks was growing up at 3189 Wilshire: Bertram, born in November 1902 and named after an older brother of Allan's who had died of typhoid fever in 1893, and Rosemary, born in October 1904.


Described by wry historian Floyd B. Bariscale as a "veritable United Nations of dining rooms,"
U.S.C. particularizes that of the Villa Madama as early Georgian, with gilded leather walls
reflecting the influence of Spain. A French-style ceiling, Swiss cabinetry, Chinese
brasses, Burmese screens, English table and chairs, Bavarian crystal, and an
 Austrian chandelier complete the somehow concordant conglomeration.


Described exhaustively as everything from farmer to oil and gas prospector to banker, land developer, railroader, aviator, sea captain, scientist, explorer, musician and philanthropist, it's a wonder that Allan Hancock ever sat still long enough in the white-and-gold Music Salon of the Villa Madama to draw a bow across his cello even once. In addition to his association with the Los Angeles Symphony, he later founded the esteemed Hancock Ensemble. The discovery of prehistoric bones in the tar pits had peaked his interest in science early on. His numbered series of boats, all named Valero, were largely given over to scientific excursions of the Allan Hancock Foundation for Scientific Research at U.S.C., later renamed the Hancock Institute for Marine Studies, which he founded with a $7,000,000 endowment in 1938. While Hancock remained attached to Los Angeles institutions throughout his life, he began to look up the coast toward northern Santa Barbara County in the mid '20s. As traffic on Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue increased in a volume hailed by city boosters but unanticipated by the Hancocks and other residents, with streetcars plying Vermont under massive power lines and a large commercial structure across the street on the Busch property by 1923, Allan began to feel hemmed in by the city he'd helped motorize and dramatically expand with oil and asphalt mined from the Rancho La Brea. In early 1925, Allan and Bertram began to get serious about starting a cattle operation near Santa Maria. While on his way north from Los Angeles to meet his father in late June of that year, fate intervened, at least as far as Bertram's participation in any livestock venture: He was killed in his room in the tower of Santa Barbara's Arlington Hotel when it collapsed in the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck early on the morning of June 29. Allan, sleeping in another part of the building, was injured, but survived. (A brilliant recounting of Bertram's fateful drive and final hours is told here.)


After Allan and Genevieve Hancock left the Villa Madama, the house went the commercial
way of all Wilshire Boulevard; it was used by the Pacific Institute of Music and Fine Arts,
 where Mr. Hancock would play his cello on occasion. Streetcars of the Los Angeles
Railway plied Vermont Avenue under the many wires at left as early as 1913,
 rendering the corner something less peaceful than the real Villa Medici.
 Perhaps the Villa Florist, which appeared during the Depression,
helped pay the taxes. Dr. Clayton E. Wheeler was installing
goat glands next door at 3173 during this ignominious

period of Wilshire Boulevard transition.


While the loss of his heir is said to have left him with a speech impediment, Allan Hancock pressed on with the cattle venture Bertram had been so excited about, though he named it for his daughter rather than his son. Rosemary Farm would eventually grow to 5,000 acres, becoming a model for animal husbandry and for the cultivation of attendant feed crops, as well as for demonstrating advances in egg farming. His family having once sold watermelons and beans grown on the Rancho La Brea to passersby to make ends meet, Hancock was now in a position to promote the latest in scientific agriculture. The more one reads, the more one is struck by his remarkable range of interests—from the earth to machinery to music, there was little that escaped his inquiring eye. It seems likely that except for those relatively few hours spent in his library and music room at 3189, the house meant less to him than it might have to others. From the mid-'20s, when he was not at sea, he was in Santa Barbara County pursuing his studies of land and air. As his petrodollars continued to gush, he established there, in addition to Rosemary Farm, the Hancock College of Aeronautics in Santa Maria, opened in 1929. After training thousands of cadets to fly in preparation for and during World War II, the school continued under the auspices of U.S.C. until 1954. Its facilities were then taken over by Santa Maria Junior College, which eventually became the Allan Hancock College. In conjunction with farming operations, lest any mode of transportation go neglected, Hancock also developed the Santa Maria Valley Railroad, said to be the busiest short-line road in the world. 


As seen from the southwest on October 26, 1950, the site of the Villa Madama has been
empty but for billboards for 12 years. At right is the Brodtbeck/Wheeler house, which
stood a
t 3173 Wilshire Boulevard until the early '60s. Stenciled in the crosswalk
is the slogan "DON'T BE A DROOPERT," part of a traffic safety campaign
sponsored by the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce;
 a "Droopert" is a careless driver or pedestrian.


Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard was on the fast track toward almost complete commercialization. The Villa Madama, perhaps finding its true purpose, was turned over to be used by the Pacific Institute of Music and Fine Art by 1935, the Hancocks for the last six or seven years having based themselves when in town at the Westwood home of Genevieve's mother. While it does not seem that additional revenue could have been much of a motivating factor, as a sign that old Villa Madama (all of 20 years old) meant little to Allan Hancock by this time, he for some reason permitted the erection of a streetside florist shop out front. At any rate, the death of Genevieve in 1936 seems to have been the tipping point in the Hancock connection to the boulevard. Allan made plans to demolish the never-quite-successful white elephant his mother had built in celebration of turning from land-poor to nouveau riche. Somehow even his disposal of the Villa Madama was creative, involving a blend of philanthropy, preservation, and destruction. Donating the house and Lots 9, 10, and 11 of the old Shatto Place tract to U.S.C., he specified that some of 3189's rooms be preserved for installation in a new building he was giving to the university. While there are on Wilshire Boulevard a few original houses still standing, if encased in modern commercial architecture—such as 2976 and 3944—there are no extant original rooms, decoration intact, other than four from the Villa Madama. The Department of Buildings issued U.S.C. a permit for the demolition of the house on February 4, 1938; before the bulldozing began, the reception hall, the dining room, the white-and-gold music salon, and the library were each in effect crated whole and set aside. The city issued a permit on June 22 to allow Star House Movers to transport the rooms three miles south to the campus of U.S.C. to await installation in the Allan Hancock Foundation building, completed in 1941. Picture-palace gawdy and cozy at the same time, taken together the rooms evoke the history of the Hancocks, of everything from the tar-pit-adjacent farmhouse to visions of the Medici, in a way that suggests that Allan was sentimental, in a good way, underneath all the forward motion. He married his second wife in April 1939 at the Canal Zone aboard the Valero III (given to U.S.C for ocean research later that year). Helen Leaf Hancock was apparently not counting on being left out of her new husband's many interests; she filed for divorce in 1945 on grounds of mental cruelty for weeks on end spent all by her lonesome. According to the Times, the now two-time divorcée testified that her husband told her that "anyone as great as he is should not be bothered with a home at any time." Going for the big guns, the middle Mrs. Hancock hired star-attorney-to-the-stars Jerry Giesler, who wrangled over a million dollars in restitution for his client's six years of misery, an amount deemed necessary to continue the life to which she had become accustomed. Allan Hancock's apparently happy-until-death third marriage came in October 1946 when, at 71 and now the president of the U.S.C. Board of Trustees, he married 43-year-old Miss Marian Mullin in Solvang. In motion until just before his death in his 90th year on May 31, 1965, George Allan Hancock in many ways seems to have been the living embodiment of all the energy of Southern California.


The commercial building that rose on the site of the Villa Madama in 1954 variously housed
branches of the Bank of America and Leslie's contemporary furniture store. Today, the

Wilshire/Vermont Metro station lies underground at the corner, with a colorful
apartment development unsuccessfully taking the place of grandeur above.




Illustrations: USCDLLATLos Angeles From the Mountains to the Sea;
Water and Power Associates; Hancock Memorial Museum; LAPL;
Google Street View