3555 Wilshire Boulevard

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Not counting the tall condominiums of today toward the west, the life of residential suburban Wilshire Boulevard was short. The first houses rose in Gaylord Wilshire's original 1895 subdivision just west of Westlake-now-MacArthur Park; while there are actually a few smaller mostly intact remnants, it wasn't more than a generation later that the biggest and best houses built out along the boulevard were swept away for commercial development.

But in the fat years, confident of the continuing residential development of the boulevard, Willis Douglas Longyear built a sizable oddment of a house for himself at the northwest corner of Ardmore Avenue in 1907. A lack of utilities was no deterrent to the industrious banker and real estate developer; he simply strung his own power and telephone lines down from Fifth Street and paid to have water piped in from the Hollywood Water Company. Lot 13 of the high and sightly Normandie Hill tract measured 150 feet along Wilshire and 100 along Ardmore, but, conforming to a stipulation common in many Wilshire-adjacent subdivision covenants, Longyear sited his house to face the side street. Its architect is unclear, although the designer specified on the building permit issued on July 26, 1909, for an addition was B. Cooper Corbett. Despite the house's orientation and official address of 645 South Ardmore Avenue, Longyear used 3555 Wilshire Boulevard as his address; for uncertain reasons, the designation reverted to 645 Ardmore in 1916, resuming as "3555 Wilshire" only after the Longyears left for Beverly Hills in 1925. The exurban Normandie Hill tract filled up rather slowly following Longyear's bold move in building the first house on Wilshire west of Vermont Avenue, though George Franklin Getty, oilman father of J. Paul, built 3601 Wilshire—also perpendicular to the boulevard—a block west the next year. 


Handsomer than John Huston: square-jawed,
clear-eyed Willis D. Longyear, circa 1918.


In May 1922, when Willis Longyear's son Douglas was married, the Los Angeles Times referred to the family as being "one of the oldest" in the city. In those days, it seems, 32 years in California was all it took to be considered Old Guard. Born on July 2, 1863, halfway between Detroit and Kalamazoo and raised on his prosperous merchant father's farm, Willis Douglas Longyear was trained to combine business with a broad range of interests. Leaving the sticks at age 21, he took a position with the Kalamazoo National Bank, staying for five years before escaping another Michigan winter by moving to Los Angeles in November 1889. There, he joined the budding Security Savings Bank, where he would spend his career in finance, rising rapidly to the point where he could also pursue his interests in real estate, cattle raising, automobiles, and aviation. Along the way, he met Ida Mackay, an Angeleno born in Virginia City, Nevada, on February 11, 1869. Her father, Andrew, wasn't of the Comstock Lode Mackays, but he did prosper as an architect and builder once he arrived in Los Angeles in 1881. Willis and Ida were married quietly at her parents' house on February 8, 1893, with Douglas Mackay Longyear arriving nine months and one week afterward. His sister Gwendolyn came along 10 years to the month later. After living during the '90s at West Adams and Monmouth, the Longyears zigzagged from there to Pasadena to Ocean Park, apparently searching for the ideal place to live. Perhaps the commutes to Willis's downtown business interests were taking up too much time; at any rate, the family soon saw the solution closer to town and settled on Wilshire. In addition to his duties at Security Savings, Willis became a partner in the Auto Vehicle Company, local builder of the Tourist line of cars in a factory at Tenth and Main. His rise to power is best explained by his partnership in a group that included Harrison Gray Otis, Harry Chandler, and H. J. Whitley formed to invest heavily in the southern half of the San Fernando Valley while pushing for the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owen River Valley that would end at their new holdings—not quite in Los Angeles, at least not until the city was persuaded to annex the Valley in 1915. This classic Chinatown scenario was completed with Longyear's acquisition of what was said to be one of the largest ranches in the Owens Valley, ostensibly for the Herefords he also kept on a spread in Van Nuys; once he was finished Berkeley in 1917, Douglas was sent north to manage the operation and would stay until the city of Los Angeles bought his family's holdings on August 4, 1925, for $300,000. This act of the Board of Water and Power Commissioners attained for the city all water rights above and below ground in the greater Owens Valley. It seems obvious that in Noah Cross was more than a little bit of Willis D. Longyear.

Again in association with Chandler interests, Longyear was a promoter of the Mulholland Highway atop the Santa Monica Mountains named for the hero of the aqueduct. Having made a killing in his real estate schemes, he was in a position to invest, along with Harry Chandler, in Donald Douglas's aircraft company in the early '20s. For his contribution Longyear was given a directorship that he maintained until his death. Around this time, the winds of commercialization were blowing west along Wilshire Boulevard and even from the east—A. W. Ross had just bought a south-side stretch of the thoroughfare between La Brea and Fairfax that would before long become the Miracle Mile. To escape the increasing din of traffic at their corner, Willis and Ida began to spend winters at the Los Angeles Country Club, apparently set up for long-term stays in those days. They built a new house in Beverly Hills at 721 North Beverly Drive and left 3555 Wilshire for good in the spring on 1925. Gwendolyn would remain at home there with her parents until she married at in 1938. 




While the Longyears decamped to Beverly Hills in 1925, it appears that Willis retained ownership of 3555 for some years after leaving, perhaps to the end of house's life. He was at the time treasurer of Milnor, Inc., well-known importers and purveyors of European and Asian goods, particularly Chinese rugs; as Wilshire Boulevard commercialized with alacrity, the officers of the company seized the opportunity to open a branch in the house, plopping a large sign for itself on the corner and, turning 3555 into something of a landmark, a huge conical hat and an undulating Chinese dragon on the roof. The company eventually had 24 branches, including outlets at the Biltmore, Beverly Hills, and Beverly-Wilshire hotels. While Milnor continued operating into the '40s, increasing import duties forced the company to close most of its stores and liquidate current stock at the end of 1933; no doubt much of that inventory still clutters many a Los Angeles attic. The company held on into the  '40s, longer than did 3555 Wilshire and Longyear himself. Many Wilshire houses had tumbled by the time of the Crash. W. D. Longyear's lasted longer than many, hanging on all the way until the Department of Building and Safety issued a demolition permit for it on February 1, 1939.


From the Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1939


The demise of Willis D. Longyear himself came two years later. Following an operation, he died on March 16, 1941. While it would be decades before the self-interest of the builders of Los Angeles would be examined in movies and books, Longyear's obituaries sang the special song reserved for them: that, quite accurately, their rise in the business world was the story of the development of the city. The Times cited his undeniable personal and civic accomplishments as well as his social achievements in terms of the usual clubs of the plutocracy. His son Douglas had followed his father's establishment template, including Pasadena, clubs, an interest in automobiles—he opened a Packard dealership in Hollywood—and, during the Second World War, he joined Douglas Aircraft. He died at 53 in 1947. Ida Mackay Longyear followed the long parade to the graveyard on March 9, 1950.


February 28, 1927: Wilshire Boulevard toward the west as seen from just east of Kenmore Avenue
during widening and burial of utilities. The 1924 Gaylord apartment house is at right; the
Ambassador Hotel, opened on New Year's Day 1921, is off to the left. The 1926
Brown Derby is seen at its original location at 3427 Wilshire (it moved a
half-block east to a new hat at 3377 in 1936). Some of the last
few boulevard residences are visible, including, in the
distance just past the tall 1927 Wilshire Christian
Church, the Longyear house, now Milnor Inc.