3555 Wilshire Boulevard


Not counting the tall condominiums of today toward the west, the life of residential 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 redevelopment.

In the fat years, however, confident of continuing residential building along the boulevard, Willis Douglas Longyear built a sizable oddment of a house for himself at the remote northwest corner of Wilshire and line-on-a-map Jasmine Street—within a few years renamed Ardmore Avenue—in 1906. 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" Normandy 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. As indicated on the construction permit issued by the Board of Public Works on July 24, 1906, the architect was Charles F. Whittlesey, whose other Los Angeles residences of the period also included crenellations, towers, half-timbering, and sloping corners. (Also involved in the design was B. Cooper Corbett, whose name appears on a building permit issued on July 26, 1909, when he was making an addition.) Despite the house's orientation and first official address of 645 Jasmine Street (and then 645 South Ardmore), Longyear began using "3555 Wilshire Boulevard"; for uncertain reasons, the designation reverted to 645 South Ardmore in directories after 1915, resuming as "3555 Wilshire" only after the Longyears left for Beverly Hills in 1925. The exurban Normandy 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 647 South Kingsley Drive—also sited perpendicularly to the boulevard—a block west two years later.

Handsomer than John Huston: square-jawed, clear-eyed,
and broad-shouldered 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. Living after their wedding with Ida's sister Kate A. Kelly at 1140 West Adams Street, the Longyears then 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 a little closer to town, if still out in bean fields, settling 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 some of the Herefords he also kept on a spread in Van Nuys; once he was finished Berkeley in 1917, Douglas was sent to manage the northerly operation, staying 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 of cinema notoriety 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 coming 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 of 1925. Gwendolyn would remain at home with her parents until she married at in 1938. 

The Longyear house remained alone and windswept on its corner from 1906
(as seen at top) until 1913, when it was joined by 637 South Ardmore Avenue next
next door and, next to that, 627 South Ardmore, which since 1925 has been sited a mile
or so west in Windsor Square. A permit issued by the Department of Buildings on May 11, 1925,
allowed for th
e installation by Milnor, Inc., of ornamental dragons on the roof and a cap of
Chinese design on an extended tower.
 The house was built on high ground beyond
the tendency of the Sacatela Creek to flood the South Mariposa Avenue corridor.

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 undulating Chinese dragons 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 itself 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.

As seen from Wilshire in a northeasterly view in 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 just 53 in 1947; his mother Ida Mackay Longyear followed the long parade to the graveyard on March 9, 1950. Seven years later, a new building for the Kemper insurance companies—one that is still there—would go up on the Longyears' Wilshire corner, with the address 3545 Wilshire. The building also replaced 637 South Ardmore and extended yet another lot north to cover the one-time site of the Gless-Bullock house, which in 1925 had been moved to 605 South Plymouth in Windsor Square.

February 28, 1927: Wilshire Boulevard toward the west, as seen from just east
of Kenmore Avenue soon before the widening and burial of utilities. The 1924 Gaylord
apartment house is at right; the famed Ambassador Hotel, opened on New Year's Day 1921,
is out of frame 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 Wilshire in 1936). Some of the last few

houses on the boulevard are visible, including, in the distance past the tall Wilshire Christian Church
(to be dedicated on April 3 that year), the Longyear residence, now Milnor Inc. Just two weeks
earlier than the scene above, three days of torrential rains culminated in severe flooding on
February 15 at the low spot at Wilshire and Mariposa Avenue; the Tudoresque
house at 647 South Mariposaseen in both images here, marks the location.