2520 Wilshire Boulevard


While the fortunes of today often come from the ether, those of the late 19th century and into the 20th came from the earth. Many a Los Angeles plutocrat of the turn of the last century struck gold, literally, in fields on either side of the Sierra Nevada; some brought oil up from right under the city. Other men came by their wealth from minerals extracted from Eastern veins and then retired west or began new business ventures there. Nicholas Earl Rice had pulled a lot of coal out of Pennsylvania mines, enough to afford him as nice a life as could be had in Scranton, including, by 1898, a lovely new turreted Victorian, and, it seems, a blessed bit of travel to exotic sunny lands. One can only imagine Rice's and his wife Harriet's disinclination to return to the cold and dark and sooty east once they got an eyeful of Los Angeles, circa 1900—not to mention a noseful of orange-scented air. They never went east to live again, not even in their coffins. Would you have?

California did indeed work its predictable magic on the Rices. Mr. Rice decided to stay and invest in a new concern, the Pacific Coast Manufacturing Company, which would be fabricating irrigation- and oil-industry supplies. The Rices at first rented a house at 838 South Lake Street. Already with a number of acquaintances in Los Angeles, they were well entertained that first winter, their circle coming to include Dr. Henderson Hayward, a fellow Pennsylvanian who had come west in 1895 to pursue a whole new life after tiring decades of doctoring in Philadelphia. Rebounding in the sunshine, Hayward left medicine behind to become an major figure in the oil business, investing his proceeds in city property including in Gaylord Wilshire's new subdivision. He built his own house at 2501 Wilshire in 1897; in early 1901, he sold a lot he owned across the street to Nicholas Rice. By the end of the year, Rice had commissioned prominent architect John C. Austin to design the modern, turretless, 15-room house at the southeast corner of Coronado Street that became 2520 Wilshire Boulevard.

As Nicholas kept busy during the day with his new business interests, Harriet began decades of throwing dinners, receptions, card parties, and charming afternoon teas. Wilshire Boulevard's peak of residential desirability came at about the same time that Rice decided to buy the remainder of 2520's blockfront in 1908. The southwest corner of Wilshire and Carondelet had come into the hands of E. M. Davis around 1900; Davis had in turn sold the corner in 1904 to pottery manufacturer Homer Laughlin, who began a foundation for a house there. Nicholas Rice removed the foundation and turned the lot into an extensive garden for 2520, giving him the largest single-family holding on the original four blocks of Wilshire between Westlake and Sunset (Lafayette) parks. 

The Rice house at 2520 Wilshire Boulevard is seen at left center, with its garden extending
to Carondelet Street, from which, atop the Hotel Shoreham, this view was taken for
the Los Angeles Times of May 18, 1913. At top left is the Hershey Arms; at top
center is the newly completed Bryson. Effie Neustadt's house at
2515 Wilshire is at right; 2525 is next door, with the
Rampart Apartments rising just to its left.

The parties were no doubt lovely, and perhaps she was perfectly happy, but Harriet Rice's life seems to be preparing to give one ladies' party after another during her years at 2520 and after. Another couple who seem to have had the need for a big statement house despite being childless, the Rices did decide to move after 10 years. It could be that they were unhappy when the four-story Hotel Shoreham opened on Carondelet Street overlooking their garden in 1911; perhaps they also got wind of Hugh W. Bryson's plans to replace four houses he'd bought a block west that same year with his fabled eponymous apartment house. These were likely the straws that broke the camel's back in terms of the Rices putting up with hotels in the neighborhood—the block-long Hershey Arms, which had opened across Coronado Street a year after they built 2520, was one thing, but it was clear that the tide was turning on Wilshire Boulevard even this early. Nicholas Rice the pragmatist also no doubt realized that he could make a bundle by selling his blockfront. When Helen Mathewson, proprietor of the Hershey Arms, offered him $70,000 for his house and garden in July 1911, nearly doubling his original investment, he took it. When Joseph W. Gray of Minneapolis offered Mathewson $120,000 for the same property less than two years later, she took it. Gray was reportedly planning yet another big building.

Perhaps Mr. Gray of Minneapolis wasn't able to get financing to build "one of the largest and finest tourist hotels west of Chicago," as the Times put it. The property would flail in search of a use for many decades to come; at any rate, the Rice house would remain standing for 10 more years, though its brief decade as a suburban estate had ended. When Joseph Gray's ambitious plan for a hotel came to nothing, it appears that he retreated to Minnesota, renting 2520 in 1916 to oil man Frederick O. Funk and his family, newly arrived from West Virginia. After a couple of years, the Funks bought a house in Windsor Square. Without being replaced by a hotel, the Rice house succumbed to the multi-unit trend of the neighborhood, its rooms being divided into a genteel boarding house—by 1920 there were at least eight individuals occupying the house, mostly young, including Lewis H. Martin, a 25-year-old bond salesman, and several school teachers. A young tuberculosis specialist connected with the Barlow Sanitarium in Chavez Ravine, Dr. E. Richmond Ware, had rooms for a few years in the early '20s. Finally the end came.

It is unclear if it was Joseph Gray who had sat on the property for a decade or if he had sold to another owner, but when a buyer came along proposing a height-limit, block-long athletic club in January 1923, the Rice property was sold. The tenants got their notice, and an auction was announced in August issues of the Times. But whose belongings were being auctioned off? Had the Rices sold the house furnished when they moved nearby to Occidental Boulevard? (Did they leave their personalized horseblock on Wilshire or take it with them?) Did the furniture once belong to Helen Mathewson?

Unfulfilled ambition: The Southern California Athletic and Country Club had big plans for
the old Nicholas Rice property, beginning with Edwin Bergstrom's 1923 design.

The newly formed Southern California Athletic and Country Club announced its ambitious plans well before the house came down. The club commissioned a design by Edwin Bergstrom; the Times would go on to report that work on it was to begin "imminently" more than once. But the delay would turn into years—there were many revisions to the plan, including, when Wilshire in these precincts was rezoned for business, one for street-level shops. The Department of Buildings issued a permit for the demolition of 2520 on August 31, 1923; then the architects Meyer and Holler were brought in for a complete 13-story redesign of the club. But the empty blockfront remained hideously fenced off, much to the dismay of neighbors. Constant public solicitations for club members went on into 1928, and still only some foundation work was accomplished by then. Plans for the club must have appeared fishy to newspaper readers of the time: Was it all just a scam to gain financial commitments from prospective members? No one could have been too surprised when club organizers announced bankruptcy in February 1929, well before the stock market crashed eight months later.

Within months the old Rice property was for sale, not finding a buyer until two years later when the Citizens National Bank bought it to flip. The Depression had yet to reach its nadir; nothing happened when conditions improved, and the war further delayed any development of the site. It remained vacant at least until Harriet Rice died at home on Occidental Boulevard in her 100th year in 1948, after which a General Petroleum filling station occupied at least part of the Rice lot. In the fall of 2018, the upper floors of the 13-story office building completed on the site in 1970 were slated to be converted into 248 residential units, part of a trend of gentrification bringing Wilshire Boulevard's run through Westlake into a new era of high-end residential occupancy.

A station of General Petroleum Corporation—a.k.a. Mobil—occupied
the site of the Rice house on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard's 2500
block between Coronado and Carondelet streets from late 1948 and early 1968.
The south tower of the Hotel Shoreham, from which the second illustration above 
on this page was made, is seen at the right of the Benrus sign. Below is 2500 Wilshire
Boulevard, which rose on the site of the Rice house and the Mobil station in 1970.
Architects Krisel/Shapiro & Associates designed it for the Mutual Building &
Engineering Corporation; both firms were among the original tenants. In
recent years it has been slated for conversion into condominiums.

Illustrations: Private Collection; LAPLLATGetty Digital Collections