647 South Kingsley Drive

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For decades, it seems, if the name Doheny wasn't being cited by the Los Angeles Times in stories regarding the oil industry, it was the name Getty. And early on, the Getty mentioned most was George Franklin Getty, who built 3601 Wilshire Boulevard—later 647 South Kingsley Drive—in 1908. As the house's style did for many a newcomer to Los Angeles, its half-timbered suggestion of English antiquity was meant to comfort the socially insecure and to preclude any discomfort among the already established that among them had come an arriviste—not that there really were many people in L.A. who weren't arrivistes back then.


George Franklin Getty in a portrait by Los Angeles
photographer Aaron Tycko, circa 1923.


George Getty, born in Allegany County, Maryland, on October 17, 1855, was trained as a lawyer in Ohio and at Ann Arbor, practicing first in Michigan before moving to Minneapolis and prospering in corporate law. In 1903, while on a business trip to the Oklahoma Territory as chief legal counsel of the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company, Getty stumbled upon what would be his second, much shinier act. Moving his family south from Minnesota and buying the lease on a 1,100-acre tract for speculation, Getty began drilling. Within months his Minnehoma Oil Company had a gusher, then another and another. By the middle of 1906, having become one of the biggest and richest independent oil operators on the eastern Great Plains, Getty saw even greater possibilities still farther west. The family moved again, now to Los Angeles, the sunny prize after Minnesota and Oklahoma and a lot of hard work. Settling for the time being at the Hotel Frontenac downtown, Getty began looking for a permanent situation, in March 1907 buying, in Sarah's name, a 75-by-150-foot lot far out on Wilshire Boulevard in the sparsely populated Normandy Hill tract. (The first house in the area, W. D. Longyear's 3555 Wilshire a block east in the same subdivision, was just being completed.) By midsummer, in-demand architect Frank M. Tyler was commissioned to design a house for the lot, with a contract to build going out on September 1. On March 15, 1908, the Times reported that 3601 Wilshire had just been completed. In 1913, Homes and Gardens of the Pacific Coast, Vol II, described the Getty house thusly: "This is an attractive home along modern English lines.... Like most English homes the first story is of brick with half timber construction above. The interior is modified Colonial in design. Woodwork is oak and mahogany. The walls of the living room are of silk tapestry with Astrakhan rugs as floor coverings. The reception hall and bedrooms are finished in white enamel. The English type of architecture fits well in this coast country, and is most comfortable and pleasing."


The Getty house nearing completion, as seen in the Los Angeles Times on March 15, 1908


As were a number of houses with Wilshire frontage, the Getty residence was oriented east/west rather than south facing the boulevard. Some subdivisions stipulated that new buildings, even on corner lots including those bordering the prestigious thoroughfare, must face their side streets. While this did not preclude a boulevard address—the Gettys lived at 3601 Wilshire at first—after five years the house's designation was changed to 647 South Kingsley Drive to conform to its lateral placement. After the annexations in this period of Hollywood, the Colegrove Addition, and other territory, the City of Los Angeles made a number changes in street alignments, nomenclature, and house numbering. Wilshire, in these precincts, had been throwing off an orderly system; the 600 block of Kingsley, for example, once extended from Sixth Street south to Wilshire, with the 700 block extending from Wilshire to Seventh. It is unclear whether the changes were made in a single day or over time, but after 1912, the 600 block, or blocks, extended from Sixth south to Seventh. While this wouldn't have actually affected a 600-block designation of the Getty house, the Getty's address change from Wilshire to Kingsley was made at this time. Perhaps George Getty was learning the art of understatement, which he might have begun to feel he needed with a son who was proving to be no shrinking violet. 

George and Sarah Risher Getty were married in Ohio in 1879; they went on to have two children, the 1890 death at age nine of the older, Gertrude, perhaps explaining the later seriously uncharming personality of the younger, Jean Paul, born in Minneapolis on December 15, 1892. Not that the perhaps inevitably spoiled boy started out charmless, not at all. Not yet 14 when the family moved to Los Angeles, Jean Paul was high-spirited, precocious on many levels, and interested more in girls than in the tedious rules and rituals of the Harvard Military School. He got away with bucking the system at school and at home for years; he wasn't disinterested in acquiring an education, but he knew the subjects he was interested in and made certain he studied them his way, to the fullest. He wound up with a degree from Oxford by 1913, developing while in England quite a taste for a civilization he considered superior to Minnesota's, Oklahoma's and that of Los Angeles. He probably realized that he had little chance of coming near the inner circle of that superior civilization without a great deal of money. He returned to provincial L.A. to make that great deal of money in the family business, business being something he was attracted to as much as England, women, and independence. His story is, of course, told at length in many places, such as The House of Getty by Russell Miller; as for his life at 647, to which both before and after his time in England he was somehow able to bring girlfriends home for more than milk and cookies right under George and Sarah's noses, his attachment to it must have been strong. The house was in a district fast becoming the center of town, with Beverly Hills emerging five miles to the west and cars now the new way of life. Despite a great deal of tension between father and son over unshared values if not moneymaking prowess, Jean Paul was to live at home until he was 30 years old and about to marry the first of his five wives. Between spouses, it appears that he lived back at 647 South Kingsley, where his father died on May 31, 1930.


The George F. Getty house in 1913, just as its address changed
from 3601 Wilshire to 647 South Kingsley Drive.


It should be mentioned that there are a number of Getty houses in the area extending from Kingsley Drive toward Hancock Park; some belonged to the unrelated Andrew Getty family. It is written in a few places that J. Paul Getty grew up in a 1914 house built at 501 South Normandie that was moved to 637 South Lorraine in the late '20s—it was moved again to 600 South Rossmore in 1980—of very similar design to 647 South Kingsley. J. Paul reportedly bought the house in 1936, though he appears never to have lived in it. The enumerator of the 1940 Federal census has him living with his mother at 647, appearing wifeless, despite his having married spouse number five in Rome in November 1939. He was still listed in the city directory at 647 until after Sarah died on December 26, 1941.

It might seem that J. Paul's many wives, once discarded, required the sort of housing to which they had become accustomed, as some have explained Getty's house purchases in this period. But none of the exes actually seem to have lived in the Wilshire properties he had a thing for. Most likely they were just investments, particularly the enormous pile at 641 South Irving Boulevard. Bought the same year as 637 South Lorraine house and described in some sources as belonging to an ex wife, it was at the northwest corner of Wilshire and famously the Sunset Boulevard palazzo of Norma Desmond in 1950, which, presented even more in shambles, appeared five years later in Rebel Without a Cause. J. Paul, never much interested in being a good neighbor, gave the residents of Windsor Square fits when in 1952 (and apparently the actual owner rather than an ex wife), he sought to tear down the house; after five years he succeeded—naturally—adding insult to injury by building the wall-like, block-long, and still-extant headquarters for his business interests. In a bid to acquire the entire square block, Getty Oil wound up with 605 South Irving, naming it in memory of J. Paul's oldest son George Franklin Getty II; this time thwarted by neighbors, Getty donated it to the city in 1976 for use as the official mayor's residence.

As for 647 South Kingsley Drive—one of the first houses west of Vermont Avenue—it was also one of the last to fall. Whether J. Paul Getty sold or leased it isn't certain, but by August 1942 the house had become one of a small chain of nursing homes, with its property at Wilshire and Kingsley being called Sunny Pines Lodge. The house remained the Lodge until 1961; some time after that, St. Basil Catholic Church, located around the corner on Harvard Boulevard, acquired the property and began to plan its ungainly new sanctuary, dedicated on June 29, 1969.


St. Basil Catholic Church, built in 1969 on the site of the Getty house:
The Wilshire Boulevard Temple is at left; its right edge is
also seen in the 1956 photograph at top.




Illustrations: USCDL; LAPLLAT;
Homes and Gardens of the Pacific Coast, Vol IIGoogle Street View