646 South New Hampshire Avenue


His obituary in the Los Angeles Times was headlined OSCAR LAWLER, 90, GIANT AMONG LAWYERS, DIES. It seems that the old bird was as fearless as any man of the west ever was, determined to uphold the law as though he had to justify the word being part of his name. Lawler was so tough and upright that he even survived the 1919 midnight bombing that ended the short life of the Wilshire Boulevard house his family had built 12 years before.

Among the many Horatio Alger tales to be told in recounting the history of expanding turn-of-the-20th-century Los Angeles, Oscar Lawler's would lead him to the center of action during the city's most notorious periods of defining itself. Born on April 2, 1875, one of 10 children of a Marshalltown, Iowa, machinist and his wife, family lore has him working as a child in onion fields for a quarter a day. Perhaps it was all the children pitching in similarly that enabled the Lawler family to move to Los Angeles in October 1888. While the bottom dropped out of the boom that year, Oscar's ingenuity came through out west. A stint as a Western Union messenger was followed by his working as a newsboy at the corner of First and Spring. In this capacity he came to the attention of Harry Chandler, then in the circulation department of the Times. In this way it seems he may have been led to a job as a bellboy not at a hotel full of transients, but at that bastion of the local influential, the California Club. It was the distinguished attorney and clubman Henry O'Melveny who noticed Lawler reading Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England as he waited for dings. O'Melveny encouraged a broader range of reading, all of which led back to the law and apprenticeship in O'Melveny's office and admittance to the California bar in 1896.

Always serious about the law, Oscar Lawler was
also known for his sense of humor.

A young man on the rise among the well-connected would be in need of a wife, and, not surprisingly, the daughter of Charles Brode, pioneer Angeleno, grocer, property owner, and a director of the German-American Savings Bank and the Los Angeles Soap Company, came into Oscar's orbit, one now far removed from malodorous Iowa onion fields. Lawler and 23-year-old Hilda Clara Brode were married at her parents' South Olive Street house on June 17, 1901, two months before her father died. The couple set up housekeeping at 503 West 22nd Street, where they remained as children came and capital grew and a plan to combine family resources evolved. In June 1905, Clara Brode acquired three prime lots (totaling 150 by 130 feet) in the Copenhagen Tract out on Wilshire Boulevard just beyond Vermont Avenue. The 22nd Street house was sold in 1906 and the Lawlers and their two children moved into 1229 South Olive with Mrs. Brode and her sons Alexander, Leo, and Walter while a new home for all of them was being built on Hilda's new property at the northeast corner of Wilshire and New Hampshire Avenue.  

Having learned from her husband, who had acquired considerable downtown property before he died in 1901, Clara Brode was a canny real estate investor and builder; it would be she who would hire the esteemed firm of Hunt & Eager (Sumner P. Hunt and Wesley Eager) to design what was intially addressed 636 South New Hampshire Avenue. After the extended family moved into the house in early 1908, Clara retained her Olive Street property, which she would replace with a commercial structure in 1911. With what was now numbered 646 South New Hampshire perhaps getting a bit too crowded, she would also that year build a new residence for herself around the corner at 725 South Vermont; Clara, Leo, and Alexander would move there—and Walter to the new Shoreham Apartments on Carondelet Street, where he would be the proprietor—leaving the Lawlers, after returning from a stint in Washington, in (no pun intended) relative peace for the next seven years. 

Hilda Lawler learned the real estate game alongside her mother, eventually investing in a prime West Adams lot, among other ventures. After Clara died on December 18, 1916, Hilda retained 725 South Vermont, renting it out, into the 1940s. She appears to have been in charge of the family's investments while her husband, according to his son Ross without any animosity, "lived and breathed the law....spending little time in conventional family and social activities." Oscar's career took off when he managed Frank Flint's successful bid to become a U.S. senator in 1905. This led to Lawler's appointment as U.S. Attorney for Southern California by President Roosevelt, in which post he was serving as 646 South New Hampshire was being built.

The unintended demolition of 646 South New Hampshire took place early on the morning of
August 3, 1919. The next day's Los Angeles Times described the view above as the
south side of the Lawler house showing the porch where Mr. and Mrs. Lawler
were sleeping at the time of the blast. The couple managed to escape.

After little more than a year in the house, Oscar received his call to Washington by President Taft to serve as Assistant U.S. Attorney General. Two years later Lawler returned to Los Angeles and 646 South New Hampshire and soon embarked on the toughest test yet of his devotion to the law. Harrison Gray Otis's Times headquarters was famously dynamited by pro-union anarchists in 1910; back on the West Coast, Oscar was hired to supervise the gathering of evidence for the prosecution. Over the years Lawler's championing of the ruling class's prerogatives would put him and his family at grave risk. In January 1912, while the household slept, 646 was broken into and ransacked by a yeggman in vain search of documents pertaining to the dynamiting investigation. The real test came seven years later. On Sunday morning, August 3, 1919, a bomb exploded as Oscar and Hilda slept at 646 South New Hampshire. Both badly burned (Oscar "almost to a crisp," per the Times), the couple managed to escape and recover to live long lives. Not so their house on the northeast corner of Wilshire and New Hampshire. It was destroyed by the bombing and subsequent fire. The charred remains sat for over three years before the lot was sold and cleared, with Hilda no doubt holding out for a tidy profit as Wilshire's commercial potential was being widely touted.

Seen in a bird's-eye view in January 1927, eight years after the Lawler house was bombed,
California Petroleum opened its exotic yet clean-lined filling station at the north-
east corner 
of Wilshire Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue.

There were plans on the drawing board to replace the Lawler house with an apartment house in the mold of others that had begun to usurp the boulevard's single-family houses some years before. Family ties may have influenced consideration of such a project; Hilda's sister-in-law, Walter's wife Sara, was the sister of leading Wilshire hotelier Helen Mathewson. Real estate man A. C. Blumenthal was reportedly planning to put up a height-limit building along the lines of what became The Talmadge, slated to replace the Earle C. Anthony house a block west at Wilshire and Berendo. But with zoning changing as fast as developers could come up with plans, the apartment-house scheme for the Lawler property was scuttled. Wilshire's future, especially near such high-traffic intersections as Wilshire and Vermont, was inevitably commercial, but definitely glamorous—Bullock's plans to open a Wilshire branch in 1929 was setting the pace even before it was built. The Lawlers' lots, now addressed 3245 Wilshire, were by 1927 given over to the automobile in spectacular fashion when the California Petroleum Corporation gave Wilshire its due with a new Calpet service station in exotic Tunisian design. The current building on the site of the house, erected for the Pioneer Savings and Loan Association in 1956, is now the consulate of the Republic of Korea.

Calpet was absorbed by Texaco the year after the station opened; the building lasted until the '50s. 

The 1919 bombing of 646 South New Hampshire turned out to be unrelated to the 1910 destruction of the Los Angeles Times building; the perpetrator was the paramour of a woman whose husband had been successfully represented in a property settlement by Lawler. There was no prosecution owing to the accused having thrown himself out of an 11th-floor window of the Hall of Justice under questioning by District Attorney Thomas Woolwine.

Oscar Lawler had become a Los Angeles legend by the time he was 30. After the bombing, and with Wilshire Boulevard in any case no longer a desirable place to live except in an apartment house, the Lawlers cashed out, within a few years establishing themselves at 916 North Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills. Will Rogers lived next door, Gloria Swanson down the street—it was an even longer way from the onion fields of Iowa. Once a bellboy at the august California Club, Lawler rose to become its president and to live across the street from his mentor, Henry O'Melveny. Hilda, with whom he had four children, died in 1954 after a lifetime of giving to the community. Oscar, to the end tough in temperament, sharp of mind, and full of wonder at his own ascent, died on January 3, 1966, three months shy of his 91st birthday.

Residential Wilshire Boulevard was mostly a dim memory by the early 1960s;
peeking out at right is the Pioneer Savings and Loan Assocation building, which rose on the
Lawler/Calpet/Texaco site in 1956. It now houses the South Korean Consulate.

Illustrations: University of MinnesotaLos Angeles County Bar Association; LATUSCDL; Google Street View