3440 Wilshire Boulevard
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What is possibly the most unprepossessing house ever to have a Wilshire Boulevard address made up for its modesty by having been built on property with one of the street's most interesting histories. Predating the roadway itself by a quarter of a century, the farm Gottfried Lauritz Schmidt established in 1870 remained—at least part of it—in his family for more than 60 years. Schmidt was was born of a German father and a Danish mother in Copenhagen on March 18, 1845. Daring enough to seek his fortune on his own at a young age, he arrived in Boston during the Civil War, making his way to California after a year. From San Francisco he found his way south to Wilmington and became engaged in the hotel business, which, rather than farming, would become his principal occupation in the future. Returning to Denmark to marry Hulda Volchsen on September 16, 1868, Schmidt and his bride were back in Southern California within a year. The young Schmidt was no doubt attuned to all opportunities. This would have included a 160-acre quarter-section west of Los Angeles offered by the United States Public Land Survey System for $1.25 an acre in 1869, acquired by Gottfried in full by 1875 along with his newly arrived brothers Edward and Frederick.
|By 1910, as revealed in the Baist real estate atlas of that year, the Schmidt quarter-section had|
been largely subdivided; the family's sales to developers are seen in tract names that include
Schmidt Heights, Copenhagen, and Elsinore. The largest remaining Schmidt parcel fronted
Wilshire; the angled unused right-of-way of the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad next door
became the site of the Ambassador Hotel 10 years later. Marco Hellman's just-
completed 3350 Wilshire is seen in red at the southwest Catalina corner.
While maintaining a dairy farm on their acreage over the next 25 years, the Schmidts observed the growth of Los Angeles as the city benefited from transcontinental railroad connections and excellent public relations aimed at winter-weary easterners. Following the lead of some neighbors, and avoiding any rash decision to sell the whole, the brothers began to peddle parts of their original tract to residential developers around 1890; the names of the Elsinore and Copenhagen tracts at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Vermont and of the Schmidt Heights Tract to their north, extending to Fourth Street, reflect this divestiture. Gottfried, freed by profit and fraternal effort on the farm, and apparently not a man who saw himself always in overalls, returned to the intriguing cosmopolitan milieu of his younger days, spending much of his time downtown as a hotelier, first as proprietor of the Grand Central on Main Street and later of the United States Hotel leased during the '90s from fellow Los Angeles pioneer Joseph Mesmer. Gaylord Wilshire's establishment in 1895 of a small subdivision with aspirations, straddling a central boulevard he named for himself and just a mile east of the Schmidt farm, may have been what prompted Gottfried to leave the hotel business and turn back to his farm, though with less interest in the cows than in the potential of the land. Los Angeles was rapidly growing west and the Schmidt farm was right in the middle of its path. Continued judicious property deaccessioning became the family's focus. In 1902, 23 acres were sold to E. T. Crowell, who in turn would sell half to the Los Angeles Pacific for train yards that were never built. The march of Wilshire Boulevard, though unpaved in these precincts but now extending through their holdings, would prompt Gottfried and Hulda to carefully sell off more pieces of their long-held property and decamp to a house on South Union Avenue before building a new one in South Pasadena in 1906. Gottfried would live there only a few years before he died on June 14, 1909. His funeral was conducted under the auspices of the Pioneer Society of Los Angeles. "Gottfried Schmidt–Farmer" was included in the "First Authentic List of Earliest Settlers—Here Before 1870" published in the Herald on Christmas Day, 1910.
|A view toward the southeast, late 1924: The Ambassador Hotel, opened on New Year's Day|
1921, is at center right; the Talmadge apartments, upper left, and the Gaylord, center
left, both opened in 1924. At lower right is the remainder of the open space of
the Gottfried Schmidt farm. At this time his family was occupying two
houses facing Wilshire at the corner of Mariposa: 3440 is the white
single-story building a block and a bit more from the lower
right, with 3442 set slightly farther back from the
street to its right above the middle billboard.
The early years on the farm, before the real estate calculations, were bucolic in ways unimaginable to one driving along Wilshire Boulevard past what was once the Schmidt property. Gottfried and Hulda raised five native Angelenos there along with the cows and the chickens. Star of the five siblings was Ruben, destined to become a well-known attorney and Los Angeles Superior Court judge. Born on November 17, 1881, Ruben Stephen Schmidt came of age in time to advise his family on real estate matters. He seems to have followed his father's strategy of selling off only pieces, holding out a core part of the old farm even as it became surrounded by development. Eventually, the offers became too big to ignore. Ruben watched as the acreage his father had sold while he was still at school in Ann Arbor were held on to, undeveloped, by the Los Angeles Pacific and the Crowell family for many years. It must have been a bit galling to see the two parcels bought by the California Hotel Corporation in 1919 for 16 times the price Gottfried had received for the combined 23 acres in 1902, but then the opening of the pivotal and soon legendary Ambassador Hotel on New Year's Day 1921 only made the Schmidts' remaining acreage valuable far beyond what they could have imagined in 1870. While the centrifugal push of Los Angeles from its inland location toward the Pacific probably didn't need much incentive, the instant landmark of the luxurious Ambassador was a powerful magnet.
|The Pacific Rose Company opened on land leased from the Schmidt family|
from 1915 to 1921, moving afterward to Western Avenue between
Temple Street (now Beverly Boulevard) and Oakwood Avenue.
The various buildings that occupied the old Schmidt farm are hard to quantify and date. Obviously there were barns and sheds and other outbuildings for stalls and milking, at least some of which may have been utilized by parties from whom the Schmidts began to derive rental income. A flat-roofed structure was added in 1915 by a concern to whom the family leased the property beginning that year. The Pacific Rose Company raised its thorny bushes—somehow, reportedly, half a million of them—in rows all the way back to Eighth Street, running its retail operation on the boulevard. After the nursery left in 1921, the family decided to once again take up residence on their old farm. A new addition to the property was a small frame peaked-roof residence facing directly up Mariposa Avenue. As it turned out, it had been built elsewhere: With a Department of Buildings permit issued on May 2, 1923, in hand, Ruben Schmidt relocated a turn-of-the century cottage he'd bought at 1131 South Berendo Street. This became 3442 Wilshire Boulevard. In the second phase of his reconstitution of the old family farm, Schmidt took out a permit on November 28, 1923, to move the Pacific Rose store to the southwest corner of Wilshire and Mariposa, next door to the west of the cottage, to become 3440 Wilshire—the man was fond of moving houses, to say the least. (Around the turn of the century, Gottfried and Hulda Schmidt had used the address "3420 Wilshire Boulevard," apparently designating another dwelling; Pacific Rose had listed itself at 3444.) All around the Schmidts on their return to the renovated houses were much larger buildings, including hotels and apartments and residences. In addition to the Ambassador, there was by 1924 the 13-story Gaylord apartments, named for Mr. Wilshire, which had risen across the boulevard and slightly east. In 1921 there had been a developer's proposal to build the Barcelona, an enormous 12-story, 344-unit cooperative apartment complex at the front of the Schmidts' remaining acreage. Perhaps the developer and the Schmidts were finally unable to come to terms on a price for the property. One reliable source also suggests that such megaprojects were not unknown to be grandiose in their planning stages, if not outright red herrings, meant to draw attention to a particular area in hopes of giving land values a boost. While Wilshire Boulevard was certainly a draw, there would, as a matter of fact, be nothing of significance built on the Schmidt property for more than 30 years.
Though not the eldest of the Schmidt children, Ruben appears to have been his mother's prime operative in terms of running what now amounted to a small real estate empire. A major piece of the remaining Schmidt acreage—almost half, in fact—was sold in November 1923 to a syndicate of investors who would create the Ambassador Terrace tract. Stretching north from Eighth Street to Seventh, which was to be cut through from the west, the subdivision was bisected by a new block of Mariposa, lined in short order with to-the-sidewalk walls of small apartment buildings that brought vacant former farmland to urban density in one fell swoop. The family held on to its remaining Wilshire frontage, living close to the sidewalk at 3440 and 3442 among increasing traffic and commercialism, themselves leasing space to billboard companies and later a portion to the operator of a golf driving range. Across the street at 3427 Wilshire the Brown Derby opened its famous hat at its first location in 1926; E. L. Cord's Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg showroom at 3443 would open six years later. Meanwhile, on the property she first came to 60 years before, Hulda died in her house at 3440 at age 84 on December 14, 1930.
Even with its landowning and its local heritage extending decades farther back than many status-conscious members of local capital-S Society, the Schmidt family was never one to buy deeply into the haute bourgeoisie by joining the clubs of the Old Guard or participating in its self-regarding rituals. Perhaps it was just that the family was happy enough with itself or were content holding onto even more insular European family traditions. Ruben was the most mainstream member of the family, his reputation at the bar and on the bench no doubt finally winning the day in the house-relocation dustup. The reputation of his brother-in-law Willard P. Hatch may have been another matter. An educated but rather sketchy fellow, he had married Ruben's 30-year-old sister Stella in January 1910. A Rhodes Scholar from Denver, full of ideas on physical and mental hygiene, Hatch had by 1909 become the chief probation officer of the San Francisco juvenile court. In 1910 he co-wrote a book titled Prostitution and Sex Education. Then things got really interesting. In 1911 he was fired from his office when it was discovered that some years before he had been dismissed by a Denver judge for whom he worked for reasons of "immorality and financial crookedness." It turned out that high-minded Hatch had once been the "consort and dependent of a notorious woman in Goldfield, Nevada" with whom he had dallied in Los Angeles right under his future wife's nose—in 1906 his shenanigans were even reported in that city's Herald, a paper apparently not taken by the Schmidts. After pocketing the Goldfield woman's money and erotic education and moving to San Francisco, he took up with another worldly dame, one Bessie Birchfield of the Tenderloin. Then he took up with Bessie's sister before moving on to the unnamed "proprietress of a hotel." The San Francisco Call was merciless, denouncing him in articles and editorials describing his "good looks, glib tongue, [and] hypnotic personality." "From the start to the present his career since he left college has been women, women, women—except when it was a young girl," wrote the paper's editors. Poor Stella. But she stood by Willard, and the couple even stayed in San Francisco. Willard became ever odd, declaring ambiguously at one point that "It was for the control of sex that Christ stood." He and Stella and their two children were living in South Pasadena in 1920. By 1924 the Hatches would move back to Wilshire Boulevard with the rest of the Schmidt clan, occupying 3440 with Hulda for the rest of the decade. Ever-interesting Willard had since become a minister of the Baha'i faith, preaching around Los Angeles, at one point acquiring for the cause a brooch once belonging to Queen Marie of Romania, a Baha'i adherent. Not exactly California Club material, our Willard.
|A man with a future, a man with a past:|
Judge Ruben Schmidt, left, and his
brother-in-law, Willard Hatch.
Once he had moved his family and their houses to their new neighborhood, Ruben Schmidt had to face an issue that had been plaguing him since the death of his mother. It seems hard to believe that a family once so rich in Los Angeles property bought many years before for a song, who still owned 20 acres in the heart of the Wilshire corridor in its prime, could have found themselves in financial straits, as Ruben claimed at the time of the 1939 house moves. Inheritance taxes were forcing the sale of what was left, he said. The title to the remnant of the old farm appears to have been shared by the Security–First National Bank and the Schmidts. It seems that matters righted themselves by August 1945 when a group of investors, buoyed by victory fever, paid the bank and Ruben $650,000 for the last of the Schmidt acres. Nevertheless, it seems that worrying about the disposition of his family legacy for his entire adult life took a toll on Ruben's health. He died of heart disease at California Hospital on February 23, 1947. In addition to his son George, he was survived by his wife Katherine (whom he'd met at the University of Michigan) as well as Willard and Stella. Governor Earl Warren filled his judgeship with Paul Nourse of 9 Berkeley Square.
The remainder of the old Schmidt property lay empty through the war years and until the big Tishman real estate firm of New York acquired the plot in 1950. Their tripartite 3440-3450-3460 Wilshire Boulevard, in its massing eerily reminiscent of the Barcelona apartment proposal of 30 years before, was completed in early 1952. After 80 years, all traces of the Schmidt dairy farm had vanished.
Nearing completion in late 1951 is the new 3440 Wilshire Boulevard, still standing between
Mariposa and Normandie after 62 years. In the 1920s, the first commercial phase of the
thoroughfare involved the adaption of residences to business uses; in the '40s and
'50s, the famous husband-and-wife team of Veloz and Yolanda taught ballroom
dancing in several boulevard houses, including 3500 seen here at far right.
Katherine Schmidt died in Los Angeles at the age of 87, 20 years after her husband. Improbably, one of the Schmidt houses that was moved from Wilshire Boulevard to Lucerne and Eighth in 1939 became mobile yet again 16 years later. On March 17, 1955, the Department of Building and Safety issued a permit for a second relocation of 1131 South Berendo/3442 Wilshire/760 South Lucerne, this time to a lot 120 blocks south at 648 Laconia Boulevard, where it stands today; a demolition permit for 3440 Wilshire/4367 West Eighth was issued on May 17, 1955. The Ebell Club and its neighbors were finally relieved of the lowly Schmidt houses. The club got rid of all the houses across Lucerne, with a vast spread of asphalt apparently preferable: To this day, club ladies have the entire east side of Lucerne Boulevard from Wilshire to Eighth Street as a parking lot. As the density of central Los Angeles increases, how long can such a void last? A long time, as we have seen in the case of the old Schmidt farm.
Illustrations: LAPL; Historic Map Works; LAT; USCDL; DPL