646 South Gramercy Place

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While it might seem that nine out of ten houses built along Wilshire Boulevard during the period from 1905 to the first World War, as in other expensive suburban districts of Los Angeles, were oversized, big-gabled versions of English country manors, once in a while there was an oddball among them. Of the anomalies were a few patterned after the luxury bungalows of Charles and Henry Greene of Pasadena—there was, in fact, an actual Greene & Greene house built on Wilshire by automobile magnate Earle C. Anthony at 666 South Berendo, now standing in Beverly Hills. When other architects and builders tried their hands at big Craftsman houses, they appear to have been unable to restrain themselves when it came to gable count and cobblestones. While Arthur Benton's enormous 1908 pile for merchant Edwin J. Brent at 20 Berkeley Square appears to have depleted every arroyo for miles around for its pillars and walls, it seems that there were a few stones left over for the house built by Harry Harrington at the northeast corner of Wilshire and Gramercy Place in 1912. 


Adapted from a rendering by architect Loy Lester Smith that appeared in the Los Angeles Times
on April 14, 1912, the illustration above depicts the Harrington house as almost something
of a so-called "Storybook" house, a type soon to become popular in the city. Smith had
once been in the employ of a local firm, the prolific Milwaukee Building Company,
a principal of which, Louis C. Judkins, had left to found the Maine Building &
Investment Company. Smith followed and then became a partner in the
construction business of Judkins's nephew, Harry E. Jones, whose
eponymous firm was credited in the Times with completing
646 South Gramercy Place in the spring of 1912.


Just who Harry Harrington was and how he came to be living in a lavish Wilshire Boulevard house at first presented a mystery. He and his wife Carrie appeared to have been in Los Angeles since at least 1885, the year they married in the city and during a time that Harry was working as a bricklayer. It seemed at first that we might never know the secret of the Ohioan born in Cincinnati on May 10th, 1857; come to find out that Carrie had an unknown dowry in the form of two siblings, Jim and Will McHaney, cattlemen and prospectors well-known in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. On February 22, 1895, the brothers struck gold in the Morongo Valley area. Harry soon joined his brothers-in-law in developing what they called the Desert Queen mine; the Harringtons began to appear in social columns while Harry got busy investing in another kind of gold, Los Angeles real estate. He bought and sold a number of lots over the next decade, sometimes utilizing his knowledge of construction to improve the properties. In 1900 he and Carrie moved into their own new house at 940 South Flower Street. By this time Gaylord Wilshire's seedling subdivision between Westlake and Sunset parks was only just expanding beyond Hoover Street; within a few years, prosperous downtown householders, feeling commerce encroaching and so the need to get out of their Victorian piles, no matter how recently built, would be faced with the dilemma of where to go next in pursuit of fashion and value. The West Adams district was the chief magnet, but by 1905, even as outlying Berkeley Square began to be developed, a new rival for the attentions of the well-heeled appeared in the form of rapidly opening tracts along a lengthening Wilshire Boulevard. Unpaved and with scant utilities available much beyond Vermont Avenue, the thoroughfare nevertheless began to attract builders of large houses who were willing to put up with dusty conditions and empty nearby lots for, in some cases, years. While it would seem that well-settled West Adams would be the better bet, its lot configurations were dated. Angelenos, suburbanites at heart, desired yet more space, and, despite its rough edges, Wilshire offered it. Those who gambled on the new linear neighborhood by building on the boulevard instead of in West Adams would be rewarded in the end in terms of land values, even if residential Wilshire Boulevard would die within a couple of decades. There was gold in its commercial future.


Silent star Olive Thomas in front of 646 South Gramercy; her Cadillac limousine was a
present from husband Jack Pickford after she had had one too many accidents
 while driving herself. The couple rented the house for a time before Olive
died under mysterious circumstances in Paris in 1920.


As for Harry Harrington, gold prospector that he was, there was no choice. When it came time to build a statement house, he chose Wilshire Boulevard, buying the 75-by-150-foot Lot 16 of the Westminster Place tract. Having initially engaged as architects and builders the Maine Building & Investment Company, the Department of Buildings issued a permit to begin the foundation on December 1, 1911. Having lived in hotels for the past number of years, most recently at the Angelus, Harry and Carrie must have been relieved when 646 South Gramercy Place was ready the following spring. With the project now reportedly in the hands of Harry E. Jones & Company, the Times described the new house on April 14 as nearing completion and as "rambling and commodious in plan," with "great stress [having] been put into the cobblestone work. Massive structural lines predominate and are emphasized with a broad roof overhang." It was stained, in the new tradition of the Greenes, a light bronze green. The newspaper's description of the house's interior was florid: "A distinctive feature...is the the large living room with [a] 13-foot chapel ceiling. The circular grand staircase and fernery are finished in Juana Costa mahogany, the furniture being especially designed to match. The dining room is finished in Circassian walnut." The Harringtons appear to have enjoyed all this splendor for only a few years. Last listed on Gramercy in the city directory in 1917, and soon living on Hobart Boulevard, they appear to have sold 646 to an entertainer. Not just any entertainer, but the "Queen of Vaudeville," Eva Tanguay, once engaged to popular cross-dressing performer Julian Eltinge, both seriously famous in their day. Eva didn't stay very long at 646 herself, apparently turning around and renting the house for a time to Mary's then equally famous brother Jack Pickford and his wife, silent star Olive Thomas. Jack and Olive left for Europe in August 1920; Eva put 646 on the market. The Times reported its sale five days before Olive died in Paris on September 10, apparently accidentally, though the reports were lurid and enduringly so.


The ever-exuberant Eva Tanguay, dressed for evening


The buyer of the "old" Harrington house was John S. Sankey, who, like Harry, struck it rich with manna from underground. According to reports in the Times, Sankey, after a number of false starts, made good in the oil fields of West Texas with his last cash on hand, $500 borrowed from his father. He soon had offices in Fort Worth, Tulsa, and Los Angeles, where, in addition to buying 646 South Gramercy for himself, he bought his parents a house at 960 Third Avenue in gratitude. Sankey was to become yet another short-term tenant of 646. Barely a year after moving in with his second wife, the former Fay Fishburn, and his 12-year-old daughter by a previous marriage, Eleanor, Sankey was dead, apparently a suicide in a Fort Worth hotel room on November 30, 1921. His second daughter, Jacqueline, was born the following July. The details of Sankey's contested will indicate that his wife remained at 646 at least until 1924, after which she left to remarry.


Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford had many laughs but too few smiles, it seems


While its contemporary across the boulevard at 3944 still stands after over a century, the life of 646 South Gramercy Place was snuffed out after little more than 15 years. While Albert Clay Bilicke, founder of the Alexandria Hotel, had gone down with the Lusitania in 1915, the real estate empire he founded had not. Under the guidance of his son Constant, the A. C. Bilicke Company flourished. Constant understood the commercial value of Wilshire Boulevard. When the opportunity to acquire a prime corner between Western Avenue and the Miracle Mile arose, he bought the Harrington house and, with a demolition permit from the Department of Building and Safety dated March 29, 1929, in hand, scattered its arroyo stones to the wind. To replace it, he commissioned Morgan Walls & Clements to design a very pretty block of shops very much in the Frenchified Wilshire mode of the day, examples of which were going up rapidly along the boulevard's length. Opened in early 1930, the Bilicke Building was distinguished from the others in that it allowed each storefront its individual design to maximize recognition by motorists, to whom Wilshire now belonged. Among the original anchors was a new branch of the Brown Derby, whose Art Deco façade and canopy unfortunately could not lure enough business during the Depression. By 1934 Alexander Perino decided to try his hand, starting his famous restaurant in the Derby's old space. The Bilicke Company went out of its way to individualize tenants' spaces; when Elizabeth Arden wanted to place one of her famous red doors on the corner, Bilicke wisely allowed an eyecatching addition that made his building among the most distinctive on Wilshire Boulevard. While the Bilicke Building lasted twice as long as its predecessor on the corner of Wilshire and Gramercy, it was replaced in 1959 with the atrocious Southern Federal Savings bank, which, without a shred of charm, still stands even though nearing twice the age of the Bilicke. Calling all wrecking balls!





The Bilicke Building replaced the Harry Harrington house in 1929. Its design
by Morgan, Walls & Clements followed the trend of commercializing Wilshire Boulevard,
but differed from its predecessors in that each tenant's storefront was customized. Perino's
adapted and widened the Brown Derby's front (which had been the same restaurateur's
Hi-Hat); Elizabeth Arden rated a distinctive updated corner when she moved in
later in the '30s. Dismal progress arrived in 1959, as seen at bottom.