4526 Wilshire Boulevard

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Almost as soon as houses began to be built with frontage on Wilshire Boulevard beyond Vermont Avenue, a reticence to continue the trend appears to have set in. While the prestige of a boulevard address remained high, ever increasing motor traffic began to mitigate the livability of houses next to what was becoming a highway between downtown Los Angeles and the Pacific, if not to retard property values. Unsold lots, or those held only for investment, would mar the thoroughfare for decades. Billboards sprouted on unimproved space, an even more unglamorous development making matters that much worse. Adding to the demise of residential Wilshire was the push, beginning with the development of the Miracle Mile in the early 1920s, of many influential property owners to rezone the road for commercial uses and thus make for enormous profits when land bought for residential or investment purposes was sold to business interests. Development in what was called the Wilshire District, a corridor extending widely along the boulevard all the way from Westlake Park to Windsor Square and Hancock Park, was much less piecemeal away from its spine. The stretch of the boulevard between Wilton Place and Highland Avenue, known as the Park Mile, is still notably low-scale and relatively free of commerce; as with sections to the east, however, empty lots between houses persisted here, one such example still facing Wilshire between Bronson and Irving, barren for decades.

  
Described in extravagant detail in real estate sections, several houses purportedly slated for
the then far reaches of Wilshire Boulevard were never built there. As presented in the
Times on July 9, 1911, the house said to be planned by banker William H. Holliday
may indeed have been a phantom project meant to inspire confidence in an
area without fully paved streets or even its utilities completely in place.


To lure residents west, real estate operators touted the spaciousness of western Wilshire, still in the sticks in the 1910s. During the decade the Los Angeles Times devoted a number of stories of rich men, invariably tycoons of one sort or another, who were said to be planning huge, stunningly expensive palazzos—they were invariably Mediterranean—on the boulevard. Architects' renderings spread across several columns; exteriors, interiors, and landscaping were carefully detailed in copy to impress readers. William H. Holliday, president of the Merchants' National Bank, was to build at the southeast corner of Westerly Drive (now Fremont Place West); silver-mine-rich Colonel and Mrs. Edwin Francis Holmes, late of Salt Lake City, were to spend $250,000 on the house alone in their plans for a lot at the southwest corner of Harcourt (now Hudson) Avenue. Neither house was built, at least not on Wilshire Boulevard. The age of in-town estates was fading fast in rapidly urbanizing Los Angeles. Holliday instead moved to the old house of traction pioneer William S. Hook on Adams Street; the Holmeses remained in their Pasadena home. But each had received a little free publicity with the fairy dust that had been spread over western Wilshire by the press for the benefit of real estate interests—Mrs. Holmes especially seemed to enjoy being featured in society columns with particular attention paid to her jewels and finery, even if others found her spending rather vulgar.


It doesn't look as though anything ever got by W. I. Gilbert


One palazzo that did get built on the Park Mile—and which still stands there today—is 4526 Wilshire, midway between Fremont Place West and Muirfield Road. While not on the scale of full-block fantasies such as the Holliday and Holmes houses, attorney William I. Gilbert's house went up on Lot 26 of the Fremont Place Tract soon after he bought the land in March 1923. Gilbert—or more likely his wife, Lucy, in whose name the original building permit was issued—chose a Mediterranean Revival design by popular architect Harry H. Whiteley. With stucco piles proliferating throughout the neighborhoods on either side of Wilshire in the '20s, the house was of no particular distinction. The lawyer, however, was: Before there was Jerry Giesler or Greg Bautzer, there was William Isaac Gilbert. Born in Martinsville, Missouri, on August 18, 1876, Gilbert trained in his father's law office, practicing in Oklahoma before moving to Los Angeles in 1913. Initially in partnership with former California governor Henry T. Gage, W. I. struck out on his own in 1918 to become an attorney to Hollywood and to assorted characters who lent other kinds of color to the Southland. It seems that whenever you got yourself into trouble or decided it was time to trade in a spouse, Gilbert was your man. Mildred Harris Chaplin hired Gilbert when she divorced Charlie a year after marrying him in 1918. When not-quite-divorced Rudolph Valentino found himself in hot water after marrying costume and set designer Natacha Rambova in 1922, he called W. I. Aimee Semple McPherson—basically a Hollywood star with more hypocritical contempt for her fans but of whom it could be said the history of '20s Los Angeles could not have done without—retained the attorney when she found she needed to defend herself when faced with conspiracy charges after her phony kidnapping scheme in 1926. Gilbert figured in yet another famous Hollywood drama as Clara Bow's attorney at the time of her battle with her extortionist secretary, Daisy De Voe. After Mae Murray filed for divorce from Prince David Mdivani, the dubious royal hired Gilbert to defend him. Over the years Gilbert played a role in the divorce of actor Frank Mayo, and Virginia Bruce put him to work against John Gilbert. In a suit for support, aging actor Maurice Costello got W. I. to go after his daughter Dolores, a former Mrs. John Barrymore and the grandmother of Drew. The attorney also represented Mrs. Paul Mantz in a divorce suit in which she appears to have accused her husband of schtupping Amelia Earhart; Ruby Porter Brown sicced Gilbert on songwriter Nacio Herbert Brown as did the fourth Mrs. J. Paul Getty, Helen Ann Rork Getty, on her odious husband. W. I. represented decorator Harold Grieve when he sued Jean Harlow for a neglected bill. When theater mogul Alexander Pantages was charged with the rape of a 17-year-old aspiring vaudeville dancer in 1929 at the same time Mrs. Alexander Pantages, possibly bombed, was charged with killing a man by running into his car with her Stutz, W. I. was on the cases. James Cagney, Paul Kelly, and Kay Francis were also clients. It is a testament to Gilbert's gravitas and intelligence, not to mention his brass balls and constitution, that he also served for many years as chief counsel for so staid an enterprise as the Southern Pacific Railroad.


Valentino, Bow, McPherson, Cagney, Pantages: A veritable vintage
TMZ sought out William I. Gilbert when the lights got too hot.


Yes, exhausting. One might wonder how much time W. I. Gilbert was able to spend at home on Wilshire Boulevard, or how he was able to stay awake when he was there. Lucy Witt Gilbert, to whom W. I. had been married in Dallas on December 10, 1898, ran the house and what might have constituted the couple's social life. The Gilberts had two children, Jeanne and William Isaac Junior, another daughter having died at 18 months and a son in infancy. Junior followed in his father's career footsteps and became his law partner; among his celebrity clients were Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and a hand-me-down, Helen Ann Getty Wilson Ross, shedding her second husband since J. Paul. Neither Junior or Jeanne had much luck with their own marriages; he eventually split with two wives and she with Ted Rackerby, who seems to have tried his hand acting in at least one silent film. At a dinner-dance at the Biltmore on June 10, 1924, the Gilberts announced that Jeanne's marriage had taken place in Riverside on April 26; lo and behold, little Donald Gilbert Rackerby arrived on July 17. Jeanne and the Rackerbys' son Donald lived with her parents at 4526 after the divorce; seen on the town often after that, Jeanne was one of those gals who managed to straddle the line between Hollywood and Los Angeles's haute bourgeoisie. Donald appears to have followed his father's footsteps into movies, and about as successfully, appearing only in Little Men in 1940. It is not known whether Donald required his uncle's legal representation—perhaps it was only a publicity stunt engineered by his agent—when he and a chum cleverly set multiple alarm clocks to go off during a movie at the Ritz Theater in 1941, an event covered by the papers.


"We did it": As "Handsome Dave" Clark and his wife exchange glances, W. I. appears to know
more than the acquittal he had just won for the once promising young deputy district
attorney would suggest. In a notorious high-profile case, Clark had been on trial for
killing two men in May 1931, one of whom was Charlie Crawford, then head of
the Los Angeles underworld. Somehow Clark's 1933 Packard Twelve
Roadster became the property of his attorney in 1935. In April
1941 Lucy sold the car for $175 to young Albert J. Dunkel
who lived next door at 4536; Dunkel sold it two years
later only to buy it back in 1967 and restore it.
It sold at auction in 2012 for $352,000.


When not occupied at home, Lucy Gilbert did volunteer work as a member of the very proper, very un-Hollywood Assistance League. She also worshipped ancestors, becoming active in the Huguenot Society of California, perhaps to counter the more raffish associations of her husband and children, who appear to have been less interested in stultifying establishment rituals. W. I. Gilbert Senior worked like a Trojan for the legal interests of the flashy side of the Southland until the end. He was in the midst of defending Edna Ballard, spiritual leader of the "I Am" movement—an offshoot of theosophy some describe as a cult—for mail fraud when he was stricken with pneumonia and died unexpectedly on November 28, 1940. As the Los Angeles Times began his obituary printed the next day, "One of Los Angeles' most distinguished pleaders at the bar yesterday lost a decision from which there is no appeal."

The house at 4526 Wilshire Boulevard remained occupied by Lucy, Jeanne, and Donald through the war years. By 1946, oral surgeon Berto A. Olson and his family were in residence, holding off commercialization for the next two decades. Then for several years the Self-Help Institute—promoting "Personal Dynamics Through Concept Programming"—maintained its offices at 4526, followed by the Jocelyn Ryan Modeling Studios. In the meantime, Lucy Gilbert, living in Westwood, died in Los Angeles on April 12, 1965. Her house at 4526 Wilshire Boulevard rather miraculously remains standing. Now part of a group of buildings with commercial zoning, the house is testament to the ephemeral residential claims of the Wilshire District's namesake thoroughfare. While entrenched single-family-house neighborhoods to the north and south remain along its length, motorization and synchronized signals never allowed the boulevard itself an even break.


Real estate brokers today try to claim that 4526 Wilshire Boulevard is in Hancock Park; it is
actually in a sort of limbo between that neighborhood across Wilshire and Fremont Place
to its rear. Houses fronting on the boulevard became orphans of a sort, a trend
that began to the east even before the Gilbert house was built. If only
W. I. had chosen to build this pretty house a few blocks north....