647 South Manhattan Place


The Los Angeles Times of May 5, 1912, reported the sale of a residence built not long before at the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Manhattan Place. The seller was Mrs. Elizabeth Riggs of San Francisco, who appears to have bought what was built as a spec house to flip, never moving in herself. Builder Charles S. Hall's earlier purchase of Lot 1, Block G of the Westminster Place tract was among his acquisitions as many boulevard lots were sold and resold, and then more and more frequently built upon and resold, as the road, just being paved in the precincts of Westminster Place, continued its feverish westward development. Having chosen popular architect Frank M. Tyler to design one of his many multi-gabled houses—a style nearing the end of its popularity—Hall and a partner were issued a permit by the Department of Buildings on May 9, 1911, to begin construction of a residence that would be addressed 647 South Manhattan Place. As was true of a number of boulevard subdivisions, covenants of Westminster Place required that all houses, even those on corner lots with Wilshire frontage, be oriented to the side streets.

The buyer of 647 South Manhattan was not atypical: William B. Sylvester and his wife Helen Seymour Sylvester had been spending winters in Venice away from their home near Rochester, New York, for several years and now wanted a permanent residence in Southern California. Popular in Los Angeles since the middle of the aughts was an architectural subgenre that the Times called "Elizabethan," generally a somewhat more formal version of Craftsman, with plastered brick facings and half-timbering under large gables. The Sylvester house contained 11 rooms and had three bathrooms; as was typical in descriptions of just about every "pretentious" house of the era—"pretentious" not yet having acquired negative connotations—it was finished in dark exotic woods downstairs, including in this case Peruvian mahogany and weathered oak, with the upstairs all in white enamel.

The northeast corner gable of 647 South Manhattan Place is seen three years after construction of
the bulk of the Temple Emanu-el began, signaling the commercial and institutional uses
replacing residential Wilshire Boulevard and houses on its side streets. The image
above was taken in 1926, the year the Wilshire Arts Building, a mix of
shops and professional spaces, was built across Manhattan Place.

The Sylvesters, along with Helen's brother James and a cousin, Katherine Throop, stayed on Wilshire Boulevard only about six or seven years. The commercialization and institutionalization of the avenue was proceeding rapidly, the most recent fuel having been thrown on the fire by A. W. Ross's Miracle Mile plans to the west. Temple Emanu-el bought a number of houses on the west side of Manhattan Place between Wilshire and Sixth, for some reason not acquiring the Sylvester house, the site of which would have shown off its attractive new building to much better advantage than it would end up having when completed in 1924. The cacophony of an ever-increasing number of automobiles and buses that came along with the new construction cannot ever have compared to the sound of the surf, especially when the retired Sylvesters had no need to be near downtown Los Angeles for business and the boulevard itself had now become the new speedy highway to the Pacific. The family moved back to the beach.

The house was radically remodeled into stores in 1945, a new and simpler roof replacing its overhanging eaves and gables. A new entrance facing Wilshire was constructed and the street façades were stuccoed. Eventually Richfield Oil acquired the corner for a new filling station; the Department of Building and Safety issued the company a permit to demolish what was once 647 South Manhattan Place on July 28, 1966.

Illustrations: LATLAPL