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An L.A. Original : The Garden at Charles Lummis' Historic Home Has Just : Been Re-Created With His Fascination for the Southwest in Mind

July 05, 1987|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

CHARLES F. LUMMIS WAS one of the first to see Los Angeles as a special place. His home in Highland Park, now a historic landmark, sets in stone and concrete his vision of "the Southwest," a term he coined. Fittingly, its contemporary caretakers have recently added their own vision, a garden that is as unique as the home it surrounds.

Lummis arrived in Los Angeles in 1885, on foot, having made the trek from Ohio in 143 days and having written of his adventures along the way. Harrison Gray Otis published these as columns in his fledgling, four-page Los Angeles Times, of which Lummis would become the first city editor. But a desk job did not suit Lummis for long. Described as a "restless" individual, he soon left behind his job and family to live in New Mexico, where he studied, photographed and wrote about the Indian cultures. In one window of the Lummis home are glass photographic plates, recently restored, taken on that trip, and on later ones into Mexico and South America.

But he always returned to Los Angeles--becoming one of its greatest boosters. He was the editor of the Chamber of Commerce publication, Land of Sunshine, which he gradually turned it into a literary vehicle that he renamed Out West. In it appeared the first writings of Mary Austin (a fall PBS special will document their relationship), Jack London and Robinson Jeffers. Out West also published the illustrations of such early Western artists as Edward Borein and Maynard Dixon (who designed the magnificent front doors on the Lummis house).

Lummis saw his home--which he named El Alisal , or "The Alders" (what the Spanish called the California sycamores that grow in the Arroyo Seco)--as a gathering place for all who shared his enthusiasm for the West. Many were conscripted to help in the construction of the house; bits and pieces are by many notables of the era, including a fireplace supposedly done by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore. Like many do-it-yourself projects, the house was not built quickly, and it was never really completed. Much of the work was done during a 13-year period, and he lived there from about 1897 until his death in 1928.

In 1905, Lummis became Los Angeles' librarian and began the Department of Western History Material and the collection of early Spanish documents that would become the Rare Book collection. Five years later, he resigned to establish a museum of Southwestern history and cultures. His own collections became the basis for the Southwest Museum, built on the hill above his home. To keep track of its progress, he aimed several conspicuous windows of the house in that direction.

The house has many other oddly placed windows and doors that open into thin air. Some windows probably framed views of the then-wild Arroyo; others seem to have been oriented to the breezes, and a few were placed rather low on the walls--perhaps for the benefit of children.

Lummis had four children, whom he adored; even when they were grown, the house was always full of children. He built his house as much for them as for any other reason, hoping that it would be an enduring center for an idyllic family life. But that was not to be; Lummis went through three marriages.

Lummis saw the house as his gymnasium, a place for physical work, a necessary antidote for his mental labors. And it was not easy physical work. The walls, of poured concrete, are faced with boulders from the Arroyo and reinforced with heavy iron rails from the Santa Fe RailwayThe timbers that span them are telegraph poles. The doors are handmade and quite massive, thicker than a brick.

The architecture is a bit Santa Fe and a bit California mission (Lummis founded the Landmarks Club, which first sought to preserve the missions), but everything about the house is eccentric, the work of an individual. The chimneys are copies of those of the San Juan Capistrano Mission, and the tower on the front of the house is the mesa architecture of the Southwest Indians. Though the influence of the Craftsman era--just then beginning a little farther up the Arroyo, in Pasadena--is evident, this is not a Craftsman's house, but an artist's, collector's and handyman's. The cabinetwork is crude but imaginative, incorporating artifacts and bits of Southwest or South American history and culture wherever possible. The floors are simple concrete, not elaborate tile, sloping toward the doors, so the whole place could be hosed out after one of his parties (which Lummis called "noises"). The concrete floors contributed to his second divorce--his wife Eva charging that his refusal to carpet them amounted to extreme cruelty.

The garden, which once took up 2 1/2 acres, was equally eclectic--a mix of fruit trees, old sycamores, yuccas and flowers. The only surviving part of the original landscape is a lily pond in the center of the patio, built like the central wells or troughs found in Spanish ranchos.

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