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CASTLE KEEP : The Grand Stimson House Has Changed Hands Numerous Times, With a Beer Baron and USC Frat Boys Counted Among Its Past Residents. Now, Extensive Renovations and New Tenants--the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet-- Have Given It New Life

January 02, 1994|JAKE DOHERTY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With an abiding faith as firm as a mighty redwood, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have once again settled into the house that wood built.

The mansion at 2421 S. Figueroa St., built 100 years ago for lumber tycoon Thomas Douglas Stimson when he moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, has changed hands numerous times during its history.

Once before, from 1949 to 1969, the house served as a convent for about 30 Carondelet Sisters, an order devoted to teaching, nursing and social work. Between Stimson and the five Carondelet Sisters who moved in this fall, the 30-room mansion also has been home to a civil engineer, a beer baron, a USC fraternity and students from neighboring Mount St. Mary's College who affectionately called it "The Castle."

Now with $1 million in renovations and repairs well under way, the house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is Historic-Cultural Monument No. 212 in Los Angeles, stands ready to accommodate its new occupants, who are already doing good works throughout the city.

And thanks to the Sisters' reverence for their new their home and their commitment to the community, local preservationists rejoice that instead of becoming an anachronistic relic, the stately house will once again be a vital part of the neighborhood.

"This is a grand old mansion and we're still a little in awe of it," said Sister Mary Allen, who oversees the renovation of the house as provincial treasurer for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who have integrated into the surrounding area by doing community work and plan to open the mansion for small musical productions, selected community events and rent it out to film crews seeking historical backdrops. (Carondelet is the name of the St. Louis suburb where the first Sisters of St. Joseph built a log cabin in 1836. By 1889, the Carondelet Sisters were active in Los Angeles.)

From the front, the 3 1/2-story house resembles a medieval castle, with brick chimneys standing guard like sentries along the roof and an ornate four-story crenelated tower on the northeast corner, a noble rook from a massive chess board.

A third-floor balcony sits beneath a gabled arch and another stepped gable contains a Palladian window. A porch with carved stone columns encircles the first floor.

Excluding the tower, the house totals 12,800 square feet.

"I've admired the house from the minute I first walked in," said Sister Jill, one of the supervisors for the archdiocese's elementary schools. "The wood, the details on the door hinges, the different shapes of the glass in the windows, the stained glass windows above the stairway that have their own light. I find it fascinating."

The grandeur of the house has attracted Hollywood over the years. It has been a setting for, among other things, chamber music performances, television commercials, the movies "House II" and "After Midnight," two miniseries, "Testimony of Two Men" and "Captains and Kings," and an episode of "The Bionic Woman" in which Lindsay Wagner's double jumped off a second-floor porch. That same episode, titled "Black Magic," also featured the late Vincent Price, who liked the spookiness of the house's acoustics so much he returned later to record some productions of his own.

Though he amassed a fortune in the lumber business, Stimson built his home out of Arizona red sandstone. He wanted the exterior to resemble the brick-and-stone mansions of Chicago's Gold Coast, and handed the task to a young Los Angeles architect, Carroll H. Brown.

Brown's architectural design for the Stimson House has been described variously as Richardsonian Romanesque, Victorian Gothic, Romantic Revival and, according to a Times reporter in 1948, a style that reflects "the Mission influence, a bit of Byzantine, something Latin and a little Fort Ticonderoga."

A Times music critic reviewing a chamber music performance at the house in 1989 called its architecture "Midwestern Ivanhoe" and said the edifice "proved a good deal more interesting than the music."

If Stimson's choice of stone for his home's exterior seems ironic, the interior reflects his true passion. The inside is a shrine to lumber, a museum of wood, a smorgasbord of timber--ash, sycamore, birch, mahogany, walnut, gumwood and oak, all shipped from lumber yards in the Midwest.

Richly paneled walls rise up to high coffered, or delicately plastered, ceilings. Each of the rooms on the first floor is finished in a different wood and thick doors made of two kinds of wood, one on each side, match the wood in the room.

Other details include inlaid woodwork in the oak floors, stained glass windows along the main stairway, marble fireplaces, engraved door hinges, unique corner china cabinets and a hidden safe in the original family room. "That's where the sisters used to keep their cleaning supplies," Sister Mary Allen revealed.

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