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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Historic Westside adobe reflects diversity of its owners

Centinela Adobe, once the center of a 2,200-acre ranch, has been home to a Southern-born lawyer, a Scottish nobleman and the founder of Inglewood.

February 01, 2009|Jean Merl

It has trembled through earthquakes, been caught in a land dispute between ranchers back in the days of Mexican rule and nearly fallen to a 1940s housing boom.

Through a series of owners that included a Southern-born lawyer, a Scottish nobleman and the founder of Inglewood, the Centinela Adobe has endured to become an intriguing piece of California history tucked into a neighborhood of tidy tract homes.

Built on a bluff about 1834 by Ygnacio Machado, the adobe was once the center of a 2,200-acre ranch and overlooked the now-vanished Centinela Creek. Today, its long porch faces the 405 Freeway northeast of LAX, hidden from view by trees and shrubs, and the thick-walled home sits in a small park with two other structures maintained by the Historical Society of Centinela Valley and the city of Inglewood.

"It's important to know our history . . . so we can gain an understanding of how things were done and why," said Diane Sambrano, president of the historical society, as she and 1st Vice President Claydine Burt showed a visitor around the site recently.

The interior of the three-room ranch home reflects its diverse owners. Its many artifacts and furnishings include an oil portrait of Machado and a leather trunk used by his family, a handmade brick oven installed by the Scot and a Victorian sideboard used by the Freemans, widely considered Inglewood's founding family.

In his book "Historic Adobes of Los Angeles County," John R. Kielbasa said Centinela was "considered to be one of the most magnificently preserved smaller adobes" in the area.

The adobe's intricate history unfolds in Kielbasa's book, old newspaper clippings from The Times and meticulous pamphlets written by the historical society.

An ownership dispute marked its beginnings. In 1822, a year after Mexico gained independence from Spain and therefore control of California, Los Angeles resident Antonio Avila applied to buy the land. He also received permission to graze cattle there. But Machado, part of a large ranching family that owned a vast tract of land to the north, moved onto what he maintained was still public land and built his adobe for himself and his family.

The town council of Los Angeles granted Machado title to the land, but it would not be until nine years later, in 1844, that the Mexican government would give him official title to his Rancho del Aguaje del Centinela.

A year later, Machado traded the ranch to Avila's brother Bruno for a house in downtown Los Angeles.

A few years later, after California had become part of the U.S., Bruno Avila lost the ranch when he couldn't pay the mortgage.

The property then came under a succession of owners. Among them was Los Angeles lawyer Joseph Lancaster Brent, who soon moved back to his native South after the Civil War began and became a general in the Confederate Army.

Next came Scottish nobleman Robert Burnett, who brought his New York bride to live in the adobe, switched the ranch from cattle grazing to sheep and planted orchards. He also added the much larger Rancho Sausal Redondo to his holdings, bringing the total to about 25,000 acres.

When his brother died in 1873, Burnett returned to Scotland. He leased the ranch to the Canadian immigrant who would become Inglewood's founding father: Daniel Freeman. Freeman, seeking a warm climate for his frail wife, Catherine Grace, moved her and their three children into the adobe.

When drought struck in the mid-1870s, the entrepreneurial Freeman switched to "dry farming" barley and prospered. He bought the ranch from Burnett for $140,000 in gold coin in 1885. Freeman went on to become a major land developer and businessman and later moved his family into a mansion on the site of the now-closed Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood.

As Inglewood and the Centinela Valley grew through the first half of the 20th century, the little adobe seemed at times destined to fade away. One of its longtime residents, Martha Crawford, got it registered as a historical site by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1936. But it did not fare well under a succession of tenants after she moved out, and developers became interested in subdividing the property for houses.

In 1950, a group of preservation-minded Centinela Valley residents known as La Casa de la Centinela Adobe Assn. bought the adobe with proceeds from a fundraising drive. In 1956, the group deeded the home to Inglewood, which had annexed its now one-acre site.

Today, the historical society opens the adobe, at 7634 Midfield Ave., and two companion buildings from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Group tours at other times can be arranged by appointment at (310) 649-6272. Admission is free, although donations are appreciated.

The society also holds two annual fundraising parties at the adobe -- a barbecue in June and a fiesta in September -- and at Christmastime opens the house and the grounds, decorated with luminarias, for holiday celebrations.

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jean.merl@latimes.com

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