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Flamboyant character made a big noise in town

Journalist Charles Lummis' home in the Arroyo Seco was a cultural epicenter attracting the likes of Will Rogers and John Philip Sousa. It was also the site of memorable parties he called 'noises.'

February 20, 2011|By Alison Bell, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Charles Lummis built his concrete-and-rock house almost solely by himself. He then threw parties there.
Charles Lummis built his concrete-and-rock house almost solely by himself.… (Braun Research Library…)

Today, if you wanted to rub shoulders with prominent thinkers, writers and entertainers, you'd probably try to wangle an invitation to one of Arianna Huffington's salons at her Brentwood mansion.

In the early 1900s, however, you'd head to the home of Charles Fletcher Lummis in what is now Highland Park.

Lummis, a prolific writer, champion of the Southwest and, for a while, Los Angeles' head librarian, played host to some of the biggest movers and shakers of his time, including humorist Will Rogers, naturalist John Muir, attorney Clarence Darrow and composer John Philip Sousa.

During the first decade of the 20th century, his home was an epicenter of cultural activity, according to Mark Thompson, author of "American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis." Lummis was the editor of an influential magazine called Out West and welcomed budding writers and artists into his home. He also ran three organizations out of his house: the Sequoya League, which supported Indians' rights; the Landmarks Club, which restored Spanish missions; and the Southwest Society, which created the Southwest Museum.

Lummis also knew how to throw a good party. He called his gatherings "noises," and plied guests with food, music, singing and lively discussion.

And if his celebrations sometimes held the whiff of scandal — rumors about seances and orgies circulated but were never proved, according to Thompson — that made them even more popular.

But perhaps the biggest draw of all was the charismatic, flamboyant Lummis himself. One friend, David Starr Jordan, who was the first president of Stanford University, described Lummis as a human geyser, "bubbling with enthusiasm." Lummis also had many outrageous exploits to share, which his guests were doubtless eager to hear.

Lummis gained fame in 1884 at age 25 when he walked from Cincinnati to Los Angeles after being hired as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, then called the Los Angeles Daily Times. During his trek, he became influenced by Southwest culture, and his attire grew more outlandish. He left Ohio wearing a white flannel shirt and a wide-brimmed hat; he arrived in L.A. with a sombrero and a stuffed coyote around his neck, according to Thompson. He later wrote a book about his cross-country adventures, "A Tramp Across the Continent," one of his 16 books.

Once Lummis began reporting for The Times, he worked himself into exhaustion. In 1887, he suffered from an apparent stroke that left him partially paralyzed on his left side. He decided that the only way to "recuperate" was to "go to the wilderness and live outdoors till I'm well," he later wrote. He headed to New Mexico, where he spent his days "breaking wild horses and riding all day over the plains holding his rifle in his one good hand, shooting jack rabbits," said Thompson.

This unconventional "cure" worked; Lummis' paralysis cleared up. He eventually returned to Los Angeles to edit Land of Sunshine, a new magazine promoting the West. (The periodical was renamed Out West.)

In 1895 Lummis bought a three-acre plot of land for himself, his wife, Eve, and their two small children in the Arroyo Seco that would become his home and the site of his "noises."

He called the house El Alisal, Spanish for "place of the sycamore" in honor of the some 30 sycamore trees on the property. He built the concrete and rock home, which boasted a circular 30-foot tower, almost solely by himself, lugging boulders from the arroyo for the exterior walls.

By January 1899, Lummis had finished the main room of the house, the 28-by-16-foot "museo" —- a combination living room/exhibition hall. It took him until 1904 to finish the bulk of the rest of the house; later he added two small guest houses.

The slow pace of construction never slowed the partying, however.

Every March, Lummis threw a big bash he called the annual meeting of the Order of the Mad March Hares in honor of anyone born during the same month he was. (His birthday was March 1.) "He served rabbit stew, and they all sang a special song called 'The March Hare Hymn,' " said Thompson.

Even more elaborate gatherings were Lummis' "mock trials." When a dignitary visited town, Lummis would accuse him of "the High Misdemeanor of 'Not Knowing an Old California Good Time When You See It.' " Guests were invited to witness the trial, and when it was over, Lummis would pronounce the luminary "Not Guilty, Come Again." The group was then treated to dinner and music from a resident troubadour or visiting musician.

Lummis had an appropriate outfit for every occasion, including a set of "party buckskins" and a suede riding costume from Jalisco, Mexico, with bellbottom trousers that were so tight "his children wondered how he managed to get them on," Thompson said.

Although Lummis lived in the house until his death in 1928, the parties grew more infrequent after 1910. Lummis and Eve divorced, and his personal and professional life hit some rough patches, said Thompson.

Today, however, anyone can visit El Alisal, which is a museum that also houses the Historical Society of Southern California. The society is restoring the front doors of the home because they have deteriorated over time. Many a guest has walked through those doors, and the society wants to keep it that way.

ABell61655@aol.com

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