Designed Elegant Victorians : Exhibit to Feature Newsom’s Work

Times Staff Writer

The 12-room home built in 1888 for dairyman Charles Sessions at 1330 Carroll Ave., near downtown Los Angeles, is one of the gems of that historic architectural district that prides itself in having the largest concentration of the city’s surviving Victorian structures.

Its shingle-and-clapboard exterior, richly ornamented with Moorish spindle work, a Greek Revival pediment, Queen Anne lattice work, art-glass windows and wooden scrolls, is a notable example of the designs of Joseph Cather Newsom and his brother Samuel, who were among several San Francisco architects attracted to the Los Angeles area during its 1880s real estate boom.

The impact of the work of the Newsoms in California (1878-1908), is the subject of a comprehensive, three-month exhibit opening Wednesday at the Los Angeles Architectural Center, 1314 W. 25th St.


Series of Lectures

A series of lectures is planned concurrently at USC’s Harris Hall, on Saturday at 7 p.m., Feb. 14 and March 14 with David Gebhard and Robert W. Winter, architectural historians and co-organizers of the exhibit, as the featured speakers.

“There is a growing interest and a new respect for the Newsoms and their development of the California Victorian,” said Jim Dunham, founder of the sponsoring organization, the American Architectural Preservation Group.

“Together and separately they carved themselves a niche in an emerging profession, establishing criteria for judging ‘modern’ architecture and displaying remarkable promotional bravura.”

‘Striking and Commanding’

Originally assembled at the University Museum at UC Santa Barbara by Gebhard, curator of architectural drawing at the museum and a university professor of art history, the exhibit will be shown in the Los Angeles area for the first time.

With research input from Winter, professor of history of ideas at Occidental College, the displays include drawings and photographs of residences and other buildings by the Newsoms, and a set of three-dimensional models of Newsom homes by designer Paul Prince.

The phrase “striking and commanding,” which the Newsoms frequently employed in books and brochures they authored, is a key not only to understanding what they were about, but equally to gain a sense of what went on in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century American architecture, Gebhard said.


“Their task was to produce striking and commanding imagery in keeping with the current fashion and new trends in architecture in their day.

“The brothers started their practice with an enthusiastic endorsement of the Eastlake style; by the early 1880s, they had shifted to a predominantly Queen Anne style, and by the end of the decade, they had moved on to a variety of different directions: the Chateauesque, the Richardsonian Romanesque, Georgian Colonial Revival, Beaux Arts and then the Mission Revival.”

The Newsoms sometimes experimented with several styles simultaneously and mixed them with flair, introducing Gothic and Medieval imagery in their designs and finally adopting the California Arts and Crafts bungalow style, Gebhard said.

Fire Destroyed Records

“It is doubtful whether we will ever know just how many buildings the Newsoms designed, let alone how many they actually built,” Winter said.

“Most of the Newsoms’ office records were destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, but it is estimated that at least 600 Newsom residential and commercial structures were built throughout the state of California for both the new settlers and real estate entrepreneurs.

“They also issued plans in pattern books titled, ‘Picturesque California Homes,’ ‘Artistic Buildings, Flats and Residences,’ and ‘Up-to-Date Architecture.’ ”

It appears that the Newsoms appealed particularly to those on their way up the social ladder and, for those clients, J. Cather and Samuel designed the big yards with a rose garden, turrets, scrolls, elaborate architectural detail, always intent on structures that would reflect a “striking and commanding” posture.

Era of the Railroads

“It was all part of the cultural anxiety of that period,” Winter said, “and the Newsoms capitalized on that, always designing projects that were entirely different from what they had done previously and that were very personal to the client.”

Winter stressed that the single most important factor to the economic and social history of California in the Newsom era was the railroad.

“With the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869, California became easily accessible to the nation,” he said. “It was the Central Pacific, the Southern Pacific and then the Santa Fe railroads that actually laid out the towns and promoted land sales along their rights of way. The eagerness of the railroads to reap financial rewards was part and parcel of the phenomenon known as real estate speculation.”

The connection of the Newsoms with the economy was obvious, according to the historians. They flourished in every part of California that felt the land boom of the 1880s. As it subsided, their work diminished, then picked up again with the gradual recovery in the 1890s. Meanwhile, J. Cather also established a short-lived practice in the East.

Stayed Within Budget

Staying within a budget may also have been a strong aspect of the Newsom popularity and prolific practice, the historians agree. The Newsoms were familiar with all aspects of building and supervised the carrying out of each detail, delivered on schedule, often manufacturing some of the construction elements and marketing them through their own small companies, such as the Los Angeles Mantel Co., that also produced window and door trims.

In the Southland today, there still are 11 surviving structures, verified or attributed to the Newsoms.

In addition to the Sessions home and a neighboring structure at 1407 Carroll Ave., examples can be seen at 3115 W. Adams Blvd., 957 and 1214 S. Arapahoe St., 1425 Miramar St., 1011 Beacon St., 650 West 23rd St., 824 S. Bonnie Brae St.; 3537 Griffin Ave., all in Los Angeles.

Also, at 13204 Judd St. in Pacoima; at 255 N. Mayflower Ave., 626 W. Colorado Blvd., 329 N. Melrose Ave. and 823 S. Shamrock Ave. in Monrovia; at 225 Lima St. in Sierra Madre; at 17410 Mayerling St., Mission Hills (moved to that location); a hotel at 121 N. San Dimas Ave. in San Dimas, and the Piru Mansion in Piru.

Admission to the exhibit is $3.50 for adults and $2.50 for seniors and students; lecture fees are $10 each or $25 for the series.