Legacy of a Visionary : Historic Banning Mansion Sets Groundwork for Flower Show

Almost everyone who came to California during the mining boom caught "gold fever," but Phineas Banning did not. . . . He had visions of greater things.

--Oliver Vickery, "Harbor Heritage"

A California historical treasure sits peacefully in a quiet residential neighborhood in Wilmington just south of Pacific Coast Highway.

The 24-room Greek Revival-style mansion is almost as much an incongruous surprise today as it must have been in 1864, when Phineas Banning hired ships' carpenters to build it amid marshes, muddy tide flats and one-story adobes.

Banning, a visionary who launched the beginnings of what became Los Angeles harbor, built the house as a homage to his native Wilmington, Del., after amassing a sizable fortune as "the transportation king" of Southern California with a

stagecoach company, wagon manufacturing and a shipping business. Banning also built the first railroad in Southern California and served in the state Senate.

The Banning Residence Museum, widely recognized as the finest 19th-Century Greek Revival house in Southern California, was occupied by three generations of the Banning family before the City of Los Angeles purchased the property in 1927.

The house, which sits in the middle of a 20-acre city park, remained dormant for many years, but a full-scale restoration began in 1976.

Today it has been returned to its original Victorian elegance. Furnishings and artifacts have been painstakingly selected to represent the styles popular during Banning's lifetime, including 42 pieces of furniture original to the house.

This fine old house will look especially resplendent next Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., when the works of 17 professional florists are displayed there as part of Floriade II, a flower and horticulture show. The event is presented by Friends of Banning Park and is a benefit for the museum. Admission is $6 per person. Children 12 and younger are admitted free.

Themed Floral Design

Each of the florists has decorated a room, using the house and its artifacts as a backdrop for a themed floral design. Meanwhile, a competitive flower-arranging display will be held in the basement orientation room, surrounded by huge photographs showing the development of the harbor.

Outside, landscape designers have created a colorscape in a sunken garden area near the main gate featuring flowers of the season. Nearby in the newly restored coach barn, a competitive horticulture show includes the best of Southern California plants and flowers.

"Between the lectures, demonstrations, competitions and the innovative and creative displays produced by the region's top floral designers and landscapers, Floriade II brings together in one place all the elements necessary to create and maintain a beautiful garden," says Donna Gibbs, event chairman.

Additional Attractions

The competitive shows are being coordinated by the Costa Verde District California Garden Clubs Inc. Members of the Long Beach, San Pedro and Hermosa garden clubs, the Gardeniers of Palos Verdes and the Riviera Garden Club of Torrance are participating.

Two special lectures are an added attraction. Artist and author Fleur Cowles of London will present "The Life and Time of the Rose" at 11:30 a.m. next Saturday. Then at 2 p.m., James Goslee, a New York floral designer and author, will discuss "Living With Flowers," followed by Nancy Goslee Powers, former editor of House Beautiful, addressing "Intimate Gardens." The lectures are an additional $15 each.

A boutique will feature garden furniture and accessories, gardening books, botanical prints, topiary trees, orchids, unusual plant containers, dried floral arrangements and Victorian-themed paper items and books.

New England Influence

Gibbs, who became involved with the museum about eight years ago, says: "I love this part of (the) history of Los Angeles because I'm a native and I think so many people have a concept of Los Angeles as all Hispanic heritage, and they've lost sight of the New England influence. It's really developed into the great city that it has because of people like Banning."

"He (Banning) was a visionary man," Zoe Bergquist, museum director, agrees. "He had a vision that the area would make a magnificent harbor. There was quite a conflict between (Collis P.) Huntington, who wanted the harbor in Santa Monica, and Phineas Banning, who wanted the harbor here . . . but Phineas Banning won out.

"He really opened up the passages which are today's freeways," Bergquist continues. "Banning, Calif., for instance, is named after him and that was one of the stagecoach stops. . . . He was an expert at driving what they called the six-in-hand (stagecoach)."

Overflowing With Guests

In the book "Harbor Heritage," Oliver Vickery, a historian and curator emeritus of the Banning mansion, wrote: "The history of San Pedro and Wilmington, California, is the history of Phineas Banning. When Banning arrived on the scene in 1851, the state was just one year old, and California needed creative imagination, guidance and leadership."

In Banning's day, this house usually was full of guests. He loved to entertain. The house was the site of patriotic festivities on Washington's birthday and the Fourth of July, in addition to many commercial and political meetings. In spite of his Eastern upbringing, Banning enjoyed California barbecuing, and frijoles were served from a pot so large that it was stirred with a shovel.

Banning also was fond of addressing his friends from a second-story porch during such festivities, and was said to have had a voice "loud enough to be heard beyond the hills."

During more formal dinner parties, the dining room was used. One of Banning's contemporaries wrote of him: "No man in our state has given so many banquets and balls, dinners and receptions as he."

Treasures in Residence

In memory of those days, treasures abound in the restored mansion. There's a delicately carved rosewood American Rococo Revival parlor suite by Joseph Meeks from mid-19th Century, Banning's American Eastlake roll-top desk of walnut and mahogany, massive mahogany bookcases full of collections of Charles Dickens and other 19th-Century writers, a wicker baby buggy with metal wheels, an ornate claw-footed tub in the bathroom (added in 1876) and Banning's own massive bed with a veneer of Cuban mahogany. These are just a few of the pieces that create a real feeling for what life must have been like in the Banning household.

"Each room is done in a different decade," Bernice Klohr, chairman of the Banning Residence Museum Volunteers, says. "You'll never see a piece of furniture dated after the decade of the room. It's always before or for the time period."

The dining room, for instance, is furnished with Phineas Banning's mahogany dinner table, which is surrounded by reproductions of Chippendale chairs. The table is set with crystal, Banning family silverware and English Imari ironstone ware in an Oriental design popular in the latter part of the 19th Century. An American Eastlake walnut sideboard (circa 1870), carved with fruit, fowl and wild game displays several pieces of silver.

'The Home Economist'

In the upstairs kitchen, a black Garland stove with ornate silver-colored trim sits across from a soapstone sink and a zinc-covered work table. The stove originally was wood-burning, but was converted to gas in the early 1880s. In Banning's day, the kitchen also featured the latest gadgets, such as apple peelers, bean slicers, cabbage graters and "the home economist," a black metal cabinet used to store flour, coffee, tea and other staples.

Just outside the house is what once was the old milk house. It is now restored as a late-19th-Century schoolhouse. Slates, chalk and McGuffey's Readers are neatly arranged atop the desks, and a photo of Abraham Lincoln hangs on one wall. During school tours of the mansion, children are able to experience a day in the life of a child of the 1800s, including sack races.

Groups by Appointment

The Banning "interpreters" are carefully prepared to provide accurate information during such tours. Training includes a four-month history course with speakers on such topics as decorative arts, architecture, textiles and history. Group tours are by appointment, but the house is open to the public for tours Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 12:30, 1:30 and 2:30 p.m.

Just a short walk from the schoolhouse is the coach barn, which has been under restoration for several years.

The Friends of Banning Park will use funds from Floriade II to further equip the barn, restore Banning family vehicles, produce a video on the development of transportation in Southern California, restore historic aspects of the gardens and continue to preserve this fascinating slice of early history.

Banning Residence Museum, 401 E. M St., Wilmington, off Avalon Boulevard, just south of Pacific Coast Highway. Information: (213) 548-7777.

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