A father’s love named it, oil made it grow and a small group of nuns has kept it alive.
Hidden from the hubbub of traffic on the southwest edge of downtown sits one of Los Angeles’ last citadels of the Victorian era -- Chester Place -- the city’s first gated enclave that is now the downtown campus of Mount St. Mary’s College.
For more than four decades, college leaders have carefully tended seven remaining century-old landmark homes that line the tree-shaded Chester Place, as well as two more mansions around the corner in St. James Park that are also part of the campus.
The flagship residence on the premises is the 22-room Doheny mansion, where cardinals and a future king of England dined, and where one of the nation’s biggest political scandals played out.
Chester Place was once the heart of old-money homes; it traces its beginnings to 1876, when Nathan Russell Vail bought 20 acres of land west of Figueroa Street between 23rd Street and West Adams Boulevard. Vail built a Victorian-style home, planted pepper trees and erected a pretentious gate that opened on West Adams Boulevard. His family eventually became one of California’s largest land-holding families, owning property stretching from one end of the state to the other, including Santa Rosa Island, 40 miles off the Ventura coast and now part of Channel Islands National Park.
In 1885, he sold the estate to German immigrant Charles Silent, a retired Arizona Supreme Court justice, who had recently moved to Los Angeles and formed the law firm of Houghton, Silent and Campbell.
Silent and his wife, Anna, moved in and subdivided some of the property into a residential park that Silent named St. James Park, after his eldest son, James. Silent was instrumental in developing Elysian Park and for his efforts he became known as the “Father of the Parks Commission.”
More than a decade later, Silent carved up the remaining 15 acres into estate-sized lots for the exclusive development named for his younger son, Chester, a student at Stanford University who drowned while duck hunting.
More than a dozen grand houses had been built by 1908, when the judge and his wife moved to a 300-acre ranch in Glendora.
Around 1900, when Chester Place opened to buyers, Bunker Hill’s wealthy residents were already fleeing their hilltop for the quieter outskirts southwest of the city. Oil promoters, drillers and more than 500 chugging and wheezing oil derricks were operating near Bunker Hill, crowding residents out of their elite, quiet neighborhood.
In 1899, mining executive Oliver Perry Posey and his wife, Sara, a real estate agent, were among the first to plunk down some cash and raise the home that would eventually be identified with the Dohenys: an ornate 22-room French Gothic mansion at No. 8 Chester Place, a home designed by architects Theodore Eisen and Sumner P. Hunt.
But with her son away at college and her husband traveling on business, Sara Posey soon grew lonely in the large house and put it up for sale.
In the meantime, an oil tycoon who had sunk the first major oil well in Los Angeles in 1892 had become both rich and divorced. Edward L. Doheny lived out of a Pullman car while traveling, doing business by telephone and telegraph, and becoming smitten with the sharp and sassy voice of operator Carrie Estelle Betzold, who at 25 was nearly 20 years his junior.
Doheny married her in 1900 and bought the Posey mansion in 1901 for $120,000 cash to entertain and impress his widening circle of important friends. Doheny’s 7-year-old son from his first marriage, Edward Jr., moved in with them after his mother, distraught over her former husband’s remarriage, committed suicide.
Estelle, as she became known because his first wife was also named Carrie, brightened up the mansion’s dark and gloomy interior with additions and remodeling projects that would go on for decades. To please her husband, she built a small neighborhood zoo for deer, rare birds and monkeys. She added the Pompeian Room, with its domed roof made of Tiffany glass, a bowling alley and a shooting gallery called the “Wigwam,” where Doheny and his lawyers would retire to blast away at targets to relieve their stress. The Wigwam is now the campus deli.
Edward L. Doheny Jr., Ned, married in 1914 and soon moved with his wife into the mansion next door, at 10 Chester Place. (In November 1928, the couple and their five children would move to Greystone mansion in Beverly Hills where, less than three months later, Ned Doheny’s crazed secretary killed his boss and then turned the gun on himself.)
Estelle Doheny converted to Catholicism in 1918 and five years later commissioned architect Albert C. Martin to build St. Vincent de Paul Church, richly decorated in the Spanish baroque style and anchoring the neighborhood on West Adams Boulevard.
Her faith served her well when her husband’s empire -- along with President Warren G. Harding’s administration -- tottered in 1921 after a scandal broke in which it was alleged that Doheny had secretly sent $100,000 in a satchel to an “old prospector friend,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall.
It turned out that Fall had planned to lease government-owned oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyo., to Doheny and others. In 1928, Fall was convicted and imprisoned. Two years later, however, Doheny was acquitted of giving the bribe that Fall had accepted.
After the Teapot Dome scandal and his only son’s death, Doheny’s name continued to make headlines. When the public began showing up at Chester Place to gawk, Doheny hired an armed guard, bought more homes around the estate and leased them to relatives, friends and business associates, turning the property into an even more private and mysterious enclave.
It wasn’t just gawkers who annoyed the Dohenys. Adjoining their home was a West Adams Boulevard mansion first occupied by Theda Bara, the “vamp” actress whose silent-screen dialogue “Kiss me, my fool!” shocked early movie audiences. When she moved out, boisterous, hard-drinking comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle moved in, followed by producer Joseph Schenck and his actress wife, Norma Talmadge. This was too much for Doheny, who bought that place too. It is now owned by the Vincentian fathers and brothers and is a residence for seminarians, not part of the Mount St. Mary’s campus.
Doheny died a broken man in 1935 at age 79. The night of his funeral, his widow and her sister burned all his private papers “to ring down the curtain on the alleged and never-proven misdoings of her husband in the Teapot Dome affair,” Estelle’s secretary said.
In 1939, Estelle was named a papal countess by Pope Pius XII. She lost her eyesight in later years, a condition that prompted her to endow the Doheny Eye Institute in 1947. But her vision for Chester Place was undiminished. When she died in 1958, her mansion and eight others on and near Chester Place became the property of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, then became the downtown campus of Mount St. Mary’s College.
Those magnificent old homes, rich in architectural detail, are now classrooms, administrative offices, dormitories for students and a residence for the nuns.
Although not part of the campus, another magnificent mansion bought by Estelle Doheny in 1948 and maintained as the residence for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who founded Mount St. Mary’s College, is the 30-room red sandstone castle built for lumber tycoon Thomas Douglas Stimson. It stands on Figueroa Street, behind the Doheny mansion. Before she bought it, it had been owned by a beer baron and a fraternity. At least once a month, when the frat boys hurled beer bottles through the glass panes of her domed greenhouse, she delivered harsh words to USC President Rufus B. Von KleinSmid, who lived at No. 17 Chester Place, according to docent Don Sloper. When KleinSmid failed to stop the wild parties, she bought the mansion and gave it to the nuns.
The Doheny memory survives in the legacy of the college. The public can get a glimpse of the property in upcoming tours on Oct. 11 and Jan. 24 and through the Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music series at the mansion.
Although open for the benefit of students, the Gothic-style residents’ dining hall at 11 Chester Place is a hangout of professionals who work in the area.