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Author, Historian Left His Imprint on Los Angeles

Times Staff Writer

They came to learn. And to laugh. One hundred years later at Charlie Lummis’ house, they still do.

“Every room has a fireplace,” Betty Mallery says. “This fireplace was copper-clad so it wouldn’t catch fire.”

The thought of a fireplace catching fire brings smiles to those gathering in the main room of the house called El Alisal. They listen intently as Mallery notes that the wood mantel, with its metal-wrapped support legs, is not the only hand-hewn curiosity in the Lummis place.

“Behind you there is an old tree stump that he hollowed out to turn into a potty seat,” she says. There are snickers as she lifts the hinged seat slightly to show it off.

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“Through there is the dining room,” Mallery adds, drawing a laugh when she notes that the eating area was designed from a male perspective. “He built it so its concrete floor could be hosed off after parties.”

There were plenty of parties in the old days at the Lummis Home, the half-castle, half-hacienda landmark in Highland Park. Goodtime Charlie knew how to entertain.

And Charles Fletcher Lummis knew how to enlighten, too.

A century ago, Lummis was a legendary author, journalist, historian and booster of the American Southwest in general and Los Angeles in particular.

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He walked from Ohio to California in 1885 to take a job as the first city editor of the Los Angeles Times. En route, he caused a sensation by writing newspaper dispatches about his 143-day transcontinental “tramp,” as he called it.

The walk took Lummis through New Mexico, sparking a lifelong interest in Indian and Latino culture. He also became a collector of art and artifacts from the area.

After several years of work as an editor and reporter at The Times and stints as city librarian and as editor of Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce publications, Lummis founded the Southwest Museum. Constructed in 1913 on a hill above his home, it now holds most of his collection.

But it is the residence that Lummis built with his own hands between 1898 and 1910 that remains his own imprint on Los Angeles.

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Its front facade includes a medieval-like turret constructed of 2-foot-thick concrete faced with smooth river rocks gathered from the nearby Arroyo Seco. Recycled Santa Fe railroad ties and telegraph poles form the roof and interior framing.

Lummis built it around a clump of sycamore trees that inspired the Spanish name El Alisal. But he designed the place to be as much a public statement as a private residence.

The vast main room that he called his museo contained shelves and cabinets that displayed Indian pots, baskets and other artifacts he gathered across the Southwest.

The room’s handcrafted windows served as naturally backlit frames for glass-plate transparencies of photographs that Lummis took of New Mexico mesas and of pueblo inhabitants.

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Navajo rugs were arranged on the great hall’s concrete floor. Colorful Indian blankets were used as covers for hand-made chairs and couches arranged along walls splashed with paintings and photographs.

A circular alcove at the west end of the main hall formed the base of the tower. The turret’s upper level contained a hideaway bedchamber reached by a tiny attic passageway connected to Lummis’ second-floor office. A trapdoor in the bedchamber’s floor had a Hopi rope ladder that he used to descend into the hall.

A foyer separated the museo from a guest room and the home’s main bedroom, bathroom and stairway to the second level.

The foyer, which Lummis called the zaguan, opened to the front of the house and to its sycamore-shaded rear courtyard. He built the courtyard door from planks that included one hewn in 1797 by padres building the San Fernando Mission.

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The main entryway is a massive wooden double doorway said to weigh a ton. Lummis was particularly proud of it. Like others in the house, it was not much taller than his own 5-foot, 7-inch height.

“Any fool can write a book, but it takes a man to make a dovetail door,” Lummis would say.

Mallery is a docent with the Historical Society of Southern California, which maintains its headquarters at El Alisal and operates the house for its owner, the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department.

Thomas Andrews, executive director of the society, said additional docents and volunteers are being sought for the site, at 200 E. Avenue 43 , which is open free to the public Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

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On Sunday, El Alisal will be the starting place for the Arroyo Arts Collective’s annual tour of northeast Los Angeles artists’ homes and studios beginning at 10 a.m. Tickets will be sold at El Alisal for $15

Mallery, of Manhattan Beach, has been leading tours of El Alisal since 1989. But she’s been a fan of the place since the 1940s, when she first drove past it on the Arroyo Seco Parkway, now the Pasadena Freeway.

“The freeway makes a little jog around it -- the ‘Lummis bulge’ is what I call it. They were going to shoot the freeway right through it. But he had been such an influential man that they didn’t,” she says.

Mallery is standing in the patio courtyard beneath remnants of the original El Alisal tree that have sprouted into a sweeping young clump of new sycamores. She is explaining how guests at Lummis’ famous parties often gathered around a low concrete platform.

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There, they sang, performed or were encouraged to recite, if they could, a fact about the Southwest that Lummis did not know. Those who did not perform were expected to carry a river rock from the Arroyo Seco to the house for Lummis’ ongoing construction.

Luminaries such as conservationist John Muir, cowboy-philosopher Will Rogers, artist Frederic Remington, poet Carl Sandburg and composer John Philip Sousa were guests. So were lesser-known locals.

“He’d stop at the Grand Central Market downtown and do the shopping on the way home. He’d also bring home lots of people for dinner. He was one of those men who it would be great to know, but terrible to be married to,” Mallery tells her tour group.

The rinse-it-and-relax dining room floor is an example of that. “One of the complaints of his second wife, Eve, was that he wouldn’t carpet the floor. That came up in the divorce,” Mallery says.

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Lummis was married three times -- his final wife was one of the secretaries who worked at El Alisal on his literary projects. He had four children, including one daughter he fathered while a student at Harvard University. He invited her to live at El Alisal when he learned of her existence years later.

Lummis died in 1928. Funeral services were held beneath the old sycamore, and his ashes were interred in a niche in a nearby veranda wall. His last surviving child, son Keith Lummis -- an author as well as a onetime Secret Service bodyguard for President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- died in 2002 at the age of 97.

“Charles Lummis said he built this house to last 1,000 years,” Mallery says as she leads her group back inside -- and back in time.

“Nine hundred years to go.”

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