Western Heights was the Holmby Hills of its day, minus the Playboy Mansion. Los Angeles’ early 20th century movers and shakers got their celebrity cred, though, from living in stately manors designed by architectural stars such as Paul Williams and John C. Austin.
Western Heights -- southwest of Koreatown and bounded today by Washington Boulevard, the Santa Monica Freeway and Arlington and Western avenues -- began modestly, when the first cottage was built in 1903 or ’04, said local historian and author Don Lynch.
In addition to the wealthy local professionals who built there and in similar neighborhoods nearby, business titans from the Midwest and East Coast who liked to summer in Southern California built there too. The community was well established by World War I.
Streetcars that ran along Washington Boulevard transported the Heights’ businessmen to offices downtown. When automobiles came into fashion in the ‘20s, some of the area’s wealthier residents headed to the fashionable new western frontier: Beverly Hills.
What it’s about
Some of these homes have names and libraries, which says a lot about their original owners. The 10-room Baker residence on West 21st Street, for example, was built in 1910 for the James Blair Bakers, who entertained the Hearsts and Dohenys there.
Although no longer a magnet for Southern California royalty, many Western Heights denizens have restored the mansions to their former glory, and 89% of the residences contribute to the district’s historic status.
Maureen DeBose’s 5,600-square-foot house, designed by John C. Austin in 1909 -- with seven bedrooms, 5 1/2 bathrooms, two kitchens, a library, music room and an elevator -- features the original tapestry-style wallpaper, velvet curtains, oak floors, light fixtures and leatherette walls in the entry hall.
The surrounding neighborhood has changed dramatically over the years. When the Los Angeles riots erupted nearby in 1992, Heights residents worried that local businesses on Washington and Western would be destroyed. They were not.
“Concerned friends urged me to move from this neighborhood,” DeBose said, “but I love it and wouldn’t.”
It’s a special neighborhood association that gives every resident high school student $100 upon graduation. That’s just one reason that Chris Carlson, president of the Western Heights Neighborhood Assn., thinks the enclave is distinctive.
The 19-year resident also touts the community’s annual Christmas party, the summer pool parties and the local poetry slams.
“We watch out for each other here,” Carlson said of the ethnically diverse neighborhood. “We’re close. Once we had a brown-out, and 12 people showed up at the house across the street to share a bottle of wine and wait it out together.”
The loaded and the lurid
The Kissam residence on West 20th Street -- a three-story, 28-room Craftsman built in 1907 and designed by Frank Dale Hudson and William A. O. Munsell (their firm designed the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) -- was first owned by attorney Jonas B. Kissam, a cousin of Mrs. William Henry Vanderbilt. Kissam and his wife, Cornelia, apparently liked a lot of breathing room: The New York residents used the 8,000-square-foot home only when visiting their daughter and her family, who lived up the street.
Nearby, on South Gramercy Place, the Asher home (1904) has a murkier history. The 10-room, 5,352-square-foot manor with a carriage house was first occupied by real estate investor Hugh Asher, a Kentucky native. In 1975, Motown star Marvin Gaye purchased the home; he gave it to his parents 18 months later. On April 1, 1984 -- one day before Gaye’s 45th birthday -- his father shot him to death after a heated argument.
On the market
Western Heights is made up primarily of 107 single-family homes, which go on the market infrequently, said Natalie Neith, a Prudential California Realty agent in Hancock Park. Two current listings are a 1,666-square-foot, two-bedroom home priced at $695,000, and a 1,966-square-foot, three-bedroom home listed at $779,000.
Refurbished larger homes sell for at least $1.25 million.
Students can attend 24th Street Elementary School, which scored 668 out of a possible 1,000 on the 2006 Academic Performance Index Base Report, and Pio Pico Elementary and Middle School, which scored 659. They move on to Los Angeles High School, which scored 522.
Sources: City Living Realty agent Adam Janeiro; www.cde.ca.gov.