West Adams Heights: A Historic Neighborhood Faces Challenges

by Michael Smith and Greg Stegall

“Nowadays we scarcely notice the high stone gates which mark the entrances on Hobart, Harvard, and Oxford streets, south of Washington Boulevard. For one thing, the traffic is too heavy, too swift; and then, again, the gates have been obscured by intrusions of shops and stores. At the base of the stone pillars appears the inscription “West Adams Heights.” There was a time when these entranceways were formidable and haughty, for they marked the ways to one of the first elite residential areas in Los Angeles. . . In the unplanned early-day chaos of Los Angeles, West Adams Heights was obviously something very special, an island in an ocean of bungalows—approachable, but withdrawn and reclusive—one of the few surviving examples of planned urban elegance of the turn of the century.”
–– Carey McWilliams, “The Evolution of Sugar Hill,” Script, March, 1949: 30.

Today West Adams Heights is still obviously something special. The past seventy years, however, have not been kind. In 1963 the Santa Monica Freeway cut through the heart of West Adams Heights, dividing the neighborhood and obscuring its continuity. In the 1970s the city paved over the red brick streets and removed the ornate street lighting. After the neighborhood’s zoning was changed to a higher density, overzealous developers claimed several mansions for apartment buildings, before the area was down-zoned again. Despite these challenges, however, “The Heights,” as the area was once known, has managed to retain and regain some of its former elegance.

Now, West Adams Heights is suddenly in the news –– not just in our own West Adams WAHA Matters newsletter, but in the Los Angeles Times and on our local broadcast stations, reporting the City Attorney’s action to close down two unlicensed group homes at 2205 and 2217-19 South Hobart, with a Receiver appointed to repair these two historic mansions (see story, page 9). Literally on the same day, February 20, Council President Herb Wesson nominated another West Adams Heights mansion, a residence designed by famed architect Fredrick Roehrig and located at 2067 S. Hobart, as a Historic Cultural Monument (see story, page 9). WAHA had previously reported that the mansions at 2200 S. Harvard and 2218 S. Harvard were endangered as well, with the current owners offering them for sale as “tear-downs,” despite 2218, the Wesley Beckett Residence, being designated as Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument No. 117.

Indeed, of late many preservation advocates have been pondering how to save “The Hill,” which has long been mired in gray, quasi-designated as a historic district requiring building permit review, and a list of Contributing Structures, including 2205 S. Hobart and 2217-19 S. Hobart (the former Louise Beavers residence). But although the portion of West Adams Heights that sits north of the 10 Freeway is within the boundaries of the Harvard Heights Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), the southerly portion is neither an actual HPOZ nor an official National Register Historic District.

History of “The Heights”

The West Adams Heights tract was laid out in 1902, in what was then a wheat field on the western edge of town. Although the freeway now creates an artificial barrier, the original neighborhood boundaries were Adams Boulevard, La Salle Ave, Washington Boulevard, and Western Avenue. Costly improvements were integrated into the development, such as 75-foot-wide boulevards (which were some of the first contoured streets not to follow the city grid), lots elevated from the sidewalk, ornate street lighting, and large granite monuments with red-brass electroliers at the entrance to every street. These upgrades increased the lot values, which helped ensure the tract would be an enclave for the elite.

The Wesley Beckett Residence, HCM No. 117, located at 2218 S. Harvard, has been abused and is now threatened with development –– its owner is advertising it for sale as a “tear-down”

One early real estate ad characterized the neighborhood stating: “West Adams Heights needs no introduction to the public: it is already recognized as being far superior to any other tract. Its high and sightly location, its beautiful view of the city and mountains make it a property unequaled by any other in the city.”

The early residents were required to sign a detailed restrictive covenant. This hand-written document required property owners to build a “first-class residence,” of at least two stories, costing no less than two-thousand dollars (at a time when a respectable home could be built for a quarter of that amount, including the land), and built no less than thirty-five feet from the property’s primary boundary. Common in early twentieth century, another clause prohibited residents from selling or leasing their properties to non-Caucasians.

By the mid 1930s, however, most of the restrictions had expired. Between 1938 and 1945 many prominent African Americans began to make “The Heights” their home. According to Carey McWilliams, West Adams Heights became known “far and wide as the famous Sugar Hill section of Los Angeles,” and enjoyed a clear preeminence over Washington’s smart Le Droit Park, St. Louis’s Enright Street, West Philadelphia, Chicago’s Westchester, and Harlem’s fabulous Sugar Hill.

West Adams Heights, now also known as Sugar Hill, played a major role in the Civil Rights movement in Los Angeles. In 1938 Norman Houston, president of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, and an African American, purchased a home at 2211 South Hobart Boulevard. Legal Action from eight homeowners quickly ensued. During that period, other prominent African Americans began to make Sugar Hill their home – including Golden State Mutual Insurance Company president Norman Houston, actress Hattie McDaniel, dentists and civil rights activists John and Vada Sommerville, actress Louise Beavers, band leader Johnny Otis, performers Pearl Bailey and Ethel Waters, and many more.

On December 6, 1945, the “Sugar Hill Cases” were heard before Judge Thurmond Clarke, in Los Angeles Superior Court. He made history by become the first judge in America to use the 14th Amendment to disallow the enforcement of covenant race restrictions. The Los Angeles Sentinel quoted Judge Clark: “This court is of the opinion that it is time that [African Americans] are accorded, without reservations and evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th Amendment.” Gradually, over the last century people of nearly every background have made historic West Adams their home.

Looking Forward

The northern end of West Adams Heights is now protected as part of the Harvard Heights Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ). It seems clear to us that the entirety of West Adams Heights should be nominated as a National Register Historic District, for the quality of homes, the prominence of the architects, notoriety of the people who lived in the neighborhood, and the role it played in civil rights.

Perhaps a quote adapted from a fireplace mantle in the Frederick Rindge mansion best symbolizes the optimism which exists in West Adams: “California Shall be Ours as Long as the Stars Remain.” 

Check out Michael Smith’s West Adams Heights photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/kansas_sebastian/sets/72157614917562301/