HANCOCK PARK—With the exception of special historical districts in Angelino Heights and West Adams, Los Angeles is nearly devoid of Victorian houses. Luckily, Hancock Park is home to one of L. A.’s rare examples of the architecture style that defined the turn of the last century and it is a house uniquely tied to the history of Los Angeles.
The house at 637 S. Lucerne Blvd. was built in 1902 under the direction of architect John C. Austin for Chicago grain merchant Hiram Higgins.
In a way, Austin was the Frank Gehry of early 20th century L. A., creating structures that became civic icons. His works includes Los Angeles City Hall, the Griffith Observatory, the Hall of Justice and the Shrine Auditorium, among others.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the house’s current owners, Perry and Peggy Hirsch, welcomed Austin’s descendants—led by his granddaughter Jane Spaulding—for a tour.
Spaulding, 82 has visited many of her grandfather’s homes and despite living in Orange County, said she didn’t know about this particular one until very recently.
“I was reading, I think, The Week magazine and they had a feature on homes for sale in California and there was this one pretty Victorian. I looked at the name of the architect and it said John C. Austin!” said Spaulding.
During the tour, Perry Hirsch told the story of the house’s famous 1924 move.
According to Perry Hirsch, the mansion originally sat at the corner of Wilshire and Rampart boulevards but as Wilshire became more commercial, the home’s owner Howard Verbeck moved it to more residential territory.
As it was the Roaring 1920s, Verbeck, the story goes, moved the house in the most delightfully ridiculous way possible.
On the evening of June 28th, 1924, he and his wife hosted a party for 100 friends including then Los Angeles Mayor George E. Cryer and Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News publisher Cornelius Vanderbilt IV.
The evening’s entertainment included dinner and dancing—but no drinks, as it was Prohibition—and then at 11 p.m. guests were invited to step into two rooms: half in the dining room and the other half directed to the kitchen to watch the house be split in two and then and carried by trucks to its present location. A 1924 L. A. Times story about the event carried the headline “House Moves Over Guests.”
Peggy Hirsch, who would only say she is of “retirement age” said that when she first heard the story about the house’s move, after she and her husband purchased it in1986, she had nightmares about the house splitting in half during an earthquake “and my bed bouncing down Wilshire.”
The Hirsches, who had lived in other areas in Los Angeles, bought the nine-bedroom mansion and restored it to its former brilliance after decades of hard times.
The house had started to decline during the Depression and continued to do so as it went through a series of owners whose names have been lost to time.
Over the years the house, which is just off Wilshire Boulevard, has served as a retirement home for nuns, an office building, a boarding house for actors and even the filming location of the 1971 horror movie Willard.
According to Perry Hirsch, “we didn’t realize how much restoration we had to do. Plumbing, electrics. They all needed to be brought to code.”
The Hirsches said they even consulted photos of the house from 1902 to ensure they got the right look for new lighting fixtures.
For their efforts, they received a commendation from the Los Angeles City Council and in 1988 the house was officially recognized as a Los Angeles Cultural-Historic Monument.
When the Hirsches completed their renovations on the house, they said they summoned the spirit of 1924 by throwing a party for 300 friends with a 16-piece band playing in the house’s double parlor. But this time, there would be no splitting of the house in two.
The house has also been used as a set in television and film, including Beverly Hills 90210—the Halloween episode—the Bob Dylan film Masked and Anonymous and episodes of Scandal.
The Hirsches enjoyed 26 years in the house but have since relocated to VenturaCounty and said they hope someone will want to take this architectural delight off their hands.
At $5.88 million, it’s a relatively small price to pay for a beautiful piece of Los Angeles history.