Charles Lummis’ Castle of Stone: El Alisal

When I transplanted to Los Angeles, I came by plane, lugging two suitcases of clothing. Most people who move here come by car. Back in the day, most would have arrived by train. If you go back far enough, you’ll find plenty of people who migrated to L.A. on horseback or by boat.

Charles Lummis walked here. And he did it in 1884, at a time when railroads were a perfectly viable means of traveling across the country. Even more so, he made a media sensation out of it. Lummis, then a newspaper writer in Cincinnati who had taken a job with the Los Angeles Times, decided to use the occasion of his move to make a name for himself. As he trekked across the country, he sent detailed letters of his observations to the newspaper he worked for back in Cincinnati, which published them to great acclaim. His walk took him through the American Southwest and many of its Native American communities, and as with many White men before him and many after, he was fascinated by them.

Those encounters would shape not only the rest of Lummis’ life, but the history of the American West. Not so much because Lummis directly affected any significant historic events, but because he positioned himself as one of the most important storytellers of the Old West. He made history, but even more importantly, he wrote it.

The Lummis House—also known as El Alisal—sits at the corner of Ave 43 and Carlota Blvd, right next to the Arroyo Seco Freeway and about a 10-minute walk from the Southwest Museum station on the Metro Gold Line. From the platform entrance, take the stairs downhill and walk down the street until you reach Figueroa. Cross the street, make a right, and head down Figueroa until you reach Ave 43. Then make a left, walk a block to Carlota, make a right and walk until you find the entrance gate.

Walking route from Southwest Museum to the Lummis House

From the outside, El Alisal seems like an inauspicious attraction. It’s a weedy, tree-filled lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. The Arroyo Seco Freeway runs through a trench just across the street from the entrance, filling the air with the sound of rushing traffic. The sidewalk itself has virtually no shade. A solitary street vendor on the corner is usually one of the only signs on life. There’s little to indicate that one of the most historic buildings in Los Angeles is located here.

But as soon as you step through the gate, you are transported to a different world. A thicket of tall sycamores shade the gardens within. The grounds are what I would describe as “rustic,” lacking the lush, heavily manicured feel one would expect of a botanical garden. A map near the entrance gate shows the layout of the gardens, with different sections meant to represent different regions of California, each with native California plants. But the boundaries between these different “regions” feel hazy as you walk past, one fading into the next. The garden has a very understated, naturalistic character. A little meadow sits at the southern end, while the dirt pathways are adorned with the occasional bench or sign describing the drought-tolerant vegetation.

And in the middle of the gardens sits the little stone castle of El Alisal.

The romanticization of the American West began as soon as the United States had finished colonizing it. With Anglo-American supremacy assured, the non-white cultures of the West could be viewed as relics of an idealized past. The 1880s marked the start of the height of cultural fascination in the “Wild West,” with dime novels, magazines, and Buffalo Bill’s traveling shows being some of the most significant cultural artifacts of the time. This was a mass obsession so overwhelming that it dominated American culture for many decades, with the Western being the most popular film and television genre from Hollywood’s inception into the 1960s.

Charles Lummis found his greatest success by appealing to this insatiable appetite for the Old West. His tenor with the Los Angeles Times was short-lived, as he suffered a stroke soon after taking the high-profile but intensely demanding position of the paper’s city editor. To recover, he indulged his fascination with Native American culture and moved to the quiet town of Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico, where he spent a couple of years. Lummis was enchanted by the local culture and studied the cultures of New Mexico with ethnographers and archaeologists, including Adolph Bandelier, the namesake of Bandelier National Monument northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Lummis moved back to Los Angeles in the 1895, where he took a job as the editor of Land of Sunshine, a magazine run by the local chamber of commerce. This was when he reinvented himself as an expert on the American West. Under Lummis’ tenure, the magazine changed from a glorified tourist rag into a well-reputed literary magazine, with its scope expanded from merely promoting Southern California to commentary on the broader West. Lummis used the magazine to promote his political views and fanciful observations, helping shape a romantic view of the American West and California’s past that was eagerly devoured by his predominantly White audience.

As Lummis’ reputation grew, he expanded into other endeavors throughout the 1890s and 1900s. He would do a brief stint as the City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, which proved controversial due to his lack of any experience as a librarian. Lummis would also be one of the most prominent members of the Landmarks Club of Southern California, whose most famous effort was championing the preservation of the California missions. Land of Sunshine would give Lummis a platform to advocate for the rights of Native Americans, joining protests against the practices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and harsh treatment of boarding schools. And in Los Angeles, he convinced many of his fellow civic elite to contribute their money and unite their private collections of (often ill-gained) archaeological artifacts to found the institution which became the Southwest Museum (which we covered in our first post).

And while he was doing all of this, he was building his house on the banks of the Arroyo Seco.

El Alisal is essentially a small castle, built by hand by Lummis and a small group of hired laborers over nearly a dozen years. The exterior was constructed using river rock excavated from the bed of the Arroyo Seco creek, which at the time was a trickling stream at the edge of the property, not the freeway-adjacent concrete channel that it is today. A turret occupies one corner of the house, marking the living room.

Inside, Southwestern-style flourishes mark the interior. The entrance is marked by heavy, rustic wooden doors, adorned with a particular insignia of Lummis’ creation mounted on the front. Curved adobe walls, corner fireplaces, ceiling timber beams, Native American rugs, and a tranquil courtyard in the back recall the New Mexican homes that Lummis would have cherished.

The Los Angeles that Lummis knew was booming, but it wasn’t the vast metropolis that it is today. California has become a realm unto itself, reflecting the vast cultural reach of the United States, Latin America, and the Pacific Rim. But Lummis envisioned Los Angeles as the cultural center of the American Southwest, reflecting the broader heritage of this vast region of the country. This might be best reflected by the most unique feature of the house. Inlaid into the living room windows are black-and-white photographs, visible through the sunlight streaming inside, of the places and people of New Mexico. These are Lummis’ own photographs, documenting his former neighbors in Isleta Pueblo and some of the majestic places he saw.

Hanging on the wall opposite and laid out on the living room table are photographs of Lummis, his family, and some of their guests at El Alisal. Lummis was one of the most prominent characters of the Arroyo community, which at the time was a noted social scene home to many artists and intellectuals who made Highland Park and Pasadena a center of the American Arts and Crafts movement. John Muir, Clarence Darrow, and Will Rogers are just the most famous names among the many, many people who were entertained within these walls.

In fact, the parties thrown at El Alisal were something of a matter of local legend. Lummis’ eccentric personality and gregarious manner proved too compelling for his neighbors to resist, and these parties were rife with heavy drinking and womanizing. Although his star had faded by the 1920s—especially after a very public divorce with his wife, who had finally had enough of her husband’s theatrics and infidelity—Lummis remained a beloved character in the community all the way until his death in 1928, a stubborn fixture of a Los Angeles that was rapidly vanishing.

Much like the Southwest Museum, the Lummis House has an uncertain future. After Lummis’ death, the property passed into the hands of the Southwest Museum, which sold it to the state, which in turn transferred it to the City of Los Angeles’ parks and recreation department. In 1965, the house was leased to the Historical Society of Southern California, who opened the property to the public and used it as their headquarters. But after nearly 50 years, the lease was ended after the city said they were unsatisfied with the historical society’s level of investment in the house. The city operates it now, staffing it on the weekends while they try to find someone else to run the property.

While the Lummis House’s opening hours are very limited (restricted to Saturdays and Sundays, 10am-3pm), the people the city staffs are extremely knowledgeable about the history of the house and the life of Charles Lummis. When we visited, we had a very long conversation with one of the docents (who is also featured in a KCET show about the life of Charles Lummis), who filled us in on the recent history of the Southwest Museum and the politics surrounding it.

Like the Southwest Museum, the Lummis House has an aura of former glory about it. And like the Southwest Museum, the house is somehow all the more captivating for it. As you stroll through the gardens of El Alisal, you can glimpse the tower of the Southwest Museum rising above the trees. Both buildings are the legacy of one of the most interesting characters in Los Angeles history, who shaped that history by telling it. Between the turret of his house and the tower of his museum, Lummis turned this little corner of the city into his kingdom.

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