"Palos Verdes Resident since 1947"

The History of the Haggarty Mansion/Neighborhood Church — Part II — 1931-1949

History of Neighborhood Church — Part II — 1931-1949

By Dana Graham, President of the Palos Verdes Historical Society

The Haggarty Mansion soon after completion

We left the newly completed Haggarty Mansion in 1931 on the front edge of what became the Great Depression, though the severity of it wasn’t apparent for a year or two. John Joseph Haggarty and wife Bertha had just completed their 3rd mansion at 421 Paseo Del Mar, fully furnished it, but had never moved in, Bertha preferring to remain in the then fashionable LA residential district of West Adams, about to be eclipsed by a new development called Beverly Hills.

The entry hall 

The living room

One of the bedrooms

The rear portico

Rear portico – another view

Haggarty’s chain of high end department stores began to suffer a steep decline in sales – not only were many no longer able to afford it; it also became unfashionable during the Depression to flaunt your wealth if you still had it, because many of your friends no longer did.  This was true throughout the economy, including housing, fancy cars, etc.

The mansion began to be a drain on Haggarty’s dwindling finances and he put it up for sale in 1931.  There were few takers, but he did find a buyer in 1931 in a guy named Mortimer.  It appears that Haggarty carried back the paper because within a few months he re-acquired title.  One can speculate what happened, but my guess is that Mortimer couldn’t afford it either.  In 1933 a live one by the name of John Thistle showed up and bought the place.  Soon afterward he bought the two lots to the immediate west.  The grounds now included 7 lots.

In 1935 Thistle sold the property to the London Exploration Company, whose principal was Harry Wheeler.  What the London Exploration Company was doing in Chicago is a bit of a mystery – perhaps they were looking for any sign of Henry Hudson.  That year John Joseph Haggarty passed away.  Given the situation, rumors of suicide are not hard to believe.

Harry Wheeler (I’ve heard him referred to as Harvey, but in the Church we knew him as Harry) also did not live in the mansion, but rather used it to house his extensive art collection.  During World War 2 the tower was used to keep any eye out for Axis submarines lurking off the coast, especially in the wake of the shelling of the Santa Barbara oil refinery by a Japanese sub.  During this period the property appears to have been poorly looked after, basically abandoned and with the homeless (this was the depths of the Great Depression, after all) and stray animals having taken up residence.  Harry Wheeler appears to have passed away in 1947, though the exact date is uncertain.  Sorry, pictures of this time period appear to be non-existent.

We now leave the mansion in 1949 and go back to Michigan in 1913.  There was a famous Michigan lumber baron named Josiah Littlefield

A young Josiah Littlefield

Google him) who owned much timber land in the middle of the state. He had houses in Ann Arbor and 2 in the thriving metropolis of Farwell (population 250), which was located in the middle of his holdings. In 1913 his ravishingly beautiful daughter Hazel married one Dennis Vincent Smith of Petosky, MI, and Josiah and Emma built them a house across the street from their Farwell one – Main and Corning streets, in case you’re in the area.

The house at Main and Corning Streets

Dennis and Hazel Smith later in life

I remember sitting with Hazel in 1964 looking at old pictures, including some of her wedding. Even to a kid of 16, she was impossibly beautiful, could have been an actress. I felt a little like Kip with Miss Havisham. Wish I had some of those early 20th Century pictures today. Not long after the happy couple moved in, they decided to leave the country and become medical missionaries (Dennis was an ophthalmologist) in China. So the place was put up for sale.

Dennis Smith upon his retirement in 1960. Note his business card at lower left.

1917 there was a farmer named Jim Stanley who lived just north of town.  He had 4 daughters but kept trying to have a son to help work the farm.  September 1917 pregnant wife Grace gives birth to another baby – a girl!  He throws in the towel, buys the now vacant house across from the Littlefields, and moves his family into town.  The latest girl they named Ruth, and she was my mother. 

Meanwhile in China, the Japanese Army was slowly, and brutally attempting to take over the country.  In 1935 Dennis and Hazel found themselves in Nanking and managed to escape ahead of the Japanese.  They took a steamship out of Shanghai and ended up in Long Beach, CA, where they intended to build a house.  They soon learned, however, that there had recently been an earthquake there (1933) so that nixed the idea; however, there was this development up the coast called Palos Verdes, which was in financial straits and land could be had fairly cheaply.  They came to Palos Verdes and bought 10 lots on Via Palomino, building 3405 on 2 of them. 

The house at 3405 Via Palomino

They soon connected with something called Neighborhood Church, which was a collection of families who met in various homes for religious services. It wasn’t long before they were meeting in the auditorium of Malaga Cove School.

Neighborhood Church School 1936. Dennis Smith is in back row with white hair just to right of center.

World War 2 begins and ends and it’s now 1946. Jim Stanley’s 5th daughter Ruth had been dating one Clelan Graham before the War, they fell in love, and were married in St Johns, MI, in early 1946, whereupon they took off for Mexico to pursue some opportunity. Fast forward to Fall, 1947 – the Mexico opportunity didn’t pan out and Ruth and Cliff (as he was known) were in Mexico City, broke, and Ruth was pregnant. The closest people they knew were the Smiths in Palos Verdes, and only because Hazel’s parents had lived across the street in far off Farwell, MI. So they called the Smiths and asked if they could stay with them “for a couple of weeks until we get our feet on the ground”, to which the Smiths said “you know, we will be leaving for a 2-year around the world cruise and we were looking for a house-sitter”. And this is how we came to live in that house when I was born in it, 11/1/1947.

My father and I sitting on the front steps of 3405 Via Palomino late 1949.

Mid-1949 the Smiths return, my parents are building a house at 4205 Via Pinzon ($2000 for the lot, $10,000 for the 2 bedroom 1 bath 1200 square foot house, plans for which were purchased out of a catalog), and Neighborhood Church and the Haggarty Mansion are about to have their fortunes intertwine.  Is that called a “tease”?

Our new house at 4205 Via Pinzon in 1950

Stay tuned for Part 3 – 1949 – 1987 or so.

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