2076 West Adams Boulevard

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In a 1998 paean to businessman Daniel Murphy, the Los Angeles Times called him "the city's richest and most powerful man," adding unironically that it is to him that we owe the creation of Needles, Colton and El Segundo. "Even today," the Times continued in 1998, "although few recognize his name, the foundation he established remains the largest single benefactor of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese...." And of course for a figure so important as to rate one of those mockregal papal titles—in his case "Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher" (whatever that could be)—there was no scrimping when it came to his own comfort and embellishments to his elaborate estate. The first building permits for what was actually the second 2076 West Adams Street were issued in the fall of 1908; designed by Hudson & Munsell, Murphy's modern and distinctive palace was ready by early 1910. Perhaps one of the prettiest houses ever built in Los Angeles, it has sadly gone to its reward, as has the house moved to 2193 West Adams Street to make way for it.

Dan Murphy had been renovating the house his late friend Clinton Sterry had built at 2607 Wilshire Boulevard in 1897; while by 1908 Wilshire Boulevard had developed into a linear neighborhood of grand residences, its cachet and that of its developing adjacent neighborhoods was at least a decade from beginning to usurp the desirabilty of the Adams corridor. With views to the north from the original blocks of Wilshire featuring oil derricks of the Los Angeles City Oil Field and scenic Beverly Hills barely aborning, there is little wonder that Murphy decided after smelling the petroleum fumes to work out a deal with savvy real estate investor Jane Ridgway for her house and its south-sloping 589-foot-deep lot that afforded spectacular southerly views toward the Pacific. Mrs. Ridgway had built a typical suburban frame house on the parcel as her own home in 1896, perhaps as much for its value as an investment, in the newly annexed Western Addition beyond Hoover Street, and Murphy was just the sort of homeseeker she sought to profit by. Ridgway and Murphy settled on having the original 2076 moved to a lot 1,000 feet west and across Adams on the site of the future William Andrews Clark Library, turned 180 degrees, with the house then resuming its function as the Ridgway residence. 

An illustration of the ambivalence bedeviling the rich when it came to deciding on desirable early-20th-century Los Angeles neighborhoods was Daniel Murphy's hedge of bets in acquiring properties both in the West Adams district and on Wilshire Boulevard during 1903 and 1904. In September 1904, a year after buying 2076, the über Irish-Catholic millionaire purchased 2607 Wilshire from the estate of Mr. Sterry, for whom he had recently served as a pallbearer. Born in Pennsylvania in 1855, Murphy began his rise by wildcatting in Oklahoma. After moving to California with the Southern Pacific, his Gilded Age drive turned all he touched, appropriately enough, to gold. After developing the railroad stop of Needles into a town in the 1880s, he financed the reorganization of the California Portland Cement Company in 1894 and then founded the Brea Cañon Oil Company, all of which provided the means to speculate in land. A largely forgotten Los Angeles legend, Murphy, to whose growing sense of power the Venetian suggestions of 2607 Wilshire may have originally appealed, made the effort to enlarge the Sterry house from 14 to 17 rooms. Ultimately deciding that as fashionable if smelly as Gaylord Wilshire's subdivision might be, the baronial dimensions of the Ridgway property in the much more established Adams District would allow for a grander in-town estate than what was by comparison a mere suburban lot. Perhaps it was his wife, Antoinette, who ultimately rejected the Sterry house. In any case, while all along staying at their Adams District house on Orchard Avenue, along came a third Big Swinging Dick, a friend of Murphy's apparently unperturbed by oil odors. Isaac Milbank—whose wife was a Borden's Milk heiress—took 2607 Wilshire off of Murphy's hands in May 1905. The Ridgway deal done and the Wilshire house unloaded, visions of another sort of Italian place danced in the Murphys' heads.


A postcard view of the rear of the Murphy house illustrates the advantage taken by house builders
of the southerly slope of Adams Street beyond Manhattan Place; the lot of 2076, with a
frontage of 165 feet, extended 589 terraced feet down to West 27th Street. The
grounds were designed by noted landscape architect Wilbur D. Cook Jr.,
among whose other projects at the time included the curving
street plan of Beverly Hills and, nearer to Adams
Street, Los Angeles's Exposition Park.


While it could perhaps not have been anything as pathological as megalomania, a mere 165-foot-wide lot, even if it was 589 feet deep, would not wind up suiting the Murphys' taste for baronial extravagance. In the mid 1910s, Murphy acquired the decade-old Burbridge-Werner house next door at 2080 West Adams and cleared it from its lot to add another 165 feet to his frontage; the property now totaled 4½ acres. The combined parcels were renamed on survey maps as the "Antoinette Tract" in honor of Mrs. Murphy. But Murphy didn't stop at a mere 4½ acres. In 1928, the 14-room brick house just to the east at 2070, called "Wildaire," completed in 1906 by Cameron E. Thom, mayor of Los Angeles from 1882 to 1884—also designed by Hudson & Munsell—was demolished. Now Murphy would have an in-town fiefdom of 6¾ acres, with 2076 at its center, to enjoy for the last decade of his life. (To ease the burden of climbing stairs, an elevator had been added to the house in 1926; it is not known if the Murphys still retreated in summers to their house in Pebble Beach.)

While he was now ensconced in his own, shall we say, Vatican, with Antoinette's elaborate gardens, her greenhouse and lath houses and pergolas and follies and fountains, the dream seemingly complete, the onset of the Depression would quickly make it clear that West Adams, even its estate area, was no Beverly Hills or Bel-Air. While the immediate neighborhood would retain some appeal to the city's social Old Guard for another decade, the Adams District's aging housing stock and crumbling eastern reaches could no longer compete with those western suburbs or subdivisions that had begun to emerge out on Wilshire Boulevard beginning in 1911, when Fremont Place and Windsor Square opened, creating a real estate draining effect that redoubled when Hancock Park went on sale in 1920. By the early '30s, even with his property devalued and in an unfashionable location and expensive to maintain—even for a Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher—Murphy would be staying on Adams Boulevard. Originally seeking a son, the Murphys, on a trip to Italy in 1910 to acquire such an heir, so the story goes, came home instead with a seven-year-old named Bernardine, who had tugged at Antoinette's sleeve while they were shopping at an orphanage, which rather than abroad may have actually been in New York, where the adult Bernardine would swear on a passport application to have been born on June 2, 1904. Wherever the tug occurred, it was taken as a sign from God, and the little girl was adopted and taken to Los Angeles to live as a princess at 2076 West Adams Street.


A crown even: The Countess Bernardine Murphy Donohue


Antoinette Murphy fell ill in mid 1937, expiring at home on June 16 of the following year. A week shy of his 81st birthday, Dan died at 2076 on September 14, 1939. Bernardine was left with the wherewithal to maintain the house through the servant-scarce war years; she would also succeed her father as president of several of his businesses and become a director of his California Portland Cement Company. When romance finally appeared in Bernardine's life, it was naturally under Catholic auspices—and with an Irish component, of course—and it was discovered practically in her own back yard, or more precisely, just across the street at the St. John of God Sanitarium, which had opened in 1943 in the former Neustadt/Fitzgerald house at 2443 South Western Avenue. Working there was Brother Daniel Joseph Donahue. According to the Times in 1998, "When one of Bernardine's servants became ill and wanted to die in his native Germany, Donahue volunteered to take him there. Later Donahue and Bernardine met again in Rome and a romance blossomed." Once he was released from his religious vows by Pope Pius XII, Donahue and Bernardine were married on January 16, 1954. No longer a servant, Daniel Joseph Donohue had them instead. Soon after, the newlyweds decided that Adams Boulevard's residential days were definitely done and that it was best left to institutions. Setting their sights on Earle C. Anthony's property at 3431 Waverly Drive in Los Feliz, one famously designed by Bernard Maybeck, they acquired it and then, in the family tradition when it came to making one's home comfy, went to town making improvements, adding an elevator, pools, fountains, you name it. (Interestingly, Daniel's name appears as the owner of the house on many building permits involved.) For her part, Bernardine furnished one room as a replica of the pope's prayer room in Rome. Then the couples' titles arrived from the Vatican. For their work in establishing the Dan Murphy Foundation in 1957 and for its largesse to Catholic causes, as of 1960 there would now be Countess Bernardine Murphy Donohue; for three of his many honors (Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Knight Commander of St. Gregory, and, echoing his late father-in-law, Knight Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of Holy Sepulcher), Countess Donohue's consort was now Sir Daniel Donohue. He had acquired quite a taste for the good life after the asceticism of the sanitarium; the "Collection of Sir Daniel Donohue," as Bonhams & Butterfields called it—1,000 lots of European furniture, objets de vertu, silver, and decorative and fine arts—sold at auction in 2011 for over $4,000,000.


The front door of 2076 West Adams peeks out from its mid-life lushness as seen from the north side of
the street. The house's low wall was extended west when the Murphys acquired the Werner
property next door at 2080. The wires are over the tracks of the "A" line of the
Los Angeles Railway that threaded its way from downtown, running
west on Adams from Normandie Avenue to a turnaround
point just past La Brea until service on the

route ended on June 30, 1946.


While after the countess's death in 1968 the Los Feliz spread would be donated to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for use as a convent, it is the disposition of 2076 West Adams Boulevard that is more pertinent to our story. Not surprisingly, religious interests had gained title to it as well. The Department of Building and Safety issued a demolition permit for the house, with the owner indicated as the Catholic Church, on July 19, 1957. A multi-unit apartment complex called St. Andrews Gardens rose on the old Murphy estate in 1971 and remains there today.




Illustration: LAPL; Private Collection; Bernard Johnson