854 West Adams Boulevard

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  • Lumberman and real estate developer John A. Henderson acquired Lot 15 of the Severance Tract in 1887; dividing its 145-foot Adams Street frontage into two building sites, he appears to have built 854 on spec on the 70-foot west portion in 1891, selling it to citrus grower Albert Duffill, formerly of Detroit, that year. On August 2, 1891, the Los Angeles Times reported that Duffill "has bought a beautiful home on Adams street, and will henceforth be a citizen of Los Angeles." (Henderson sold the west 75 feet of Lot 15, unimproved, to Montana cattleman Nelson Story in February 1892, upon which Story built 840 West Adams)
  • In October 1891, Albert Duffill exchanged half-interests in 854 West Adams, as well as in other Southern California property he had acquired, with his wife, the former Eugenie Grasselli, whose personal wealth derived from her family's chemical concern in Cleveland
  • The Duffills' only child, 23-year-old Harry, was married to 20-year-old Martha Davis in Detroit on August 24, 1901; the couple would move into 854 West Adams until his parents' wedding present, a house being built for them at 642 West 28th Street, was completed (that house was demolished in 1947). The Harry Duffill's son Albert II was born on March 3, 1903
  • Albert Duffill died of complications from diabetes at 854 West Adams on March 31, 1905, at the age of 62; his funeral was held in the house three days later
  • On May 15, 1913, the Los Angeles Herald contained a headline that read "SERVES COFFEE IN A.M., ASKS DIVORCE IN P.M.," referring to Martha Duffill. "With memories of her husband's alleged friendship with a beautiful blonde nurse in mind, she filed suit." Harry, now described variously as a real estate broker and a "prominent Los Angeles clubman" (and later as a "shipper and rancher"), did indeed have a side squeeze; his wife was granted an interlocutory decree on November 14, 1914 and received full custody of little Albert, who was now 11. The divorce became final on December 16, 1915 
  • Infidelity and matrimony became even more complicated for Harry after his mother died at home on January 7, 1916. Three weeks before—the day after his divorce from Martha became final—he had married the nurse who had taken special care of him during a recent illness, a Mrs. Alice G. MacNamara. Courtroom wags had dubbed Mrs. MacNamara—the disposition of Mr. MacNamara, whether through death or divorce, is unclear—the "Orange Blossom Girl," she having been the frequent recipient of "great bunches of blossoms" from Harry's extensive groves inherited from his father. His mother was most seriously displeased with Harry's conduct, having written a new will two months before Martha kicked him out of the 28th Street house (after which he'd bunked in for the time being, though perhaps not every night, with Mummy at 854). It is unclear as to whether he was aware of the senior Mrs. Duffill's having stipulated in her will that his legacy be cut severely in favor of little Albert if he were to marry Mrs. MacNamara, but he proceeded to fight the outcome. (Mrs. Duffill had left Martha $10,000 in cash and offered an extra $1,000 to little Albert if he would lay off any intoxicated liquors until he was 21.) Even as a divorcée, Martha remained popular, often mentioned in social reportage, with her husband and his new wife going unmentioned for years, neglect that may have only spurred Harry on. He succeeded in breaking his mother's will in a battle that would be upheld by the California Supreme court in July 1919, though Martha was no pushover when it came to getting her share, final decree in place or not. Harry's aggressive disputes with her over terms and with attorneys over their fees would drag on into at least 1920




  • Harry Duffill and his "Orange Blossom Girl"—Alice was also known as Allie—would not be living at 854 West Adams, but rather at 611 South Commonwealth Avenue. Harry would, however, retain 854 as rental property into the 1940s. First, he held an auction of his mother's furniture on October 9, 1916, at the house (statuary and a Vernis Martin table on offer, among other Victorian grotesquerie). This would make way in 1917 for longtime renter Willard A. Norton, a building contractor, who was no doubt helpful in taking care of a maintenance-intensive old house. By 1920, 854 was divided into three separate quarters, at least nominally in terms of that year's census, with Willard and his wife Cora in one part and their daughter Bertha Wiseman—a music teacher—and her husband Harry in another, and an apparently unrelated George and Zennia Pope in the third. Harry Duffill was early in converting a big West Adams house into rental property, which would be valuable with Los Angeles on the verge of a huge population boom in the 1920s
  • Willard Norton would remain at 854 West Adams until 1929, after which he would be moving on with Cora and Bertha—who was now divorced—to rent another old neighborhood barn at 24 St. James Park. Appearing in local papers just before he left were his obviously paid testimonials, complete with his photograph, for Sargon, a new patent laxative the makers of which the Federal Trade Commission would soon come down on for its major ingredient, grain alcohol 
  • Along with their reconfigurations into standard rooming houses, the old residences of West Adams were ripe for conversion into U.S.C. fraternity residences, which began to open all around 854 in the '20s. Harry Duffill had added an exterior fire escape to the house in early 1928, which would come in handy before long. The boys of Phi Sigma Kappa were in residence by early 1930, and, though apparently careless with their Camels, would remain for over a decade. Duffill was issued two permits to repair fire damage to 854, the first on August 31, 1932, noting that the damage was to approximately 15 percent of the structure. A second permit was pulled on August 18, 1933, for the repair of 20 percent of the house, including replacement of the roof. It appears that there may have been a change in the façade from one with large gables to the current configuration incorporating a hexagonal third-floor bay. (A permit issued to Duffill on April 7, 1933, was for the repair of chimneys damage in the Long Beach earthquake of March 10)
  • Harry Duffill added a garage/storage building to the property after he was issued a permit on September 20, 1934
  • After the departure of Phi Sigma Kappa for a prized house on Fraternity Row—938 West 28th Street, where the chapter remains, though in a house built in 1950—Emma G. L. Johnson appears to have acquired 854 from Harry Duffill after it had been in his family for 50 years and would continue to rent rooms. Johnson may have also acquired 900 West Adams, or managed it for its current owner as a rooming house. A rare boulevard survivor, 854 appears to be utilized similarly today
  • Albert Duffill II married Phyllis Chamberlin of Berkeley in 1927; their daughter Phyllis Alberta was born the next year. In 1931, not long after Duffill's unsuccessful bid for a Nevada state senate seat, he and Phyllis were divorced. He married Mary Wood Kemper on March 3, 1933 (his 30th birthday); he died on July 31 of the next year. Three months before that—on April 25, 1934—Allie, his father Harry Duffill's Orange Blossom Girl, had died, apparently unexpectedly. In August 1935 Harry married 39-year-old Alma Norton Hare Brown, who had already been divorced twice; the union was brief, though she would soon become known as a fashion and accessories designer using the name Alma Norton Duffill. Harry's fourth marriage, to the former Mabel Osborn, lasted nearly 20 years until his death in 1965—but he was buried in Hollywood Cemetery alongside his Orange Blossom Girl. It is unknown whether she resembled either of the young women on Harry's crate labels.






INTERIOR VIEWS OF 854 WEST ADAMS STREET, ca. 1895




Part of the illustrations for a story in the Los Angeles Times on September 26, 1982, about the
Third Annual North University Park Walking Tour that month was a pen-and-ink drawing of
854 West Adams by Edward Alejandre. Judging by the depiction at left of the low wall
that once surrounded the house next door, 840 West Adams, the drawing may
have been done years earlier or have been based on an old photograph;
840 was demolished in 1965 and replaced 13 years later. Behind
such low walls on the south side of Adams once ran a zanja,
an open-air ditch supplying residential water from the
Los Angeles River until early in the 20th century.




Illustrations: Private Collection; LAT; Ancestry