Wednesday, June 13, 2012

'Reimagining' the Doheny Estate

Blanche Seaver gets the facts about the planned redevelopment of Chester Place
from Cardinal McIntyre as Sisters Rebecca Doan and Josephine Feeley look on. May 21, 1965.
TAKING A SHORT BREAK from the digitization project, we're starting to work on the 50th anniversary of the Doheny Campus, which opened to Associate of Arts students as the "Downtown Campus" in September, 1962. The planning committee has lots of good ideas for marking the date.

The campus' antecedents make for a fascinating story. The CSJs had a long history, starting in the 1940s, of living and working on the Chester Place estate, even in Countess Estelle Doheny's lifetime. But when the property went to the L.A. Archdiocese on her death October 30, 1958, the problem of what to do with it became a thorny one for then-Cardinal James Francis McIntyre. After much study and discussion his Eminence talked the CSJs into taking it and opening some form of educational facility.

We move ahead a few years to a proposed major redevelopment of the Downtown Campus. In those days of the Mercury Astronauts and Cold War, the thinking was that students wouldn't want to attend classes in old and somewhat dilapidated Victorian homes. (The upkeep wasn't nearly as pristine as it is today.)

The Cardinal brought in his favorite architects, the firm of Barker & Ott, which had built most of the Chalon Campus and a great deal of L.A.'s "Catholic infrastructure" as well. While the architects developed their master plan, Sister Rebecca Doan, Mount president, launched an ambitious $10 million fundraising campaign (about $70 million in today's dollars), a portion of which would go to the redevelopment of Chester Place. The campaign was branded, tellingly, the SPACE Program.

Ground was broken for what is now Building 4 on the Feast of the Epiphany, 1965. A few months later, on May 21, the completed master plan was unveiled to College benefactors at a reception held in the Doheny Mansion.

Seen today, the architects' drawings are a shock: Gone are the graceful homes 1, 2, 7, and 10, replaced by the up-to-date academic architecture prevalent at the time. Only No. 8, the Doheny Mansion itself, remains as a small, ornate island in a sea of modernity.

Fortunately, the master plan was never carried out. It's not at all clear why not. Did fundraising fall short? Or did someone argue that the buildings needed to be preserved? While the latter seems plausible to us now, it's far from certain that the CSJs and the Mount signed up for architectural preservation. They had a mandate -- go into the neighborhood and teach -- and a bunch of antique firetraps wasn't necessarily in the program.

An old contact sheet turned up this week that provides another clue. (The negatives, alas, are gone.) Dated the day of the unveiling reception, the ten frames show Cardinal McIntyre, Sister Rebecca, and Mother Josephine Feeley, L.A. Provincial, with a most prominent benefactor -- Blanche E. Seaver.  McIntyre is explaining the architectural rendering to her.

Mrs. Seaver wasn't just any benefactor, however. Her late husband, Frank, had been in the oil business with Edward L. Doheny, and ties between the Dohenys and the Seavers went back 50 years. Moreover, the archdiocese was now her landlord. She had rented 20 St. James Park, a block west of Chester Place, since 1927.

If you look at the contact sheet, it's obvious that Mrs. Seaver isn't smiling.

We can't read minds -- or much else -- from two-and-a-quarter-inch contact photos. Perhaps she was on board with the demolition plans. But we might more safely surmise that Mrs. Seaver was pleased with preserving the urban oasis that was, and is, Chester Place. When she died in 1994 at the ripe old age of 102, she had lived in No. 20 for sixty-seven years. Perhaps a word from her was all it took to put the rebuilding program on permanent hold.

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