Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Magnificent Stimson

The Infant of Prague Convent (Stimson House),
owned by the L.A. Province of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. 
(V. McCargar photos)
WE HAD THE RARE PRIVILEGE last week of visiting Stimson House, a towering monument of early Los Angeles and since 1948 the home of some of the CSJs of L.A.

Even better, we were in the company of a trio of historians: Don Sloper, author of Los Angeles' Chester Place; Greg Fischer, a Downtown News columnist and former city planning official, and Jeffrey Malin, a business associate and friend of Greg's.

Rare pyramid-beveled glass
in the front door.
Visits to Stimson House (or the Infant of Prague Convent, as the CSJs refer to it) are rare because it is, after all, a private home. The five resident Sisters work in the downtown area, including Sister Judy Peters, principal of St. Vincent's School next door. The Sisters were kind enough to let us in for a look because Greg and Jeff are wrapping up a book about downtown building use, including the exquisite Douglas Building at Third and Spring, which was built by Thomas Douglas Stimson. Don, who helps organize the Doheny Docents, has seen the house a couple of times and came prepared with a history tour.

Stimson was a lumber baron from back East who is remembered as one of Los Angeles' foremost early developers. When he built his own home on fashionable Figueroa Street, he spared no expense nor architectural detail. The house, with its multicolored stone exterior and lush interior woodwork, would not be out of place in Chicago. A crenelated turret, on the other hand, is a little more alien in this city. But the overall effect is absolutely stunning, and that's just the outside.

Foyer woodwork. The whole house
looks like this.
The CSJs in Los Angeles received the deed to the house in 1948. According to USC and Mount legend, Countess Estelle Doheny was fed up with the antics of the USC architectural fraternity that occupied the historic home. (A section of parquetry flooring in the foyer was damaged by a pogo stick.) She purchased it out from under the frat boys and gave it to the Sisters. At one time there were a couple dozen nuns in residence, and in the early 1990s Stimson House/Infant of Prague served as a dormitory for Doheny Campus students.

The home has been beautifully maintained by the CSJs, who had extensive work done in the 1990s under the direction of Sister Jill Napier, CSJ. One of the many unusual features of the home is the graceful woodwork in the servants' quarters -- something wealthy homeowners typically didn't bother with. 

Sister Judy told me that she and the other occupants are aware that they are living in a national treasure. "We know this is special," she said. "We're thankful every day that we get to live here." 

We're thankful, too, that Mount St. Mary's College has such wonderful neighbors. If you'd like to see a few more pictures from our visit to Stimson House, consider connecting with us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/MSMUArchives.

The wraparound porch on the southeast corner of the first floor. 
Even the glass is curved. (V. McCargar photo)

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