Larchmont Village resident Jocelyn Juul got a letter from an attorney in Alaska recently, and she almost threw it away, thinking it was junk mail. Once she opened it and started reading, however, she was fascinated to learn the letter was from the grandson of the man who built her house in 1919, who wanted to share the story of his family’s home.
The author of the letter was Don Mitchell, an attorney and nationally recognized expert on federal Indian law, who was prompted to write to Juul after watching a documentary on PBS about Mae West. According to the documentary, West lived at the Ravenswood Apartments on Rossmore Avenue in Larchmont Village from 1930 to the time of her death in 1980. Mitchell recalled visiting his grandfather in the 1960s and 1970s and walking up Rossmore, purposely stopping in front of the Ravenswood to see if he might catch a glimpse of West. The documentary got Mitchell wondering if his grandfather’s house was still around.
“Out of curiosity, I Google Mapped 540 North Gower Street,” wrote Mitchell. “The photograph indicates that the house is in good condition, although it’s been repainted. (When my grandfather lived in it, the house was painted white.) It then took a couple of additional keystrokes to determine that, according to blockshopper.com, you are the current owner.”
Then Mitchell provided the history of the house to Juul:
“My grandfather, Roy Craig Mitchell (my middle name is also Craig) was born in Ohio in 1881, but was raised on a farm in Iowa. He had no formal education until he was 13 years old and his father moved his family into a small farm town of Jefferson so that my father, grandfather and his three siblings could attend school.
From that inauspicious start, by the early 1910s he had graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in civil engineering. He then boarded the train to Los Angeles. Which is where he met and married my grandmother, Ena Crumley, who after obtaining a teaching certificate from one of the normal schools in Oklahoma had done the same thing: took the train to Los Angeles.
My father was born in 1918. A year later my grandfather set about building 540 North Gower St. He told me that when he purchased the lot on which the house was built, it was surrounded by orange groves.
For thirty-plus years my grandfather was a senior civil structural engineer for the County of Los Angeles, a steady job that allowed him to avoid the ravages of the Depression inflicted on my mother’s family. The apex of his career occurred in 1941-1942, when he was recruited to be a member of the engineering team that designed the Pentagon — an assignment that came with a high-end hotel room in downtown DC and a ride to and from work in a limousine.
My grandfather was an avid gardener who grew award-winning roses. In the back third of the backyard, he constructed a lattice-covered arboretum that had a watering system plumbed into the lattice that he turned on in the evenings by turning a handle that, if I recall correctly, was located by the back porch. The arboretum had a cobbled path that meandered through it and, again if I recall correctly, a goldfish pond. It was full of ferns and exotic plants. Also, on the north side of the backyard, my grandfather constructed an aviary in which he raised canaries.
I assume, albeit without knowing, that the rose bushes, arboretum and aviary are all long gone.
The other snippet of inconsequential history that might be worth mentioning is that my grandfather’s long-time next-door neighbor on the other side of your driveway was a professional violinist who played in the Los Angeles Symphony orchestra.”
We found the early permits that confirmed the house was built in 1919, as well as subsequent permits granted to Mitchell’s grandfather for repairs to the house over the years. (We found the records on the LA Department of Building and Safety’s online records database. It’s a cool place to search for historic house records, in case you are interested.)
After the exchange of letters, Juul posted the story on social media adding, “I’m so excited to write back to him [Mitchell] to show him the 2 Olympic tickets that came with the house. One from his grandfather in 1932 and the other Bing Crosby’s cousin. Apparently, my kitchen counter is from a movie set hence it ends abruptly before the back door!”
Our thanks to Juul for sharing the information she learned about her house with the Buzz, and a photo of the Olympics tickets found in her house. The tickets show the names of the ticket holders, Roy C. Mitchell, the owner of her home at the time and Jack and Barbara Crosby, who later purchased the home from Mitchell and were relatives of actor and singer Bing Crosby.
In addition to making our neighborhood’s beautiful, old houses are full of great stories. If you’ve got one to share, please let us know.