Thursday, August 10, 2017

Photo Essay: A California Country Home In a Long-Lost Orange Grove

It's funny how pretty much anyplace you go in Southern California—particularly in the greater LA area—ends up being a goldmine of history.

And sometimes it takes a while after visiting for me to really understand the importance of a place.

Sometimes, even when I think I've got it figured out, I end up changing my mind after my second, third, fourth, or other subsequent visits.

Take Downey, for instance.

I'd first visited the southeast suburb of LA more than six years ago—having remarked that it was home to not only the oldest standing McDonald's but also Bob's Big Boy Broiler (formerly Harvey's and Johnie's), a sibling location to the one in Burbank I'd become obsessed with back in 2006.

I thought it was a roadfood metropolis, and nothing more.

At the time, I had no idea about the rural beginnings of Downey—something I didn't find out about until just two years ago.

Yet it's only now that the story of La Casa de Parley Johnson in Downey has started to make sense to me.



In Downey, this so-called "California country home" was once home to a prominent local citrus farmer from Riverside, Alexander "Parley" Johnson, whose family was heavily involved in the development of the Valencia orange. At that time, ranching was synonymous with business and profitability.



Johnson's widow Gypsy lived in the house until her death in 1986—and it's been preserved thanks in part to the stewardship of the Downey chapter of the Assistance League. Gypsy had bequeathed the house to the all-female non-profit community service organization, of which many of her friends had been members.



The 6,000-square-foot residence of reinforced gunite (a concrete aggregate) was built for the wealthy citrus grower and his wife between 1924 and 1926, when it was surrounded by 50 acres of orange groves—most of which were eventually sold off for commercial and residential development in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. What remains now is about an acre and a half.



The "country house" itself—which is more like a Spanish hacienda—was designed by architect Roland E. Coate, known for his expression of the "Monterey" architectural style (a subset of Spanish Colonial Revival) in the many residences he built throughout the Southland. Many of them were occupied by members of the Hollywood elite like Howard Hughes, Barbara Stanwyck, and David O. Selznick.



One of Coate's best-known public structures is the headquarters of the Automobile Club in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles. Johnson's uncle, Frederick Orson Johnson, served two terms on the club's board of directors. (There's some debate as to whether Parley Johnson himself was or was not a founding member of the Club.)



Surrounding the hacienda are a formal lawn as well as a walled garden area by Florence Yoch—a landscape designer for Hollywood movie sets, as well as for Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach. She was joined in her landscape architectural business ventures by her partner in business, life, and love for 43 years, Lucille Council.



The pergola is no longer festooned with crawling vines, and the fountain in the forecourt is no longer enshrouded in potted succulents.



As you stand in the courtyard on the patio, you can still look up at the exquisite wooden balcony, behind while you'll find the master bedroom, two bathrooms, two dressing rooms, and a sitting alcove on the upper level.



Before WWII, ranching wasn't just a business—it was good business. And Parley Johnson, like many other successful ranchers and "growers" of the era, was pretty well-to-do.



At the house (now christened "La Casa de Parley Johnson"), he and his wife provided accommodations for both a live-in chauffeur and a maid.



Gypsy herself was an avid gardener and a member of the Los Angeles Garden Club...



...and was largely responsible for creating such an environment of idyllic Southern California living.



The interior and exterior are covered in nature-inspired and floral-patterned decorative tile, a different design in every room.



That includes a water basin (possibly used as a "flower sink") in the outdoor dining area.



According to local "Tile Man" Brian Kaiser, the tile at Casa de Parley Johnson is by-and-large of Mexican origin—which was actually uncommon at the time, in part because California tile was so geographically close and of such high quality (sometimes referred to as "everlasting").



How can you tell? Well, look for the telltale trio of chips from three little balls (a.k.a. tres pies, or three little feet) that separated layers of tiles while the wet glaze was being fired in the kiln.

It's an ancient Persian ceramic glazing technique found only in two places in the world, at least during the 1920s: the capital city of Tunisia, Tunis, and the Spanish colonial city of Puebla in Mexico.

And it's a good way to differentiate between cities of origin and between different potters' work.

But how did Islamic art find its way "south of the border"?

We can only guess that the Moors must've brought the knowledge to Spain when they conquered the Iberian Peninsula and that, centuries later, the Spanish conquistadors must've shared the technique after they landed in Mexico.

But only half the tiles at Casa de Parley Johnson actually have those chips. The rest are sometimes rumored to be Malibu Tile, but it's more likely that they're also Mexican—just not from Puebla.

And so yet another mystery of Southern California begins to unfurl.

For more on Casa de Parley Johnson, visit my friends at Esotouric who brought me there on one of their bus tours and who provided extensive information in their "You Can't Eat the Sunshine" podcast.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Ranch That Built An Empire of Oranges
Photo Essay: The Birthplace of Santa Monica Canyon