July 29, 2015

Photo Essay: The Dorothy Bembridge Murder Mansion

Los Angeles is full of little bedroom communities that used to be cities—places that got gobbled up by a better-known neighboring municipality, and are now just a footnote on a historic plaque.

Willmore City is one of those places. With Drake Park (then Knoll Park) at its heart, it was the first historic district of Long Beach. What's left of it is just one square mile in size, perched on a bluff over the LA River, across from the Port of LA and Terminal Island.

The crown jewel of Willmore City—which has plenty of landmark homes in Mission, Craftsman, and Queen Anne architectural styles—is the Historic Bembridge House, a Queen Anne Victorian with an original carriage house and aviary.

The original owner was Stephen Green, one of the founders of City National Bank—but its namesake was Dorothy Rankin Bembridge, who grew up in the house after her father bought it and moved his family from Nebraska in 1919.

Its ornate features are amazingly well-preserved, thanks to the fact that Dorothy maintained it as a single-family residence until her death in 1999. Although she did move out and get married, she returned to the house when her husband bought out her brother's share, once the two siblings had inherited it from their parents.

An international concert pianist and local piano teacher, Dorothy Bembridge was an important part of the early development of Long Beach, its community for 80 years, and its current cultural heritage. She was a founder of the Long Beach Historical Society, and she saved her own house from demolition.

So it was shocking for her to be murdered in her own backyard.

Because Dorothy collected some things over time but never really got rid of anything, the house contains antiques from many different eras dating all the way back to the turn of the century...

...creating a narrative of her nearly 90 years, now frozen in time.

Although there have been talks of turning the Bembridge mansion into a house museum of the Victorian Era, for now, it's full of Dorothy's personal belongings and furniture...

...whether they're technically historic or not.

Clearly, she wasn't ready to die.

She taught piano lessons here...

...and kept the house in pristine, largely unaltered condition, in all its splendor.

She surrounded herself with objects that she loved.

Maintaining this two-story house was no small undertaking...

...with a total of 18 rooms, four of which are bathrooms (all original).

And yet, she still found time to sew, in a room off the old sleeping porch.

Dorothy's presence is felt everywhere in the house.

Sometimes it feels as though she is still there, watching...

...or maybe playing piano. She always loved the soft acoustics of the curtains and floors.

On the third floor, a very large attic houses even more collectibles and memorabilia. Despite the heat up there, it was once converted into sleeping quarters as part of the coastal defense during times of war.

Up there, you can walk right into the hexagonal turret, which resembles more of a witch's hat from the inside.

How did this beloved founding daughter of Long Beach come to her demise at the hands of another? Most think it was revenge. In 1990, a transient who frequented the park across the street, Daniel William Borunda, had been doing odd jobs for Dorothy for a while when he burglarized her. He was convicted and sent to jail for the crime.

On October 19, 1999, Daniel was released on parole. On November 4, 1999, he broke into the Bembridge mansion again and strangled Dorothy to death, leaving her in the backyard to be found by police. In 2001, he was captured, convicted, and sentenced to 60 years to life.

No one has lived in the Bembridge House since Dorothy's death. Her treasured home is now owned by Long Beach Heritage, which opens it up for tours and hosts occasional special events there, as well as a quilting club. The scene of the crime—the backyard—is available for weddings, for those able to stomach the grisly history.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Time Capsule That Is Lanterman House
Photo Essay: The Museum of Misfit Houses
This House Has a New Home
Photo Essay: Inside Greystone Mansion

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