September 25, 2016

Photo Essay: The Boddy House of Rancho del Descanso

There's a reason why Descanso Gardens in La CaƱada Flintridge is known for camellias—why it, in fact, has the largest collection of camellias in all of North America with over 700 species.

And that reason is a guy named Manchester Boddy.

It started at the beginning of World War II. The local gardeners and nursery owners who'd brought camellias over to the States from Japan were being sent off to internment camps (like Manzanar), leading to the collapse of their industry.

By that time, WWI veteran Boddy (pronounced "Bodie") had moved to the West Coast for a drier climate and had made himself into a successful publishing magnate as owner of the political-leaning tabloid, the LA Daily News. And that meant he could buy up all the Camellia japonica he could find—tens of thousands of them, planted across 20 acres—and start his own wholesale business on his estate at Rancho del Descanso.

Boddy had been living there with his wife and two sons since 1938, when his family mansion—designed by James E. Dolena, in the "Hollywood Regency" architectural style he'd become known for—had been completed.

And he'd already been selling some cut flowers there, mostly as a retail business of prom corsages and such.

So much for taking a "break," or getting any rest or relaxation, as the name "Descanso" would imply.

But his interest in horticulture was strong, so he kept planting and building more gardens and cultivating new flowers and hybridizing breeds—all while living in his 12,000-square-foot home on the very same property.

In 1950, Boddy opened his gardens at his "Ranch of Repose" to the public, for free—but, overwhelmed by the interest, closed shortly thereafter and reopened the next year, charging a nominal fee.

That same year, he shifted from voicing his political views in his newspaper to getting into politics himself, as both a Democratic and Republican candidate for Senate. He didn't make it past the primaries.

By 1952, Boddy had had enough.

He retired from the Daily News; and the next year, he sold his estate to the County of Los Angeles for use as a public park.

While Boddy moved on to another garden park in San Diego County, his mansion became Descanso Gardens' "Hospitality House," an art gallery and museum that garden visitors could, at one point, reach by tram.

For decades, its library only ever opened to the public once a year for a holiday craft show—until 1990, when it officially opened featuring a great number of Manchester's personal papers and writings (loaned by his grandson) as well as his published works.

It was used as an actual library back then, with horticulture books that could be checked out by members of the Descanso Gardens Guild.

Now, it's more of a traditional house museum, with period-appropriate furniture and decor and recreations of various settings, like the bay window where Boddy used to write.

But it's hard to see what it must've looked like back then, because the house has been used for so mant other things since Boddy's time there—including offices and a gift shop.

Interior designers have even gotten their hands on it and made some pretty significant changes when it's been a "showcase house" (as Wattles Mansion was) in 1993 and 2007 (and maybe other years as well). Their contemporary "re-interpretation" has rendered the bathrooms rather glitzy...

...and the kitchen rather modern (and expanded into the former servants' quarters.

As for the rest of the 22 rooms, including upstairs? I don't know, because it's been closed off. Without disabled access, they can't allow the public up there.

I'd been to Descanso Gardens twice before, and I didn't even know there was a house there. I suspect I've only explored a very small portion of its grounds.

On my next visit, I'll have to track down the Enchanted Railroad...

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Descanso Gardens & Trail
Photo Essay: The Many Lives of LA's Original Farmers Market
Photo Essay: Wattles Mansion & Gardens
Photo Essay: Rise of the Jack o' Lanterns

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