Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stephen Dorsey -- 2619 S. Figueroa

In the early 1890's, before the Automobile Club of Southern California built its stylish headquarters at Figueroa and Adams, the southwest corner lot belonged to Major George H. Bonebrake (1839-1898), noted banker and top-level businessman in the early days of Los Angeles. In a time of horse and carriage, his new home was a pleasant three-mile ride down Figueroa Street from the main downtown district, with the rider ending up in a definite suburban atmosphere.

2619 Figueroa in 1893
 The large Queen Anne house with accompanying porte-cochere was located on the southwest corner of South Figueroa and West Adams, then just two quiet streets.

A view of the house looking north up Figueroa Street ca. 1893
(homestead museum-city of industry)

Bright's disease overcame Major Bonebrake, and he passed away in November, 1898. Pallbearers included J. M. Elliott and W. C. Patterson--both of whom have stories to tell in our blog.

In late 1901 the estate sold the house to Stephen W. Dorsey (1842-1916), retired politician and one who seemed to attract scandal throughout his career. The large lot by then was filled with many trees, obscuring the house into which ex-Senator Dorsey moved into in 1902, after his marriage to a new bride, the former Laura Bigelow (1863-1915), in New York and a subsequent honeymoon.

Dorsey Residence ca. 1910

Sen. Dorsey, ca. 1880
Born in Vermont in 1842, Dorsey grew up mostly in Ohio, from where he enlisted in the Civil War, then afterwards moved to Arkansas, where he became a reconstruction Senator, serving one term (1873-1879). While a Senator, he was awarded a STAR mail route for New Mexico, from which approximately $400,000 went missing. STAR routes were awarded by the Postal Service to serve low-population areas not near a railroad or other transportation. The scandal broke wide open in 1881 while Dorsey was living near Raton, New Mexico, in what came to be known as the Dorsey Mansion, having purchased an old land grant (which turned out to be forged). Finally declared innocent of the charges, he and his family (wife Helen and three sons, one named Clayton--the namesake of Clayton, New Mexico) sold most of the ranch and moved to Denver, probably to be closer to his mining interests, his having been involved in mining investments in Leadville and Central City.

He visited California on business multiple times in the 1890's, with L.A. listed among his destinations. While in Los Angeles he devoted his time to real estate, mostly as president of Benson Investments, a land investment/development firm. 
Senator Dorsey in 1910

In February 1915, Sen. Dorsey went in for "serious" surgery, and was reported to be on the mend. Then suddenly in July Laura fell into a coma and died within the week. Her body was returned to her former home in  Washington, D.C. for burial. Dorsey was not to recover. He died Monday evening, March 21st of the following year, and was buried in Fairmount Cemetery, Denver, Colorado in a family plot with his first wife Helen, and son Clayton.

In September, 1916, the Kathryn Montreville Cocke School of Music used the house as its business location. Ms. Cocke was a well-known music teacher from the New England Conservatory of Music. 

The lot and house were ultimately sold, and by 1922, the Automobile of Southern California had built there its new headquarters, which still stands today. 

The new Automobile Club Building (courtesy of USC Collections)
By 1951, the headquarters had expanded, taking another house and lot mentioned also in our blog.

More info:
Major Bonebrake funeral 1898


  1. Replies
    1. I am a little late on the response and "you are welcome". I am a descendant of his (he is my 2x great uncle). His parents were James Darcy and Margaret Heffernan, of Limerick, Ireland.

      Uncle Steve also had a brother named Henry who was named US Postmaster in Texas just outside of Houston. Another brother (my direct 2x great grandfather) received an appointment to serve as a US Cistoms official in NYC. Uncle Steve had a couple of residences there as well. All biographers have not made mention of these points!

  2. I believe there is a link between Dorsey and St. Vincent Church. Was he not the one to erect and donate the church?

    1. I believe that was oilman Edward L. Doheny of Teapot Dome fame. His wife Estelle set up a trust in support of St. Vincent's in the 1920s.

  3. Hi Angelina, the church's main financial support came from Edward and Estelle Doheny, who lived in their mansion just north of the church. The house still exists as part of Mt. St. Mary's University.


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