Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Arthur M. Letts -- Holmby House

Born in Holdenby, England, Arthur Letts (1862-1923) was one of ten children (four boys, six girls) born on the Letts estate, which dated back 400 years. At 16, Arthur was sent to apprentice at a dry goods store for three years, a trade which he no doubt learned very well. During his work he and younger brother Frank became enamored of opportunities they'd heard of in America. As the second son, he would not inherit the estate, so in July, 1883, two years after serving his apprenticeship, he and Frank embarked for Quebec, only notifying parents Richard and Caroline AFTER they'd boarded the steamer.

Arthur Letts, at the
time of his wedding
 His first work in Canada was on a farm near Toronto, but Arthur was not cut out for manual labor. He moved on to Toronto proper, working at the John Kay Co., a large mercantile store, and volunteered for the Queen's Own Rifles, fighting in the Battle of Cut Knife Creek. In 1886, he married Florence Philp (1868-1944), with law-student friend George Ira Cochran serving as Best Man. (George will end up playing an important role in Arthur's future.) Arthur advanced steadily at John Kay Co. in Toronto, but after six years in Canada, believed his best opportunity would be in the U.S.  He then set out for Seattle, arriving just a few days prior to the city-wide fire in June, 1889. Having little success, he then headed for L.A. in 1895 (based mostly on enthusiastic letters from Cochran, who had moved there when Arthur went to Seattle). With just $500 in his pocket--according to biographies, it wasn't much so far, but his fortunes were about to change.

As he arrived in L.A., The Broadway Dept. Store, J.A. Williams & Co., Proprietors, had just gone bankrupt. While not in the main business district, Arthur believed in time that the business center would move that direction. Creditors asked for a public auction for the store's stock, estimated value $15,000.  Arthur bid $8,167, winning the bid by $80. He needed $5,000 cash, with the balance due in 30 days. The Los Angeles National Bank loaned him $5,000, based on the loan's co-signer's good credit. That would be his old friend and Best Man, George Cochran. The rest of what was owed would be paid back from the sale of excess stock.

The next day a quarter-page ad went into the L.A. Herald, advertising "the greatest bargains ever seen". 
The first ad for Letts' Broadway Store

Arthur knew this was his big break. As his biographer stated "He began work regularly at 6 in the morning and continued frequently until after midnight. Literally, he did not quit until every task was done for the day." While this tenacity was to provide unbelievable success in business, it probably created personal issues with his family.

He made money from the start, and his fortune grew quickly.  By 1907, he had purchased 100 acres of land with a small knoll in the far-out Los Feliz area of Hollywood, and here he had built his mansion of success, calling it Holmby House in honor of his native homeland.
Our book's photo of Holmby House and Gardens ca. 1910
Living in the house in 1910 according to the census were Arthur and Florence, daughters Edna (1887-1966), Gladys (b.1889), son Arthur Jr. (1891-1959), along with three maids, a chauffeur, a cook, and a gardener.

Shopping in a "department store" back when Arthur started in Los Angeles was very different from today. Imagine all transactions rounded to the nearest nickel--one of Broadway's "firsts" was to provide exact change for each transaction. He was first in Los Angeles to use marked, fixed pricing--prior to that each item was a negotiation between you and the clerk. Another first in L.A. was the Broadway's offer of store credits for returns. Before that if you bought it, you owned it. At Christmas, as biographer Kilner wrote, "he was right there with an ad inviting the children to come to The Broadway and see a 'real live Santa Claus.' Santa was to be loaded with presents, and would give a bag of candy free to every little boy and girl who came to see him".

Changes were also introduced on the employee side. Beginning in the Spanish-American War, full salary was given to all employees who volunteered and were called up for service, and Arthur agreed to provide pensions to any  employee's family who lost his life during the war, to the full amount of the salary the employee was receiving when he enlisted. At a time when children had to work to support their family, he worked with the Board of Education to use one of their teachers to open a school in the store for child workers. Each morning employees under eighteen were allowed to attend the 1 1/2 hour class, which included arithmetic, grammar, composition, history and other topics. He provided half-day holidays each week during July and August, and shortened daily working hours for employees, closing at 5:30 p.m., a full hour earlier than usual.

Postcard of the Residence and Gardens, ca. 1910

Arthur had many interests outside work. Besides his love for horticulture (creating the gardens you see above), he also bred Collies on the property, bringing over from England a championship winner Ravenswood to start a line of Collies in California. The kennel grew to become too large for the estate, and so he set to find good homes for the dogs, and turned more attention to his flowers.

In 1909, the estate was a stop on the Points of Interest for Hollywood tour, which also included Paul De Longpre's residence about a mile away. The L.A. Herald's write-up in their Sunday magazine:

Arthur Letts' Mansion and Grounds
Immense country place. Large sunken gardens. A full acre of every known variety of cacti. Flowers in profusion. The largest coca plumosa drive in Southern California. Grounds open to visitors Thursdays.

In 1905 Arthur accepted the office of Vice-President of the L.A. Y.M.C.A. The directorate had been recently reorganized, with Frederick Rindge taking on the President position. But Rindge died before most action could be taken, and Arthur as president, headed a subscription drive for a new Y.M.C.A. building downtown, and by 1908 the new building was completed. This service was augmented by his volunteering for the Boy Scouts of America, serving as a National Vice-President in 1917. He donated ten acres for use as a camp site in Nichols Canyon.  It was used until the 1950's, when it was sold by the Boy Scouts for development, with the exception of a small 1/4 acre strip, which contains a memorial to J.B. Lankershim, who also donated camp land.

Camp Arthur Letts in the 1920's
(today's address for the tents would be 7551 Kimdale Lane)

John G. Bullock was new in Los Angeles in 1896, searching for a job. Arthur hired him as part of the bankruptcy sale on the first day of The Broadway's existence. By 1906, Bullock had progressed to buyer for Men's Furnishings, but assisted throughout the store. That same year, the Broadway lease was about to expire, and in a protective move, Arthur took on a second lease in a partially-completed new building at 7th and Broadway. Bullock was chosen to organize a company and save the location in the event it would be needed for The Broadway, which was rapidly outgrowing its current location. "Bullock's" was opened in March, 1907, with a large lighted sign on the roof, attracting curious crowds from around the city. Within a month, it was noticed that the better merchandise was moving well, but not so the usual goods. Buyers were ordered to focus future purchases with this new upscale clientele in mind. Bullock's was such a success, Arthur decided to keep both stores, empowering Bullock to organize the business. He took P. G. Winnett (Vice-President) and one other executive from The Broadway with him to Bullock's.  Everyone else in the organization had not been associated with The Broadway. Upon Letts' passing the business of Bullock's, which had been started with $250,000 in capital, was valued at $7,000,000.

Map of the Letts Property
(courtesy of the author)
Arthur knew real estate was great for investment in fast-growing Los Angeles. And with his significant access to capital, it was just a matter of time before he made one of his most significant purchases. In 1919 heirs to the Wolfskill Ranch (Rancho San Jose de Buenos Aires) were ready to sell, but they wanted cash. The former ranch consisted of over 3,200 acres, with an approximate border of Pico Blvd. on the south, L.A. Country Club on the east, Sunset Blvd. on the north, and I-405 on the west.  Purchased for $2 Million, Arthur turned over development to his son-in-law Harold Janss' company, Janss Investment Co. The area south of Wilshire contained land reserved for movie studios. The townsite of Westwood was laid out, which by 1927 contained 4,000 people.  In 1923 Arthur discussed with UCLA Regent Edward Dickson the idea of a new campus in Westwood. Janss Investment followed up after Arthur's death by offering land to the state and city at a price significantly under market value. And so construction started on the new campus--the first building being the Dickson Court Bridge connecting the main quad to the admin building. (The small valley it crossed has long since been filled.) Another part of the original Westwood Campus? Janss Steps (see below left).

Looking down Janss Steps, 1977

Janss Investment continued with the development of the rancho--creating estate lots from 3/4 acre and up, and planning an ultra high-end neighborhood, named Holmby Hills.  Many of the Janss and Letts families would end up owning houses there (six, in fact).

1923 was not the best year for Arthur. According to Unreal Estate, a recent book that  focused on the owners of Holmby Hills and Beverly Hills residences through the years, Arthur went to Florence and asked for a divorce, citing desertion for the prior year. But soon after, Arthur suffered a nervous breakdown, and within a month was dead of double pneumonia.

But did he really ask for a divorce? We don't really know--but what is known is that upon Arthur's death Florence immediately left the house, going to San Francisco where a Charles Quinn lived. From there she applied for a passport stating intentions to travel to Europe. Her return in June, 1924 through the port of New York was as Florence Quinn, wife of Charles. Together with Charles, she was to move to Holmby Hills in the early 1930's just down the street from two of her children, remaining at 141 South Carolwood until her death in 1944.

Holmby House in Happier Times
(courtesy of USC Digital Collections)

At the Funeral Service

The Family Mausoleum Today

Thousands attended the funeral for Arthur.  The eulogy was given by the Rt. Rev. Horsfall Johnson, local bishop of the Episcopal church. Burial was in the family crypt at today's Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

With Arthur's passing The Broadway was sold to a group of investors led by son-in-law Malcolm McNaghten (married to daughter Edna), who had been a Vice President of Finance at The Broadway. John G. Bullock led the buyout for his namesake department store. Son Arthur Jr. who had become President of The Broadway upon his father's death, focused his efforts on the real estate side of the family business after the department stores were sold. And besides the breakup of business, family members Arthur Jr. had their breakups too, with Arthur Jr. divorced in 1930, while daughter Gladys divorced in 1932.

Holmby House and the gardens itself were first finished about 1907. On the property in 1923 were Arthur and Florence in the main house, and daughter Gladys and husband Harold Janss lived in a grand house on a portion of the northeast corner of the land. But what was to happen to the main house and gardens with Arthur's death? It had been Arthur's stated wish to keep the gardens, to the extent he had provided money in his will for maintenance. Neither Florence nor Edna nor Gladys nor Arthur Jr. would try to live up to Arthur's wish. Harold the developer led the creation of "Franklin Avenue Square", razing the house completely. Some of the exotic plants were moved to Arthur Jr.'s new house in Holmby Hills, and Henry Huntington procured many of the exotic cacti for use in his cactus garden in San Marino. In less than 30 short years, the house had been built, then torn down. Nothing remains today.

An Aerial composite of today and yesterday
(courtesy of Bradford Caslon)

Additional Info:
Photos of the Gardens and House Interior

Gladys's 1933 "toy" after her divorce

It was a family business

Updated Feb 2020


  1. Fascinating reading! My husband is related to the Philps from Ontario, so this was very interesting to see how far one of the branches had come! Thanks for a great post.

  2. Thanks, Maureen for your comment. He was an interesting fellow!

  3. Bradford - wonderful, wonderful posts! The Letts home plays a major role during the Harold Lloyd 1924 feature comedy Girl Shy.

    I have written three books explaining where Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd filmed their movies decades ago. They all used LA mansions in their films. You can read about the Letts home at page 158 of my Lloyd book Silent Visions.

    I plan to contact you soon with more comments and questions.

    John Bengtson

  4. A very interesting post.

    My Great Grandfather was Arthur's first cousin but this side of the family stayed in the UK.

    John's post regarding Harold Lloyd (one of my childhood favourites) was also a great link, watching the movie and seeing the house and gardens is just amazing.

    I have often wondered what happened to Arthurs possesions when he died as much of it was from the UK and included a diary written by his father on a voyage to Australia. I assume his children inherited it but I wonder if anyone has the diary now or whether it is one of those things that gets lost or thrown away.

    Once again a great post.
    Rich Ford

    1. Arthur's older brother Richard (1858-1935) was my great grandfather and I too am interested in the whereabouts of the diary written by their father Richard Letts (1826-1902) on a voyage to Australia. Perhaps it has been deposited with the University of Southern California??

      Sharon Mansell (Australia)

  5. I was most fascinated by the first Broadway ad!

  6. Thank You for this very interesting article. Arthur Letts was a first cousin to my great grandmother Annie Letts (dau of Arthur's brother William. Annie's dau Gladys(1887-1987)came to Canada. Gladys is my grandmother, making me a 1st cousin three times removed of Arthur's. Now I have a picture of Arthur for my geneology record.

    1. Hi Evelyn. My maiden name is Letts, and my grandfather, William Francis Letts, originates from Spratton, U.K.,(DOB. approx 1895) which is a small village very close to Holdenby. I haven't traced my family tree very far back on that branch of our family, so I'm unsure, but we could be distant cousins! Christine Weatherley. Northampton U.K.

  7. Arthur Letts is my great, great uncle. His older brother Richard came to QLD Australia in the late 1800s. Richard's son Charles married my maternal grandmother (violet letts) in Cloncurry. My grandmothers daughter was my mother. She also was born in Cloncurry and was also called violet letts. I have just managed to get a copy of arthur letts biography. What a very different life Arthur's brother Richard must have lived in Cloncurry, QLD australia to the riches that Arthur created in America.

  8. my grandmother grew up on the letts property which turned out to be the playboy mansion...her dad was a landscaper who tended/lived with his family the grounds... i would love to hear any historical recommendation you have to look into that period

    1. The Letts property that became the Playboy mansion belonged to Arthur's son, Arthur Jr. A photo of Junior is above at the link "It was a family business".

  9. I really love your write-ups guys continue the good work.

  10. Good research. We have a 1931 Rolls-Royce which Florence Letts now Quinn ordered. Can anyone tell me if Charles Henry Quinn was wealthy in his own right or did Florence bring money to the relationship. I can't seem to find out much about him so any info would be great. Cheers. Sue

  11. Thank you for writing this article. I really enjoyed the read. My great grandmother was Bertha Philp. Her sister was Florence who married Arthur Letts

  12. Hi Bradford. I'm interested in using your map image from above in a book about Los Feliz. I would of course credit you. Can we discuss? Thanks.

    1. Sure. You can reach me at bradfordcaslon.blogspot.com. Regards,


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