The Pensioner Showgirls of Melrose

By 1952, most of the lovely Melrose Hotel’s 200 occupants were elderly pensioners — elderly pensioners with exciting, glamorous, Auntie Mame-esque pasts.

First there’s the Melrose Hotel’s parttime switchboard operator, Anna Pearce, a former singer on the Considine vaudeville circuit around the turn of the century.

The hotel is also home to Juliet de Grazi, a Swahili-speaking Austrian-born soprano who toured with a Belgian opera company through the cities of East Africa. In 1952, de Grazi was simply passing
through the Melrose. She had recently won a large settlement in an automobile accident, and was planning to return to East Africa where her husband was buried.

And Beulah Monroe was a fixture on the local theatre scene, making her debut in Oscar Wilde’s The Ideal Husband in 1919, opposite Edward Everett Horton. She appeared frequently at the Little Theatre at Figueroa and Pico, and also acted with Florence Roberts, Wallace Beery, and Neely Edwards during her career.

For more on the Melrose and its exciting inhabitants, take a look at what Joan and Nathan have had to say about mysterious fires, rowdy teen girls, and the tragic march of progress.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Hotel Melrose 
July 16, 1895

Bertha headline
Miss Bertha Fisher, aged 14, had looked forward to dressing in the latest fashions and attending parties with her friends. Unfortunately for Bertha, her parents had other plans for her future. As strict Salvationists, they thought that she was old enough to don a Salvation Army uniform (which was definitely not Bertha’s notion of a fashion forward frock) and begin trolling the streets of Los Angeles for souls in peril. Bertha preferred saving dance cards, party invitations, and lovely corsages to saving souls, so she ran away with a young man named Mr. White.

Frantic over Bertha’s escapade, the distraught Fishers spent hours haunting the local police station hoping for news of their wayward daughter. Police were on the lookout for the reluctant missionary, but Mrs. Fisher became antsy and enlisted the aid of another Salvationist to help her comb the city for the missing girl.

After Bertha had been gone for nearly two days, Mrs. Fisher and her fellow soldier in God’s army got a tip.  The two dashed to the cop shop where they breathlessly announced to the assembled officers that they “knew where she was at”.  The women had found out that Bertha and Mr. White were occupying room 28 at the Melrose Hotel, and asked Officer Richardson to accompany them to the suspected love nest.
 

The landlady at the Melrose Hotel told Officer Richardson that the young man had engaged a room for his sister, and because she’d had no reason to doubt his veracity, she’d rented it to him.  Mrs. Fisher was doubtless relieved when the landlady went on to say that even though White had rented a room for Bertha, he had never shared it with her. Hotel Melrose

To avoid arrest Bertha reluctantly went home with her mother, but it’s unlikely that their difference of opinion was settled that day. Bertha was heard to remark, “I’d rather go to the Reform School than stay at home if I have to become a Salvation Army lassie”.

Salvation Army lassies 

Bertha may have won the battle with her parents, because this item appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 7, 1897:   

 society header Bertha party

Party on, Bertha.    

The Richelieu Hotel – 142 South Grand Avenue

 

Richelieu Hotel

For nearly seventy years the Richelieu Hotel resided next door to the better known Melrose. The pair of Queen Anne Victorian buildings were two of the most stunning structures on the Hill, but the Richelieu always stood in the shadow of its counterpart. The Melrose once played host to President McKinley, was memorialized by artists like Leo Politi, and was covered by local press when the wrecking crews came. The Richelieu on the other hand, was far less celebrated but no less important, making its small mark on the history of a neighborhood that no longer exists.

Richelieu Hotel

The Richelieu Hotel was built by Richard E. Larkin and his wife Helen, and opened around 1891. Apparently the hotel was not particularly plush, for when the Larkins sold it to a Chicago business man a mere two years after it was built, the Times reported that “the purchaser will spend considerable money giving the house a thorough overhauling, and will run it as a first class hotel.” The overhaul was successful, and the Richelieu played host to society gatherings, and many local families and single residents would call the hotel home.  

LA Times HEadline

For the most part, the Richelieu maintained a relatively tranquil existence, with a bit of color thrown in here and there. In March of 1901, a bold burglar successfully struck Bunker Hill five times in one night, including the room J.F. Currier was occupying at the Richelieu. The cagey criminal was an expert lock picker who entered Currier’s room and made off with $150 in cash and a gold pocket watch without disturbing the resident’s slumber. The hotel was the victim of another burglary in 1904 when thieves entered the room of Mr. & Mrs. Bob Northam. The culprits were lucky that the Northams were out. The couple had been robbed a few months earlier and the Mrs had responded by lodging a bullet in the fleeing burglar. Of the more recent crime, Mrs. Northam expressed regrets that she was not around to take a shot at the thieves.

LA Times Headline

In May of 1949, the Times reported that a pair of detectives were investigating a narcotics lead at the Richelieu, when Ricardo Rameriez walked in on the pair. He attempted to quickly walk out, but was nabbed by the detectives who found $800 worth of heroin on him. One of the detectives spotted Rameriez’s wife waiting in a car down the street and asked her if she wanted to join her husband in jail. “Might as well,” she said and off she went. The next day, the detectives found the couple’s $36,000 smack stash at a hotel on Figueroa.

LA Times Headline

No Bunker Hill boarding house history would be complete without at least one suicide. The Richelieu’s came in 1933 when Sylvia Norris, a 55 year old trained nurse, strangled herself in her room with a hose. According to her husband who found her, Mrs. Norris was despondent over ill health.

LA Times Headline

One of the Richelieu’s more interesting residents was Walter Hallowell, who resided at the hotel for at least ten years. In the 1930s, Hallowell was president of the Bunker Hill Non Partisan Voter’s League and held meetings in his room. By the 1940s, he had established his Richelieu residence as headquarters for the California Shut-In Stamp Club. The club sought donations in order to provide the state’s some 60,000 shut-ins with stamp collections.  Hallowell and the club also offered correspondence courses in short hand, as well as a complete booklet on a variety of ways to play solitaire. Hallowell hoped that the club’s efforts would “bring some pleasure to a shut-in.”

Unlike many of the Victorian structures on Bunker Hill which quickly fell into disrepair, the Richelieu was always well taken care of. In 1939, when the WPA performed a household census of the area, the Richelieu and its thirty-nine units were listed as in “good condition.” The hotel suffered a fire in 1954, but the damage appears to have been minimal.

In May of 1956, the Times reported that the interior of the Richelieu was being redecorated and modernized and “perhaps, once again will be a proud residence.” When the Times extensively covered the demolition of the Melrose a year later, the Richelieu was already gone.

All photos courtesy of the California State Library Arnold Hylen Collection.

Burn Melrose Burn

incendiaryFebruary 27, 1911. It’s 9:30am, and Melrose Hotel manager Mark C. Bentz—nephew of M. W. Connor, owner—was in the office when stifling fumes and a dense cloud of smoke began to rise from the floor. He dashed down the stairs and into the basement where, in smoke so dense he nearly suffocated, managed at great length to extinguish the conflagration. Bentz discovered newspapers wadded up between the beams, blackened and scorched.

Bentz and Connor went searching through the house, cellar to garret, for some sign of a stranger, and were about to give up when the office again filled with smoke. Again there was a dash to the basement…nothing. This time the smokey cloud was emerging from the elevator shaft. San Bernardino papers (aha!) were extracted, smoldering, from between wooden beams therein. This time Bentz and Connor summoned the authorites.

Good thing, too, for as Sgt. Hartmeyer approached the Melrose, he saw smoke billowing from the structure…two alarms were sent to the fire department, a door and several windows were broken open, and a large clothes basket, filled with paper, blazing furiously, was doused.

No-one ever found out who the immolator of South Grand was, or what it was they were after. (Whether burning the Melrose inspired Kimberly to firebomb Melrose Place at the end of Season Three is a question, alas, for Darren Star.)
melrosein1940
The original Melrose Hotel, 130 South Grand, was a thirty-room, five-story structure built by Marc W. Connor (on what was then called Charity Street) in the summer of 1889. Its architect was Joseph Cather Newsom.  It was a center of fashionable goings-on, and society spectacle, and place of repose for honorable peoples.

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(The house in the foreground, 142 S. Grand, is the Robert Larkins residence, which became the Richelieu Hotel ca.1890.)

In early 1902 Connor erected the far more box-like Melrose Hotel, its architect Thomas J. McCarthy, at 120 just to the west of his cupola’d wonder, which became its annex, connected to the hotel proper by an arcade.
melrose1911

The dual Melroses persevered, all ornate of railing and careful of mitering, through the decline of, well, just about everything. By 1957, time had run out for the Melrose (one could say that Melrose place had been, if you will, canceled).

rooseveltsleptthere

There wasn’t anything left now but for little old ladies to amble by and mutter “oh, dear” and reminisce “I remember as if it were yesterday—the time President McKinley came to Los Angeles. We all came down and crowded around on the sidewalk—right here, right on this very spot—and listened while he made a speech from the front porch…”

pointypointy
Here, Mrs. Mary Connor Rasche, whose father Marc W. built the Melrose, poses before her father’s legacy some weeks before its demolition. (What’s that lurking in the background? With those clean modern lines, nary a gable or dormer to be seen? Why, it’s Paul Williams‘ LA County Municipal Court; here‘s an image from the great you-are-here website.)

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And so, it being 1957, the Melrose had to go.

demoday
“One of the wrecking crew workmen observed that it took more than a
year to build but only eight hours of giant claw and four-ton sphere
hammering to lay the once proud building to the ground.”

Ah, the March of Progress. One can hear it goosestepping along, even now.

In any event, should you wish to visit the site of the former Melrose, please patronize this parking structure.

notthatkindofpark

Melrose ca. 1895 courtesy California Historical Society, University of Southern California Doheny Memorial Library

Melrose 1957 courtesy Los Angeles Examiner Negatives Collection, University of Southern California Doheny Memorial Library

Other images Los Angeles Times and you-are-here.com; postcard, author’s collection