20 Berkeley Square


Arthur B. Benton designed three houses on Berkeley Square, none of them conforming to the conventional post-Victorian formula of symmetrical stucco austerity that was taking hold as one strain of Southern California domestic architecture, and apparent in some Square houses. Texture was important to Benton; the stone and timber in the Edwin James Brent house suggest a connection to Greene & Greene's work in Pasadena—done less imaginatively, perhaps, but here was one massive Craftsman bungalow. A fish pond, a fountain, and an aviary holding rare finches were enclosed in the angle at back; a porte-cochère led from the main drive of the Square to a large garage at the rear, the gates next to it allowing access from the private service alley. The shape of the house might have lent itself better to a corner lot, but presumably a 160-foot frontage gave it room for a porch view that was out into the Square and not just into the McReynoldses' living room next door.

The early view of the Brent house above the title
doesn't reveal its enormity; above and below are illustrations
showing the house's long east wing, oriented along a southeast/
northwest axis. The configuration of "Casa-en-el-Pedregal"
was unique among Berkeley Square houses.

While some entrepreneurs saw the path to riches in building houses for the ever-billowing tide of new Angelenos, others saw their fortunes coming from furnishing them. Some, such as the brothers Barker, cultivated a genteel trade, supplying suites of reproduction Sheraton to the upwardly mobile; others saw profit in outfitting the thousands of more modest cottages, and later Craftsman bungalows, spreading across city and county, understanding that even the humblest of Southland dwellings would require beds and shaving stands, a davenport of some description, a dining table and chairs, kitchen equipment, and perhaps a cuckoo clock if not a grandfather clock. While dozens of home furnishings concerns sprang up in the years following the Civil War, it was Englishman Edwin James Brent who arrived in Los Angeles in 1886 by way of Indianapolis to capitalize on the domestic needs of waves of fellow immigrants who by turns of socioeconomic status found themselves unable to resist the lure of the ever-lower fares of madly competing railroads in the mid 1880s. By 1887, the cost of a ticket from Kansas City to Los Angeles had famously fallen to $1. No matter that the inevitable bust came the next year—even if the émigrés could afford the much more expensive passage home, Southern California had seduced them, and they were staying under the palms. E.J. stuck it out too—and eventually all the ticky-tacky little boxes on the hillsides needed to be filled with his paraphernalia.

1887: The signs flanking the door trumpet Brent's bargains in new goods
and in second-hand items; under the potty chair appears to be 
E.J. Brent himself. This, his first store, was at the southwest 
corner of Fourth and Spring in downtown Los Angeles.

Brent's appeal to the masses, which began with a junk store he opened in 1887 with a total capitalization of $50, would by 1915 result in sales of more than $10,000,000. That's a lot of washboards. In the same way that F.W. Woolworth built his New York office building out of the nickles and dimes of his customers, so too did Brent use his prodigious proceeds to make a statement. His first thought once he was resting comfortably on his tuffet of hard-earned cash was to delegate some responsibility at his downtown store to be able to spend half the year in London. But when he saw the recently gated barley field out toward the western Los Angeles city limits, he saw paradise in the nascent tract and got on the phone to Square developer William R. Burke forthwith. In December 1906, with the paint on Burke's own house at #6 barely dry, Brent bought the first of the two lots that #20 would soon spread across; his next call was to the very talented architect Arthur B. Benton. It would be well over a year before Edwin and his wife Mary and their only child Edwin Jr., born in 1902, would be able to move into the resulting house. Though eccentrically shaped and sited, it was by all accounts beautifully executed—rather huge for a family of three, but perhaps not if one considers that room was needed for the retinue of servants outnumbering masters that was common among Square dwellers, especially among those wishing to make a statement. The Brents did take the in-town estate idea to the extreme by giving the house a name—"Casa-en-el-Pedregal"—the only one for a dwelling on the street. A bit over the top for people in—well, you know—trade...no? At least that's what Estelle Doheny, two minutes removed from the bog herself, said.

E. J. and Mary Brent, she photographed in the shadows of her vast
veranda, celebrated their 29th anniversary with an elaborate
dinner party at #20 in August 1910. "Covers"—Edwardian
parlance for place settings—were laid for 29 guests.

But in trade or not, the Brents were more or less old-line society by L.A. standards. Mary Brent heard lectures and played bridge and arranged flowers with her fellow members at the Ebell and the Friday Morning clubs. The Brents maintained a country house in Calabasas they called "Mountain Crags," which adjoined the Crags Country Club. Mr. Brent's downtown club affiliations included the Athletic Club, but, in spite of his once wanting to spend time abroad, he seems mostly to have cared about his business. His humble start at Fourth and Spring streets was followed by much larger stores selling new items as opposed to those previously owned—i.e., junk. Brent was a notable pioneer in credit sales. His "Great Credit House," as he promoted his business, was a boon to new Angelenos who needed an icebox before having the cash to put down on the barrelhead. His later, somewhat more upscale emporiums on South Main Street served the likes of his original customers as they became more prosperous.

The façade of 20 Berkeley Square, 1908.
The main entrance is at left, porte-cochère at right;
 the arches, much of the first floor, and a surrounding low wall
were built of arroyo stone. Below: A closeup of the front door arch reveals
the charm of the house's huge porch, an outdoor living room with
a cool Adirondack feel somehow ideal for the salubrious
air of Los Angeles before cars ruled the city.

One might assume that after shooting their wad on name-brand architecture, the Brents might have looked farther than their own catalog of relatively modest furniture when it came to outfitting their new house. While they might have sought actual antiques on their travels, perhaps Barker Brothers gave them a corporate discount on the best Grand Rapids had to offer. Somewhat alarming is that when the Los Angeles Times featured the interior of the house soon after completion, it pointed out that Mrs. Brent herself had done the paintings of classical figures on velvet that lined the main stair hall. Not clowns or card-playing dogs, but, well...charming. Upstairs, presumably meant as a refuge for E.J. and his cigar-chomping cronies, was an impressive billiard room with a vaulted Gothic-style ceiling. The Times's overall verdict was "magnificent yet homelike." There were swellegant entertainments at #20, of course. In June 1912, Mrs. Brent, face powdered, bewigged and kimona'ed, entertained 200 of her nearest and dearest fellow matrons with a Japanese tea. Another, more conventional tea for 100 took place in November 1919—with Prohibition slated to begin in two months' time, one might have hoped upon receiving the hostess's invitation that the tea would be spiked for a last blowout. Doubtful—this wasn't the Llewellyn-Milner house, after all.

The entrance of #20 led into a beamed vestibule; an equally dark dining room,
 with tiny table for tiny people, is seen at center left—California's natural
 advantage of copious sunlight was somehow yet to be discovered
 as an interior design element. Arthur Benton's complicated
 floor plan shows the central staircase that led to the
 upper stair hall, where one of Mrs. Brent's velvet
 paintings hung. (How one yearns to see it up
 close, and in color.) The house's south-
ern exposure is as madly complex as
 its layout, with sleeping porches
 and textures that suggest
Greene & Greene—
sans delicacy.

"YOUNGSTER WINS WAY INTO PALACE" was how the Oakland Tribune of August 17, 1916, headlined the story of little Gladys Mary Brent's arrival at 20 Berkeley Square. Though details of E.J. and Mary's connection to the girl isn't made clear, the couple formally adopted the eight-year-old orphan in Inyo County, apparently at the urging of 14-year-old Edwin Jr. "Although Mrs. Brent explained to her son that a sister would mean the yielding of some of his privileges," young Edwin, a violinist and pianist, insisted on the adoption when he detected a similar musical talent in his new sibling. Gladys Mary became a typist.

The Brents' life at #20 began to change in early 1923. The parties hadn't let up, but an "at home" scheduled for January 7 had to be canceled due to E.J. having taken ill. Sadly and unexpectedly, he was to die in the house on February 8. After services were held at #20 a few days later, Mrs. Brent became the new president of Brent's Great Credit House, perhaps taking a cue from her next-door neighbor Alice Coulter, who had taken over the reins of her husband's department store after his death. Edwin Jr., barely 21 when his father died, would become secretary-treasurer. Apparently, however, things did not go well without the store's founder at the helm. By 1928, bankruptcy loomed; to compound the troubles chez Brent, Edwin Jr. died of pneumonia that year. The business was acquired, possibly at auction, by Samuel Rudolph, one of many established furniture dealers along South Main Street, and after 40 years the name Brent would disappear from the ranks of major Los Angeles retailers.

The Brent name would also disappear from Berkeley Square. Bankruptcy forced the sale of not only the store, but of #20 as well: A classified ad in the Times of July 15, 1929, titled "BERKELEY SQUARE SACRIFICE," offered a "Beautiful substantial home located in a private park known as Los Angeles' most exclusive residential district. Plot 160x250." Before that ad appeared, however, a widower named Winfield Scott was in residence along with his daughter Margaret, presumably as renters; both are listed at #20 on voter rolls for 1928 and 1930. As earlier in the decade when Scott lived in El Centro, his occupation was noted as "photographer." One source calls him a cameraman and suggests that he was associated with the movies, but he seems more likely to have been a commercial photographer of some sort. His daughter, curiously, is recorded as "Mexican" in annual censuses, with Spanish as her native tongue—one might then wonder if there was some connection to Mexican-American War hero General Winfield Scott, but this does not appear to be the case. The Scotts were gone by 1932, when attorney Montgomery Gordon Rice put in an appearance. But like the Scotts, Rice, his wife, Astrid, and her son Leonard C. Bowie did not stay long.

It could be that the Wall Street crash delayed for many years the sale of what was now quite the white elephant, accounting for the difficulty in finding the names of tenants who might have lived there for any length of time during the '30s. After being forced to leave #20 in 1928, Mary, despite having relatives in Northern California, remained in Los Angeles. She moved first to 501 South Manhattan, then spent over a decade at 456 South St. Andrews, where she took in boarders to supplement E. J.'s Indian War pension of $17 a month. (She has proven difficult to trace after that.) Perhaps #20 stood empty and unoccupied after the Rices left, save for a caretaker, as late as the war years, when the only verifiable subdivision of a plot on the Square took place. This alteration apparently involved either the demolition and replacement of the entire Brent house or the reconstruction of it by the removal of its angled east wing, confining its new footprint to Lot 18, and the reconstitution of a separate Lot 19 on which another new house was built at the rear of the property. The date of the new construction is uncertain, but it wasn't until the mid 1940s that the second house, addressed "20A Berkeley Square," appears in city directories and on voter rolls. Such listings have Vida Halliburton Woelz and Ruth Halliburton Hall, sisters who grew up at #19 across the street, living with their husbands at #20 and #20A, respectively; perhaps it was their father, Erle Halliburton, then still living at #19, who bought the Brent property and replaced or radically remodeled the original structure for Vida and built the new residence for Ruth.

The original Brent house is seen on a 1921 Sanborn fire insurance map at 
top; while the 1948 image below it is murky, it appears that a house—
lower right corner of the red lined space—has been built on 
Lot 19 quite late in the Square's history.

Voter rolls list members of the Halliburton family at #20A through 1954. Following them at that address was Kathleen Jones-King, who remained until 1962, joined by Chadbourne A. Wood and Warren S. Wilkins Jr. during the last two years. The altered Brent house at #20 appears to have been sold or rented by 1950; a Mrs. Eldridge D. Shannon claimed it as her voting address in November of that year. By 1952 and through early 1954, Edwin C. and Lois D. Carfagno were in residence. After Vida Halliburton Sr. died in 1951 and family patriarch Erle Sr. left Los Angeles a few years later, #19 and #20A, the remaining two Halliburton houses on the Square, were sold. 

§ § § § § § § § § §

Victor A. Nickerson, owner of #20 during its last 
decade, with his mother, Bertha Nickerson.

Victor and Rhetta Nickerson were living at #20 by April 1954. Mr. Nickerson, real estate man, was a son of the distinguished William Nickerson Jr., founder and first president of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, the Paul Williams-designed headquarters of which stood (and remains standing) four blocks from the Square at Adams and Western. Victor had arrived in Los Angeles with his parents and seven siblings from Houston in 1921. The Nickersons were listed at #20 in city directories through 1962 before moving to South Bronson Avenue. Others who appear to have occupied the various parts of #20 in its last years—by this time it seems that the 1908 Brent garage may have been converted into a residence, making three dwellings on the original double lot—were Magdalene Phillips, Graham Fain Jr., and Michael Strand. And then no one lived there—the last directory listings for #20 and #20A Berkeley Square appeared during 1963, the houses soon to be flattened under Firestones.

Illustrations: Private Collection; LAT; LAPL; Caslon/LATProquest/Historic Aerials;
The Western Architect; Ebony