Those Lovely California Winters

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If we were inclined to amp up our backlot-spawned fantasies of living on a street out of Our Town, Leave It to Beaver, or Shadow of a Doubt, the house we'd choose would be the one built in 1925 at 904 North Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills. The distinctions of snobbery are no less real in that lovely town than in Grover's Corners, Mayfield, or Santa Rosa, but our desire to live in it has nothing to do with 904's socially superior location in the 'Hills, above Sunset Boulevard no less. Neither does it have anything to do with its architecture; there are certainly hundreds of such commodious Mediterranean pastiches in various glamorous precincts of Los Angeles, and it has never really been a style we've been attracted to unless a definitive Coate, Neff, or Smith creation. In our Southern hometown, such designs were in the newer, tackier suburbs (not that we would ever make such undemocratic distinctions, mind you). But this upper-middle-class Angeleno mini-palazzo is different: At this writing, 904 North Rexford Drive has remained basically untouched for 87 years, making it practically a mirage in Los Angeles. Only recently and reluctantly was the house abandoned by the 101-year-old daughter of the man who built it when she was called to a more conventional kind of heavenly rest on November 11, 2011. 

Frank Cook Winter arrived in Pasadena from Kansas City in time to be counted in the 1900 federal census along with his mother, Eliza, and at least one of his two sisters. His father, George F. Winter, a real estate man, was still in Missouri wrapping up business affairs when the census taker came around that year. Once reunited in California, the family moved to fashionable West Adams. After Stanford and U.S.C., Frank joined his father in the mortgage and property investment business. George and Eliza would remain in West Adams (moving to progressively grander houses on West Adams Street, from 1587 to 2550, the latter later renumbered 3320 and the home of George Pepperdine, founder of Western Auto and the eponymous university), as would Frank, who, once married, favored the developing western parts of the district. He and his bride Florence (née Miller) lived in at least two houses on Third Avenue, both now under the 10 freeway. There would never be a sketchy 'hood for the Winters clan.

As chronicled here, changes in West Adams demographics were underway by the mid '20s, with the area now fully developed. A real estate speculator like Frank Winter would have understood before most people that West Adams's day was done and the domestic future of affluent Angelenos lay to the north and west, in Windsor Square, Hancock Park, and in even newer western suburbs. He commissioned one of the favored Los Angeles architects of the era practiced in the Mediterranean vernacular, Raymond J. Kieffer, to build a restrained four-bedroom, four-bath house in the style on Rexford Drive. His choice of Beverly Hills over the more restrictive new developments along Wilshire Boulevard was no doubt calculated in terms of property value, as was his buying a lot there safely north of Sunset. 


Mother and daughter: Where are the smiles? Nearly identical 
Los Angeles Times photographs from May 20, 1928,
and June 21, 1931. Frances has just turned 21.



Records concerning the offspring of George and Florence are somewhat fuzzy. Their daughter Frances, for instance, elsewhere reported as having been born to them on June 6, 1910, is missing from the federal census of the Winter household at 2221 Third Avenue taken in January 1920, while a son named George, age five, is enumerated. There is indication that a boy may have been born to the Winters on May 1, 1914, but what then may have happened to him after 1920 is unclear; only Frances, who turned 15 the year the family moved to Beverly Hills, was counted with her parents in the 1930 census. While she traveled extensively and spent time away at college, Frances would never establish her own household. She was graduated from Marlborough, a few miles to the east of Rexford Drive; afterward she matriculated at U.C.L.A. a few miles to the west and at the University of Washington, earning a degree in psychology. To confirm her status as a daughter of the upper reaches of the haute bourgeoisie, she pledged no less of a sorority than Kappa Kappa Gamma, the famously orgulous breeding ground of debutantes and Junior Leaguers. One might speculate as to the family life of the Winters. Was there sadness over a lost son? Was Frances kept close to home as a result of this loss? There were many family trips, including annual voyages to Hawaii, sometimes on the Lurline, and to New York—interestingly, sometimes also by sea through the Panama Canal. Later there was a weekend house in Palm Springs. When at home in Beverly Hills, Frances, like her mother, participated in the genteel, little-white-glove social activities of matrons of her era and station. There was gardening, tennis, and bridge. Year after year there were teas and trips and careful tending of what seems to be the original decoration of 904, even of specific paint colors. She led a quiet life, but with enough verve, apparently, to endear her to her cousins. Frank died in the house in 1962, age 80; Florence lived another 22 years, and Frances, alone in the amber of the lovely Winter house, for another 27. What changes will now come to 904 North Rexford Drive? Preservation seems unlikely; considering the taste level of modern Beverly Hills, one shudders to think of the excruciating excess a remodeling or replacement might entail. Avert your eyes, Frances.









The dining room, utterly conventional except for the carved 
alabaster screens above the windows.



The card room


In truth, no photographs of the kitchen of 904 have surfaced. But we
would like to imagine that it is a plain affair, meant mostly 
for serviceability—and servants. There is a big porcelain 
O'Keefe & Merritt range, made in Los Angeles, and
the latest thing—a new Frigidaire. 


Still life: Frances with Clock. The frozen-in-1925 look of 904
comes not only from the department-store suites of 
furniture, but from the classic period matte 
beiges and corals and pale yellows
on the walls. Full of lead, no
doubt, but peaceful.


A lovely lemony bedroom...about as colorful as the Winters
would have it. The furniture in all rooms of the house 
appears to be strictly Barker Brothers—
or, at best, W. &. J. Sloane. 



Out back, stepping stones lead to a long-disused tennis court. There is 
no pool. (Even the much grander Jenkins house in Windsor Square 
was pool-less; its use in Sunset Boulevard, and later in Rebel 
Without a Cause, required that one be dug.) Contrary to
popular perception, early Beverly Hills wasn't all 
nouveau riche movie folk. While luxury is 
certainly relative, the town's large 
contingent of haute bourgeois 
former West Adamsites 
valued quality over 
extravagance.





The drawing of the Winter house
above appeared among a collection under the
headline "Why Southland Homes Are Known Throughout
the Country as Finest: Architectural Gems in Design" in the 
March 29, 1925, issue of the Los Angeles Times. Below are
images taken in May 2011 and July 2016, respectively;
mercifully, the only exterior change appears to be the
the substitution of a satellite dish for an antenna.
Initially offered at $5,500,000, the house was
sold for $5,700,000 on April 27, 2012. 





Illustrations: USCDL; LAT; Worldwide Estate Properties; See Saw; GSV