1554 South Wilton Place


  • On August 25, 1907, the Los Angeles Herald reported that the sisters Desea I. Todd and Cathalena T. Bell had been issued a building permit for a two-story, eight-room house on Lot 9 of Block 7 of the W. G. Nevin Tract at the northeast corner of Wilton Place and Sixteenth Street (today's Venice Boulevard). The permit issued by the Department of Buildings on August 27 indicates as the owner only Desea Todd; the architect listed is Edmund R. Bohan, the owner of a paint-supply company who had only that year graduated from the U.S.C. college of law. Bohan was less interested in law than in his various paint-related businesses and in property development, building a number of houses on spec; he does not seem to have had any formal training in architecture, which perhaps accounts for the fanciful Mission design of 1554 South Wilton Place
  • Desea Todd and Cathalena Bell were eccentric, much-married collateral relatives of Pío Pico, famously the last governor of California under Mexican rule. Desea Todd, who was born on July 18, 1869, appears to have reported herself variously younger in census records, as her sister, born on November 22, 1873, was also prone to do. After three weeks of living together and less than eight months of marriage, Desea was divorced from Lewis D. Macy in August 1897 and, within weeks, had married carpenter William H. Ross, from whom she was divorced on February 2, 1904. Cathalena had been, according to her mother in newspaper coverage of the scandal, lured into marriage at 15 by 50-year-old John Henry Church, who had had four previous young wives; she was subsequently married to Charles T. Bell, who died in 1920. Cathalena was later Mrs. Charles M. Morrow and still later Mrs. Frank Weller. In addition to the many names between them, the sisters appear fond of using Pico as a surname when it suited them
  • It seems that Cathalena Todd Church Bell had, intriguingly, yet another husband, one acquired between the old goat Church and Mr. Bell when she was singing "in saloons in Randsburg, Needles and Williams," and conducting "a road house between Los Angeles and Alhambra." She and Desea had for some time been dealing in real estate, with at least three transactions reported in the Herald from 1900 to 1902 referring to Desea Ross and "Cathalena T. Donahue." An item on Desea's split from Mr. Ross that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on February 3, 1904, stated that "Desea I. Ross was granted a decree by Judge Trask yesterday divorcing her from William H. Ross, on the ground of failure to provide. Mrs. C. I. Bell, sister to the plaintiff and better known as Lena Donahue, testified that she had sustained her sister for a long time, and that the husband had contributed nothing to his wife's support." What is curious about the notation "better known as Lena Donahue" in the item is that it turns out to be a reference to a well-known and not-shy brothel-keeper by that name who had recently been involved in a widely covered beer-doping scandal and who was known variously as the "queen of the Tenderloin," "queen of the half world," and "the sporting queen of Los Angeles," with"scarlet parlors" on Aliso Street. The scandal had at its center along with Lena a son of the esteemed judge—and founder of U.S.C.—Robert Maclay Widney; descriptions of her appearances in court during the "Bobby Widney affair" can't help but bring to mind Belle Watling, silk, opulent carriage, and all. Surely this must be a case of mistaken identity—surely a relative of Pio Pico—a member of the celebrated Pico clan—could not have been the "sporting queen of Los Angeles"...but then the madam in question was reported to be the same age as Cathalena and was quoted as saying that she "intends to retire from the 'sporting house business,' and settle down as a private citizen and taxpayer. She has purchased some valuable flats in the southeast part of the city, and in a short time will be married...." It was also curious that in 1897 Desea Todd, per the Herald of March 30, was applying for a license to operate a saloon "at Four Alls, on the Adobe Road" in East Los Angeles (today, Huntington Drive northeast of Lincoln Heights) and that then, on March 20, 1904, the Herald reported that Lena Donahue was building "a road house on the Adobe Road in East Los Angeles." And then there is the clincher that appeared in the Times on June 25, 1902, when, during the Widney trials, Lena stated that "Once years ago [my] name was Lena Church...." So it seems that an accommodating Mr. Bell persuaded Cathalena, who had indeed been leading a double life as Lena Donahue for years, to leave the "half world" and return to respectability. It seems that, after connecting the dots—more references to "Lena Church" come up in trial reportage—that a Pico did indeed once keep a "fast house" on Aliso Street, the proceeds of which helped build a small real estate empire that included the interesting house once standing at Wilton Place and Venice Boulevard. Were the bells in the parapet of Edmund Bohan's whimsical design for 1554 South Wilton a nod to the Bells who would be occupying the house, to Lena's new chapter?   
  • The indomitable Desea Todd and Cathalena Bell, ostensibly respectable after her Tenderloin years, continued as property developers. Among their projects was the five-unit apartment building that still stands at 416 South Rampart Boulevard, which they built in early 1916 and moved into with their husbands, having sold—or rented—1554 two years before
  • Real estate man Arthur D. Hill occupied 1554 South Wilton from 1914 to 1918, when it was purchased by another man in the trade, Samuel V. Duran. Duran was still living in the house when he died on January 24, 1940. On September 12, 1940, his widow, Beatrice, was issued a permit by the Department of Building and Safety to add a breakfast room and a bedroom to the house. She still owned 1554 when she died on March 16, 1960
  • There was still a listing for "S. V. Duran" at 1554 South Wilton Place in the Los Angeles city directory issued in July 1962. On December 4 of that year, Joseph Stabler, a local developer of small apartment houses, was issued a permit to replace Desea and Cathalena's 1554 with "The Ronna," a 20-unit building in the Dingbat mode that still stands on the corner today. On January 1, 1963, Stabler was issued a permit to demolish the 55-year-old house to make way for his new development

Illustration: Private Collection/The Homestead Blog