637 South Ardmore Avenue


  • Built in 1912 on Lot 14 of the Normandy Hill Tract by real estate developer Evart Lain Petitfils; the Department of Buildings issued construction permits for the house and garage to him on October 9, 1912
  • No architect is indicated on the building permits; Petitfils appears to have hired a freelance draftsman who may have been heavily influenced by the Daniel Murphy house at 2076 West Adams Boulevard designed by Hudson & Munsell and completed in 1910
  • Texas natives E. L. Petitfils and his brother Walter began investing in property after arriving in Los Angeles soon after 1900. (In 1913 Walter, who had previously been a confectioner in pre-statehood Oklahoma, would be among the partnership that hired Ernest Batchelder to create the famous interiors of the "Dutch Chocolate Shop" at 217 West Sixth Street; within a few years Petitfils would open his own eponymous confectionery around the corner on Broadway)
  • Soon after its completion, E. L. Petitfils sold 637 to Robert Benson Davis of New York. Known as the "baking powder king," his original product is still available today. Davis was at the time fleeing the machinations of his much younger wife during bitter, tabloid-worthy divorce proceedings. (The full story of Davis's travails is chronicled in Tom Miller's story of 330 Riverside Drive in Manhattan.) On October 30, 1916, Davis was issued a building permit to add a porte-cochère to the south side of 637 South Ardmore. He died in Los Angeles on February 9, 1920, and appears to have left the house to his sister Charlotte Newman and her three unmarried daughters, Helen, Kate, and Hattie, although only Hattie of her immediate family was living at 637 at the time of her uncle's death, apparently acting as his secretary. It was she who was cited as the owner of the house, living there until recently with her mother and sisters, when the Los Angeles Times reported its sale to silent superstar Buster Keaton and his actress wife Natalie Talmadge in January 1923 after the couple decided to leave 59 Westmoreland Place

With its address misidentified, 637 South Ardmore appeared in the
Los Angeles Times on January 14, 1923, after it became a brief stop on
Hollywood's residential migration west to Beverly Hills. Below: Publishers of
postcards seem to have always been on top of the many moves of film
stars, even producing one during the Keatons' stay on Ardmore.

  • According to John Bengtson, "the great detective of silent film locations" per The New York Times and exacting author of Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton, Joe Schenck, the actor's brother-in-law and the man who had financed Keaton's production company, loaned the actor the cash to buy 637. Keaton and Talmadge owned 637 for just 10 months; after managing to make a considerable profit by selling it for $85,000, they moved on to 543 South Muirfield Road in Hancock Park—yet another stop before Buster built a famous Beverly Hills house, completed in 1926, in a fruitless effort to please his famously avaricious wife
  • The Reverend James M. Niblo, an Episcopal minister recently arrived in Los Angeles from Philadelphia, occupied 637 for a time after the departure of the Keatons; Long Beach real estate operator George W. Hughes was in residence by early 1926 and would die in the house that July 7. By the time Mrs. Hughes left 637 in 1928, the commercial transformation of nearby Wilshire house had begun. Three years before, the Longyears of 3555 Wilshire at the corner leased their house to an importing firm that loaded down the house's roof with elaborate Chinese decorations. The actual ownership of 637 South Ardmore at this time is unclear, but by early 1930 it was given over to institutional use. The Shakespeare Study and Dramatic Club, among other organizations, rented rooms. On January 3, 1933, the Times reported that the Adele Lang Tea Shop was moving into 637 from 2702 Wilshire Boulevard. Various clubs continued to meet in the house; by the spring of 1941, after occupying among other local residences 4 Berkeley Square, the British War Relief Association of Southern California moved in. Other institutional and commercial uses would follow

A northwesterly view from Wilshire Boulevard dates from just before
Robert B. Davis's 1916 addition of a south-side porte-cochère to 637. Flanking
the house are Willis D. Longyear's 3555 Wilshire Boulevard and Juanita Gless's 627
South Ardmore
. Below: In a 1956 aerial, 637 at center is to be demolished in less than
a year; a Jack Daniels billboard sits on the corner where the Longyear house stood until 1939.
The lot to the right of 637 had been empty since 1925, when 627 was moved by department-
store owner John Bullock, along with 3200 Wilshire Boulevard, to Windsor Square. At
left is film impresario Adolph Ramish's house at 646 South Kingsley Drive—a late-
comer to already commercializing Wilshire Boulevard. It survived until 1963.

  • By 1951, the property had been acquired by the Lumbermens Mutual Casualty Company of Chicago; on January 24 of that year the firm was issued a permit by the Department of Building and Safety to bring the building up to code for official conversion to commercial space
  • Lumbermens Mutual was part of the Kemper group of insurance companies, which in 1957 would replace the 45-year-old 637 South Ardmore with the building currently at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Ardmore. The Department of Building and Safety issued a demolition permit for the house on February 5, 1957. A permit for the new Kemper Insurance Building at 3545 Wilshire Boulevard was issued three weeks later; it covers the lots once occupied by 3555 Wilshire and 627 South Ardmore—a house now at 605 South Plymouth Boulevard in Windsor Square—as well as that of 637

The Daniel Murphy house at 2076 West Adams Boulevard was much written about after it was
completed in 1910. Its Italianate style was a formal counterpart to the rustic Craftsman
aesthetic then gaining its great popularity. Hudson & Munsell's design for Murphy
appears to have greatly impressed E. L. Petitfils and his contractor.

Illustrations: Private Collection; LAT; LAPL; USCDL