There is never a bad day to visit an outdoor architectural history museum. Even on a slightly cool and overcast June day in Los Angeles, the buildings of Heritage Square Museum shine. The exteriors are beautifully restored and/or preserved, and while the interiors vary from fully furnished and restored to states of semi-ruin, the history here stands out to even a casual visitor. This is turn-of-the-twentieth-century Los Angeles, relocated here to Highland Park for us all to learn from.
Highland Park is one of my favorite Los Angeles neighborhoods. While today it is mostly known for its hipster vibes, especially along York Boulevard (and the truly wonderful cafes and restaurants that come with such a reputation), the neighborhood offers much more than just that. A stroll down the other major artery of the neighborhood, Figueroa Street (once Pasadena Avenue) offers some small glimpses into that. Highland Theatre opened in 1925, and still hosts the newest cinematic releases. Across the street, Highland Park Bowl is a historic bowling alley that dates to 1927. Add in the art deco facades of bank and office buildings, and the area is a delight to explore.
While these buildings are old, Highland Park itself dates back to 1886. Annexed to Los Angeles in 1895, it was a train hub, and home to largely white middle and upper middle class residents. With the construction of America’s first freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, in 1940 (click here to read about the parkway), the area became more diverse, eventually becoming majority Latinx by the 1960s. By the early part of the twenty-first century, those first generation Latin immigrants had made way to largely young residents attracted to the neighborhood’s low prices and easy commutes via Metro to downtown, and the current Highland Park was born.
Given this history, it makes sense that a parcel of LA County land became home to Heritage Square, although originally the museum was supposed to be on Bunker Hill in Downtown Los Angeles. The first two historic homes acquired by the museum were actually from Bunker Hill, though both mysteriously burned down in what is thought to have been – though never proved to be – an arson incident.
Heritage Square Museum was created to preserve just a small number of historic Los Angeles homes, which in the 1960s were being demolished at an alarming rate. In 1969, the museum was established, and the arduous task of relocating entire homes (some of which are quite large) was taken on. According to Kori Capaldi, executive director, all that is necessary for such a move is a) the ability to cut a house apart in such a way that it can easily be put back together at its new home and b) a lot of money.
In all, Heritage Square includes eight historic buildings: five homes, one barn, a church, and the Palms railway depot. The homes range from the Perry Mansion, a stunning white upper class mansion from Boyle Heights, to the working class Ford House ornately decorated by John J. Ford, the owner and well-known wood carver. A volunteer docent named Dionne shows me around each home (we don’t enter the other historic buildings), pointing out the features and telling stories of the homes and their owners.
My favorite home is the Hale House, which was originally built in 1887 right here in Highland Park on what would become Figueroa Street. While the house is a huge Victorian, Dionne shows some elements that reflect its middle class owners, in contrast to the next-door Perry Mansion. The ornate fireplace was actually factory-made rather than hand carved (and the Ford house has the same one), as were the banisters and other things that would at first glance seem opulent. The home was owned by the Hale Family until the museum acquired it in 1970. The beautiful chimney was disassembled to move the house, and after relocation was put back. The house was repainted according to original paint chips found during restoration, and the heyday of the Los Angeles Victorian home was recreated here in this stunning edifice.
Besides the homes and other historic buildings, Heritage Square Museum also has a garden, old boxcar, and a recreation of another Highland Park business, Colonial Drug. While the building is not original, and was constructed at the request (and funding) of the family that owned this old pharmacy, the inside includes hundreds of old medicines, tinctures, and tools of the trade, making it a fascinating visit.
Admission to Heritage Square Museum is $7 per person, with guided tours running $16. Only open on weekends, it is a delightful visit for those interested in history, architecture, or just in beauty. Ask the large group of painters plying their art all over the grounds during my visit!
Just a couple blocks away from Heritage Square, across the 110 Freeway, sits another historic gem, the Lummis House. Also called El Alisal (the alder), this stunning home was built by Los Angeles icon Charles Fletcher Lummis in the shade of a huge sycamore tree for which the home was named. (The tree is no longer standing, sadly, though others all around the house give a sense of what it might have looked like.)
Lummis was a journalist, an advocate for Native American rights (and a founder of the nearby Southwest Museum), and apparently a quality builder, as he constructed the nearly 4,000 square foot home over about thirteen years. The facade is filled with stones from the nearby Arroyo Seco, which Lummis was determined to help protect. He was known for his parties, and his houseguests over the years ranged from Clarence Darrow to John Muir to Will Rogers. Now run by the city of Los Angeles, it is free to enter, though the home and grounds are only open for a few short hours on Saturdays and Sundays.
Of particular note in the home are a copy of Lummis’ guest book, conveniently bookmarked to the signatures of some of his famous visitors, and the front windows, which are filled with old photos etched into the glass. These are slowly being restored, leaving some in better condition than others.
The home was finished around 1910, when Highland Park was just starting to become a “place,” and eventually opened to the public in 1965 when it became the headquarters of the Historical Society of Southern California. Lummis himself passed away in 1928.
I live in a truly amazing city, but some of the history of Los Angeles is hard to find. But here in Highland Park, a single day can offer visitors several looks at both the neighborhood and the city as a whole, through these really cool sites. So if you have a nice weekend and are looking for some beauty and learning, give Highland Park, the Lummis House, and Heritage Square Museum a look!
Thank you to Kori, Dionne, and the Heritage Square Museum for hosting my visit, and for a wonderful tour!
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