Lummis as One of L.A.’s First Bohemians

A book recently published by San Diego State University Press casts Charles Lummis as one of the first in a long line of free-spirited and free-thinking creative types who have flocked to Southern California for more than a century.  He and his artistically inclined neighbors who began building their Arts and Crafts homes in the Arroyo Seco in the late 19th century were the predecessors of the beatniks, surf bums, gay rights pioneers and hippies who were drawn to the region in the second half of the 20th century, according to the book, Bohemia in Southern California.

Each of those subcultures is covered in a chapter. I contributed a chapter about Lummis and his home El Alisal, which was at the center of the community of artists and writers who settled in the arroyo. “Taken collectively, they suggest that when la vie bohéme arrived in the land of sunshine, a unique way of being unconventional was created,” observes Jay Ruby, a Temple University professor emeritus who edited the volume, wrote the introduction and contributed a chapter about Coffee House Positano, a bohemian hangout in Malibu from 1957 to 1962.

In Southern California, Ruby writes, bohemians were liberated not only from the need to seek shelter from hostile weather. They were also unburdened by calcified eastern traditions. Drawing inspiration from the region’s colorful mixture of native, Spanish, Mexican, and immigrant Anglo cultures, they could create their own, wholly new alternative lifestyle—which is just what Lummis did at El Alisal.

Jessica Holada, director of special collections and archives at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, contributed a chapter on the Arroyo Seco, a “vibrant if scattered enclave of nonconformists,” focusing on the book printers who settled in the neighborhood. As I note in my chapter about Lummis, who started building El Alisal in 1894:

“The Arroyo Seco by the early 1890s was beginning to fill up with the homesteads of writers, artists, musicians, photographers, eccentric entrepreneurs and other free-spirited bohemian types. There was an ostrich farm a couple of miles up the arroyo, a quirk Lummis liked. At the upper end, in South Pasadena, Horatio Nelson Rust, a legendary abolitionist and noted archeologist, was developing one of the region’s first large-scale commercial citrus orchards. Rust was one of a number of like-minded neighbors who would become collaborators in Lummis’s crusades and regular visitors to his home.

“Indeed, El Alisal fit right in to the vibrant, offbeat intellectual and artistic community that was emerging in the arroyo. In the considerable wake that Lummis created, other artists and writers moved in. By the first decade of the 20th century, El Alisal had become the cultural haven’s epicenter. As Ward Ritchie, a book printer and publisher who set up his shop in the arroyo after Lummis’s death in 1928, put it in a memoir he wrote about life in the bohemian enclave, ‘The dominant figure in the Arroyo Seco culture was undoubtedly Charles Fletcher Lummis.’ ”

His stint of more than a decade as editor of an influential regional magazine, initially titled Land of Sunshine and later renamed Out West, was especially important in spurring the growth of the community of artists and writers in the neighborhood. He published the work of many of them in his magazine and was instrumental in helping launch the careers of some who went on to win wider acclaim including Mary Austin, one of a number of contributors to Lummis’s magazine who moved to the arroyo, inspired by his example. As my chapter in Bohemia in Southern California concludes:

“His iconoclastic lifestyle undoubtedly was also an inspiration to other bohemians in the Arroyo Seco who were marching to their own drummers and promoting their own artistic, literary and intellectual endeavors.”

Article on Lummis as a Pioneering Photojournalist

My piece on Charles Lummis’s days as a pioneering photojournalist appears in the February-March issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine. It is the Dallas-based magazine’s annual photography issue. As I recount in the article:

Photography was a passion of Lummis’ from the moment he acquired his first camera in 1886. He set off with it on a reporting trip through Arizona and New Mexico a few months later. As he noted in one of his reports for the Los Angeles Times from that trip, “One of the regrets of my lengthy paseo of two years ago was my lack of ability to bring away pictorial reminiscences of the countless places along the road.” He had resolved to “learn light-writing — the expressive name which photography has borrowed from a language that knew nothing of these later wonders” so that wouldn’t happen again.

Recent advances in technology had paved the way for his photojournalistic forays. The dry-plate process perfected over the previous decade unchained photographers from darkroom wagons of the sort that Mathew Brady had to haul around during the Civil War. The wet plates Brady used had to be made shortly before exposing them and developed soon after. By the 1880s, dry-plate negatives could be purchased in bulk and stored for months. Lummis carried 90 plates with him on his 1886 reporting trip. He could go practically anywhere he cared to lug his Dallmeyer lens, camera, and tripod, a kit that tipped the scales at a mere 40 pounds. With a shutter speed of one-twentieth of a second, he could take reasonably sharp action shots of Indian dances.

Read the entire article here: Charles Fletcher Lummis: Character with a Camera.

Drone Captures Bird’s Eye Views of Lummis House

Kevin Harbach and Bryan H0user recently used a drone with a camera to give the world a view of El Alisal that may have never been seen before . . . except by birds.

A shot from directly overhead (below right) shows how the property has been whittled down and hemmed in by streets and houses since Lummis bought a two-and-a-half acre lot here for $650, with $100 down, in the spring of 1894. The drone’s view of skyscrapers on the horizon (bottom) captures the lot’s proximity to downtown, five miles to the south.

Lummis built the house and some outbuildings over a period of 14 years. He boasted often about all the river stones from the arroyo that he hoisted into place, with help from a rotating cast of helpers, and how fit the hard work left him. El Alisal was his “gymnasium,” he said. In a pronouncement displaying his penchant for bombastic self-congratulation, he once wrote of the experience, “It is pitiful for a man to get a home off the bargain counter and miss all the joy he might just as well have had in building it.” The stonework was a “construction to last 1,000 years unimpaired.”

The stonework shines in the bird’s eye views of the house snapped by the drone. I’m sure it will need help to make it another 885 years. But at the age of 115 or so, Lummis’s house looks great in Harbach and Houser’s photographs.

Check out a gallery of the photographs they shot with a drone on Dec. 3 on their Flickr page.


Photos reprinted courtesy of Kevin Harbach and Bryan Houser

Rallying Support for El Alisal at a ‘Holiday Noise’

The house that Charles Lummis built will resound on Sunday, Dec. 11, with a “Noise”–as he called the festive soirees he regularly hosted at his home more than a century ago. The occasion this time is a fundraiser for organizations that are rallying to save the historic site from the limbo in which it has been stuck for the last several years since the state declined to renew a lease with the Southern holiday-noiseCalifornia Historical Society, its occupant and caretaker since the 1960s. The stumbling block is the question of who should pay the steep costs of maintaining the stone structure, built by Lummis himself and teams of helpers over a period of time from the 1890s into the 1910s and named by him El Alisal.

One potential savior is nearby Occidental College’s Institute for the Study of Los Angeles, one of the sponsors of the “Holiday Noise.” The other sponsors include the Highland Park Heritage Trust, which rented the home for the occasion, and the Lummis Day Community Foundation.

As a Highland Park Heritage Trust notice about the event explained, “Themed in the manner in which Charles Lummis enjoyed the visits of people of all walks of life and talents, this ‘open house’ emphasizes our collective responsibility to this historic landmark gathering place in our community.”

The Holiday Noise, which is open to the public free of charge, will be held at the Lummis Home, 200 E. Avenue 43, Los Angeles, 90031, on Sunday, December 11, 2016, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Light refreshments will be served.

Talk on Lummis at Huntington Westerners Luncheon

I’ll be holding forth on Charles Lummis, and showing slides of some of his photographs, at a monthly luncheon meeting of the Huntington Westerners historical association in Pasadena on Saturday, Nov. 5. The location is the Women’s City Club, 160 North Oakland St., Pasadena, and the luncheon gets underway at 12:30. The cost is $25 per person. Advance reservations are required, and can be made by contacting: Carol Criqui at carol@criqui.com or (626) 345-9069.

Here’s the blurb about my talk from the Huntington Westerners flyer:

“Charles Lummis was one of the most talked-about characters in Los
Angeles from the moment of his arrival in 1885, when he strode into town
after crossing the country on foot to take a job at the Los Angeles Times.
He had a knack for attracting attention that lasted for the rest of his life.
Sometimes the publicity was unflattering: his many failed marriages and
affairs were grist for gossip for years. But with his boundless energy an d
the influence he wielded as crusading editor of an influential regional
magazine, Lummis racked up one impressive achievement after another,
from helping save California’s crumbling Spanish missions and founding
the Southwest Museum to nurturing a generation of Western writers and
artists and forcing constructive reforms in federal policies towards
Native Americans. Mark Thompson will discuss the colorful life of
Charles Lummis, and will show slides of photographs from Lummis’s
archives, at an upcoming luncheon talk.

“Thompson is author of American Character, a biography of Charles
Lummis, which was honored by Western Writers of America as best
biography of 2002. Thompson now lives in Philadelphia and is associate
editor of Current History magazine.”

Website, at Age 15, Gets a Facelift

I launched this website, CharlesLummis.com, when my biography of Lummis, American Character, was published 15 years ago. Over the years since then, the site remained largely unchanged, until now. After all these years, I’ve finally gotten around to revamping it and relaunching it on WordPress. Among the new features is this “Lummis Sightings” blog, where I’ll be posting occasional items about new developments of interest to scholars and assorted aficionados of Charles Lummis. Also new is the comments section on this blog. It seems there will be a fair number of “sightings” to report about these days, amid what seems to be a growing awareness of and curiosity about one of the most colorful and influential characters in the late 19th and early 20th century Southwest.

Lummis was little known by anyone other than serious Southwestern history buffs when  American Character appeared in 2001. He has become something of a cause celebre these days. Concern about the fate of the Southwest Museum, which was founded by Lummis, is one reason. It has merged with the much larger and richer Autry Museum in recent years, and much of its world-renowned collection of Native Indian artifacts has been moved to the Autry’s modern facility several miles away in Griffith Park. That has left the fate of the historic old museum in Highland Park up in the air.

lummisdayMany residents of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood have rallied around the cause of saving the old facility for special exhibits and events, even if it will no longer house the bulk of the museum’s collection. A thriving annual neighborhood festival was started more than a decade ago to help spur awareness of the museum and its precarious status, and to showcase the neighborhood’s multicultural charms. The aptly chosen name for the festival is Lummis Day. Charlie would be delighted by that.

A number of other Lummis-related ventures have recently launched or are in the works including  books, major magazine articles and film projects. I’ll intermittently post here about those projects and other news related to the ongoing rediscovery of a most fascinating American character.