No Place Like Home: The Residence of William and Elena Hurlbut, Los Angeles, 1911

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the first years of 20th century Los Angeles, another in a series of major development booms was underway and among the many transformations going on in the region, whether economic, technological, political or social, was a change in the architecture of the area’s buildings.

The highly ornamental Queen Anne and other styles of the Victorian era, which ended with the death of Britain’s queen in early 1901, gave way to such new forms as Mission Revival and Craftsman, both of which became very popular and pervasive in greater Los Angeles, though very different from each other.

Today’s “No Place Like Home” entry highlights a real photo postcard (a new form of sending photos at the time) of a rather striking Craftsman home in the South Park area of Los Angeles, not far south (of course) of downtown.  The structure was owned by William W. Hurlbut and his wife Elena and it is notable for several prominent features.

House Of William W Hurlbut Los Angeles 2013.24.1.1
The home in the South Park neighborhood, not far from U.S.C., of William and Elena Hurlbut, from 1911 and from the Homestead’s collection.

One is the steep pair of gables on the roof which curve gracefully at their ends.  Another are the gable details, including the projecting horizontal and vertically angled bands, as well as the thirteen thin brackets.  Also of note are the double posts on the porch spanning the entire length of the front of the building.  Prominent, too, is the tall, thin chimney stack at the left.  A substantial number of bushes, shrubs and trees along with green lawns adds to the attractiveness of the dwelling.

Addressed to Hurlbut at his Los Angeles office, the message is short, but very sweet, a “Hello Daddy!” from the little girl, Elena, who was about five years old, standing on the grass.  It may be that Mrs. Hurlbut snapped a photo and sent it on to her husband to grace his desk–as likely a possibility as any.

There is more to the story than the two-dimensional image, which is the backstory of William and Elena Hurlbut.  She was born Elena S. Wolfskill, in Los Angeles in 1877 and her mother was María Elena de Pedrorena, whose grandfather was a merchant from Spain who lived in Peru before migrating to Mexican Alta California in 1838.  She was tied to prominent San Diego families, including the Estudillos and Altamiranos.

Wolfskill 1880 census
The listing of the family of Joseph W. Wolfskill and Elena Pedrorena in the 1880 census at Los Angeles, including their young daughter, who became Elena Hurlbut.

Elena Hurlbut’s father was Joseph W. Wolfskill, whose father William was an early American settler of Mexican Los Angeles, arriving via the Old Spanish Trail from New Mexico in 1831.  William Wolfskill was the first commercial orange grower in California, owned many large ranches in what is now Orange County, and was a close friend of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple (as was William’s son and Joseph’s brother, Luis or Lewis.)  After the senior Wolfskill died in 1866, he left his famous orange orchard on Alameda Street south of town to his heirs, including Joseph.

The Wolfskill Orchard remained intact until the famed Boom of the 1880s at the end of that decade when the property, in what is now an industrial/commercial district of downtown, was subdivided and sold.  One of the more notable elements added to the area was a new depot for the Southern Pacific railroad, replacing the old one north of downtown in what is now Los Angeles State Historic Park and which opened in 1888 and operated until 1914.

Elena married William in July 1903, shortly after he came to Los Angeles from Denver, Colorado.  He was born in December 1879 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where his father, Walter (a close friend of “Buffalo Bill” Cody) was a pioneer merchant.  After relocating to the Mile High City, Walter Hurlbut became a prominent citizen, including involvement in railroading.

Hurlbut 1910 census
The household of William and Elena Hurlbut at the home depicted in this photograph in the 1910 census.

In 1908, William was hired to work as a draftsman for the Los Angeles Water Department just as that organization was in the midst of the early stages of planning and building the great engineering marvel of the time in the region: the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  In fact, the photo postcard was sent to William’s address in downtown where he was working on that project, which was completed in 1913 and had an enormous impact on the future development of the city.

Working for the legendary water engineer William Mulholland, Hurlbut rose in the ranks of the department.  He also became very involved in local, regional and national engineering organizations, serving as an officer in some of them and frequently giving speeches about the remarkable and innovative work of what became known as the Department of Water and Power (DWP), a very powerful agency, to be sure.

There were, however, occasional challenges in Hurlbut’s long career with the department.  The worst was when the St. Francis Dam near modern Santa Clarita collapsed in spring 1928.  Hurlbut was questioned at length during a coroner’s inquest, held to determine the cause of death of the hundreds who perished in the disaster.  The focal point of the interrogation was about the design and who was responsible for the failure of the dam.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__Mar_28__1928_
Part of an article covering coroner’s inquest testimony made by Chief Engineer William Mulholland and his assistant Hurlbut, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, 28 March 1928

Hurlbut testified that, while he was intimately involved as the office-based engineer in preparing the plans, the work was ultimately handled by another engineer upon instructions from Mulholland.  Notably, he stated that the exact design was from the Hollywood (or Mulholland) Dam, completed in 1924, and that no accounting was made based on the geological differences between that site and the one at which the St. Francis Dam was built.  Mulholland publicly took responsibility for the tragedy, which haunted his remaining years.

As for Hurlbut, he remained at the DWP, rising to be its chief engineer of water works and deputy general manager and serving as president of engineering associations.  In March 1945, after nearly forty years of service, he retired, having been involved in some of the most momentous projects carried out to bring badly needed water for a voraciously growing greater Los Angeles.

Elena Wolfskill Hurlbut did not live much beyond a decade after this photo was taken, however.  She was diagnosed with uterine cancer and died in November 1922, just a day before her 45th birthday.  She left two daughters, Maria Elena, shown in this photo, and Arabelle, as well as William.  Three years later, he married his wife’s cousin, Tulita Altamirano and the couple were together for thirty years until her death.  William Hurlbut lived until 1970, just after his 90th birthday.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__Mar_30__1945_
Times article from 30 March 1945 covering Hurlbut’s retirement.

Photos like these have various levels of story associated with them.  There is the immediate one of depiction, in this case, of a young girl sending her best wishes to her father at work.  A little digging revealed something much larger and more interesting—the stories of a descendant of families dating to Mexican California and her engineer husband who played a major role in some of the most important water projects that allowed for greater Los Angeles’ continued growth.

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