Pieces of the Past at the Doctors House: Glendale, California

Pieces of the Past at the Doctors House: Glendale, California

In a corner of Brand Park in Glendale, California, sits the Doctors House. It’s a charming Queen Anne cottage, complete with a tiny tower, stained glass, and delicate spindling on its white porches. Shaded by trees, it looks out over a wide, green lawn that slopes to a pond. On the outside, it doesn’t seem too different from the other 1880s and 1890s houses surviving on the West Coast. It could easily have been in this spot for the past 140 years, standing tranquil and undisturbed.

So it surprised me to learn that in 1980, it was sawn in half.

In 1979, the Doctors House, then located in downtown Glendale near the intersection of Wilson and Belmont Streets, was slated for demolition. A group of determined volunteers banded together to save it. The City of Glendale was able to purchase the house for $1 from a developer, with the understanding that it would be removed from the property. But it was up to the volunteers to manage this massive task.

After separating the structure into two pieces, they loaded it onto a pair of trucks and carefully guided it up the street toward Brand Park. It was no simple undertaking: the volunteers traveled five miles in about eight hours, working overnight to avoid traffic. Finally, they were able to unload the building in its current home.

This large-scale architectural surgery was the first major action of the Glendale Historical Society, the organization that still operates the Doctors House today. After moving the house, the society’s volunteers spent the next four years converting it into a museum, researching the history of its residents and restoring its interiors to a period of 1890–1902. Since 1984, the Doctors House Museum has been open to the public, offering glimpses into late-19th- and early 20th-century life in the town.

What is it about this house, one might wonder, that spurred a group of people to pour in thousands of hours of unpaid labor to save it from destruction? For that matter, what about the house continues to draw in a dedicated crew of docents, community supporters, and visitors? I could offer a short and somewhat pedantic answer, citing the fact that the Doctors House is now one of only two Queen Anne Eastlake–style buildings in the area. But pure preservation, the mere documentation of landmarks, doesn’t explain the way that people have been drawn in by the house and its stories and have found it hard to stay away.

I know because I’m one of them. In 2022, I had recently moved to the area and was looking for a Victorian house to lurk in (because apparently my day job as a historian didn’t give me enough opportunities to obsess over the 19th century). I emailed the Glendale Historical Society to ask if they were accepting new volunteers, and before long, I was giving tours.

I can’t speak for others as to why the Doctors House is fascinating. But to me, it’s a historical puzzle box. It’s a place where different moments in time coexist visibly and viscerally, where tiny slices of California’s past are allowed to sit next to one another, fitting together in delicate ways, layering on top of one another, without obscuring what is above or what is underneath.

Even before its dramatic move across town, this house had already seen so many lives.

Before the advent of the Glendale Historical Society, the Doctors House belonged to the Dzaich and Kordich families. They purchased the house in the early 1920s after immigrating from Croatia, eventually adding apartments to the lot and renting out the main house. They kept the property intact through the Great Depression and World War II and eventually sold it to the developer.

Before the Dzaich and Kordich families, the house brushed up against the early history of Hollywood. From 1917 to 1920, the house was rented by Nell Shipman, star of the silent screen and pioneering writer-producer and animal rights activist. She lived there with her (soon-to-be-ex) husband, parents, and young son. It was here that she and her family weathered the influenza epidemic of 1918. Shipman survived the disease, but her mother did not.

Before Shipman, there were the residents who gave the house its current name. Four doctors occupied the house between 1896 and 1914: Charles Virgil Bogue (1896–1901), David Winslow Hunt (1901–07), Allen Lincoln Bryant (1907–08), and Leonidas Hamlin Hurtt (1908–14). They lived in the house in quick succession, running their respective businesses out of the home. Each was involved in the early formation and growth of Glendale. Hunt, for instance, was the president of the Glendale Improvement Association, which was instrumental in establishing a high school and improving local transportation and utilities. Bryant was on the Board of Education and Library Board of Trustees. During the doctors’ tenure, Glendale grew from a loose, unincorporated group of a few families into a proper town.

Before the doctors, there was Ellis T. Byram. It was he who built the house between 1888 and 1889, as a sign of what Glendale—not yet incorporated as a city—might be.

In the early 19th century, the land that would become Glendale was part of the massive Rancho San Rafael, established in the 1780s by the Verdugo family while California was under Spanish rule. But by the 1870s, the estate was divided into smaller plots. This was because the once-prosperous Verdugos had racked up massive debt through high-interest loans in the 1860s, which led to an ill-fated legal battle and, finally, the eventual partition of their property. Not long after this, settlers were pouring into the area looking for cheap, fertile land, and lured by the expanding reach of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

One of the wealthy Midwesterners who bought up large parcels of land in the area was Byram. A speculator, he collaborated with several other men to form the brand-new townsite of Glendale in 1887. He started construction of the Doctors House the next year.

Byram never lived in the house, expecting instead to profit from the 1880s real estate boom. But the Glendale area experienced a major economic depression in the 1890s. It did not recover until the early 20th century. One thing that ultimately spurred its resurgence was the extension of the Los Angeles Inter-Urban Electric Railway to Glendale in 1904.

Each of these historical layers is still visible in the house. Because different elements from different moments in time are present all at once, the Doctors House provides an unusual opportunity for contemplating how we interact with the past and how we understand its contingency. Nothing, the house reveals, is a finished product. As visitors walk through a Victorian parlor, marvel at turn-of-the-century kitchen gadgets, then explore the added-on upstairs rooms, the overwhelming impression is one of rapid change—not historical stasis.

As a baseline, the historical society painstakingly restored many aspects of the house to how they would have appeared during Dr. Bogue’s residency from 1896–1901: a late 19th-century doctor’s office, reproductions of the original wallpaper as discovered under layers of wall and paint, window seats in the parlor. But the society also kept some of the renovations of the home’s later owners and tenants.

For example, sometime at the beginning of the 20th century, Dr. Hunt’s family expanded what had been a small attic into living space that included a new primary bedroom. Although this room alters the original 1880s roofline, it has been preserved. Rather than detracting from the house’s historical authenticity, this alteration is an asset because visitors can see the house’s development in its outer structure.

Inside, the primary bedroom shows museum visitors several historical moments simultaneously. The early 20th-century bathroom, complete with pull-chain toilet, coexists with a 19th-century washstand and bedside commode tucked in the corner, relics of the days before indoor plumbing. Along one wall is an exhibit honoring Nell Shipman, through which visitors can explore her contributions to film history or admire photos of her cuddling her pet bear.

Moreover, the Doctors House was initially constructed without electricity, plumbing, or a gas line. But it would rapidly witness and accommodate the introduction of these technologies in the developing American West. The museum thus highlights household technology in flux. The dining room, for instance, is equipped with a lighting system that could be powered by both gas and electricity, designed for electricity’s early days, when power was not always reliable.

My personal favorite technological disjunction is in the parlor, where an 1877 Steinway square piano sits across the room from an Edison phonograph. 1877 was the year that Thomas Edison introduced his tinfoil phonograph, which eventually revolutionized the home music scene.

During much of the 19th century, women were expected to cultivate musical skills so that they could provide music within the household, playing parlor songs or arrangements of popular operatic or chamber music works. But the phonograph and its competitors made it possible to bring the sound of a whole orchestra into the parlor, gradually chipping away at the necessity of home music making. It would be overdramatic to say that the phonograph killed parlor music. Still, its invention did change the contours of gendered domestic labor and artistic production.

This is why I’m drawn to the juxtaposition of the piano and phonograph. Seeing the 1877 piano right next to Edison’s invention is a powerful reminder of how we are always transitioning and adapting to new technologies. It reminds me (although in a more elegant way) of texting on my cell phone while hearing an aging landline telephone ring down the hall.

Here, at the Doctors House, larger stories of American migration and growth converge in a single location. Here, inanimate objects convey motion through time.

Over a century, the Doctors House was home to a series of families that moved from the Midwest, the East Coast, and beyond. As such, the house tells the broader story of the movement of money and populations that shaped Southern California, and how, around the turn of the 20th century, a remote settlement became a thriving town.

The four doctors were not originally from California. Bogue, a native of Vermont, studied in Philadelphia and Chicago, and eventually left California (and the house) to return to Vermont. Hunt had previously lived in New Hampshire and Minnesota, Bryant in Minnesota and Iowa, and Hurtt in Ohio and New York. None of them lived in the house long—not even Bryant, who stayed in Glendale for decades. Shipman, too, was mobile. Born in Canada, she did not restrict herself to the Hollywood film market; in the early 1920s, she started producing her own films in a remote area of Idaho, with her personal menagerie of animals in tow.

The house was constantly watching people move in and out, constantly witnessing those drawn in by the promises of California adapt, change their minds, and move on. This is important, because it reminds us that nothing ever really moves in a straight line. It should prompt us to question narratives that idealize or oversimplify the past, and to rethink those that portray the past as an inevitable march toward the present.

In the early 20th century, Glendale was advertised as an idyllic pastoral haven offering health and good fortune without rural isolation. “There are few places to be found,” wrote a magazine reporter in 1907,

where the foothills are brought in such close proximity to the city as to be attained in a thirty minutes’ ride over one of the best equipped and scenically most attractive of all the electric roads in Southern California’s splendid system of trolley lines. It is this close connection, welding the city and the country into practically one community, the wholesome scene of strenuous endeavor joined to country quiet, which best answers the ideal conditions of our complex life.

From 1905 until the early 1920s, Glendale boasted a luxurious sanitarium established along the same principles as Michigan’s Battle Creek (of John Harvey Kellogg fame). “The climate is delightful in summer and winter,” one advertisement told prospective patients. Another enticed readers of delicate health by naming Southern California “the great Mecca for the tourist and health seeker.” Even those in good health had incentives for trying Glendale: an advertisement in Out West magazine commented on the affordable land, “Abundance of mountain water,” “soil unsurpassed,” and a climate “free from extremes of heat and cold.”

In advertisements like this, Glendale—and, more broadly, the American West—is portrayed as a paradise. We know now that much of this is myth, and that the history of westward expansion in America was marked by violence and displacement. Glendale in particular has a haunted past, especially when it comes to racialized violence and discriminatory policies.

For much of the 20th century, Glendale was known as an “All-American City” and a “sundown town.” Both designations meant predominantly white, and the latter indicated the presence of regulations keeping nonwhite people out of town after dark. During the 1960s, the American Nazi Party tried to establish an official presence in Glendale because of its reputation for being a white city—a reputation reinforced by years of anti-Black housing covenants.

Glendale is still grappling with this legacy. In 2020, the City of Glendale passed a resolution acknowledging its past as a sundown town, committing to reinterrogating its history through the lens of race, and outlining plans to implement antiracist policies moving forward. None of these efforts erase the area’s history of inequality. And Glendale, now a town with a substantial immigrant population, will have to keep reckoning with its legacy of exclusion as it moves further into the 21st century.

These are not stories typically told at the Doctors House. But the house can, and should, provide us with ways to think about telling a less idealized version of history, and to treat moments in the past as evolving and imperfect, rather than fixed.

It seems oddly symbolic that this house, perfect as it looks on the outside, had to be torn apart and relocated, stripped to its very bones and built up again. It is fitting that we can still see the large “scar” running through the wood planks in the original primary bedroom on the ground floor. The house’s outward tranquility is an illusion. Inside, we perceive moments of the past in glimpses and pieces, receiving whispers of many stories, rather than one story presented as perfect and complete.

Everything we know about the past is provisional. Local historic preservation efforts, instead of being treated as stuffy antiquarianism, should be approached as opportunities to see multiple historical perspectives at once.

Here, at the Doctors House, larger stories of American migration and growth converge in a single location. Here, inanimate objects convey motion through time. Witnessing these uneven processes of development through physical artifacts and family stories reminds us that no historical narrative is inevitable, and that the only constant is relentless change. icon

This article was commissioned by Abigail Struhl.

Featured image: Doctors House by Konrad Summers via the Brand Library. (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

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About the Author: Tony Ramos

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