L.A.’s Mystery House on a Hill

Kenneth Hahn state park, in Baldwin Hills, is a place where two landscapes collide. The park covers a lush, green expanse of hills and hiking trails. But when you look out at the view from those trails, it’s anything but idyllic. The park sits right beside the huge Inglewood Oil Field. All around, industrial-looking oil rigs stretch for acres.

It looks like a slice of Bakersfield or West Texas plopped down in the center of Los Angeles. And if that isn’t jarring enough, there’s something even stranger on the horizon. If you stand in the park and look at the oil field from the right angle, you’ll see that there’s a house on it. Not a little utility shack; a hulking, brick house with white trim and pointed roof of green shingles, right by some pumps.

20150630_135731It begs the question, who on Earth would build a house in the middle of a huge oil field? Finding the answer isn’t easy.

The owners, members of a family trust, turned down interview requests. The house doesn’t have a street address, so it’s difficult to find property records.

One publicly available fact about the house, however, is that it’s frequently used as a location for film and TV shoots. Vincent Jefferds, a production designer for the show “Criminal Minds,” once used it as the proverbial “scary house on the hill.”

“It’s a weird house,” Jefferds says, with a “weird vibe.”house_back_close_from_west_dr

While shooting, Jefferds heard a rumor that the home was built to house the mistress of a long ago East Coast judge. That’s not the only tantalizing rumor swirling around the mysterious mini-mansion.

Eric Parlee, a Santa Monica architect, lived in the house on the oil field from 1980 until 1984. He subleased a room from the father of a friend he’s since lost touch with. Parlee doesn’t have any solid information about the house’s history either, but heard it has an impressive pedigree.

“I always thought it was Harrison Gray Otis that built the house,” he says, “for his buddies.”

As in, Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Patriarch of the Chandler family, the closest thing there is to L.A. royalty. Yet the Los Angeles Conservancy, a historic preservation organization, has never heard of the house. Without property records, the Chandler connection becomes a dead end.Or that’s the way it seemed, until I happened upon a website called Skyscraper Forum. There, I found someone who’d been posting all kinds of details and documents chronicling the history of the oil field house under the screen name “flying wedge.”

Flying wedge (a tribute to an old football play) turns out to be a 53-year-old man named Mike Davison. Davison is not a historian or a professor. He’s a native Angeleno who’s worked as a writer and in banking, and history is his hobby. For the past few years, Davison has obsessively researched the house on the oil field. He’s combed through old map books that the county keeps in a basement downtown. He’s pieced together nearly century-old newspaper articles and writings by obscure local historians, and posted all his findings to the Skyscraper Forum.

Davison’s interest goes all the way back to his childhood here in L.A. He recalls driving past the oil field, seeing the house “always wondering why it was there.”

According to Davison’s research, the home was built between 1913 and 1915 by a man named Charles Wellington Rand. Rand came to L.A. from Iowa as a 12-year-old boy, around 1900, after his father died. Rand’s mother moved them here to live with her father, Hiram Higgins, just a few doors down from Harrison Gary Otis on Wilshire Boulevard. The two families apparently became friends just by being neighbors. Later, Rand and Ralph Chandler (nephew to Otis) ran a business together downtown. Hence, the rumors about the Chandler connection. Sadly, Rand’s life didn’t turn out well. He eloped with a young woman in 1911 who, it later turned out, had never ended her previous marriage. Rand had that union annulled in 1917. Then, on October 5th of that year, he shot and killed himself with his shotgun in the house in Baldwin Hills.

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Six years after Rand died, his family sold the house to a woman named Emma Cone and her husband Irving. Their relatives still own the home today. The Cones, it turned out, had very good timing. They signed the very first oil lease in Baldwin Hills in 1924. Now, the house sits in the center of the biggest urban oil field in the country. Still a spooky old house on a hill. But also a very valuable one.