La Crescenta was the Center of Wealth and Culture – in 1886
La Cañada is one of the wealthiest and most highly educated communities in the state. By contrast, La Crescenta is generally middle-class, a bedroom community with a limited
selection of arts and literature to offer its residents. It’s not as affluent as La Cañada. But that wasn’t always the case. You may find it surprising to learn that in the late 1800s, La Cañada was considered the more rural and working-class of the two communities, even sporting a large and well-established “poor section of town” made up of ethnic laborers.
La Crescenta on the other hand was first colonized by the wealthy and learned friends and relatives of Dr. Benjamin Briggs. Dr. Briggs had made a fortune in fruit growing and had later in life turned his attention to medicine. He traveled the world looking for the most perfect climate to cure lung disease, and found it in La Crescenta. He invited his high-class friends back east to join him in his new-found paradise.
Some of the earliest of these cultured friends of the doctor’s to move here were Professor and Mrs. W. C. White. Professor White had been a teacher of languages at Wabash College in Indiana, but was now ready to retire. The Whites had been receiving glowing letters from their two nephews, the sons of Col. Samuel Merrill, an international diplomat and another of Briggs’ converts to La Crescenta. In 1886, the Whites purchased acreage on the southeast corner of Rosemont and Foothill. Foothill Boulevard (then called Michigan Avenue) was home to several mansions, and this desirable neighborhood was later anchored kitty-corner from the Whites’ lot by a lavish resort hotel.
The Whites built an elegant two-story Victorian mansion, which they named “Villa Espiranza” or “House of Hope.” Their lot was well-placed, being at the end of the water pipe from Pickens Canyon, and so the Whites were able to plant a wide variety of fruit and shade trees.
Villa Espiranza immediately became the social and cultural center of the area. There Professor White led literary discussions of the works of Shakespeare and Robert Browning for two reading groups, the Crescenta Literary Society made up of young people, and the Ladies’ Shakespearian Club made up of, well, ladies.
Some trace this latter group as the origin of today’s La Crescenta Woman’s Club. One room of Villa Espiranza served as the valley’s first lending library. To buy more books, the young people of the valley put on plays and entertainments and, perhaps under the direction of the professor, they put together a small newspaper to exercise their writing skills.
Professor and Mrs. White used Villa Espiranza to entertain many famous guests, who also brought elements of culture to the valley. The Whites’ first and most famous guest was Col. Lew Wallace – author of “Ben Hur,” Civil War hero, governor of Arizona and foreign diplomat. Wallace was a good friend of White and White had proofread “Ben Hur” for him before publication. It was the best selling novel of the 19th century.
A regular Villa Espiranza guest and promoter of culture in our valley was Dr. John Haynes, a Los Angeles civic leader and reformer who is the namesake behind the modern Haynes Foundation. Opera singers from all over the world were attracted to the dry clean air of the valley. One of the most famous was Ellen Beach Yaw, also known as “Lark Ellen.” She spent many days at the beginning of her career at Villa Espiranza, from which she would hike high into the San Gabriels to sing to the songbirds. She had an amazing vocal range and was described later in her international career as the greatest soprano of her era.
Professor White died in 1898, and Mrs. White soon after. Villa Espiranza became the manse for St. Luke’s Church across the street, and was finally torn down in 1961, replaced with a rather plain mini-mall. And with the end of the cultural influence of Villa Espiranza, the center of wealth and culture moved east to La Cañada.