Few today know the name of Stephen Seymour Thomas, but in the first half of the 1900s he was a well known American artist. His specialty was portraits, and he painted the rich and famous of that era – captains of industry, statesmen, prominent scientists, governors – all the way up to the presidential portrait of Woodrow Wilson that hangs prominently in the White House today. He received many awards, including France’s Legion of Honor, and today his paintings hang in mansions, colleges and state capitals all over the country. He lived in La Crescenta and gave generously to the community. Perhaps his greatest legacy is St. Luke’s of the Mountains Episcopal Church at the corner Foothill and Rosemont, which he designed. Yet if you mentioned his name to almost anyone here today, you’d be met with a blank stare.
Thomas was originally born in Texas in 1868, and was a child prodigy at painting. With sales of his art he raised enough money to get to France where he was admitted to the great Parisian art schools. In 1889, a young, beautiful American woman, Helen Haskell, became a student alongside Thomas. She had just finished helping her uncle Benjamin Briggs establish two schools in his fledgling town of La Crescenta in far-off California.
Thomas was enthralled with Helen. He later said that many of his fellow students tried to capture her noble blond beauty on canvas, but he was the only one to do so successfully. He was the only one to capture her heart as well, and they soon married. It was a beautiful relationship that lasted 50 years, and they never in all that time spent a night apart.
The Thomases established a home and successful art studio in Paris, but WWI sent them back to America. They returned to the Crescenta Valley that Helen knew from her youth, and bought a seven acre estate on Rosemont Avenue, where the Mormon Church is today. Thomas converted a stone house there into his studio, and they named the heavily wooded place “Cuddle Doon.” Cuddle Doon was the site of their legendary once-a-month “afternoon teas” where they regularly entertained an international host of great thinkers, religious leaders, men of science and philosophy.
The Thomases fell in love with La Crescenta and threw themselves into community service. Helen became a leader in philanthropy via the La Crescenta Woman’s Club, a local charity group that still thrives. Seymour created the iconic St. Luke’s church in the early ‘20s. One day he set up his easel across the street from the vacant lot at Rosemont and Foothill, painting a quick sketch of a French country church. It was from this painting, which hangs in the church office today, that the church was designed. Thomas oversaw its construction, and contributed stained glass windows and paintings of religious scenes. Today that church is considered the greatest architectural treasure of the Crescenta Valley.
Thomas’s success in painting allowed the couple to travel extensively, and Seymour always had his easel with him. His favorite subjects seem to have been ocean scenes from up and down the California coast. These paintings are frequently traded by art dealers today, and I often get inquiries about Thomas landscapes from collectors.
Helen died in 1942 and Seymour in 1956. Thomas spent this sad period after Helen’s death giving away the artwork he had created over his lifetime. His many portraits were donated to various appropriate colleges and hospitals, several in the L.A. area. Close by, Caltech’s famous Athenium displays a couple of these. Locally, Thomas donated three of his portraits of Helen from their early days in Paris – one to the La Crescenta Woman’s Club of which she was president for a time, and the others to the two schools for which she was the first teacher in the 1880s – La Cañada Elementary and La Crescenta Elementary. La Cañada’s is now displayed in the Lanterman House, and La Crescenta Elementary’s painting proudly hangs in the school library. All three of these art treasures are tangible links to our forgotten cultural heritage.