The Doheny Mansion
Doheny. It’s a name you see and hear about often around SoCal and here in Los Angeles. There’s the Doheny Library on USC’s campus; Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, a city in the OC; UCLA’s Doheny Eye Center; and most popularly, there’s Doheny Drive that runs through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. But who was the person behind the name?
That’s a question I never gave much thought to until I heard about the Doheny Mansion located in the heart of L.A. just a few miles southwest of downtown. The mansion sits on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University (formerly, College) in L.A.’s West Adams Historic District. Curious to learn more about Doheny and even more curious to see the mansion, I booked a tour for me and my dad.
As it turns out, Edward Doheny was an oil tycoon who was previously a broke, gambling miner. However, when he was 36, Doheny decided to try his hand at drilling in the Los Angeles City Oil Field after discovering that there were natural asphalt reserves that came to the surface in some places like the La Brea Tar Pits, which could be used to refine oil. Initially, when he didn’t strike oil, he was on the verge of giving up when he decided to drill about 10 more feet. And voilà – he hit the jackpot when his last ditch efforts paid off! Consequently, a petroleum rush was ignited in Southern California, and at the height of his oil business in the early 1900s, Doheny was making about $10 million per year.
Before the area where Mount St. Mary’s University is located became university property, Chester Place, the street that the mansion is built on, and the surrounding neighborhood, comprised the city’s first gated community. The area was subdivided after being purchased by Judge Charles Silent, and originally, a hunting lodge was built on the property where the Doheny Mansion now stands. The house was eventually bought by the Posey family before Doheny and his wife Estelle bought it in 1901 for $120,000.
Although pictures weren’t allowed inside during our tour of the mansion, I can attest that this Romantic Revival home is palatial. The house features about 25,000 square feet of living space with 48 rooms, 12 bedrooms, and 16 bathrooms, and the basement once housed 3 walk-in safes and a huge laundry room. With so much space, it’s no wonder that the Doheny Mansion was the first home in L.A. to have an elevator. As their fortune grew, the Dohenys wanted more privacy and decided to buy all of the adjacent houses, making Chester Place private.
Eventually, Edward Doheny fell from grace during the unscrupulous Teapot Dome scandal when in 1922, the Secretary of the Interior leased an oil reserve to Doheny and another oil tycoon in exchange for gifts that today would total over $5 million.
After her husband’s death in 1935, Mrs. Doheny threw herself into philanthropy. As a major benefactor of the Catholic Church, she decided to dedicate the use of some of her Chester Place properties as a Catholic college for women. When Mrs. Doheny died in 1958, the Doheny Mansion was donated to the archdiocese of L.A. and it became a part of Mount Saint Mary’s University’s Doheny campus.
In the late 1980s, when the archdiocese was strapped for cash, Christie’s held an auction and sold over $30 million worth of valuables from the house. But some treasures like expensive carpets, paintings, and a leather-top writing table made by a furniture maker who was a contemporary of Louis XVI, still remain.
The most grandiose part of the house, by far, is the Pompeiian Room which features a Tiffany glass dome made of over 2,800 individual pieces of glass. Estelle Doheny used to use the room for fancy dinners and to host her sewing circles; her grandkids, on the other hand, used to roller skate across the room’s marble floors. Kids. Today, the Pompeiian Room is used for special events including chamber music concerts.
Our Doheny Mansion tour was so insightful and informative. Before our visit, I had no idea that oil was such a big deal in L.A. or that Edward and Estelle Doheny played such a major role in building and contributing to the city. During the tour, we also learned that the film, “There Will Be Blood” starring Daniel-Day-Lewis, is loosely based on Edward Doheny’s life. Although I recently watched the movie on Netflix, I also want to read Doheny’s biography, Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny.
*Tours are $20 per person and are only offered on certain dates throughout the year. Visit the Doheny Mansion’s website for booking details. Proceeds from the tour are used for the mansion’s restoration.