At first, it seems like a lovely mirage, a ghostly green plantation conjured by an overactive imagination. Surrounded by small, utilitarian industrial parks, the Louis Phillips Mansion on Pomona Boulevard sits behind a rusted chain link fence.
Largely ignored by the busy residents of Pomona as they speed by, it is empty of all human activity, though there is a white sheet of cardboard eerily cut into the shape of a child that seems to peer out of a third-story window embedded in the slanted, shingled French mansard roof.
It was under this Second Empire roof, over 125 years ago, that the first American citizens of the Pomona Valley used to dance and dine in the makeshift ballroom. Once the center of the lost town of Spadra, the Phillips Mansion now sits forlornly, neglected by Pomona, a city that would not exist if it were not for the mansion’s original owner, Louis Phillips.
Louis Phillips was born Louis Galefsky in Prussia, on April 22, 1829. His life wasn’t very well documented, but it is said he learned to herd and manage livestock in his youth, a talent that would serve him well in later life. Around the age of 13, he came to America with his brother, Fitel. The two brothers changed their name to Phillips and seem to have settled for a time in Louisiana before moving on to the boomtown of San Francisco around 1850. They tried their hand at mining, before going into a more stable line of work as merchants.
Around 1853, Louis left his brother to came to the tiny, rough-and-tumble pueblo of Los Angeles.
Young Phillips seems to have been a steady, unassuming businessman, with “thrift and enterprise characterizing his life.” Like other clever early Angelenos, he soon got into the real estate game, making long-term investments in property that would eventually become the heart of metropolitan Los Angeles. One of his properties, the Phillips Block on Spring Street in Downtown, would eventually become home to the legendary Hamburger & Sons Department Store.
Phillips also farmed and became known as a level-headed, responsible rancher. He was living on a small ranch in the community of Paredon Blanco—now Boyle Heights—when he got an interesting offer to run the sprawling Rancho San Jose, 30-odd miles from Downtown LA, according to historian Gloria Lothrop, author of Pomona: A Centennial History. “In early 1863, for a consideration of $100 a month plus half of all the colts, calves, and lambs born each year,” Lothrop writes, “Phillips agreed to operate Rancho San Jose de Abajo.”
The Rancho San Jose was in the midst of a turbulent takeover, the history of which has been muddled over time. Once an eastern outpost of the Mission San Gabriel, it was a land of barren open spaces, rolling hills, gnarled oaks, and willows. In 1837, Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado had granted no less than 22,000 acres of the land to young Angelenos Ricardo Vejar and Ygnacio Palomares.
Under the two men, Rancho San Jose became a thriving cattle ranch, their cows helping to feed the thousands of hungry immigrants who flooded into California over the next 20 years. But a devastating flood in 1861, followed by an economic collapse, drought, and a smallpox outbreak, crippled the Rancho. In early 1864, the Vejar portion of the rancho was officially obtained by the estate of Louis Schlesinger and Hyman Tischler in a mortgage foreclosure.
Many in the area were unhappy with Schlesinger and Tischler’s handling of the takeover, which they saw as underhanded and unfair. Anti-Semitism also may have played a part in the affair, since Tischler and Schlesinger, like Phillips, were Jewish. Schlesinger seems to have been killed before the land was formally granted to him, either in the 1863 explosion of the Ada Hancock in San Pedro Harbor or by bandits on the road to San Bernardino. There are accounts that Tischler was terrified of retribution by angry ranch hands. According to wealthy financier and tall tale-teller Harris Newmark, Tischler and his friend Edward Newman were on a trip to Rancho San Jose when Newman was shot dead by an unknown assailant. According to Newmark:
It was generally assumed that the bullets were intended for Tischler, in revenge for his part in the foreclosure, at any rate, he would never go to the ranch again and finally sold it to Don Louis Phillips, on credit, for $30,000. The inventory included large herds of horses and cattle, which Phillips (during the subsequent wet season) drove to Utah, where he realized sufficient funds from their sale alone to pay for the whole property.
Whatever the truth of this confused tale, by 1866 Phillips owned outright 12,000 acres of the Rancho San Jose. With his common sense and business acumen, he slowly brought order and stability to the ranch. “Neighborly and large-hearted,” he also forged positive relationships with the men and women who farmed the secluded plains.
“Almost immediately, he was appointed as judge of the plains with the responsibility of settling disputes between the local cattle ranchers,” historian Mickey Gallivan writes in Early Pomona. From his home in the old Vejar family adobe by Pedregosa Creek, Phillips oversaw the growth of the Pomona Valley area. He immediately began to sell parcels of land to new settlers, to encourage community and economic growth.
One of these settlers, William “Uncle Billy” Rubottom, set up a tavern and inn on his 100-acre parcel. It became a “welcoming oasis” for travelers enduring the Butterfield Stage Route, which brought carriage passengers West over bumpy, brutal terrain. Rubottom was a character right out of a Western movie—it was said he had killed two people back East, and he would later kill his son-in-law in a knife fight. According to Gallivan, if you were killed in a bar fight at Rubottom’s tavern over a card game gone wrong, “they just dragged you off to the cemetery and buried you.”
It was Rubottom who named the area Spadra, after his hometown of Spadra, Arkansas. Over the next few years, many poor Southerners, fleeing the chaos of the post-Civil War South, moved to the newly christened Spadra.
In 1867, Phillips married Esther Blake, the daughter of William Blake, the “first white settler” in the Pomona Valley, who had come to California with one of the Frémont Expeditions. Esther was known as “an attractive woman enjoying a wide circle of friends.” The couple eventually had five children: George, Nellie, Charles, Louis Jr., and an adopted daughter named Kate.
The small community flourished, and by 1870 there were three stores, a warehouse, blacksmiths, and a school on the Phillips property. Phillips also lent a pond to Reverend Richard Fryer, the town’s colorful Baptist preacher, for baptisms. Herds of sheep and other livestock roamed the land. In 1874, Phillips sold a large chunk of his land (eventually around 5,000 acres) to developers laying out the town of Pomona.
But Phillips’s heart lay in Spadra, and he worked hard to entice the Southern Pacific Railway to come through his community, giving right-of-way land to the company to sweeten the deal. In 1874, his hard work paid off and for a brief, shining moment, little Spadra was the Western terminus of the grand old railroad. According to Lothrop:
The traffic increased at Spadra as rail lines were laid and freight cars exchanged cargoes and wagon trains from San Bernardino, Salt Lake City, and even Colorado. In 1876 more than 12 million pounds of building materials and livestock arrived at Spadra. Shipments consisted of wool, wine, hides, honey and wagons. All was bustle as trains of 5 or 6 wagons drawn by 16 horses milled about the station platform, driven by weary teamsters impatiently anticipating a welcome respite at Rubottom’s.
With Spadra flourishing, in 1875 the Phillipses built a grand mansion, for $20,000, near the site of the old Vejar adobe. The bricks used to build the house were made onsite by Joseph Mulally of Los Angeles. More befitting a French home in New Orleans than the Wild West, the 12-room home featured cherry and maple interiors and was “lighted throughout with gas manufactured on the premises.” The rooms were bright and cheerful, with a fireplace in almost every space.
The charming home, whose interiors were said to be as cool as an adobe due to its (at the time) novel brick design, soon became the social center for the scattered farmers and ranchers of the Pomona Valley.
By far the largest and most comfortable residence in the Spadra, it served as a beacon for settlers searching for a good meal, a night’s entertainment, and most importantly, conversations and connections with people outside the immediate family circle. No doubt, many a settler who visited the Phillips home on a social call believed the entire Spadra area would soon be dotted with homes of a similar size and grace.
Around the time the home was built, the railroad was expanded, and its western terminus was moved to the town of Colton. This delivered an economic blow to Spadra, but does not seem to have affected Phillips’s robust business.
During the 1880s, he was involved in many land deals, both in Los Angeles and the Pomona Valley. It was a boom time in Los Angeles real estate, but although Phillips’s bankbook continued to grow, he and Esther continued to live their quiet life in Spadra, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. While next-door Pomona (which Phillips was not a fan of) grew into a busy town of 4,000 by 1891, Spadra’s growth began to stall. According to a reporter for the Los Angeles Times:
Returning from Pomona to Los Angeles by the Southern Pacific Railroad, there is a section of country from five to ten miles south of the Sierra Madre foothills, and mostly south of the Puente hills, which has never had any boom, but has jogged along after the time old fashioned. The chief settlements along this section are Spadra, Puente and El Monte. The first and last of these an old-timer could visit without being paralyzed by the change of a decade. In fact, he would find things very much as they were twenty years ago … Spadra, three miles west of Pomona, was founded by W.W. Rubottom twenty-five years ago. ... Lands, unimproved, range in value from $100 up. Ex-Sheriff Currier has a fine orange orchard here. The home place of Louis Phillips, who formerly owned the San Jose ranch, upon which Pomona is situated, is also here.
How much the very private Phillips’s fortune grew in these years is up for debate. In 1892, a reporter for the Pomona Progress interviewed Harris Newmark, who when asked, claimed unequivocally that the unassuming Phillips was the richest man in the county:
Why there is no doubt that the richest property holder in the county today is Louis Phillips, who lives so quietly out at Spadra … Phillips has for several years had the largest receipts of any business man in this part of the state. No one would ever suspect that Mr. Phillips received such a royal income as he has. Several gentlemen in Los Angeles who have the means of knowing, say that Mr. Phillips is worth not a dollar less than $3,000,000. He has rentals in the city that bring him over $6500 a month, rentals in Pomona and that locality that are worth $500 a month, and from his ranch his wool, honey, wheat and hay he gets from $20,000 to $30,000 annually … No one really knows his income, but it is thought by careful bankers here that Louis Phillips gets from $130,00 to $150,000 every year from his property that is scattered all over Los Angeles county. He is extremely fortunate in his selection of real estate, and every month adds more to the value of his lands and buildings.
For all his riches, Phillips and his family hardly ever made the news. When he did, it was almost always business-related. In 1897, perhaps sensing the end was near for both himself and his community, he donated land for the new Spadra Cemetery and was placed on its Board of Directors.
By the turn of the century, Phillips was ailing. On February 11, 1900, the family appeared in the Los Angeles Times for a reason other than business:
A team of horses belonging to Louis Phillips of Spadra became unmanageable and ran away between Pomona and Spadra last evening, overturning and badly demolishing the carriage. Mrs. Phillips was thrown and sustained a broken arm. Her daughter, Mrs. George, and the latter’s little girl, who were with her, were bruised. The driver was unhurt. Mrs. Phillips, who has recently recovered from a serious illness, was taken to her home and medical assistance summoned.
While the women recovered, Phillips continued to decline, suffering from persistent pneumonia. Although he had been ill for months, he did not take to his bed until early March. On March 17, he died in his beloved home at 9 p.m. The funeral of the “well-known capitalist and pioneer” was held on the family ranch, and he was buried at Spadra Cemetery, which he had helped incorporate only three years before.
The Phillips Mansion, as it came to be called, stayed in the family’s possession for decades. By World War II, the once-stately home, the pride of Spadra, had been cut up into four apartments. Spadra was eventually absorbed into Pomona, although it was not officially annexed until 1964.
The house went through a succession of owners and was heavily vandalized by the 1960s, when it was scheduled to be destroyed. In 1966, it was saved from the wrecking ball when the Historical Society of Pomona Valley bought it. The mansion was restored as a museum, only to be severely damaged by earthquakes in 1990 and 2008.
Today, Phillips’s eternal home is an abandoned graveyard, and his earthly home is rarely opened, its damaged interiors apparently slowly being fixed by the Historical Society, one small project at a time. The mansion is only opened occasionally to the public for scheduled group tours and special events. And so, these two forlorn relics sit behind gates, as mysterious and unknowable as the man and the town that brought them to life.