The Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital‘s twin lines of Mexican fan palms are among the thousands that collectively symbolize quintessential L.A., but many 110 freeway commuters and Expo Line riders who zoom past are unaware of the long-time residents’ deep roots in the city’s history.
As local history expert Nathan Masters (who tipped me off to these landmark long-necked trees) over at L.A. as Subject has pointed out, Washingtonia filifera is the only species native to California. Yes, like so many residents, the towering trees along the hospital’s 143-year-old Palm Drive are transplants, and the history of these particular palms are well-documented on Los Angeles Past, one of my favorite online resources.
Dubbed the Longstreet Palms, the trees were planted in 1870 by Charles A. Longstreet, a New York man who continued in his father’s footsteps as a successful clothing wholesaler. The palms welcomed visitors to his lavish two-story mansion; after he passed away in 1877, the estate was subdivided and sold.
In 1900, the former Longstreet property was purchased by 53-year-old John Singleton, a mining tycoon who then rechristened the plot as Singleton Court. The image of the then-30-year-old palms lining the driveway to his luxurious Colonial Revival style abode was part of an extensive photo album of his property, meant to convince a young Stella Graham to marry the rich bachelor, according to the L.A. Times.
Twenty-year-old Graham accepted Singleton’s proposal, and the two were wed the following year in San Francisco. Sadly, the marriage didn’t last; it was marred by tragedy and misery. The Times writes:
Singleton’s only son, Edward, feckless and drunk, shot himself to death at the family house. Four years later the mansion went up in flames, and so did the Singleton marriage. Columnists were merciless in their gossipy reports.
Graham, rumored to be Singleton’s maid before they married, had flung open the doors of Singleton Court to L.A. society. Whether “the gold from the Yellow Aster and the smiles from the maid” had done any good, no one was certain. The couple, after weeks of not speaking, agreed to separate for a year at a meeting with lawyers described by The Times as an opera bouffe. A guaranteed income in hand, Graham left for Europe.
The property passed hands several times after it was sold by Singleton. The palms grew alongside a booming Los Angeles: they stood witness as their dirt driveway was paved with asphalt to make way for the cable car and the automobile. Later, they would watch as the Harbor Freeway and the Expo subway line were built. All the while, the upscale West Adams community that surrounded the trees was transformed over time into a bustling thoroughfare and business district.
Today, only 23 palms remain standing from Longstreet’s original trees, and a children’s park now stands alongside them on the Orthopaedic Hospital’s campus. Now, the playground’s curved commemorative sign is an unexpected reminder of the property’s long-gone curved iron gates that once beckoned the city’s nineteenth century elite.
You can still see Palm Drive throughout history as it’s been immortalized in countless postcards and historical photographs from USC’s Digital Libraries and the L.A. Public Library’s online photo collection.
- Los Angeles Past: Gen. Longstreet’s Palms: The Oldest Trees in Los Angeles?, Palm Drive: Then & Now, Palms Puzzle Finally Solved
- L.A. as Subject at KCET: A Brief History of Palm Trees in Southern California
- L.A. Times: Singleton Court in West Adams Was the Home of Scandal