Bertram’s Last Drive – The Arlington Hotel Tragedy

Just after lunch on Sunday June 28, 1925, Bertram Deane Hancock jumped behind the wheel of his shiny roadster and turned out of the driveway of the family home at 3189 Wilshire Boulevard, no doubt waving a cheerful goodbye to his mother and sister before disappearing down busy Wilshire Boulevard. Bertram had a long drive ahead of him, but distance means nothing to a 22 year-old piloting a powerful automobile and the cooling breezes the young man’s speed generated must have been a welcome respite from the oppressive heat wave that had held all of Southern California within its withering grip for the last days. By noon the temperature had already topped 90 and it looked to be only getting worse as the day wore on.

Bertram Deane Hancock

Bertram, however, was not going to let a mere heat wave spoil the excitement he felt in taking this trip northward. It was a challenge, the first test of his business acumen since his father had taken him into the fold just a month before and he was anxious to prove his worth. Tonight they would meet up in Santa Barbara and the next day they would make their way together to the central coast community of Santa Maria to inspect some acreage that Bertram thought would make a great setting for a first-rate cattle operation. Bertram and his father could talk cattle ranches. They were Hancocks and Bertram, as G. Allan Hancock’s only son, was a prince of the realm and heir apparent to his father’s vast fortune.

Designed by John C. Austin in 1908 to resemble an Italian villa, the Hancock Mansion at Wilshire and Vermont was for decades one of the showplace residences of Los Angeles.

Major Henry Hancock

The Hancock millions came first from the land then from the oil underneath the land and then from the land itself again. Bertram’s grandfather, Major Henry Hancock, had come to California as a Forty-Niner and quickly came to realize the real gold lay in the land itself. Hancock became obsessed with acquiring as much of it as he could and by the time he died in 1883 he held title to thousands of acres most notably the 4439 acres of the vast Rancho La Brea, which today comprises much of the Mid-Wilshire district and Hollywood. By the time Bertram was born in 1902, oil wells had begun to spring up all over the ranch and in 1908 alone, some 4,535,000 barrels of crude were brought to the surface, greatly adding to the Hancock fortunes. Now, as Bertram turned his roadster up Rossmore Avenue, the pendulum had swung back again to the land itself, and on the young man’s left was the steadily rising subdivision of Hancock Park, his father’s latest real estate development. For literally miles, Bertram passed through land that belonged to or had once belonged to his family.

Looking out towards the Hancock lands of Rancho La Brea during the oil boom. The land boom would follow.

G. Allan Hancock with his prized Gagliano.

When he reached Hollywood and the corner of Hollywood and Vine, the boy’s pulse, no doubt, must have quickened a little. He was, like many a youth then and now, movie struck. In fact, he had even made a stab at acting, something his indulgent parents allowed him to do. His father, in spite of his great business acumen, understood the creative spirit and throughout his long life enjoyed playing the cello to such a degree that in between numerous business and scientific activities he performed first chair with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonic and even at the Hollywood Bowl on a rare Gagliano his equally indulgent mother had purchased for him in Europe. His son’s creative yearnings found their voice on the stage, with Bertram making his debut in October 1924 at the Pasadena Playhouse in a leading role in Rachel Crowthers’ comedy Mary the Third. Other productions followed, but within a year, he had “gotten serious” and joined the family business. Had he continued on his earlier course, Bertram may well have been a success. He had both looks and talent and was considered quite handsome with piercing blue eyes softened by a pair of Harold Lloyd-esque glasses.

The Cahuenga Pass as seen in Bertram's day.

But for now, Hollywood was behind him both literally and figuratively as he emerged from the Cahuenga Pass and into the wide and open spaces of the San Fernando Valley. The heat was even greater here and Bertram may have pushed the pedal to the legal limit to keep the breeze going as strong as possible as he passed through the sparsely populated valley. Bertram knew that within a few years he would be able to drive the “Coast Route” now that the Rindge family had finally lost their protracted battle to keep the highway from entering the Rancho Malibu Topanga Sequit. But for now, the only way to go remained the route through the San Fernando Valley. Taking the Ventura Boulevard, Bertram was traveling California’s most historic road, the El Camino Real. Every so often, Bertram passed a Mission Bell marker, denoting that he was indeed on “The King’s Highway.” Even here, the far reach of the Hancock fortune was in evidence with Bertram passing through the future site of Sherman Oaks, another development in which his father was heavily involved.

The Ventura Boulevard running through the future site of Sherman Oaks.

At the juncture with Topanga Avenue, Bertram passed through the real estate development of Girard and was no doubt amused by its fanciful Mosque-like structures attempting to lure buyers into purchasing a lot or two in what would eventually become Woodland Hills. After going through the old community of Calabasas and then Thousand Oaks, Bertram had finally reached the famous Conejo Grade, which zig-zagged down to the plains of Camarillo. From the summit, Bertram could catch his first glimpse of the ocean, the sight of which must have brought some cooling thoughts even if the sweltering atmosphere did not.

A 1920's view of the Conejo Pass.

After what must have been a long, hot drive across the Camarillo plains, Bertram finally hit the coast at Ventura and swung northwards over the Rincon Causeway with the ocean breezes aiding at least a little against the otherwise oppressive heat, which by this time had reached its peak. But even the heat could not detract from the scenic beauty of this stretch of highway as it made its way between the Rincon bluffs on the right and the blue Pacific on the left. At last, with the sun still hanging low in the western sky, Bertram reached his destination for the night, Santa Barbara. Turning up State Street, he headed directly to the famous Arlington Hotel where his father and, no doubt a cooling shower, awaited him. At the corner of Victoria, Bertram turned left onto the hotel’s lush grounds and quickly disappeared into its subterranean parking garage, one of the exclusive amenities to be found at the Arlington.

From the time of its grand opening in 1873, the Arlington was one of the great hotels of the West, hosting many notables including Presidents Grant, Harrison and McKinley, Princess Louise, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Admiral Dewey among others within its five acres of rare and exotic plantings.  The hotel that greeted young Bertram that late afternoon was the “new” Arlington, a magnificent Mission-style edifice that rose up and stretched out impressively at an angle across an entire city block. Completed in early 1911 at a cost exceeding a million and a half dollars, the grand new Arlington had been built after the original had been destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1909.

The new hotel had been designed by the very talented Los Angeles architect Arthur B. Benton, famed for his earlier design of another world-renowned hotel, the Glenwood Mission Inn out in Riverside. Benton’s design of the new Arlington was a celebration of the then popular Spanish Mission style  incorporating numerous elements from the California Missions throughout the facade including features from the Carmel, San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel missions. The most visually stunning aspect of the hotel was its monumental central core, which rose five stories up from the subterranean garage and was framed on either side by a set of mission-style bell towers. The larger of the two was a handsome recreation of the bell tower of the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia down in Oceanside. This beautiful tower was home to the hotel’s elegant “Tower” suites, the finest accommodations the Arlington had to offer. It was also home to something else, something few guests were aware of, but had they known of its existence they might have taken comfort, for it was there to protect them.

Fire had long been a serious threat to hotels and their guests and California had witnessed some spectacular blazes with the famed Hotel Del Monte, the Paso del Robles and, of course, the Arlington itself, all lost to conflagrations. Benton was determined that this should never happen again to the Arlington and although it presented a vision of California’s romantic Mission past on the outside, structurally the Arlington was the last word in modern construction with the 250 room hotel built entirely of steel, brick and concrete. To further protect the hotel, Benton ingeniously hid a 50,000 gallon water tank inside the very top of the hotel’s San Luis Rey Tower, just above the Tower suites.  The addition of the hidden water tank added a new dimension in safety to the hotel, virtually guaranteeing it could never be destroyed by fire.

Fire and water tanks were probably the last thing on young Bertram’s mind as he emerged from the subterranean garage and up into the grand Mission-styled lobby. The dark and restful tones of the enormous space must have felt much cooler than the bright heat of the day he had just come in from, a heat made even worse by sticky high humidity. After being greeted at the front desk, Bertram was escorted up to his room, which to his pleasant surprise, was one of the grand Tower suites. In spite of their vast wealth, the Hancocks remained quite modest in their habits or at least as modest as millionaires could be. Earlier in the day when Bertram’s father G. Allan arrived with his ranch foreman Joe Chapman, the pair requested a simple pair of adjoining rooms, one for themselves to share and another for young Bertram. When a manager later discovered who his famous guest was, however, he arranged for the men to be moved up to nicer quarters on the third floor facing the mountains. G.Allan and Joe Chapman took the smaller of the two, leaving the grand suite for his son.

After hearty greetings and freshening up from the hot drive, Bertram joined his father and Joe Chapman for a leisurely dinner in the hotel dining room. The temperature, even after sunset had remained stiflingly high, but at least there was good news that the heat wave was starting to abate. The drive up to the Hancock ranch in Santa Maria would hopefully be a cooler one, at least by a few degrees, than today’s journey. Even the heat though could not dampen the boy’s excitement over the trip and it is no doubt that the trio spent much of their dinner discussing young Bertram’s plans to add a cattle operation to the Hancock ranch. After perhaps a brief after-dinner stroll around the lushly planted grounds, the trio most likely retired to their rooms early. Tomorrow was going to be a long and busy day and they wanted to beat the heat by getting an early start towards Santa Maria. Before saying good night they agreed to meet for breakfast at 7:30AM.

Throughout the long night of June 28th and into the early morning hours of June 29th, not only the hundred or so guests of the Arlington, but all of Santa Barbara as well struggled to find sleep in the hot sticky atmosphere. Even the famous cooling ocean breezes had failed to materialize over the “American Riviera”and an ominous stillness hung like a shroud over the city adding to the already oppressive atmosphere. At 3:27AM, the needle on the pressure gauge recorder at the Santa Barbara Water Department began to vibrate across its disk, indicating a small earthquake was in progress. The temblor, however, was so slight that it was likely neither Bertram or anyone else felt any perceptible shaking. Over the next few hours, the gauge continued to register jolts of modest scope intermittently until 6:42 AM. One minute later all hell broke loose.

A map showing the faults involved in the 1925 quake.

Showing the devastation down State Street.

For 19 seconds the entire city shook with a ferocity that was described by Ole Hanson, the developer of San Clemente who was in town at the time, as sounding like “a million dogs crunching bones.” Streets buckled, buildings swayed and people were thrown off their feet in the violent convulsion later estimated as being a 6.3 on the Richter Scale. At the moment the quake struck, G. Allan Hancock was preparing to take a bath and had just removed his pajama bottoms when he found himself suddenly thrown violently through the air. “It all happened in a minute,” he later related. “The crash of falling timbers and steel beams and the walls of the hotel made an indescribable inferno of sound which dazed me.” In an incredible miracle, Joe Chapman had also been thrown out from the hotel by the quake with Chapman falling three stories and landing perfectly safe and unharmed on the neatly trimmed lawn. Hancock landed on the lawn too, but in far worse condition. Stunned, bleeding and seriously injured, Hancock, along with a dining room maid, managed to crawl out of the rubble where a bellboy ran to their aid. Hancock’s shoulder had been pierced by a steel rod barely missing his vital organs and he suffered several broken rib bones, a fractured collar-bone and a concussion, but he was alive. As he lay on the manicured lawn of the hotel awaiting transport to the Cottage Hospital, he looked up to see the San Luis Rey Tower where his boy had been sleeping. It was gone.

The great 50,000 gallon water tank, designed to save the hotel from fire, was the unintended instrument of its doom. It only took a few seconds for the giant tank to wrest loose and collapse the tower upon itself, a time so short, there was little anyone below it could have done. The tower pancaked almost instantly dropping five floors and crashing through the lobby and dining room and into the subterranean garage. One floor below Bertram’s suite, 82 year-old Edith Forbes Perkins, widow of a president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, screamed out for her maid, but just as the maid appeared at the door Mrs. Perkins vanished before her leaving only an open chasm where the room had been. Crews worked feverishly to dig through the rubble in the dim hopes that Bertram and/or Mrs. Perkins might have survived. They found Bertram at 2:20 that afternoon. Mrs. Perkins a few hours later. “My son probably never awakened from his sleep,” stated Hancock. “His skull was fractured and his neck broken. It was best if he had to go that he go without suffering.”

G. Allan Hancock. Survivor.

The moment she heard the news, a distraught Genevieve Hancock rushed northwards to be with her husband. In spite of his great tragic loss or perhaps because of it, Hancock fought with great energy to recover and insisted on knowing every detail of the disaster including reports on his son. And he did recover and would prosper in incredible ways before dying just shy of his 90th birthday in 1965. Although he went on, Hancock never forgot his son or the tragedy of that June morning. Years later, he told a friend, “In that frightful moment when the walls fell out and I was hurled through space, I caught a vivid, never-to-be forgotten glimpse of my son’s bed plunging downward in the roaring mass and twisted steel.” From the time of the earthquake onwards and for the remainder of his long life, G. Allan Hancock’s speech had been affected, something they said was related to the physical injuries he sustained. But it may have been something even more powerful.

Although the June 29, 1925, quake wrought a great deal of destruction to the city, it is regarded today on its 86th anniversary as something of a blessing in disguise that transformed a somewhat hodgepodge Victorian town into a showplace of beautiful and harmonious Spanish architecture. While this is true, we must still never forget the price paid in the form of the 13 who lost their lives that morning including one young man bursting with dreams, hope and optimism of a bright future.

If you would like to know more about the 1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake, be sure and check out the excellent series by Santa Barbara historian Neal Graffy here.

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12 Responses to Bertram’s Last Drive – The Arlington Hotel Tragedy

  1. Dee says:

    This is riveting. So well written. Bravo.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Dee. I sure appreciate that, especially coming from a fellow writer. It’s just such a tragic story of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When you think about everyone’s good intentions – from the architect who put the water tank in to save people to the hotel manager who moved the Hancocks to better rooms to the indulgent father who gave his son the better of the two rooms, and yet all these good intentions resulted in a tragic death. If any one of those hadn’t happened, the boy would have lived. I guess when your number is up your number is up. It’s also so interesting that such a young person, 22, and an elderly person, 82, died at the same time, one at the beginning of a long and promising life and the other at the end. Makes you think! What would Bertram have accomplished had he lived? And the irony that, without the water tank, the Arlington rode the earthquake out perfectly with no other damage. It might still be there today if not for the damned water tank. And what a beautiful hotel it was too.

  2. Robby says:

    Those images of Cahuenga Pass and Ventura are pretty stunning. It amazes me every time I see these areas so rural – it’s hard to believe they were once that way with the amount of development that has occurred and the heavy traffic that passes through those locations today. And don’t you wish all those homes like the Hancock residence were still around! Nice write up too.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks so much, Robby! I know. Wouldn’t it be great to have a time machine and go back to Hollywood/L.A. in the 20’s? I wouldn’t know where to go first!

  3. David Ko says:

    I love your writing Steve. a perfect blend of regional history, personality, and architecture. Very few people have been able to present these ideas at their finest and remarkable accuracy. Your tenacity in your research place you at a historian level.

    • Steve says:

      Thank you David! I certainly appreciate your very kind comments. You have no idea how much that means. I am very grateful. Thank you!! You made my day.

  4. Martha Pope says:

    Thank you so much for this fascinating, historical article. I lived in Santa Barbara for 9 years, in the 80’s, but never knew about this history. Again, Thanks!!

  5. Steven Schlah says:

    Steve, from Steve. I lived in Sta, Barb. from 1959 to 1985 and as a History teacher, I never realized the severity of the quake (6+). I n 1962, I built bikes in the Neal Hotel, which survived. Now living in Ventura and having gone down The Conejo since 1957 (age 11), I saw the 1957 construction work, but never realized what they started from. Excellent story about Hancock and the rest. Congrats. Steve

    • Steve says:

      Thanks so much fellow Steve! Yeah, it was quite devastating and changed the whole look of SB. It’s truly a miracle more did not die. It might have been because of the early time. Few people were out on the city streets.

  6. Jane Gilman says:

    Hello Steve

    Caught up with you via the 455 Lorraine story and then this. Great story, great writing.
    Do you have anything for the Larchmont Chronicle??

    • Steven Schlah says:

      Jane: 455 Lorraine, is that where this ‘never ending story’ started? I’ll have to back track and glean more morsels. Though I made a BIG mistake when I moved away from Santa Barbara and its ‘one of a kind’ geography, to Ventura in ’86, stories like those from Walter Thompkins have always been close to my heart. Santa Barbara is such a special place, from its natural beauty, of its setting between the mountains and the sea; to its manufactured beauty of buildings and gardens and institutions; to its eclectic blend of its populous. Prior to his death, these things that made Santa Barbara special, were presented in his historical stories, taken from his many books on S.B., and were broadcast at noon daily on KTMS, the News-Press AM radio station. Not only did his stories ‘prime my pump’, and activate my sponge, in wanting to know even more about S.B., but History in general. He was one of the major reasons that not only I became a History teacher, but, for the last 17 years, have been writing a book on Ancient Egypt.

  7. Scott says:

    Wonderful article, Steve. Stumbled upon it while reading about G. Allan Hancock after seeing his bust at the tar pits. For a moment I felt like I was transported to 1920s Southern California. Incidentally, Bertram was named after his father’s brother, who died in childhood.

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