The Durfee Mansion, located at 2425 S. Western Ave., just north of Adams Blvd., and set back off the street, sits on the grounds of the St. John of God Retirement and Care Center. The estate’s present pious purpose belies a colorful history, worthy of a Hollywood script.
The prestigious mansion was built in 1908 for Louisiana lumber magnate William Ramsey (born 1855) who sought a California retirement home for himself and his wife. Ramsey commissioned architect Fredrick L. Roehrig to design the three-story 42 room edifice in the Tudor Revival style. Now listed on the US Registry of Historic Places and designated as a L.A Historic-Cultural Monument, the impressive estate is known for its massive hall, living and dining room, decorated with the mahogany paneling, dados, beams and window seats one would expect of a timber baron’s private residence. A nearly 2,600 square foot ballroom occupies the third floor.
Ramsey didn’t enjoy his estate very long however-- passing away within months after the home’s completion. The site was then leased to Rupert Hughes, a playwright and novelist successful for silent film screenplays. Under Hughes, the site became famous for its elaborate parties, including the likes of Samuel Goldwyn. It served as a popular movie locale, especially for wedding scenes featuring the mansion’s stunning staircase and entry with art glass and rich paneling. A Charlie Chaplain film numbered among the many projects using the site, until the property was sold in the early 1920s to William G. Durfee for the unheard of sum of $105,000. Durfee died a few years later of reputed food poisoning on a fishing trip and is buried at Rosedale Cemetery.
At that point the house took on a Garbo-esque atmosphere. William Durfee, a horseracing fanatic, had married Nellie McGaughtry, the daughter of a Figueroa Street millionaire, following a scandalous divorce played out in the newspapers. The two lovers were deeply committed to one another despite infamy, and Nellie never overcame William’s death. After his passing, she became a recluse in the home, leaving William’s possessions fully intact until her own death at age 99 in 1976. The late columnist Jack Smith gained access to the house that same year and found William’s tweed suits and felt hats still hanging in his closet untouched. Dusty treasures were discovered in the wine cellar also undisturbed for 50 years. Smith reported that Nellie died blind in her bedroom “alone with her companion-housekeeper, her cat, ostrich feathers, her unopened boxes of silk stockings” Nellie reputedly slept nightly with William’s room key fastened around her neck.