Catherine Coffin Phillips preserved California history

| July 1, 2021 | 0 Comments

CATHERINE COFFIN PHILLIPS’ 1935 biography of Jessie Benton Frémont.

In the January 2021 issue of the Larchmont Chronicle, columnist Paula Panich introduced readers to Steve Inskeep’s book “Imperfect Union,” about Jessie and John Frémont, a powerhouse couple in California development in the last decades of the 19th century. A small insert in the article noted an earlier biography of the female half of the imperfect union, Jessie Benton Frémont: a remarkable 1935 first edition by fine press publisher John Henry Nash, written by another extraordinary woman, Catherine Coffin Phillips, whose writings about California history are foundational to our understanding of the people and investments that shaped our state. The fact that her Frémont book is still in print is a testament to the historical significance of both the subject and the author.

Catherine Louise Coffin was born in Oakland, Illinois, in 1872, into a prominent family whose American roots and resources began in 1642 when ancestor Tristram Sanborn Coffin sailed from England to New England, eventually purchasing the island of Nantucket.

THE INDOMITABLE Catherine Coffin Phillips.

A woman ahead of her time, Catherine Coffin sought higher education well before most women had access, earning a Bachelor of Arts from Southwestern College in Kansas in 1893 and a Master of Arts in 1895 from Indiana’s DePauw University, where she was also awarded an honorary doctorate in literature in 1937.

Her dedication to books and learning was a lifelong obsession. Lucky for us, after Catherine’s death in 1942, and after her daughter Lucile’s death in 1991, a Phillips grandson, Keith Morrison, created an eponymous research library in Tiburon, California, for her and her husband’s books, collections and papers. This was most fitting for a woman whose own home library purportedly had been described in a Los Angeles newspaper as “… one of the finest libraries in the city — a library distinctive in that her books are not for decoration but have been read over and over again.” That quote and many of the details in this article were found in pamphlets written for the Catherine Coffin Phillips Library, where her legacy also lives on through a yearly writing program for local high school students.

In 1895 Catherine Coffin married fellow Illinoisan and DePauw University alumnus Lee Allen Phillips, and they moved to Los Angeles, where they had their first daughter, Lucile, who became a writer known for her children’s books.

Financial dynamo

LEE ALLEN PHILLIPS married an extraordinary woman.

Phillips was an attorney and insurance executive. Early in his career, he was responsible for some of the largest and most important land redevelopment projects in 20th century California, including extensive operations in the San Joaquin Delta, where he oversaw the conversion of 100,000 acres of bog into productive farmland.

To prepare for the reclamation of the swamp, Phillips studied the dikes in the Netherlands and formed nine companies to handle all aspects of the complex undertaking. He and his family moved to Sacramento from 1902 to 1907 to closely supervise the project. (Daughter Katharine was born there.) Phillips even built an upscale hotel in Sacramento so potential investors wouldn’t have to bunk overnight on the train when they visited. The endeavor was an enormous success. To this day, two-thirds of the state’s potatoes are grown there. The hotel still stands. After a stint as part of the Biltmore chain, it has now been renovated and reopened as an apartment building.

Back in the southland, Lee Allen Phillips built a “country” home on 300 acres in Beverly Hills with that city’s first swimming pool.

The family, including his live-in mother-in-law, Susan Jane Winkler Coffin, escaped the city there until Douglas Fairbanks bought it in 1918. After Fairbanks married Mary Pickford in 1920, it was dubbed “Pickfair.”

Berkeley Square

THE PHILLIPS’ HOME in Berkeley Square.
Photo: Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

In the meantime, Phillips built a home at #4 Berkeley Square on land purchased in 1905. Behind ornate gates, the one-block-long enclave of the wealthy proudly stood in West Adams between Gramercy Place and Western Avenue, north of Adams Boulevard. Phillips also invested in property across the street from his first house and, in 1913, built his dream home there, the largest house in Los Angeles at the time, reported in various newspapers as having anywhere from 22 to 85 rooms. In an historically confusing move, this 26,000 square foot home was also numbered #4. The home was designed by architects Sumner Hunt and Silas Burns. Hunt was also responsible for The Ebell of Los Angeles, the Bradbury Building and the Doheny Mansion.

The Phillips family lived in #4 until Mr. Phillips’ death in 1938, and Mrs. Phillips moved to South Ardmore Avenue. Well past the Phillips residency, Berkeley Square fell out of favor when the more modern, and less gargantuan, homes of Hancock Park and Windsor Square became prized, spurring a decline in the once coveted neighborhood. Any hope for recovery died when the Santa Monica Freeway builders took over all of Berkeley Square in the 1960s. None of the grand mansions in Berkeley Square remains today.

Biltmore Hotel

The Berkeley Square years were fruitful ones for Mr. and Mrs. Phillips. It was here that Catherine Phillips became a force in Los Angeles society and where she began her writing career. Likewise, Phillips continued his trajectory in remaking the California landscape. He was the financier behind the construction of the then-largest hotel west of Chicago, the Los Angeles Biltmore (now named the Millennium Biltmore). According to great-grandson Chris Morrison, the hotel opened in 1923, 18 months ahead of schedule, because “Phillips was there cracking the whip!” The hotel’s opulent ballroom was the site of eight Academy Awards ceremonies in the 1930s.

Phillips also had projects in Arizona and New Mexico. Over the years he organized, advised or was president or director of over two dozen companies, including Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company, Consolidated Steel Corporation, Pacific Finance Corporation and Philco Securities. Although his endeavors favored him with wealth, Morrison clarifies that “[Phillips] was not interested in money. His partners made a fortune, but he was interested in power.”

Phillips also financed his newlywed daughter Lucile’s “starter home” in Windsor Square, probably as a wedding present when she married Dr. Wayland A. Morrison. The Milwaukee Building Company designed the home (and many others nearby), and Lucile was expanding it continually over the years, each time she had another child (ultimately five). Coincidentally, the Morrison home is now the residence of Larchmont Chronicle publisher John H. Welborne and his wife, Martha.
Lee Allen Phillips’ renown as a successful entrepreneur, as well as his personal financial success, earned him the moniker “The Human Dynamo of Constructive Finance.”

The other dynamo

Catherine Coffin Phillips was a human dynamo of a different sort, embracing the expectations of Los Angeles high society by joining clubs, boards, and charitable endeavors, all while dressing impeccably and acting the gracious hostess and brilliant dinner guest.

A cursory look at her involvements indicates that she was on the boards of directors of Childrens Hospital, the Historical Society of Southern California and Scripps College. Phillips was a sponsor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Women’s University Club, the Women’s Athletic Club, The Ebell of Los Angeles and Kappa Alpha Theta and Phi Beta Kappa sororities. And, oh yes, she also wrote five acclaimed and meticulously researched books on California history.


Her first tome was completed in 1929. “Cornelius Cole, California Pioneer and U.S. Senator” recounted our state’s development through the telling of Senator Cole’s many involvements over his 102-year lifespan. Of particular interest was his establishing the community of Colegrove, named for his wife Olive Colegrove Cole, on land deeded to him by Henry Hancock. The settlement near what is now the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine Street was the precursor to Hollywood.

Northern California

Two of Catherine Coffin Phillip’s books focused on San Francisco — 1932’s “Portsmouth Plaza, The Cradle of San Francisco” and “Through the Golden Gate, San Francisco 1769-1937,” published in 1938. She tackled the Gold Rush in her last work, “Coulterville Chronicle, The Annals of a Mother Lode Mining Town.” Phillips had just seen the first copies of “Coulterville Chronicle” roll off the presses when she succumbed to liver cancer in 1942.

Jessie Benton Frémont

The Catherine Coffin Phillips book with the most lasting impact, however, and the one most closely tied to Southern California, is “Jessie Benton Frémont, A Woman Who Made History.”

One reason the book resonates so strongly even today is that the author and Frémont were friends and neighbors, resulting in Phillips gaining unlimited access to Frémont’s papers and unlimited time to listen to her stories.

In fact, Chris Morrison states, their proximity was no accident. “[Jessie’s husband] John Frémont made millions on this sweetheart gold mine deal up in Mariposa, about $100-$200 million,” explains Morrison. “He bet his earnings on another mine and lost everything, leaving them penniless. They even lost their house.”

That’s when Catherine and Lee Phillips stepped in, says Morrison. “You don’t want to let somebody of that historical significance sit in a rooming house and die.” In the late 1890’s, a committee of ladies, including Catherine, presented to Frémont a house built for her on Hoover Street.

Morrison was born after his great-grandmother died, so his stories about her are from his father, Keith, Lucile’s and Wayland’s fourth son. Chris Morrison was told his great-grandmother was elegant, formal, beautiful and incredible. He also knows she enjoyed a good cocktail. “My dad used to mix drinks for her. She’d say, ‘Son, go over there and make me a martini and make one for yourself.’” Morrison pauses and laughs. “He was 11! Back then it was okay.”

Both Catherine and Lee Phillips are buried not far from Berkeley Square — in Rosedale Cemetery, in what is probably the most prominent family plot in the cemetery, a large oval of grass at the top of the entrance road.

It is a sad testament to the times that, in spite of her enormous accomplishments, the January 9, 1938 “New York Times” obituary of her husband referred to Mrs. Phillips only as “his widow.” Similarly, her 1942 “Los Angeles Times” obituary, although listing her numerous achievements, never mentions her given name. The headline declares, “Mrs. Lee Allen Phillips, Writer on California, Dies.”

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Category: People

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