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DOWNEY – Throughout Downey’s nearly 140-year history, people have come and gone – but a certain number of privileged buildings have been here for decades witnessing each new fad, trend, theory and fashion.
Amid this collection of Downey historical relics is one of the city’s most prominent and enduring structures: The Rives Mansion. Built in 1911, the Rives Mansion, located on the corner of Paramount Boulevard and Third Street, has provided a stately home for several Downey families through the years.
Designed by Los Angeles architects Neher and Skilling, the Rives residence sports a classic Greek Revival facade and chronicles a unique, local history that started with an industrious pioneering family that rode into Downey at the turn of the century.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, many families moved from struggling communities in the South to thriving settlements in the West. Hoping to settle in such a community, Dr. Burwell Edward Rives, his wife and children, rode across the country on an oxcart, arriving to Los Angeles in 1868.
In a time when medical care was scarce, Dr. Rives, a pharmacist in Los Angeles, became one of the area’s first physicians and opened up Downey’s first drug store. Nevertheless, when Dr. Rives died in 1880 at the age of 43, his son James, only 16 at the time, became responsible for the family.
Due to the mounting pressure of supporting his family, James C. Rives dropped out of high school and never attended college, but rather started a printing business. By 1885, he both owned and published his own weekly newspaper, the Downey Review, which became one of the community’s first newspapers.
Following his success at the Downey Review, Rives began traveling to Los Angeles daily where he worked as a printer for many newspapers including the Los Angeles Times.
Although Rives was establishing himself as a prominent newspaperman in the community, he began studying law and was admitted to the California bar at the age of 25. That same year, Rives married Mary Lee Cromwell, another Downey pioneer transplanted from the South.
Subsequently, Rives became a successful lawyer and was elected to serve two terms as the district attorney of Los Angeles, from 1898 to 1902. In 1908, he was elected to the Superior Court and was assigned to the probate department where he officiated until his death in 1923.
Mary Lee Rives, James’ wife, was one of Downey’s leading social figures during this time. She was active in support of the First Christian Church of Downey, which was one of the first buildings constructed in the downtown area. In 1898, she founded The Friday Afternoon Club, which would eventually become today’s Woman’s Club of Downey.
Prior to his death, Rives also established a local bank for ranchers while farming his own citrus and walnuts on the 75 acres that surrounded his three-story residence. Built during the Craftsman Movement, the Rives Mansion features six bedrooms, three bathrooms, a library, dance hall and a large water tower, which today sits on a retired well.
On the first floor, one will find a spacious entry way with a parlor and the library on the right and an elegant dining room on the left. Just beyond the dining room are the kitchen, butler’s pantry and breakfast room.
A grand staircase takes visitors to the second floor where all of the bedrooms are located and a narrow, wooden stairway from the hallway leads to the third floor, revealing a 30 x 60 foot dance floor, used by the Rives’ who hosted regular dinner parties.
In the backyard, the water tank house and a walnut drying shed are still standing on the site, both necessary features that supported the Rives’ agricultural lifestyle.
Following the death of James Rives, the land was subdivided and other homes were built on the Rives property; many of the homes still have the original orange and walnut trees planted by the Rives family. Rives Avenue bordered the 75-acre estate and thus takes its name from the pioneer family.
In 1946, after the death of Mary Lee Rives, the family sold the home to Downey real estate broker Clarence Mocabee and his family who lived in the home until his death in 1981. Three years later, Mocabee’s children sold the property to the Hendricks, a Swedish family that operated several Swedish-language newspapers in Los Angeles.
In 1996, the Rives Mansion was transferred into the Hendricks trust and in 2005 it was bought by Carmen and Oscar Rivera.
The Rivera family leased the home to Lauren Baumann, president of Stewardship Estates, a company that offered a variety of services including marketing, event planning, real estate and financial services. In addition to living in the home since 2008, Baumann also offered the Rives Mansion as a venue for community events.
In 2011, however, Baumann pleaded guilty to wire fraud, admitting she operated a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors out of $560,000. She was sentenced to nearly five years in prison.
Currently, the Rives Mansion is listed on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Landmarks as “a most interesting link to its agricultural past before Downey’s mass suburbanization after World War II.”
After decades of use, the home itself is in need of some repair. With cracks, chinks and chasms visible on the exterior, the home stands to be restored, but regardless of the damage, the nearly 100-year-old Rives Mansion survives today as a testament to Downey’s origins and the generations of Downey families that have called this thriving city home.
Published: Aug. 1, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 16