DOWNEY - It was the summer of 1955 and Don Frieze, fresh out of Downey Union High School, was looking for a summer job when he received an offer to work for Geline Gates Johnson.
"I was hired by Mrs. Johnson for one month during that summer," said Frieze. "I took the place of her gardener, chauffer and handy man while he went back to Mexico to visit his family."
After interviewing Frieze for the position, Johnson showed Frieze her property at the intersection of Florence and Rives avenues.
"She also took the time to give me a lengthy and personal tour of her home and also of her yard that I would be taking care of," Frieze said. "It was very impressive, part of that being because I could tell she was very proud of it all."
Today, the Johnson home is still a source of pride as the 6,000-square-foot residence, originally built for Mr. Parley Johnson and his wife, Geline, continues to serve as both a testament to incipient Southern Californian architecture and as a city landmark, documenting Downey's rural beginnings.
Casa de Parley Johnson, as it was originally named, was built in the late 1920s for prominent citrus rancher Parley Johnson, born in Riverside, Calif. in 1890, who became interested in ranching after World War I. Parley's interest in orange groves was understandable. The Johnson family had extensive citrus holdings during the early 1900s and concentrated on the development of the Valencia strain of oranges.
After attending college in Los Angeles, Parley Johnson was very influential in the community and later became one of the founders of the Automobile Club of Southern California in 1900. In 1925, Parley married Geline Gates Richardson (her friends called her Gypsy) and shortly thereafter hired well-known architect Roland Coate, who is recognized today as a major proponent of Southern California's Monterey style homes, to design a Downey residence for the couple.
Originally centered in 50 acres of orange groves, the Parley Johnson home sported formal gardens in its front yard that were designed by landscape architects Florence Yoch and Lucille Council who designed gardens for classic Hollywood movies, such as the 1939 blockbuster "Gone With the Wind." Today, the front gardens remain intact with many of the same rose bushes and orange trees that were planted more than 80 years ago. Similarly, the inside of the house has not changed much either.
After walking through the front door, the main floor features a tiled, two-story entrance hall that bears an L-shaped stairway with a wrought iron banister. On the floor, hand-made red tiles imported from Mexico line the ground with different patterns in each room.
Walking down a side hallway leads to the 24 by 36 foot living room, which features a ceiling made of hand-hewn wooden beams. In addition to the large fireplace in the room, each window is draped with Fortuny cotton, which was woven especially for the house.
Another hallway reveals a door that leads to the large basement underneath the house where the original machinery from Parley Johnson's orange orchards still resides. Also in the basement is the innovative furnace system used by Johnson in the 1920s to heat any room of his choosing at the click of a button upstairs.
On the second floor there are three bedrooms, one master bedroom with his and hers bathrooms for Parley and his wife, and two smaller guest bedrooms, also with their own bathrooms. Each bathroom is covered with tile, which was a great luxury in the 1920s.
Both sides of the second floor have access to wooden balconies that line both the back and front of the house. In Mrs. Johnson's den, all of the original furniture is still in place as she left it, including her French daybed which dates back to the 1700s and dozens of books from the 1800s.
A second staircase leads to the laundry room and kitchen on the first floor where irons and ironing boards are built into the walls for easy accessibility.
Parley Johnson died in the late 1940s, and Gypsy lived in the house until her death in 1986. At that time it was bequeathed to the Assistance League, a national, non-profit, community service organization that came to Downey in 1976. Gypsy had many friends who belonged to the all-female organization at the time of her death.
The Assistance League of Downey raises money year-round for its community philanthropic projects including Operation School Bell, which provides clothing for needy students and H.O.M.E. (Housing of Medical Emergencies), which is a facility that houses the families of patients being treated at Rancho Los Amigos.
Moreover, the Johnson home is a rare medium of exquisite architecture and subtle elegance that represents an erstwhile era where the wealthy and prominent people in society were the local businessmen and women.
Despite Downey's parochial beginnings in the mid 1800s, by the early 1900s, the small community was home to very influential people who helped cultivate its potential as a city of innovation.
This story was originally published Feb. 12, 2010.