The discovery that real estate agent Matthew Greenberg made when he stepped inside a Mount Washington cottage will put the Los Angeles Public Library on the map. Stashed everywhere in the 948-square-foot tear-down were maps. Tens of thousands of maps. Fold-out street maps were stuffed in file cabinets, crammed into cardboard boxes, lined up on closet shelves and jammed into old dairy crates. Wall-sized rollup maps once familiar to schoolchildren were stacked in corners. Old globes were lined in rows atop bookshelves also filled with maps and atlases. A giant plastic topographical map of the United States covered a bathroom wall, and bookcases displaying Thomas Bros. map books and other street guides lined a small den.
The 56-year-old occupant of the 90-year-old cottage died in February. Greenberg's job was to empty the home so it could be demolished and its 18,000-square-foot lot, near the top of Canyon Vista Drive, divided into two parcels. His clients had told him to rent a Dumpster and throw away whatever he found inside.
But Greenberg couldn't bring himself to do that, especially after he read a recent Los Angeles Times article about the Central Library's map collection. Instead, he invited its map librarian, Glen Creason, to Mount Washington to look at the trove.
"This dwarfs our collection — and we've been collecting for 100 years," said Creason, who, with the help of 10 library employees and volunteers, boxed up the maps to take to the city library. It took hours. The acquisition makes it one of the country's top five library map archives, behind the Library of Congress and public libraries in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, he said.
Veteran antiquarian map dealer Barry Ruderman of La Jolla, Calif., would not put a price on the find. The oldest piece was a 1592 map of Europe. "This person grabbed every map he could," Ruderman said. "I think he wasn't looking so much for maps as they were finding him."
Who was this guy?
As the workers went through the tiny house, they tried to piece together the wanderlust life of John Feathers, the man who amassed the collection, apparently, beginning in childhood.
But they had little evidence to go on, and it remained a mystery exactly how and why he obtained so many maps.
Born in Massachusetts and raised in a military family that is believed to have spent time in the Midwest, Feathers became a hospital dietitian who seems to have traveled widely. He was the companion of the home's late owner, Walter Keller, who arranged for him to continue living there after his own death two decades ago.
Feathers left no known survivors. Keller's brother and sister, Marvin Keller and Esther Baum, were liquidating the estate, which has its own history.
The site was once used by the Los Angeles and Mount Washington Railway, which was operated from 1909 to 1919 by Robert Marsh, himself a turn-of-the-century Los Angeles mapmaker and developer. A section of steel cable used to move the railway's trolley cars up and down the steep hillside remains embedded in concrete in a corner of the lot, which is priced at $450,000.