William G. Kerckhoff

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German-American lumber and electric power millionaire and land developer who bequeathed buildings in his name to USC, UCLA, and Cal Tech, and endowed a cutting-edge heart research institute in Germany.

1856-1929. Kerckhoff came to Los Angeles from Indiana with his young wife Louise Eshman Kerckhoff in 1878 or 1879. He began his California career with the Jackson Lumber Company, serving the whole of the Los Angeles basin. To transport lumber, Kerckhoff in 1887 built the first ocean-going vessel in the United States to use oil for fuel.

In the 1890s he formed the San Gabriel Power Company, initiating the use of hydroelectric power in Los Angeles. By the turn of the century, with his partner A.C. Balch, Kerckhoff owned almost half the stock of Henry Huntington's Pacific Light & Power company, which had been formed to generate electricity for the Pacific Electric Railway and Huntington's Los Angeles Red Car line. Kerckhoff served as president of PL&P. In 1902, Kerckhoff and Balch were approached by the bankrupt San Joaquin Electric Company and agreed to purchase its assets. This put them in contact with its principal engineer, John Eastwood, who had a visionary plan to tap potential hydroelectric power in the San Joaquin River in the western Sierras. Eastwood for years had surveyed the Big Creek area of the Sierra Nevadas between Yosemite and Sequoia Parks, looking for the ideal places for a hydroelectric system. Eastwood took his drawings involving a vast system of reservoirs and tunnels to Kerckhoff, who agreed to back the effort. On Kerckhoff's recommendation Huntington agreed to the project and it was financed in the amount of $12 million by Pacific Light & Power.

In 1910, work was begun on the Big Creek project, encompassing the entire watershed of the upper San Joaquin River. At the time it was the largest construction project in the world, rivaled only by the construction of the Panama Canal. The system was cut into steep mountain terrain through solid granite, with picks and shovels, horses, oxen, and a small railroad. The dam and reservoir system created a series of artificial lakes including Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake, and Florence Lake. This last was so high in the mountains that there was snow on the ground six months of the year and Alaskan sled dogs were used to deliver supplies during the two years of its construction. Pacific Light & Power also built a number of railroads, including the San Joaquin & Eastern Railway. The Southern California Edison Company absorbed Pacific Light & Power in 1917.

William G. Kerckhoff also invested in natural gas, buying his own gas company and building a 120 mile pipeline from the San Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles. He and his partners formed the Southern California Gas Corporation in 1910.

If this was not enough, Kerckhoff was also a big-time land developer. He was a founder of Beverly Hills in partnership with Burton Green, Max Whittier, and Charles A. Canfield. In San Diego County and the San Joaquin Valley, three land companies collectively owned 50,000 acres. He was president of the South Coast Land Company and masterminded the initial phases of the city of Del Mar just north of San Diego. Eryka Dennis, in the April 2-8, 2004, Del Mar Times, writes, "As the South Coast Land Company acquired the land of Del Mar, the company’s president, William Kerckhoff, imagined a village of cottages, 'ultimate bungalows,' and homes with an English influence to resemble Stratford-on-Avon. His vision resulted in the commission of Green and Green Brother's architect, John C. Austin, who along with the Greens of Pasadena, had become nationally celebrated for New England style California Craftsman bungalows."

The Kerckhoffs lived in a grand mansion at 734 West Adams Blvd. After his death the home was donated to USC, where it was named Kerckhoff Hall. Today it serves as the offices of the Annenberg Center for Communication. The 1908 two-and-a-half story English Tudor Revival house is described on the Annenberg Center website:

"The exterior of the 18,000 square foot home features a sandstone block lower level and half-timbered upper stories. Multi-light windows with diamond shaped leaded glass, several balconies and patios, along with three tall cut stone chimneys further accentuate the structure's exterior richness. Inside, the building contains elaborate plasterwork on the ceilings and walls in the central rooms of the first floor, in addition to inlaid oak paneling and an ornate, sweeping stairway leading to the second floor."

This gift typifies the philanthropy for which, of all his various activities, William G. Kerckhoff is best remembered. Shortly before his death Kerckhoff was asked to fund a new building at UCLA. On his deathbed, he told his wife Louise to "build the building Dr. Moore wants." Louise Kerckhoff spent $815,000 to build and furnish the original student union, completed in 1931 and named Kerckhoff Hall. A formal portrait of William Kerckhoff hangs on a wall on the fourth floor. On the window side of the room, stained glass images of a redwood tree and a dam are a reference to Kerckhoff's life.

William Kerckhoff was equally generous in his bequests to the California Institute of Technology. He funded two different laboratory buildings for Cal Tech, both still in operation today under his name: The William G. Kerckhoff Laboratories of Biological Sciences at the Cal Tech main Pasadena campus, and the William G. Kerckhoff Marine Laboratory operated by Cal Tech in Corona del Mar.

Kerckhoff's most generous gift was not to an American institution but in the construction of the William G. Kerckhoff Herzforschungsinstitut, a clinical and experimental cardiology center in Bad Neuheim, Germany, a health resort known for its hot mineral water springs. William Kerckhoff had a bad heart, and for years had been a patient of Germany's foremost cardiologist, Franz Groedel, a pioneer of cardiac radiology, electrocardiography, and scientific hydrotherapy, whose practice was in Bad Neuheim. Kerckhoff died in Bad Neuheim, bequeathing $4 million to Groedel to found a heart research institute and affiliated clinic in Kerckhoff's name.

Groedel founded the William G. Kerckhoff Herzforschungsinstitut (Kerckhoff Heart Research Institute). The institute included clinical and research units as well as departments of experimental pathology, statistics, and education. The result was a cardiovascular research institute unmatched by anything in Europe or the United States. Groedel never enjoyed the fruits of this work. His mother was Jewish and the Nazis labeled him a "non-Aryan" despite his conversion to Christianity. He fled to the United States in 1933, where he became the founder of the American College of Cardiology. The Kerckhoff Institute became part of the Max-Planck-Society in 1951, retaining its distinct name and identity at Bad Neuheim. Today both the Max-Planck-Institute for Heart and Lung Research and the Max-Planck-Institute for Physiological and Clinical Research in Bad Neuheim trace their origins to the William Kerckhoff Heart Research Institute.

 

--compiled by Leslie Evans