If you were to smack a stamp on an envelope with a heartfelt letter inside and mail it to 516 S Commonwealth Street in Los Angeles, that letter might find itself on the windshield of a minivan because there is no house at that address. There is only a parking lot adjacent to a grand church with a 176 foot high tower.
But not so long ago there was a two-story white house with long hallways and many rooms. The house raised two daughters, was a temporary home to various random bachelor boarders, and was the site of illegal activities.
February 9, 1954 was Lillian Kolinsky’s 49th birthday. She would celebrate 48 more. This would be the only one where an invited guest would be escorted away by police for his own protection.
Lillian ran the large house by renting rooms, working as an extra for the Studios, and clipping coupons. Her husband, Sonny Boy, was halfway through a three-year tax evasion sentence in Federal Prison. The Fifty Dollars was his idea.
Wilbur Joseph Jergen pulled into the driveway at five o’clock sharp, he gave Lillian the money and thanked her. She let him know it was her birthday and some family was coming over and he was welcome to come inside. He thanked her while letting her know that he had sandwiches and a thermos of coffee in the car. Lillian told him that she’d save him some cake.
WJ Jergen had a law degree from the University of Chicago. He filed with the Democratic and Socialist Parties, seeking the nomination for Congress in the 26th California District. Jergen put the loudspeaker on top of his station wagon before the sun had completely set.
On the corner of Commonwealth and 6th Street, the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, with more than 100 rooms, multiple auditoriums and a gymnasium, blocks the sun from shining on its southern neighbor; even as it covets that neighbor’s property. The church, its architecture based on European cathedrals, traces its DNA back to English Separatists that were passengers on the Mayflower, in 1620, seeking civic and religious freedoms.
Established in Los Angeles – 1867, built on present location – 1932, and debt free when it paid off its mortgage of $750,000 under the direction of Dr. James Fifield in 1942. The church was the largest Congregational church in the country.
“Freedom under God”
Along with success on such a large-scale comes the inevitable problem of adequate Parking. Dr. Fifield (known by his critics as “Apostle to Millionaires”), believed that wealth was a measure of God’s love and anything that came between God’s love and man’s ambition was sacrilegious and communism. Sonny Boy was impeding God’s will and affection by refusing to sell his house to the church.
Dr. Fifield received his three degrees from the University of Chicago. Sonny Boy, a Russian Jew, came to this country at the age of three. He graduated third in his class from Southern California College of Chiropractic. The Doctor of Divinity and the Doctor of Chiropractic did not like each other.
Doctor Fifield had a radio program, called “Freedom Story” that went out over 800 radio stations. He preached something called Christian Libertarianism on these short broadcasts. On July 26th, 1951 he stated on his show, “It was a matter of historical record that Benjamin Franklin denounced the Jews at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.”
This did not go over well with Sonny Boy.
The statement was the creation of Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist.
It did not go over well with the Anti Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
Dr. Fifield could not abide low rent boarders taking parking spots on his street. He did not look at the late night patient visits with any emotion other than contempt. The Minister’s attitude of superiority on the few occasions they spoke made Sonny Boy spit and sputter with rage when he returned home to his wife.
When FDR died the Chiropractor was sad. The Minister thought the New Deal was Communism. He did not like Communists. This is why he invited Senator Joe McCarthy to speak at the church’s Freedom Club on that February night, mid-century, at the height of the Red Scare.
William Jerger, full of coffee and chocolate cake, thought he knew what he would say. He broke through the buzz and babble of the audience with a loud “Testing, testing, 123 testing.” The people in the front stopped until they were pushed out by the folks behind them.
Jerger started yelling at the emerging crowd. “McCarthyites—what are you doing?” A handful of protesters on the corner started chanting before the crowd pushed them onto 6th Street. “Mccarthyites, shame, he’s a lunatic, malicious crusades, open festering wound on body politic.” Soon the rant evolved into plain name calling.
The Freedom Club’s attendance that night was about 4,000. The speech was long, most people just wanted to go home and get a drink, especially the speaker McCarthy, who along with his wife was being escorted away from danger by Dr. Fifield. The minister held the arm of a McCarthy with each hand.
Some people in the crowd were a little worked up after hearing stories of Communist infiltration affecting key decisions in high places.
The crowd grew loud. Jerger addressed his remarks to McCarthy, “You shameless…”. Mid sentence Jergen was pelted with dirt clods, which are scoops of mud with the moisture removed.
He ran around the station wagon. Got on top of it. Then he climbed inside the car. A man with a tire wrench broke a side window on the car. Some people from inside the house came to Jergen’s aid, two pretty big guys and some family members. There was blood on Jergen’s face. He grabbed the loudspeaker, which began to squeal and shriek, just as sirens and red lights competed for attention. Ten LAPD cars with twenty officers arrived on the scene. They shut down the loudspeaker and escorted Jergen out of the area. No one was arrested.
McCarthy did not know it then, but “The Riot on Commonwealth” was the beginning of his fall from grace and public opinion. In April, during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, the public soured on the performance of the Senator and his staff. In July he lost his chief counsel for unethical conduct, and two staffers who didn’t have security clearance.
In December he was censured by the Senate in a condemnation vote of 67-22 over his conduct toward fellow Senators. Later, when asked if he felt censured, he laughed and said, “Well, it wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence!”
McCarthy and his crew ruined many lives, from a variety of professions. He became an expert at destroying lives. He drank himself to death three years later at the age of 48.
The Kolinskys sold their home to a private party who then proceeded to sell it to the Church. The house was demolished in 1960 and the entire lot paved for parking. The Kolinsky family moved to the Los Feliz area. Sonny Boy went back to prison in 1959 where he died in 1970 at the age of 67.
After their two daughters were grown, Dr. James Fifield and his wife, Helen, moved into an apartment in the building that would later be owned by the Church of Scientology. In 1957, the same year McCarthy died, Helen died. Soon after James moved into a well-known mansion at 118 Fremont Place. He and his daughter, Mary, published a pamphlet titled “Does God Care?”