By David J. Barboza
Note: what follows is the original text of this post. Please see the comments for some minor corrections.
When you’re trying to survey a city as large as Los Angeles for historic resources, the task can seem daunting. To make the job more manageable survey teams do quite a bit of preparation before heading out into the field to formally record their observations. Last Wednsesday (March 28th), I had a chance to tag along for a SurveyLA bus tour of the San Fernando Valley.
There was quite a group in attendance. In addition to staff from the LA City Office of Historic Resources, there were teams from Historic Resources Group and Architectural Resources Group, two consulting firms that are contributing their expertise to SurveyLA. Included in this ensemble (and leading the bus tour) was author and journalist Kevin Roderick. Roderick founded the blog LA Observed and has written for Los Angeles magazine and several other publications. He is also the author of two books: Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles, and The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb.
We met up in Burbank and once everyone was ready to go we loaded up a minibus and began a journey that would take us from Toluca Lake in the east to West Hills near the Ventura County line. I was scribbling notes and snapping pictures during the trip and I’ve organized them according to the path we traveled. What follows are some of the ideas and images (mostly shot from a moving bus) I found interesting along the way:
Before we left, Kevin Roderick began speaking about the history of the San Fernando Valley (SFV). In 1900 the Valley’s population was only about 3,000 people (today it is over 1.75 million). North Hollywood and Burbank were established towns and most of the other land was agricultural and owned by the Lankershim-Van Nuys farming conglomerate.
This neighborhood was developed around a semi-natural lake in the 1920s. Famous residents have included Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. We passed by the Bob Hope compound, site of many GOP fundraisers. We later saw the house of pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart (and heard about how her husband went on to run a Death Valley motel after her death). We also passed by what is said to be the last remaining Bob’s Big Boy drive-in (see photo), which often attracts crowds of antique cars.
Transitioning to North Hollywood, we heard the story of Whitnall Park, which was originally intended, in the 1920s, to be a highway that would reduce the traffic congestion that was already bedeviling the City. The area is home to the Palomino Club, an important site for Country/Western music on the West Coast as well as a shop where Elvis bought some of his rhinestone-encrusted outfits. The Orange Line busway is also there, re-using an old Southern Pacific railroad right of way that predates it by many decades. Many storefronts in this area were lost to redevelopment in the 1960s and 70s in an effort at economic revitalization. Susan Sontag wrote angst-ridden prose about going to high school in the area in the 1940s and escaping to Hollywood bookstores by streetcar. We also passed by a narrow office tower near Laurel Canyon and victory, that was pointed out over on MyHistoricLA.org.
By now people were feeling the need for a bathroom break, so we found an interesting stretch of Tujunga Ave. to stop off at (see photo). During this phase we heard about how Roscoe Blvd. was an early north-south dividing line of the SFV, originally made with a plow. In part because the land on each side was under different ownership, the north-south streets don’t always line up exactly north and south of Roscoe. The “It Takes a Valley Village” light pole banner signs were cute, although probably not historic.
Next up was Studio City, and it wasn’t long before we were near Cinnamon Cinder, the first venue in Los Angeles that the Beatles ever played (in 1964). LA’s cold war heritage was on display too with an air raid siren on Ventura Blvd. There was also a bank building with a Millard Sheets mural (see photo). We wound through the narrow hilly roads of the Sunshine Terrace neighborhood, passing by the Laurelwood Apartments (Historic-Cultural Monument #228). There are houses by master architect Rudolph Schindler in this area. Studio City is also home to the Little Brown Church, where former President (and movie star) Ronald Reagan was married.
Heading west into Sherman Oaks, we heard about Rondelli’s, which was a 1950s organizied crime hangout, and the site where a bookie was once shot by LA mob boss Mickey Cohen. We passed by a Buff & Hensman house with an open floor plan as we headed west through another winding, opulent hillside neighborhood south of Ventura Blvd. There was an unusual street pattern on a section of Sherman Oaks Ave. where the street gives way to a traffic circle full of houses (see photo). The neighborhood’s name comes from Moses Sherman, an early developer. Between and to the north of Sherman Oaks and Encino lies the Sepulveda Basin, including the Sepulveda Dam. The dam was developed to control the LA River in response to devastating floods in 1937.
Crossing west of the 405 we entered Encino, which was originally developed as a pre-WWII suburb by prominent Hollywood stars as an enclave for the same. To give an example, the Encino Chamber of Commerce was created by Al Jolson and Spencer Tracy. Clark Gable and Michael Jackson are some other celebrities that have called the neighborhood home. The historical roots of the area go back even further. Encino, Spanish for “Oak tree,” is one of the few places in the Valley that had large numbers of natually occuring trees before urbanization. It is also where the Spaniards first set foot in the Valley in the late 18th century and met the Gabrielino people, the area’s original inhabitants.
Named for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books, Tarzana’s early history was shaped by Burroughs’ development activities, which include a country club and what is said to be the first swimming pool in the SFV. Harrison Gray Otis, an early publisher of the LA Times was active in the area in the 1910s.
A participant at MyHistoricLA.org pointed out an orange grove in this neighborhood and on the tour we got more information about it. It’s called Bothwell Ranch, and is notable not only because it operates within a largely suburban area, but also because SFV citrus production was historically most prevalent in parts further north such as Granada Hills. Victor Gerard was an important early developer. Few of his original houses survive, but many of the trees he planted have had better luck as have his street names which often make references to saints or historical events. The southern hills of this section wind up to an unpaved stretch of Mulholland Dr. Getting to this place, it was decided, would have been pushing our luck a bit much in the bus.
If you’ve ever wondered where the LA River starts, the answer is Canoga Park (Owensmouth Ave. just north of Vanowen St., see photo). At this point the river forms from the junction of two creeks. The old Pacific Electric streetcar system reached way out here, making Old Canoga Park an early streetcar suburb complete with a low-rise downtown that includes mixed-use sidewalk-oriented buildings.
Suburbs sometimes secede from suburbs. This was the case with West Hills, which re-branded itself from Canoga Park (although both are still part of the City of Los Angeles) to project an independent image. Long before that, the area was home to a native american trading site where the Tongva people met with the Chumash (who populated California’s central coast). A lot has happened in the western hills beyond the residential development from the shooting of westerns to Cold War rocket tests. Famous residents include the old-time silent movie star Buster Keaton and William Orcutt, a geologist who was instrumental in initiating the study of fossils at the La Brea Tar Pits.
The Trip Back
Having reached the western edge of the Valley, we started to head back to Burbank to grab some lunch and pick up the cars, but the information kept flowing as Kevin Roderick went into more details of SFV history. Restrictive racial covenants were common in the Valley, as they were in many other parts of the United States, even for a couple of decades after the Supreme Court outlawed them in the 1940s. Banks and realtors fought to ensure that they continued in effect in fact if not in law. However, some neighborhoods were early to integrate, especially Pacoima and Balboa Highlands (which is an LA Historic Preservation Overlay Zone), providing opportunities for African Americans and other minority groups. When busing occurred to try and integrate public schools, some white families pulled their children out in protest. Japanese interment during the Second World War also left its mark on the Valley by creating an acute agricultural labor shortage. The response was increased recruitment of women and high school students to the fields. Today the Valley is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse parts of the City of Los Angeles. Roderick summed up with the idea that the SFV has always been a place where people have come to find a better life. SurveyLA is coming to make sure that the Valley’s historical resources get the documentation they deserve.