L.A. Now And Then, Or South By North West

By Victoria Dailey

vd-Los Angeles, Angel City is a paradoxical town–is Angeltown heaven, as her name would suggest, or, as some would claim, is the City of Angels just the opposite, a wasteland, a purgatory? Orson Welles called Los Angeles a “bright, guilty place.” Major Ben Truman, an early Los Angeles booster and writer, recalled a century ago, in 1904: “I first visited Los Angeles in 1867. Crooked, ungraded, unpaved streets; low, lean, rickety frame or adobe houses, and here and there a store or saloon…But there was an irresistible glamour about this City of the Angels, even then.” Glamour. What angel worth her wings doesn’t have a bit of it? And from the beginning, everyone has had an opinion about L. A. Everyone thinks they know her…but do they? Angeltown is really a place of many guises, many forms, many pasts, many places. Geographically, we know that Los Angeles is located at 34 degrees north latitude, 118 west longitude. At least we’re on the map. But where is Los Angeles historically, culturally, emotionally? For those questions, the answers are not so simple.

After the Mexican-American War of 1848, California became part of the United States and suddenly lost her place as El Norte, the northernmost part of the Spanish empire in the Americas. In a dramatic cultural and geographic switch, California became part of the West, the American West. North suddenly turned into West, and to further confuse things, after statehood in 1850, the lower portion of California became known as the Southland. So what we now call Southern California has been known by every point of the compass, except East. And it was from the east that tourists and settlers poured into Southern California after 1885 when the Santa Fé Railroad opened the first direct train route. A hundred years ago Los Angeles was first and foremost, a tourist mecca. Beaches and surf bathing were constant allures, nearby mountains beckoned, and the city boasted of a fine interurban railway system making travel throughout Southern California very convenient. Los Angeles was a garden city, rightfully proud of its civic beauty, completely unlike the traffic-filled, smoggy nightmare of today. Yet there are still traces of the old city visible if you know where to look.

Hotels were built throughout the region, some still in existence today, and Los Angeles claimed many of the finest tourist hotels in the world during the period 1885-1940:

The Hotel Green in Pasadena, built by Col. George Green, who had made a fortune in patent medicines, opened in 1891, and part of it still stands, although it is no longer a hotel but an apartment complex that has been beautifully restored to it original Moorish-Spanish Colonial style. The Hotel Arcadia in Santa Monica, an elaborate four-story seaside resort overlooking Santa Monica Bay, opened in 1887. A notorious event in Los Angeles history took place there in 1903 when another colonel, Col. Griffith J. Griffith, donor of Griffith Park and the Griffith Observatory, shot his wife during a domestic dispute. She survived and was granted a divorce…and he was given a three-year prison sentence. Today, Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel stands where the Arcadia once looked out onto the Pacific. A little to the south, The Hotel Redondo opened in 1890, with an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts and 225 rooms. Typical of the dramatic growth of Southern California, Redondo had only 668 residents in 1890; today it has 63,000.

Some hotels are still in existence today, such as the Hotel Bel Air, which opened in 1946. At nearly 60 years old, it is a mere youngster in the annals of Angeleno hostelry, and it might be surprising to learn that the Beverly Hills Hotel, a few miles to the east, opened in 1912. These are but a few of the many grand hotels of old Los Angeles.

Los Angeles was also a city of modest domestic dreams. Settlers found fulfillment living in small bungalows set in gardens. They enjoyed a trip to the ostrich farm, located between downtown L. A. and Pasadena, to see the exotic birds and to purchase a feather fan or boa. If ostriches were not exotic enough, one could go to the nearby Alligator Farm. A trip through the orange groves was a delightful way to pass a fragrant day, and a visit to the home of artist Paul de Longpré, known as the King of the Rose Painters, was a popular excursion. His Moorish-revival house was located in pre-film Hollywood, at the corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevard, and attracted over 25,000 visitors a year. Many of the tourists bought de Longpré’s watercolors; others bought the less expensive chromolithographs. Like Monet’s home at Giverny, de Longpre’s villa was set in a lush garden, and it helped put Los Angeles on the art map. However, soon after de Longpré died in 1911, visitors to Los Angeles began to seek out the homes not of artists, but of film stars in the nascent movie industry.

Movies. The M word in Los Angeles. The movies, and Hollywood, changed much about Los Angeles. A tourist brochure from 1926 is titled “Royal Homes of the Picture Stars,” and features photographs of the homes of such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford­–their estate, Pickfair, still stands–Will Rogers, Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Rod La Rocque, who, according to the brochure, “is unmarried and lives with his parents,” Gloria Swanson and others. And speaking of Gloria Swanson, one can still drive along Sunset Boulevard and buy a Map to the Stars’ Homes from a street vendor. Although the information in it might be out of date, and it won’t be as lavish as the 1926 production, the lure of seeing the home of a movie star is still strong. And the stars still live in Beverly Hills, and the Hollywood Hills, commonly referred to as just “The Hills.”

Los Angeles is a city of hills, and is in fact, bisected by a mountain range. It is the only large city in the world with a mountain range running through it. Mt. Hollywood, (formerly called Mt. Griffith, until the famous scandal), sits at an elevation of over 1600 feet, and nearby Cahuenga Peak is 1800 feet, while the highest point in the range, Sandstone Peak, near Malibu, is just over 3000 feet. These Santa Monica Mountains form the division between Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, and the canyons winding out of the Santa Monicas have their own legends and characteristics. Topanga Canyon. Malibu Canyon. Rustic Canyon. Stone Canyon. Benedict Canyon. Coldwater Canyon. Franklin Canyon. Laurel Canyon. Beachwood Canyon. Writing in the early 1880s, Helen Hunt Jackson, illustrious travel writer and author of Ramona, observed with her usual insight and foresight: “The oak-and-sycamore-filled canyons are the most beautiful of the South California canyons…Nobody will ever, by pencil or brush or pen, fairly render the beauty of the mysterious, undefined, undefinable chaparral…Some day, between 1900 and 2000, when South California is at leisure and has native artists, she will have an artist of canyons, whose life and love and work will be spent in picturing them,–the royal oak canopies; the Herculean sycamores; the chameleon, velvety chaparral; and the wild…water-quarried rock gorges, with their myriad ferns and flowers.”

Downtown, on Hill Street near 4th, a few blocks from where Frank Gehry’s new Disney Concert Hall gleams in the sun, is another relic of the past, Angels Flight. Built in 1901 to serve the residents of Bunker Hill–remember that Los Angeles is a city of hills–and former hills–the smallest funicular railroad in the world ferried passengers down the hill to do their shopping, and up again on the return trip. It is difficult to envision, but there were Victorian houses on Bunker Hill and they were among the city’s most desirable in 1900. By the 1940s many of these grand houses had been divided up into apartments and rooming houses and the sunny optimism of the early years of the century was replaced by the dark shadows of urban decay in the run-down Bunker Hill of mid-century–you can catch glimpses of these once stately mansions in several films noir, including Criss-Cross and Kiss Me Deadly. The angels’ wings had been clipped, and regrettably, this early residential area of Los Angeles, which had gone from chic to shabby in just over a generation, became an impediment to the march of civic improvement–it was bulldozed away in the 1960s for so-called redevelopment. “I used to like this town,” Raymond Chandler wrote, “a long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills… Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the inter-urban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly houses and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful.” How ironic, and glamorous, that part of Los Angeles’ architectural history is now accessible mainly through Raymond Chandler’s sensibility and old movies.

In Los Angeles, there are canyon dwellers, hillside dwellers, beach dwellers and dwellers of the flats and valleys. Before the freeways, the canyon roads and passes through the hills were used to travel to and fro. Ultimately, the Sepulveda Pass and the Cahuenga Pass had freeways built through them, the 405 and the 101, making the trek through the mountains a swift, mundane experience. But at one time, traversing the hilly terrain was an adventure. Between 1910 and 1915, a trackless trolley ran through Laurel Canyon. A passenger could board the 16-seat trolley bus, and for 10 cents, go from Sunset Boulevard up to the summit of Laurel Canyon, Lookout Mountain. At the top of another canyon, Beachwood Canyon, is perhaps the area’s most well known landmark, the Hollywood Sign. It was built in 1923 atop Mt. Lee (elevation 1625 feet) to advertise the upscale real estate development of Hollywoodland. In 1945 the sign was shortened to Hollywood, and now is an icon, one of the most visible features of the city’s skyline.

Which brings me to one of the most invisible things in Los Angeles, and I don’t mean a pedestrian. Imagine anyone in New Orleans being unaware of the Mississippi River…a Parisian not knowing the Seine…or a Londoner who has never heard of the Thames. But in Los Angeles, perhaps the most hidden, unknown place is the Los Angeles River. Difficult as it is to envision, a flowing river once ran unimpeded through Los Angeles, from its source in the mountains north of the San Fernando Valley all the way to the Pacific at Long Beach, a distance of 50 miles. But thousands of people who drive over the river via the various bridges which link downtown Los Angeles to East Los Angeles are barely aware that they are crossing the mysterious Los Angeles River. Traces of its wildness are now visible in the Sepulveda Basin, a flood control area in the San Fernando Valley, where native plants are being reintroduced, where wildlife is again finding a home, and where parts of the river are being allowed to return to a natural state. But very few Angelenos have any concept of the river, its course or its history.

Blake Gumprecht, in his book The Los Angeles River, Its Life, Death and Possible Rebirth, wrote: “Three centuries ago, the river meandered through a dense forest of willow and sycamore, elderberry and wild grape. Steelhead Trout spawned in the river and Grizzly Bears roamed its shores in search of food. Indians made their camps along the river, and a small Spanish settlement of 1781 became the city of Los Angeles along its banks. The river was the city’s nearly sole source of water for more than a century, providing drinking water for a growing population and irrigation for the vineyards and orange groves…Catastrophic floods in 1914, 1934, and 1938 led to the creation of a comprehensive regional flood control program. Massive flood control reservoirs were constructed [and] the river itself was straightened, deepened, and widened, and its new channel was lined with concrete. Although the facilities that were built to keep the river in place and prevent it from flooding made it the eyesore it is now, large parts of present-day Los Angeles could not have been developed if the vagrant nature of the river had not been controlled.”

The city is full of paradoxes. Los Angeles’ vagrant river was tamed, yet the city flooded with settlers. The city that was once a haven for those suffering from lung disease now causes lung disease. The city known for its garden homes is now gardenless with high-rise condos. The city that once boasted the best interurban public transportation in the country now has the worst. Los Angeles has a strange reputation, and many have found Los Angeles a barren, unsatisfying place. Perhaps they have, as Oscar Levant said: “stripped away the phony tinsel of Hollywood only to find the real tinsel underneath.” But Los Angeles is more than just Tinseltown, and if you make an effort to see into her past, her heart and her history, you will see the City of Angels through a different shaft of light, a city of geographic complexity, natural beauty and glamorous possibilities. As Reyner Banham said: “…the environment of Southern California…remains one of the ecological wonders of the habitable world…It can be made to produce a reasonable facsimile of Eden.” And in this age of mechanical reproductions and digital downloads, who can object to a good facsimile? If Los Angeles is a knock-off of Eden, perhaps it is a little off-center, a little skewed, slightly out of focus, difficult to define. Perhaps Los Angeles can finally claim her fourth and final cardinal point: East…as in East of Eden—and Eden is also known as The Land of Nod—a place of sleep, a place of exile, a place of refuge. Very L. A., now… and then.