Lost L.A.: For artist Mike Hart, a water world no more
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Artist Michael Hart will tell you that every L.A. backyard has one thing in common: water. And his paintings show you what this may mean for your family’s gardening future. Green today will be dead tomorrow if we don’t change our thirsty ways.
Working from home in La Verne, he’s an old-school artist who draws and paints on vellum the landscapes of Southern California’s past, like the one above. At first glance, you’ll think it’s a view of a hacienda estate, with a private vineyard and lake. But, in fact, it’s the historic Old Mill in San Marino as Hart imagines it looked two centuries ago.
Hart was the general manager of Pasadena’s Sunny Slope Water Co. for nearly 40 years until he retired in 2008. Running the works was ideal for this artist-historian, a fifth-generation descendant of wagon-wheel pioneers.
Sunny Slope owns 22 acres of a pre-Civil War ranch. It protects the last surviving dam built by the San Gabriel Mission. The company manages five wells drawing from the Raymond Basin aquifer that sprawls 40 square miles under Pasadena and surrounding communities.
When the ranch’s owners drilled the first well in 1899 to develop land they subdivided, water was 3 feet below the surface. About a century later, water is 196 feet below. This grim statistic and keen observations informed by years of research inspired Hart to map and illustrate the canals, mills, dams and ditches of the San Gabriel Mission that irrigated 6,000 acres and quenched 1,300 residents and 29,000 heads of cattle in the 1830s. The mission’s sustainable water network came decades before the L.A. business elite extracted water from eastern California’s Owens Valley in 1913 and before the Hoover Dam (finished in 1936) between Arizona and Nevada engineered the Colorado River so Angelenos could continue to grow roses hundreds of miles away.
Circa 1812, mission padres and Gabrielino Indians built El Molino Viejo, the Old Mill, which ground wheat, corn and grain. Water from springs and marshes fed by the Raymond aquifer and replenished by snow and rain turned the stone crusher. These sources as well as water flowing from the mill filled Mission Lake, seen in Hart’s picturesque vista. Just under half a mile long, 60 to 70 feet deep and covering 27 acres, the lake was home to fish and fowl. (Pictured at right: ‘Northeast View of El Molino Viejo From 1820.’) Agriculture guided water consumption before the Civil War. This changed in the urban 1880s when gardens and parks displaced planting for food. At this boosterish time, Americans measured a city’s progress not by how brown were its hills but how green was its valley. Flowering yards and rolling lawns prettified the modern American metropolis. In semiarid Los Angeles, this beautification came at a price.
Developers and house buyers who steamed into town on the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe lines drilled mountain springs for artesian wells. Motor-driven pumps and horizontal boring through canyon walls brought gushes of water to a city competing for national fame and fortune.
By 1900, Pasadena was green and greedy, the crown of the San Gabriel Valley as the region’s queen of water consumption. Private pump houses built by the rich to tap “white gold” in the Raymond aquifer fed floral displays at hotels in park-like grounds and gardens along Orange Grove Boulevard, the city’s Millionaire’s Row.
From the turn of the century, state officials warned of the perils of a declining water table. But excessive demand by the few paying for private Edens was already tilting an environmental balance. Starved of aquifer waters that no longer seeped to the surface, old Mission Lake became the Old Mill swamp, with water turning muddy and boggy. When San Marino residents condemned it as a nuisance in the 1920s, officials graded the waterless lake to create Lacy Park, a boutique amenity maintained by deeper and deeper wells.
We still measure civic success in shades of green, confident that water is an inalienable right. But Hart’s picture of Mission Lake proves a simple fact. Regardless of our money and high-tech hubris, nature will call the final shots, driving the Southland to its inevitable arid destiny.
Michael Hart’s artwork will be on display in “Water Began It All”at the Flora-Legium gallery of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. The show runs on weekends from Nov. 19 through Feb. 19.
-- Sam Watters
Lost L.A., Watters’ column on the home and garden landscape of L.A.’s past, appears on the first week of every month.
‘North View of San Gabriel Mission From 1830’
Credit for all artworks: Mike Hart