Sixty-five years ago, when Monterey Park was an infant of a city, many of its 6,000 residents lived on chicken or vegetable farms and worked in orange and walnut groves.
Developer Peter N. Snyder had a vision of what the lower San Gabriel Valley might become.
The rolling hills south of Garvey Avenue and west of what was known as Coyote Pass were too steep and too barren to farm. But Snyder thought they would be a fine place to fashion an elegant neighborhood with hundreds of Spanish- and Mediterranean-style homes, as good as or better than the ones he had built to accommodate the burgeoning population of East Los Angeles.
Snyder’s grand plans for the 356-acre Midwick View Estates foundered after the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression. It is unclear exactly how many houses were built, but local historians estimate no more than a dozen.
All that is left of his dream is an ornate two-story building called El Encanto, which served as the project’s headquarters, and the city’s landmark Cascades, a waterfall-like terrace of pools.
Centerpiece for Renewal
To preserve the slice of history embodied in El Encanto, Monterey Park, with the help of the state Office of Historic Preservation, bought Snyder’s old real estate office in 1987. City officials hope to restore El Encanto, improve the waterfall and make the area a centerpiece for renewal along Atlantic Boulevard.
As part of that effort, the city plans to nominate El Encanto for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. And the City Council has approved the hiring of Martin Eli Weil, a Los Angeles restoration architect who in his proposal to assist the city called El Encanto “a most impressive and important cultural landmark.”
Although the structure seems like a faded remnant, it retains many original details. Outside, Spanish galleons sail the high seas in mosaic tile of oranges, blues and browns against the stucco background. A stone frog holds forth in a tile fountain that doesn’t work. Atop the roof, whose tiles are in disarray, there remains an unlit neon sign spelling out El Encanto. Inside, the hand-carved, exposed roof beams are intact, as are ironwork railings and a large fireplace in the main entry room.
Now the challenge is to raise city and private funds to restore the building, said Leslie Anderson Little, the city’s development services administrator. The city is renting out several apartments in the building. Once restored, it could serve as a community center for performances and art shows, offices of organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce or professional office space.
Much research needs to be done, Little said, to determine more about the building and about Snyder, a Greek immigrant.
With its red tile roof and four arched front doorways, the coffee-colored, stucco El Encanto was built in a style referred to as Mexican or Spanish Revival.
El Encanto’s importance, historians say, stems from its role in land development in Monterey Park, today a community of more than 62,000 residents who are grappling with Snyder’s legacy--the issue of growth.
State preservationists consider El Encanto a significant structure in Southern California and probably the most important building in the history of a city incorporated 72 years ago.
“It’s part of the development history of California,” said Marion Mitchell-Wilson of the Office of Historic Preservation in Sacramento. “It’s part of the context of how California was marketed to the East as this kind of paradise.”
Just as parks were built around railroad stations and orange crates pictured idyllic California scenes for viewing back East, she said, so were elaborate structures built as centerpieces for land developments as a way to impress Eastern newcomers.
El Encanto’s name itself suggests Snyder’s marketing style. In Spanish, encanto means “enchantment, charm, spell or delight.”
With offices in Fullerton, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena and Alhambra, Snyder had launched full-scale promotion of Midwick View Estates in the spring of 1928, before a single house had been built or the June 11 ground-breaking was held.
A biplane with “Midwick View Estates” lettered on it flew over Los Angeles daily, and a four-note siren blast alerted those on the ground to look skyward. Radio and newspaper ads promoted the development in what was then called Golden Gate Hills.
Near Tire Plant
Newspaper stories touted the project, which was to line both sides of Atlantic Boulevard for nearly a mile. The Pacific-Goodrich tire plant, according to a June 15, 1928, article in the Monterey Park Progress, “will be but a brisk 15-minute walk--five minutes by automobile” from Midwick View Estates.
The development’s name was taken from the nearby Midwick County Club, known for its polo and, according to the newspaper accounts, a “membership which includes the most notable people in the county.” Will Rogers played polo there, says Elinor Lynch, who two years ago prepared the city Historical Heritage Commission’s report on El Encanto.
Exclusivity and amenities were the big draw. Announcements for the project gave this assurance: “Race restrictions exclude those whose blood is not wholly of the Caucasian race.”
Yet today, in a community where half the residents are of Asian ancestry and a third are Latino, El Encanto is within a short walk of Atlantic Boulevard’s Mandarin Deli, the Peng Yuan Restaurant and the Trust Savings Bank, all with signs in Chinese characters.
Easy Ride Downtown
Snyder promised to keep commercial businesses to a minimum along Atlantic. But ads and news accounts also assured potential homeowners that the development would be an easy 17-minute ride from downtown Los Angeles and 10 minutes from Pasadena.
“Unobstructed, cooling sea breezes . . . mingled with the pure air from the nearby mountain ranges assure residents . . . the most ideal and invigorating climatic conditions,” one newspaper account said. “Residents of this picturesque community are afforded one of the most magnificent panoramas to be found in the entire Southland, one that commands lofty snow-capped mountains, great, tree-clad plains dotted with intervening villages and vast countrysides that stretch away to the far-flung sea.”
Prices for a lot and house would range from $5,000 to $20,000, and the development company said it was going to spend $1.2 million in improvements, including completion of a missing link of Atlantic Boulevard that was part of a thoroughfare from Pasadena to Long Beach.
With fanfare and speeches made from a rostrum of hay and feed wagons, Snyder and Monterey Park officials launched the project on June 11, 1928. Surrounded by “Hollywood celebrities” whose names have been forgotten even by longtime residents who recall attending the event, hundreds of people motored to the dusty site.
The local newspaper quoted a Mr. Hickox, “who has lived here for that long period (20 years)” as saying: “Little did anybody dream 20 years ago of such a development as this.”
‘Going to Stay’
Snyder was quoted as calling the project “my hobby. I have been studying it for three years, and it is to be my home. I am going to stay here and see it through.”
Sidewalks with elaborate concrete street lamps were built. Streets were laid out and constructed. The waterfall, known today as the Cascades and outlined on the city’s shield, was completed with ornate tiles and emblazoned at the top with a signature chevron of Midwick View Estates.
And where hay wagons had served as the platform for the opening ceremonies, Snyder’s El Encanto was anchored squarely at the foot of El Portal Avenue, an esplanade of grass, trees, sidewalks and benches.
But during the 1930s, according to local history buff Kenneth Gribble, who grew up in Monterey Park and once served on its City Council, the project was typified by a big, electric question mark. He said the sign, whose origin is a mystery to city officials today, was erected on the barren hills where houses were to have been built.
Died Before Boom
Snyder, who was active in Monterey Park politics and died in 1940, didn’t live to see the city’s post-World War II building boom, when houses blossomed around El Encanto.
Before he died, “El Encanto went into foreclosure and was sold at auction to the highest bidder,” according to the historical commission report by Lynch.
Besides being a real estate office, El Encanto has also served as a wedding chapel, a military academy, a cafe, a home for a growing family in post-World War II boom days and an apartment house.
By World War II, El Encanto was being used as a USO center for soldiers encamped nearby. Dances were often held there. Marie Marcus, who grew up in Monterey Park, recalled that her mother, Irene Ostler, worked there as a cook. “She fed hundreds and hundreds of soldiers,” Marcus said. “They had beds in there to sleep too.”
After the war, Marcus said, her parents bought El Encanto as their residence. Marcus was married there in 1947, and with her husband started a family in one of the two wings that adjoined the main building. Her brother was also married there, and he and his bride moved into the other wing. The Ostlers stayed, Marcus said, until the mid-1950s, and then sold El Encanto.
Marcus returned once in the 1960s, when her daughter was looking at possible sites for a wedding ceremony. A minister was operating a wedding chapel at El Encanto. By then, the building had been divided, and the huge entry room where 250 guests attended her wedding had become a depressing, tiny chapel with about 50 seats and a red carpet aisle, she said.
Over the years, said Little, the city’s development services administrator, El Encanto posed problems for building inspectors who had to issue permits when it was chopped into apartment units.
Last July, with the help of a $100,000 grant from the state, the city bought El Encanto for $250,000.
This is money well spent, according to Mitchell-Wilson of the state preservation office. “It is really the focal point for why Monterey Park came into existence,” she said. “And it can again be a major focal point for a real renaissance for that part of town.”