Hollywood Freeway Spans Magic and Might of L.A. : Culture: Route linking Downtown, Tinseltown and suburbia turns 40. Some call it city’s ultimate freeway.
The Pasadena was the first and the Santa Monica is the busiest, but the Hollywood Freeway, which turned 40 this year, has always been the most L.A.--a telegenic mix of glamour, grit and gridlock. Just its route--through the movie capital of the world--assured it fame. So too did the old movies and TV shows that featured the freeway with City Hall, then the tallest building in town, in the background. And nary a foreign car, freeway call box or Botts’ dot in sight.
The freeway helped shape how others saw Los Angeles. At home, it shaped the way we saw ourselves, creating a new urban nexus, accelerating development of the San Fernando Valley, delivering the promise of Downtown jobs and rustic homesteads to suburbanites of the growing city.
The freeway also has provided two generations of commuters with a chronicle of the changing metropolis. Motorists have seen the old Downtown give way to the new--the once towering City Hall dwarfed by the emerging skyline of Bunker Hill. They’ve seen the Hollywood of legend with the Capitol Records building and the Hollywood sign looming from on high, and they’ve seen the New Hollywood of Universal Studios.
“I think of the Hollywood Freeway as being the ultimate L.A. urban freeway,” said Joel Kotkin, a socio-economist and Hollywood Freeway commuter. “It really connects three L.A.s: Downtown, the center of commerce; Hollywood, the center of legendary L.A.; and the San Fernando Valley, the center of suburbia. . . . It takes you through more worlds faster than any freeway in L.A.”
The first segment of Los Angeles’ second oldest freeway--the 1 1/2-mile Cahuenga Pass Freeway--opened June, 15, 1940, by an old Indian trail used by Don Gaspar de Portola and his expedition in 1769 to reach what was destined to become the West’s greatest metropolis.
The last segment of the 10-mile freeway between Downtown and the Valley opened April 16, 1954--the same year that Los Angeles suffered one of its worst attacks of smog. The freeway--mostly four lanes in each direction--was completed during the period when the Valley was experiencing its greatest population growth.
“That was a big step toward opening up the San Fernando Valley,” said Guy Weddington McCreary, a North Hollywood businessman whose parents’ home was acquired when the freeway was extended farther into the Valley in the 1960s. “It changed a way of living, some for the better and some for the worst.”
At the dedication in 1954, Los Angeles County Supervisor John Anson Ford described the freeway as “a great entrance to one of the great cities of America” and voiced a plea that it be kept clean of rubbish and unsightly billboards. (He lost the battle over the billboards.)
“The Hollywood Freeway was really the result of a convergence of interests between developers in the Valley at the end of (World War II) and Downtown interests who wanted to keep the trade of Valley residents,” said urban historian Mike Davis.
It didn’t take long for the dream highway to become a nightmare for commuters, an example of almost instant unplanned obsolescence.
* A year after the $55-million freeway opened, traffic engineers lamented that it was jammed with 183,000 vehicles a day--"almost double the volume it was designed to carry” and earning it a place in Bob Hope’s routine as the “biggest parking lot in the world.” Today, the freeway--since widened--carries about 273,000 vehicles a day, but it has dropped to seventh busiest in Los Angeles County.
* Speeding became a problem early on. In the 1950s, speeders were sentenced to five days in jail--for driving 85 m.p.h. The problem was so bad that Police Chief William Parker announced that motor officers would cruise the freeway at 55 m.p.h., and any motorist who passed them would be ticketed.
* In the mid-1950s, the City Council was urged to ban funeral processions from the freeway. “Needless to say the processions are certainly in no hurry,” one driver said. The proposal died, so to speak. Also in the 1950s, the council considered barring trucks from the freeway--as they are from the Pasadena. Petitions said the trucks pose a “traffic hazard, obstructing vision and spewing noxious fumes in the face of motorists for whom the freeway was intended.” That ban too was rejected.
* The freeway was a testing ground for the latest in highway technology. It featured the engineering marvel of 1954--the octopus-like four-level interchange, still called “the four level” in traffic reports, that eventually connected the Hollywood, Harbor, Pasadena and Santa Ana freeways. It was built on the former site of the town gallows. In 1967, the Hollywood Freeway became the first urban freeway in California to experiment with ramp meters. “We used to hide in the bushes and operate it by hand,” said Caltrans engineer Nick Jones.
The freeway also has developed a lore of its own.
When a tanker truck loaded with explosive gas overturned in 1958, a young woman aspiring to become a Hollywood model ran down in a bathing suit and wigwagged for photographers. When told that she was standing on a bridge that might blow up at any moment, she finally left.
On another occasion, a truckload of BBs spilled. Some motorists tried to get through, but they could only spin their wheels.
In the 1980s, the back door of a Brink’s truck popped open, spilling $7,000 worth of quarters and causing a massive traffic jam. A Brink’s guard said that although “some cars stopped on the side of the road"--their occupants apparently thinking of picking up a bit of spare change--his presence dissuaded them.
And, of course, there were the legendary freeway chickens: In the early 1970s, they fell (or jumped) off a truck where the eastbound Ventura Freeway swings south into the Hollywood Freeway. Most were recaptured, but some evaded trackers and they--or their descendants--are still glimpsed by drivers, living wild amid the freeway brush.
Plans for the freeway date back to 1924, when Los Angeles voters approved a traffic improvement proposal that included a “stop-free express highway” between Downtown and the then-sleepy Valley. At the time, Cahuenga Boulevard--two lanes in each direction--was the route.
In 1939, the city’s Transportation Engineering Board proposed a new system of mass transportation that included the “Hollywood Parkway” and a subway to be built under Wilshire Boulevard.
According to the panel’s report, the trip from Sixth and Hill streets in Downtown to Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street took 25 minutes on city streets, but with the proposed “express highway,” it would take only 12.
The panel advocated charging a 10-cent toll to pay for building the freeway. But the tollbooths never had to be built. The state Legislature provided additional gas tax funds to pay for freeway construction.
In 1940, the city opened the Cahuenga Pass Freeway with the Pacific Electric trolley running down the middle. (When the trolleys stopped running in 1952, Caltrans bought the 48-foot-wide strip and used it to widen the freeway. The bolts that held the trolley wires are still visible on the Barham Boulevard bridge.)
At the dedication, Ann Begue Packman, secretary of the Historical Society of Southern California, remarked, “Until the late 1890s, this road, except in a few spots, was so narrow that two vehicles could not pass, and we used to sing at the top of our voices to let folks know we were coming as we swung up the pass behind a pair of high-stepping bays.”
“When Gene Autry, as the honorary mayor of North Hollywood, helped to open the first section of the Cahuenga Freeway, Angelenos could at last experience a sample of the new world to come,” wrote David Gebhard and Harriette Von Breton in “L.A. in the Thirties.” “The design of the bridges, retaining walls, and other features was functional and utilitarian in feeling with just a slight hint of the Streamline Moderne.”
Work was delayed by World War II labor and material shortages, but construction of the Hollywood Freeway got under way in earnest in 1946.
The freeway became the first to be built through heavily populated neighborhoods, creating what would become a recurring theme of freeway construction even today: resistance from property owners along the route.
“It is an outrage to mutilate Hollywood with the freeway,” read a 1946 letter to the Hollywood Citizen News. “Known throughout the world as a residential paradise, this will bring disaster.”
A.D. Griffin, the late state highway engineer who supervised the freeway construction, wrote in a state publication that the freeway went through Whitley Heights, “one of the fine old residential sections of Hollywood, and many beautiful homes had to be taken,” including Rudolph Valentino’s house Falcon’s Lair. Altogether, the state demolished 90 buildings, and moved 1,728 structures, Griffin reported.
In clearing the path, freeway right-of-way agents got caught up in a scandal: They were accused of conspiring with real estate firms to sell property at inflated prices. Two agents were sentenced to prison.
The route was influenced by a number of factors. The alignment had to be skewed at Sunset Boulevard to avoid the new studio installed by television station KTTV. It had to be curved around Hollywood Presbyterian Church. At the Hollywood Bowl, extra landscaping was provided to buffer the outdoor concerts from freeway noise.
The most serious design problem, according to engineers, was the junction of the Hollywood, Pasadena and segments of the Harbor and Santa Ana freeways.
What was born was the most expensive half-mile road in the world--the four-level interchange, known as “the stack” and “the Mixmaster.” It cost $5.5 million--which today would pay for 250 feet of urban freeway. Crews removed a large chunk of Fort Moore Hill, which, up until that point, was the largest excavation in city history and destroyed dozens of apartments and stores, forcing out about 4,000 residents.
W.L. Fahey, a state highway engineer, reported in the early 1950s that since the excavation began on Fort Moore Hill, site of the first U.S. flag raising in California, “treasure hunters with imaginations fired by the exploits of the conquistadores have been eagerly haunting the construction area between Broadway and Grand avenues. The power shovels have exposed bones and coffins at the site of the old French Cemetery, and bottles and utensils bearing marks of antiquity, but, alack and alas, no gold.”
Leo Trombatore, a former Caltrans director who worked as an assistant engineer on the Hollywood Freeway construction in the early ‘50s, recalled that the foundations of homes and other rubble removed from the path of the freeway were dumped in Chavez Ravine--the present site of Dodger Stadium.
“If it wasn’t for the freeway system, Dodger Stadium wouldn’t be where it is now,” he quipped.
In the late 1940s, City Council members talked about including a rail line on the freeway to the Valley. But after lobbying from the Downtown and Hollywood chambers of commerce, the Automobile Club of Southern California and the Downtown Business Men’s Assn., the council decided to go ahead without the rail line, saying that efforts to incorporate rapid transit plans would delay construction another five years.
In a concession to rapid transit supporters, highway engineers agreed to build bus turnouts on the freeway--and they are still in use.
In building the Hollywood Freeway, engineers applied the lessons they had learned from the Arroyo Seco Parkway. They lengthened the on-ramps. They widened the lanes. They provided shoulders for emergencies. They also “elevated” the lanes, banking them to account for speed.
And engineers learned from the Hollywood too. After observing cars weaving to avoid each other while trying to get on and off ramps spaced only half a mile apart on stretches of the Hollywood Freeway, engineers planned most ramps on future freeways at least a mile apart.
The freeway was opened in segments. Finally, on April 15, 1954, the last segment was dedicated.
With a stretch of the Santa Ana Freeway already open, motorists could drive from Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood almost to the Orange County border, taking them within a few miles of Disneyland, which would open in 1955. (The Hollywood Freeway would be extended through the Valley, reaching the Golden State Freeway in 1968.)
At the April 15, 1954, ribbon cutting at the Pilgrimage Bridge, Bob Hope snipped a strip of movie film. He quipped that although he was glad the thing was finished, he was going to miss the detours he sometimes took on the way to his Valley home because Seattle was so nice at that time of year.
“The Hollywood Freeway represents a testimony to the Downtown Establishment of that era, which still had lively hopes of centralizing Los Angeles according to classic urban patterns,” said Kevin Starr, the state librarian and a historian.
And Davis noted that it was the first freeway in the sense that the Pasadena was something different--a parkway. The Pasadena was “laid out purposely with beautiful, wide-angle curves to be driven at 45 miles an hour,” he said. “The Hollywood Freeway was the route to work, with a minimum of scenic pretensions.”
Despite its lack of pretense, just about everybody who has driven the freeway has a story to tell about it.
“The Hollywood Freeway used to be a real thrill on a wet night,” said Bill Keene, retired dean of broadcast traffic reporters. “The freeway through the Cahuenga Pass was sloped toward the center divider. The minute they got a little water on it, everybody wound up in the center divider. I speak from experience because I was one of the guys that wiped out the fence once.” Caltrans finally fixed the problem.
And even those who tend to intellectual analysis of the urban landscape can wax poetic about it.
“The drive from the San Fernando Valley along the Hollywood Freeway is in itself an exhilarating urban experience,” Starr said. “Especially to pass through the valley of neon that characterizes downtown Hollywood--the Capitol Records building, the Musso & Franks sign. . . . And then to see the rising lights of Los Angeles is to experience a multilayered message about Los Angeles--past, present and future.”