From atop Pork Chop Hill in 1961, Ed Lawrence took his first photograph of the Albertson Ranch. His image shows a sweeping valley, towering clouds, ranch buildings and fields dotted with bending oaks--all there was to what is now the Westlake neighborhood of Thousand Oaks.
One particularly magnificent oak stands out in that first photograph, casting its branches across a field left green from winter rains.
Every few years Lawrence returned to the same spot to take the same photograph, clambering up the hill named for the 1959 Gregory Peck movie, one of many Hollywood films shot on the 12,000-acre Albertson Ranch.
The spot got easier to get to as the ranch was sold and development--and the roads that come with it--spread across it.
But the last time Lawrence, in his informal role of chronicler of past and present Thousand Oaks, climbed up to his favorite photographic roost he found a major obstacle: a house.
“I had to knock on a door to get that shot,” Lawrence said ruefully. The owners let him in, giving him the run of their back yard, to take one last look at what had been the Albertson Ranch.
It was 1984, and the only constant other than the Santa Monica Mountains was that one striking oak tree, now sandwiched in by houses and pines, maples and other trees planted to lend shade to the pricey neighborhood.
Both the oak tree and Lawrence thrive today. The tree grows in a tiny island in the middle of the intersection of Triunfo Canyon Road and Westlake Boulevard.
While Lawrence, 71, no longer scrambles up the rugged hills of the Conejo Valley in pursuit of the perfect photograph, he has the satisfaction of knowing that his youthful wanderings created a permanent record of changing California.
In 1988, the California Historical Society acquired 220 of Lawrence’s photographs, displaying them in a show called “From Ranches to Residences.”
“They’re great,” said Robert MacKimmie, director of photography for the historical society. “It’s perfect documentation of how California has changed. All those ranch lands going to ranches of homes.”
Over the years, he shot movie and television sets, cattle roundups and rodeos. His cameras recorded the building of the Ventura Freeway, Westlake Boulevard and the creation of Westlake Lake. He used hillsides and airplanes to give him vantage spots to photograph Thousand Oaks as it grew.
These days, Lawrence contents himself with darting around horse rings, capturing leaping steeplechasers and riders as they fly over fences.
He and his wife, Margaret, travel all over California, and sometimes as far as Oregon and Nevada, to photograph horse-jumping events. They find the obstacle with the best lighting or the most dramatic viewpoint and Ed Lawrence sets up shop beneath it, snapping off quick sequences of horse and rider clearing--or as the case may be, not clearing--the jump. Then they race off to a one-hour developing shop, returning with the prints to sell at show’s end.
“I never dreamed I’d be photographing horses for a living,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence came to California in 1953 from a small town near Pittsburgh, Pa. He worked for many years at Rockwell’s Rocketdyne division photographing explosions, pieces of equipment and laboratories. It was a decent job, but Lawrence kept an eye out for more creative outlets. After that first photograph of Albertson Ranch, they began opening up.
“This photograph has done more for me than any other photograph,” Lawrence said, looking at a blown-up black and white version of the Pork Chop Hill shot.
Movie stuntwoman Donna Fargo got permission for Lawrence to go on the ranch, telling him he had to photograph the place. The owners were picky about visitors back in those days, he said. For one thing, they often had up to five movie sets on the vast ranch and the crews wanted privacy. The Albertsons also wanted to keep the ranch as pristine as possible.
“There was a story that one movie company cut a branch of a tree and the Albertsons threw them off the ranch,” Lawrence said.
But once they saw his spectacular shot of their property, the Albertsons softened their stance, allowing him entry whenever he wanted.
Often he captured the incongruous nature of farmland meeting suburbs. A flock of sheep grazing in front of a Newbury Park bank is seen in one shot. In another, Thousand Oaks Boulevard is clogged with the woolly creatures as they make their daily passage from one side of the freeway to another for grazing.
A barley thresher crunches through tall plants in front of a glass-box office building, the former Northrop headquarters. Cowboys hustle Albertson cattle through tunnels under the Ventura Freeway, moving them from what is now Westlake to North Ranch, so named because it was the northern part of the family’s vast holdings.
The Janss family asked him to photograph their land to promote more use by Hollywood film crews. Lawrence snapped shots of “Gunsmoke” and “The Rifleman” sets in the Wildwood neighborhood. He took aerial shots of the family’s landing strip to show how convenient it would be for movie crews. As time went on, he recorded the building of both the Janss Mall and The Oaks shopping center.
Lawrence and his wife rely on the landmarks that exist now to place the locations of his enormous photographic record. Showing a fraction of the collection in an impromptu slide show, Lawrence comes across a shot of a towering white barn next to the freeway. A sign identifies it as the Running Springs Farm, green fields surround it and Lawrence has made the setting look more like Switzerland than Southern California, capturing the snow-capped Topa Topas in the background.
“That was right about where the Holiday Inn is now,” Lawrence said. “On Ventu Park Road.”
“It had solid oak floors,” Margaret Lawrence adds. “They had dances there.”
As they review one man’s record of a changing landscape, the couple comes across photograph after photograph of green fields and open vistas. The refrain that accompanies the slide show is a simple one.
“That’s all homes today,” they take turns saying.