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‘The New Town’ of Van Nuys Celebrates Its 85th Anniversary

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a dirt road in the middle of a wheat field, the real estate development that was to pioneer suburban life as it is now known in the San Fernando Valley was born 85 years ago today.

“The New Town,” as its developers nicknamed it in advertisements, wasn’t much to look at back then. Less than a dozen partly completed houses stood in the heart of the mile-square development. An elaborate system of streets was marked out with stakes, but almost none had been cleared. There were no gas lines, no water pipes, no telephones and no electrical service.

But there was, on Feb. 22, 1911, one thing that helped bring thousands of Los Angeles residents over the hill for a day in the country--free barbecue.

Thus was born the real estate experiment known as Van Nuys.

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“The men who put this all together knew something about promotion, that’s for sure,” said Austin Conover, head of the Los Angeles Valley Historical Museum, located on the campus of Valley College in Van Nuys.

Conover was standing under a stark photograph showing the desolate development about two weeks before the grand opening. A nearby photo, taken just eight months later, shows an astonishing transformation, with many houses, commercial buildings, cars and pedestrians.

The people attracted by the heavy promotion and advertising of “The New Town” liked what they saw and quickly put down roots.

“They were pioneers, that’s why they came west in the first place,” said Malcolm Sears, 79, a retired schoolteacher whose family settled in Van Nuys in 1918, when he was 2 years old.

“They wanted some land, their own place, some freedom,” said Sears, who will be the guest speaker tonight at a meeting of the San Fernando Valley Historical Society.

A detailed history of the creation of this mass-marketed real estate development--the first but certainly not last of its kind in the Valley--has yet to be written. Most general histories of the area mention the Feb. 22 event only in passing, and accounts are conflicting.

“There has not been a lot of work done in this area,” said Robert Marshall, archivist at the Urban Archives Center at Cal State Northridge.

But at least a sketchy account of what led to that day can be discerned. The development’s namesake was Isaac Newton Van Nuys, who with his father-in-law, Isaac Lankershim, converted the southern half of the Valley into a vast grainfield in the latter part of the 19th century.

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A syndicate of businessmen (including Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, founder of The Times, and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler) acquired 47,000 acres of the land from Van Nuys in 1909 and decided the first town site would be on what they called “Tract 1,000.” It was Otis, according to at least one account, who decided to name the town after its former owner.

In 1911, a key figure entered the story--William Paul Whitsett. Although a laudatory biography of this pioneer developer is titled “Success Is No Accident,” his way in life was certainly eased by the fact that he married the daughter of the founder of the powerful Chicago Title Insurance and Trust Co. For that occasion, a railroad spur was built right up to the house in which they were married.

But Whitsett was by all accounts a driven and cunning businessman. He oversaw the development and all-important promotion of Van Nuys. For example, he arranged that every person with a telephone in Southern California receive a call inviting them to the Feb. 22 barbecue.

The regular fare for a train ride out to the Valley from Los Angeles was then $1. Believing that stiff rate would make people believe the area was too far from the city, he negotiated it down to 50 cents for the event, and then subsidized it so that the actual fare paid by riders was 25 cents.

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His most radical move, though, was to convince building suppliers and workers that this development was going to be so successful that they should not only trade their goods and labor for land, but also work almost nonstop so that some sample houses would be ready for the official opening.

“He didn’t want just houses, he wanted houses with roofs,” Sears said. “He knew that would help sell the place.”

Sears, who as a boy knew Whitsett, and Conover, who interviewed the developer shortly before his death in 1965, both commented on Whitsett’s trademark high dress standards. He was almost never seen in public without a formal wing collar and tie.

“I actually saw him mowing the lawn and he was wearing the tie,” Conover said. “I kidded him about it, but he told me, ‘You don’t appear in public without being well dressed.’ ”

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The day of the event was blissfully clear, perfect for an outing in the country and a free meal. Some accounts say the crowd was in the hundreds, but most say it was in the thousands, even more than 10,000 according to some. The accounts do agree that the amount of money spent by the crowd on that one day to buy lots was a highly impressive $250,000.

That December, the pioneer residents of Van Nuys gathered on the main street to celebrate its incorporation as a town.

Whitsett didn’t miss a beat.

“8 Months Ago a Bean Field,” declared his advertisements for more land buyers, “Now a Thriving Town.”

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