A history of paradise
We are obsessed with real estate and always have been. For more than 125 years, Southern Californians have bought it, sold it, graded it, changed it, planted it, built on it, dreamed on it, torn it down and started all over again. We have pushed ourselves beyond our city centers. We have filled every space in between.
At first such devotion seemed natural. We knew paradise when we saw it, and we knew how to make it our own. Drawn to this flood plain by the climate and open space, we came, tens of thousands of us, decade after decade, transforming the region and making us accomplices for better and worse in our own fate.
Paradise is still here, but the terms have changed significantly. Today we see Los Angeles and this region as if we were on an endless approach to LAX. It may be easy to say that, amid the sprawl, we have lost the past -- and the reasons for our abiding connection to this land -- but scattered throughout this sea of rooftops, this tangle of freeways, are places that ignite the same thrill that new arrivals must have felt 100 years ago or that contain a more contemporary charge.
To identify these touchstones, we approached historians, urban planners, friends and users of this metropolis. We looked for the most singular locales that would put a human face on this sweep of development and, when isolated, would capture the speed, the exhilaration, the hope and heartbreak of our undaunted passion. Together these places form a picture of our belief in the possibilities of this land.
Pacific Electric Building
Downtown Los Angeles
As if someone had flipped a switch, the Pacific Electric Building, once famous for moving Angelenos out of downtown, is pulling them back.
When it was incorporated in 1901, the Pacific Electric Railway Co.'s Red Cars of California did everything it could to encourage downtown residents to “Go see what a beautiful country is opened up.” And go they did, catching the Red Car at this terminus and riding it out to Monrovia or Newport Beach, expanding the city’s limits.
Now the Pacific Electric Building is riding a rush of newfound enthusiasm for urban living. At the corner of 6th and Main streets, the building, renamed Pacific Electric Lofts, is something of a postmodern fortress in a postmodern part of town. The last train ran in 1961, and the station was partially gutted and transformed into a parking structure. Today it offers apartment living, high-speed Internet, a rooftop pool -- and residents who blog about carpooling to the Coachella Valley Music Festival.
“One of the most hard-worked words in California of recent years is bungalow,” wrote lovestruck enthusiast Charles Francis Saunders in 1913, and nowhere was that word worked harder than in Pasadena, where more than 1,000 of these low-pitched homes were built nearly a century ago on some 13 streets between Washington and Orange Grove boulevards and Lake and Hill avenues.
At the time, this accidental proliferation was about as radical a statement as you could make with redwood, pine and cedar.
More than a house, the California bungalow was a template for a new kind of life. Extolled for its indoor-outdoor arrangements, bungalows were cheap to build, cheap to heat and dispensed with the need for servants.
“The properly appointed bungalow inside stands for comfort, leisureliness and cheerfulness, comporting with a climate which makes for the same qualities,” Saunders continued. “Bungalow life is informal but not necessarily bohemian, and at its best is simple, without being sloppy.”
Tell that to the relatives back East.
The Lummis Home
When it was nearly completed in 1910, the Lummis Home attempted with its bohemian irreverence to connect Southern California to its Southwestern roots. Meanwhile, just across town, Henry Huntington was putting the finishing touches on his mansion and would have nothing of it. Between Lummis and Huntington, a sparing match was waged in Los Angeles over its future as a Western or a metropolitan city.
Charles Lummis celebrated a Mission-style aesthetic with river rock, vigas and corbels set beneath the sycamores of the Arroyo Seco; Huntington, a Beaux Art neoclassicism with columns, pilasters and balustrades on a ranch that would become San Marino. One vision was born from the experience of walking from Cincinnati to L.A. in 1884; the other from taking the train. One was cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed hat, the other starched and laundered. A hundred years later, they’re still duking it out.
Some are made of pickets. Others of chicken wire or cement, wood or cactus, and for Mexicans who came to this city in the wake of the 1910 revolution -- families who could own no land back home -- nothing was more meaningful than the fence.
“My father had a thing about fences,” writes Mary Helen Ponce in “Hoyt Street,” her memoir about growing up in Pacoima in the 1940s. “I often thought that ... it was important for him to fence, to secure the right of ownership.”
Sixty years later, Hoyt Street -- south of Van Nuys Boulevard and east of the train tracks -- still has a thing about fences. They march right out to the sidewalks and announce themselves like guard dogs in front of these modest stucco and wood-sided homes with their icicle lights, geraniums and ficus trees, plastic toys and tables out in front. There is the slump stone variety, the cinder block and the cyclone. There is an iron fence with wood slats. There is one that is painted yellow, blue and green in an Aztecan pattern. One has fleur-de-lis points with a medallion center. One has lions, and one is made of yellow caution tape. And each in its own way has set down roots for the world to see.
Sandstone, Gothic and so yesteryear, the Hollywoodland Gates at the corner of Beachwood and Westshire drives were put up in 1923 and marked the entrance of the great Hollywoodland development, one of the first housing tracts in Southern California. And in the years since, nothing has topped this promotion. It began with the sign: Thrown up as four syllables in 1924, truncated to three in 1949, it remains today a landmark to our faith that places define who we are.
Cruise Beachwood Drive as it lifts above the flatlands and you’ll understand why. Sea breezes funnel into the canyon. Bird song drifts among the ridges, and between aged pines and greening sycamores rises a phantasm of Spanish Colonial, English Tudor and French provincial facades. The eastern gate looks like a sentinel’s post. An archer’s window is poised toward the city below. Step inside this domain, and two real estate agents smile at you from an ad posted on the bench at the Dash shuttle turnaround.
Step into a hand-painted postcard from Venice beach, circa 1910, and you’ll be wandering inside California’s first theme park. The idea that someone would dig canals and raise arched bridges so that you could wave over a gondolier proves that the dreamers of Southern California went a little too far -- and were proud of it.
Mailed to some Eastern city, on a winter day, not long before the sinking of the Titanic, you can hear the postcard landing in an empty mail slot. Outside, snow is falling. Elm trees cast skeletal shadows against distant brownstones, and in your hands is something unbelievable. The image is small, and the lighting reminds you of the Mediterranean. You saw it once on a trip to Italy, where there never seem to be shadows, even in the brightest sunlight. Here is a gondola, crowded with well-dressed men and women, being sculled on a canal that looks like nothing in Venice -- or at least the Venice that you know. Alongside are two young boys, modern-day Tom Sawyers, in a wooden canoe, and in the distance, there’s a high, arching bridge and a few homes painted red on a green spit of land set against this powder blue sky.
You rub your eyes. Imagine living there, you think. “Boating on the Canal, Venice, California,” the caption reads. Abbot Kinney, the mastermind of the dream, would have wanted it this way.
The Spadena house
This witch’s lair of fairy-tale proportions, concocted in 1921 from a brew straight out of the Brothers Grimm, may be a cliche by now, yet it still dares to say what is often kept quiet.
With its raked plaster and river rock, aversion to straight lines, a shingle roof with ski-slope severity, mullioned windows and off-kilter shutters, it is the “Rocky Horror” of domestic architecture, “Gods and Monsters” come home to roost. Designed by Harry Oliver in 1921 as movie set, it became an office, and then a home, and it’s what real estate is all about -- fantasy.
But taking exaggerated leaps is a dying art. Our homes are either quiet and respectable or self-important and self-conscious. Few try to have it both ways and succeed.
Office of the Assessor
Downtown Los Angeles
Located in the Hall of Administration, in a remote basement once affectionately known as the Swamp, the 12,000 ledger books of the assessor’s office contain in their pages nearly every real estate transaction in L.A. County over the last 100 years. Their bindings are torn and duct-taped, their stenciled catalog numbers faded with age. Closed, they measure 2 1/2 feet long by 20 inches tall. Opened, they document the cellular division of the region over 4,084 square miles in delicate handwritten lettering on lines as straight as the horizon itself.
The language is often hieroglyphic, and most of the information is inconsequential (computers upstairs keep recent records), but the slightly Midwestern cadence of the names -- Clifton Taylor, Vernon Wooten, Martha B. Earle -- sing out, and you realize that nothing is more simple or complicated than a plot of ground and a place to call home.
San Bernardino Peak
Here is where it began. In 1852 on this wind-scratched summit more than 10,000 feet above the flatlands of San Bernardino County, Col. Henry Washington and a crew of 13 built a tower 24-feet tall and began to survey all the land south of the Tehachapis. To this day, every parcel in Southern California has an invisible line that connects it to this point.
Rancho Los Alamitos
Set on a small knoll in east Long Beach, this whitewashed adobe is the oldest home still standing in Southern California. Built in 1806 and remodeled through the succeeding decades, it is a reflection of our mestizo heritage. Beneath floral wallpaper laid on plaster is dried mud and straw.
Rancho Los Alamitos was an Indian village and then the center of a 300,000-acre land grant, whose rolling hills and isolated barrancas spreading across southeast Los Angeles were so dense with wild mustard that cattle got lost in its tangles. Bankruptcy and marriage whittled down the property, so that by the time its last owner, Fred Bixby, took charge in 1906, it was merely 3,700 acres.
No wonder he looks so pleased. With the flash of a match, he lights his cigar for the camera to catch. Dressed in shirt and tie, fedora and eyes curiously closed, he is entirely the gentleman rancher. They say he was once badly in debt. They say that the discovery of oil on Signal Hill in 1921 bailed him out, but it was the land itself that ensured his wealth.
Bixby died in ’52 and his wife nine years later. By then, the natural spring that fed the hill had gone dry, and Bixby’s home, reduced to a mere 7 1/2 acres and owned by the city of Long Beach, would soon be surrounded by a gated community that would block his priceless view.
The history of L.A. is writ in water and dust, and no single location contains that history better than where water from the Owens River pours into Los Angeles.
Close to the middle of nowhere, pushed up against a dry and rocky hillside, some 10,000 people once gathered at this spot. They stood beside a long concrete runway that emerged from the ridge above. It was a brilliant November day in 1913. A band played “America,” and on a bunting-draped grandstand, dignitaries dressed like European royalty began the speechmaking.
The courageous feat “ranks higher than the bloody accomplishments of all the Caesars,” intoned a former governor.
“I Love You, California,” the band picked up, and eventually, in a moment of silence, an old and solitary man began addressing the crowd.
“This rude platform is an altar,” William Mulholland said, “and on it we are consecrating this water supply and dedicating this aqueduct to you and your children and your children’s children -- for all time.” Then he stopped.
“That’s all,” he said, and returned to his seat.
A flag was unfurled. A trickle of water darkened the runway, then a stream, then a torrent. “There it is,” the old man spoke again. “Take it.”
The Tehachapi Mountains
For years, the Tehachapis have marked the wild limit to the sprawl of Southern California. Too far from Los Angeles and too close to Bakersfield, they are at best a scenic blur taken in from Interstate 5.
Jedediah Smith, John Fremont and Joaquin Murieta traipsed through these lonely valleys. A grizzly mauled a trapper named Peter Lebec not far from where most people fill up their tanks.
Until the construction of the Ridge Route in 1914, most travelers would turn west at the Santa Clarita Valley to avoid the ordeal of summit. (The stretch we now called the Grapevine, the 6 1/2 -mile segment from Fort Tejon to the Central Valley, is the steepest grade allowed on a federal highway.)
Only now, the Tejon Ranch Co., owner of the largest chunk of change up here, plans to build more than 25,000 homes and a 23,000-acre resort in a saddle of these mostly empty mountains, and a region once known for its bears, bandits and wayward travelers will be transformed into our newest bedroom community.
The oldest orange grove
There may be more hidden in a few pockets of private land, but at the corner of Lindley Avenue and Nordhoff Street on the campus of Cal State Northridge stands the oldest, most contiguous remnant of the Valley’s agricultural past.
Wander among these trees, stretching over 6 acres, and you fall back to a time before there was a Northridge, before there was a north Los Angeles. The town was Zelzah, the “watering place in the desert,” and in the summer of ’23, a Norwegian family visiting from Oklahoma purchased a 10-acre parcel and got to work.
Farmers here mostly grew lima beans; the Halversons tried alfalfa as well. A standpipe in the field provided water, which had to be ordered from the Department of Water and Power.
In 1929, Ole decided to swap out most of his lima beans for Valencias. They were brought in from the Cascade Ranch -- 3 feet tall with stems almost an inch thick, roots wrapped in burlap. Today the oranges grow out of reach. The trunks are more than 60 inches round, and in the midday sun, you are quickly lost in their fragrance.
Here on a small hill in Tarzana stood Gen. Harrison Gray Otis’ hacienda and ranch, Mil Flores. In 1919 it was sold for $125,000 to Tarzan’s creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, who at first resisted, then embraced the development of Tarzana, “Gateway to the Sea.” It was one of the first subdivisions in the Valley and is still being divided today. Welcome to Monteverde, a tract of 30 homes designed in the Spanish Revival style by the architect who transformed Pickfair into a Venetian palazzo. The homes have up to 6,600 square feet and are priced from $2.8 million -- a 2,240% return on Burroughs’ investment.
Either the zenith or the nadir of our obsession, Zillow.com took a moment of our lives by storm when it debuted earlier this year. It was all about the Joneses. And with satellite photos, click-on descriptions and latest selling prices, we came closer than ever before to addressing the great taboo of our age -- how much did it cost? -- without having to say a word.
Five homes, a Red Line Station, a carriage house, church, boxcar and a transplanted coral tree -- this motley collection, once part of the city scene and now moved and preserved at Heritage Square, is the sum of our Bunker Hills, our street corners and city blocks lost to redevelopment and eminent domain. Italianate, Queen Anne-Eastlake, even idiosyncratic (the wonderful Octagon House), these 100-year-old designs remind us of a time when Los Angeles aspired to be no different than anywhere else. Scrape away the paint, and layers of history fall free.
Before the Perry Residence was restored to its white, skeletal splendor, it was a pink-stucco apartment on Pleasant Ave. in East L.A., and before the Ford residence arrived, it housed four families (on the living-room floor, you can see the shadowy line of a wall that supported back-to-back Murphy beds). In a city of forgetting, utility trumps aesthetics -- but not this time.
The Valley windbreaks
Shadow Ranch, West Hills
Four stories tall, snarled with dead limbs and peeling bark, the eucalyptus trees at Shadow Ranch soar above the ranch homes that line Vanowen Street. These elegies, these few blue gums, trace back to the stock that Alfred Workman imported from Australia in the 1870s. Workman, a tenant farmer employed by wheat barons Isaac Lankershim and Isaac Newton Van Nuys, planted them at a time when the Valley was treeless and raked by summer breezes and winter gales. Windrows offered the only protection.
An insect called the longhorned borer felled many of the trees. Most are stumps now, 5 feet in diameter, and when the wind blows, whining down Topanga toward the Santa Susanna Pass, no one seems to complain.
Howard Jarvis’ house
It’s 1941. Howard Jarvis, a former newspaper publisher, press aide and campaign organizer from Magna, Utah, pays $8,000 for a three-bedroom storybook home at 515 N. Crescent Heights Blvd. Almost 25 years later, Jarvis watches a middle-aged woman drop dead at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration while complaining about her taxes. It gets him thinking.
It’s 1978. Proposition 13, Jarvis’ landmark tax reform bill, passes by a 65% margin. Personal and corporate property taxes roll back 57%; it triggers a tax revolt almost as famous as the Boston Tea Party. At the time Jarvis disdained fame, glory, reward -- or “a goddamn thing,” as he once told a reporter. “My reward is going home at night,” he says.
The home is quiet, the current tax bill, $999.81.
Before her recent death, his widow, Estelle, sat in an easy chair remembering the fires in the fireplace in the addition out back. There were the cocktails and the cigars -- how Howard loved to his cigars. And how she loved to dance with him on the hardwood floor of the living room.
First navel orange tree
It’s still there, growing at the corner of Magnolia and Arlington avenues in Riverside, the mother of all navel oranges. But forget the miracle of the tree, planted in the 1870s. Think instead about the land rush it started. On postcards and orange crates, its Edenic and well-watered simplicity sold and transformed the Southern California landscape.
As of March 6, 2006, the median price for a single-family home in Beverly Hills, 90210, was $2,995,000, the highest in Los Angeles County. Need we say more?
The unassuming two-story Craftsman, clad in gray shakes just off Avenue 64, which once housed USC’s School of Fine Arts, is now Judson Studios. And today, it is our closest connection to the Arts and Crafts Movement.
To gaze through its windows is to make a connection to a mantra of the Arroyo Guild: “simple living, high thinking, pure democracy, genuine art, honest craftsmanship, natural inspiration and exalted aspiration.” These words, coined nearly 100 years ago by William Lees Judson, almost seemed possible.
Judson himself had arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago in 1893 in broken health and penniless, and in less than 10 years, he found himself prospering in a studio along the banks of the Arroyo Seco.
Offering designs to the new homeowners, Judson and this collective of artists and craftsmen committed to the work of Gustave Stickley and William Morris, focused with ideological purity on domestic life and the home and, for a brief period, gave Angelenos a stab at their own aesthetic.
But the dream faded as quickly as it had formed. Perhaps it was too rarefied. Perhaps the world rushed ahead too fast. Today only the stained-glass studios remain. Most of their commissions are ecclesiastical, an apotheosis of Judson’s uncompromising hope.
Jackie Robinson’s boyhood home
The house at 121 Pepper St. was torn down in the early 1970s. But It was here that Jackie Robinson learned to stand up to bigotry and prejudice.
He was 16 months old when his mother, abandoned by her husband and with five children in tow, boarded a train one summer night in Cairo, Ga., and never looked back. It was 1920. The South was an ugly place.
“If you want to get closer to heaven, visit California,” Mallie Robinson’s brother had promised, so she set her sights on Los Angeles, and when the train pulled into the Pasadena railroad station, heaven seemed within reach. Only she didn’t know that this town was as prejudiced as any in the South.
The Robinsons were the first blacks to live on Pepper Street. Their neighbors tried to buy them out. Someone burned a cross on their front lawn. An elderly couple crossed the street whenever they saw them coming, and the police were eager to respond to noise complaints. “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” a neighbor girl screamed at Jackie when he was 8.
Nothing was easy, but it was in the Castle, as the family called it, this Victorian-style home with a mansard roof and a front porch, that Jackie listened to his grandmother, born a slave, tell stories by the light of an oil lamp. “She told me once that when the slaves were freed they wanted no part of freedom. They were afraid of it.”
Today only a brass plaque on the sidewalk commemorates the site.
The Brady Bunch house
Before Wisteria Lane, there was 11222 Dilling Street, the platonic ideal of the American dream. Retailed to the world for only a few seconds -- in the opening sequence or after an ad -- it is a vision of life everlasting.
Where else but behind the walls of this split-level with its shake roof, clerestory windows and Palos Verdes stone will you find Marcia struggling with new braces, Alice fretting about her future with Sam the butcher, Peter sick with the measles, Bobby drumming and the phone always busy?
No wonder the new owners put up a brick wall and wrought-iron fence. Syndication is a very long time.
On July 25, 1985, the Atlanta-based Home Depot opened its first stores in Southern California, one in Fullerton and one in Huntington Beach, and sweat equity never had it so good. What once was the mom-and-pop hardware store, devoted to the arcana of shiplap, ballcock shank washers and locksets, now became super-sized for shoppers who gave no second thought to sharing space with forklifts or gazing at merchandise stacked three stories high.
From the outside, the Depot’s bright orange signage is like the pediment of the Parthenon, and once inside, you realize that given enough time and money, you could build, refurbish and landscape your own private temple.
Nothing defined middle-class ambition in Southern California during the ‘50s and ‘60s better than the swimming pool, and no one took it more to heart than Wayne Steimle, a high school physics teacher living in San Gabriel who one day in 1952 found himself mesmerized by the goings-on in his neighbor’s backyard.
“They’re not doing anything I can’t do,” he told his wife, who got ready to say goodbye to her fruit trees and a boysenberry patch.
They told the kids on Christmas Day and got down to work. First, a rectangle was laid out with garden hoses, then the skip loader started digging, and Steimle began stacking cinder blocks. Photographs show him, dressed in a plaid shirt and flashing a toothy smile, as if these were the happiest days of his life.
Within four months, the Steimle family stayed up all night with their garden hoses running. The next morning, Steimle’s daughter took the first plunge. The water was 57 degrees. Within two years, Steimle would quit teaching and get into the pool business full time. Today his company is one of the oldest pool companies in Southern California, and is managed by Steimle’s four grandsons.
The model home complex
Scarier than the Spadena House, the model home complex -- found in every new-home development in Southern California -- is fantasy kitsch. Stuck in a time warp, they bring to mind the dreams and sad longings of American life without a hint of irony.In this world, the ideal life is serious business, and it exists well beyond the Jeffersonian grid with its right-angled streets and side-by-side city blocks. It exists in a place where curlicues and cul-de-sacs, new homes and community pools reign.
At the Villages of Columbus in Tustin, one of Orange County’s newest master-planned communities, utopianism abounds. No longer is it enough to sell bedrooms and baths. Today you sell a lifestyle, and here it’s the “socially interactive infrastructure” and the promise of more time, less stress and happier families.
The homes are just off a street called Sweet Shade and feature a mix of Georgian, Victorian, Tudor and Craftsman styles. Inside, there are robes in the closets, bath oils on the counters, soft music playing in the background.
Walk these recently paved streets, tour the models and you can’t help but feel a little guilty: In their promise of perfection lies a judgment about the world you’ve left behind.
On the Web
For an interactive map of the sites in this story, featuring pop-up photos and audio narration, and for a bibliography of the books used in the research, visit www.latimes.com/homes125.
Sources: Jessica Maria Alicea, manager, Heritage Square; Brian Sheridan, director of development, Heritage Square; Rick Auerbach, assessor, Los Angeles County; Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues, Los Angeles Conservancy; William Deverell, professor of history, USC; Robert Gohstand, professor of geography emeritus, Cal State Northridge; Joel Fox, former president of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.; Trevor Grimm, general counsel of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.; Joel Kotkin, Irvine Senior Fellow, New America Foundation; Robert Knowles, special assistant, assessor, Los Angeles County; Robert D. Montoya, Historical Society of Southern California; Becky M. Nicolaides, associate professor of History and Urban Studies and Planning, UC San Diego; Merry Ovnick, associate professor of history, Cal State Northridge; Leonard Pitt, professor of history, emeritus, Cal State Northridge; Kevin Roderick, editor and author; Kevin Starr, professor of history, USC; D.J. Waldie, public information officer, city of Lakewood.