Dig into history, you’ll strike snake oil

Times Staff Writer

If there were an endangered species list for Los Angeles historical homes, the Girard Tract cabins might very well top it. Most of the original 120 homes were destroyed, and the dozen or so that remain have been altered extensively with little regard to their roots. But hidden in their past is this footnote: They are the housing offspring of a scoundrel.

The man behind the cabins

Victor Girard Kleinberger was a land huckster with big dreams. Born in Kentucky, he began his sales career peddling Persian rugs -- fakes, of course -- door to door. According to the out-of-print “The History of Woodland Hills and Girard” by Richard K. Cacioppo, Girard’s modus operandi was to shove the rolled-up rug into the door frame (thus preventing the door from being slammed shut on him) and begin coughing profusely -- all the while mumbling about tuberculosis and priceless rugs.

It was a ruse that apparently worked, and by 1899, with his fortune already made, the 18-year-old Girard (he had dropped his last name) headed west to Los Angeles, where he branched out into other enterprises, including real estate.


His reputation as a man with an eye for a deal quickly grew, and the mantra of “Follow Girard” became popular with other land investors.

His business entry into the San Fernando Valley, then a cow pasture, was done with his usual flourish: He bought about 3,000 acres of land and sold it off by the thimble -- lots so small that some were just 25 feet wide at a time when it was rare to buy a parcel of land with fewer than 40 acres.

Girard is credited with originating the first land excursions to see real estate, a model followed today by time-share and vacation-home sellers. He would load up sightseeing promotional buses -- a.k.a. “sucker buses” -- of city folks and bring them to the corner of what is now Topanga Canyon and Ventura boulevards, where he had constructed an assortment of mosque towers and gates in what was described as a “Turkish city.”

Girard, wanting to create the illusion of a bustling business district, erected false fronts that left the impression that they were storefronts.

Fake fronts or not, it was a tough sell -- despite Girard’s pitch that his town was the closest Valley community to the ocean (just traverse wild and woolly Topanga Canyon, which was neither fully paved nor rid of bandits yet). Plus, when speculators managed to reach Girard -- he had named the city after himself -- after negotiating the Cahuenga Pass and a dozen miles of twisty Ventura Boulevard, they found a parched, treeless grassland, with nothing to shield them from the hot summer sun or blowing dust.

Perhaps Girard’s best move was to plant thousands of eucalyptus, cypress, acacia, pepper and Monterey pine trees. The Depression and reports that he double sold some of the parcels spurred Girard to leave, along with some of his town’s residents. His lasting legacy, it would seem, is those trees.

The basics

No one knows for sure just how many cabins were built, but estimates put it between 100 and 120.

In a second phase of construction, buyers were given a choice of three or four models. But a fire in the late 1920s destroyed many of them. Only about a dozen remain, all of which have been extensively remodeled -- most without regard to historical accuracy or preservation. Most of the original cabins were completed without running water or electricity. The minimum living space was set at 500 square feet.

The cabins are scattered in what had been called the Girard Tract, now better known as “Spaghetti Canyon” because of its winding streets. The area is also sometimes called the “poor man’s Topanga” because of its proximity, lower home prices and resemblance to Topanga Canyon.

Many other homes of various styles have been built among what remains of the cabins. The area has English cottages, architectural homes and bungalows.

One of the Girard two-room cabins from the 1920s on San Miguel Street was built as a school. The Girard Elementary School was renamed the Woodland Hills Elementary School after Girard’s dream of a planned community failed and he faded into obscurity.

The cabins that remain

The original Girard cabins were constructed in a slipshod manner.

In some cases, the wooden foundation sat right on the dirt. Inexpensive materials were used, and little thought was given to custom design.

“But what about the sense of history?” asks Pinnacle Estate Properties broker associate Robert Eisenberg, who has a Girard cabin listed at $525,000 on Rosario Drive.

It is 900 square feet with a few original features remaining: the fireplace hearth, parts of a coal stove and piping and some pull-in wooden frame windows. The cabin has two bedrooms, one bathroom and a detached garage on the 8,000-square-foot lot -- which would have been a double- or triple-size lot when it was originally sold by Girard.

Agent Eisenberg, who has been selling Girard cabins for two decades, said that they have never held their value as historical homes.

“It’s like, I see a piece of history and you see just an old house that needs work,” he said.

All the original cabins had log siding, generally made from sequoia cedar, which acts as a natural insect repellent.

Insider’s viewpoint

Contractor Joe Messina bought his Girard cabin on Puente Road in 1972 for $18,000. He later learned that his house had been Girard’s model home -- built as a one-room cabin.

“Even though it was the showcase, to be used to sell the other houses, it still didn’t have a foundation,” Messina said.

Messina expanded the 1,000-square-foot cabin by 1,300 square feet in 1981 and had the original exterior logs duplicated before he covered the entire expanded exterior.

A history buff when it comes to his house, Messina has a copy of the title. His house changed hands quite a few times, but the original owner was Girard’s land company.

“I love this place,” said Messina, a former antiques dealer. “I could have sold it a dozen times over, but I wouldn’t leave.”