Edendale — a Los Angeles paradise lost

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This week I saw a work of art at the Huntington Library that set me off on a journey — in search of a ghost from L.A.’s past.

It was a 1932 print by Paul Landacre, an L.A. resident considered by many the master American wood engraver of his day.

Landacre etched two large trees looming over a curving road and an empty stone staircase. It’s a landscape with the feel of a country retreat, even though it’s really a hillside lot in what is now Echo Park. Landacre and his wife, Margaret, lived there for nearly 40 years, until their deaths in 1963, according to the gallery display.

I wondered if the home was still standing. So I went out to take a look. What I found was a familiar L.A. story — a piece of history neglected and forgotten. The Landacres’ rustic cabin now overlooks the Glendale Freeway. And it’s in a sorry state of disrepair.

The Landacres were part of a vibrant community of artists, writers and activists that thrived in the first half of the 20th century. They called their neighborhood Edendale, a name that itself is a kind of relic.

The story of Edendale is one I think every Angeleno should know. A way of life now synonymous with our city was born in Edendale. All sorts of L.A. outsiders, artists and dreamers can trace their cultural roots to that time and place.

“The Landacres would climb up the hill and leave the commotion and the bustle of the city behind them,” said the historian Daniel Hurewitz,whose recent book, “Bohemian Los Angeles, is dedicated to the Edendale era. “It was rustic and it was spacious and it was a place where your soul could expand. And it was filled with people who had similar desires.”

The Landacres purchased the property on El Moran Street in 1932, when he was just starting to earn renown for his work. He and his wife were not wealthy, nor would they ever be.

Still, they lived well, hosting friends who collected art and dabbled in the causes of the day. The painter Millard Sheets had a home nearby, and poet Carl Sandburg and photographer Edward Weston often passed through.

L.A. was then one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States — but in Edendale, you could live amid native black walnut trees, possums and scrub jays.

“Art is practiced here, along with various other concerns — pruning trees, repairing the roof, watching and feeding wildlife,” Margaret Landacre, a writer, once told a friend.

These days, you’ll find only a couple of mentions of Edendale on L.A. maps. There’s an Edendale Place in Silver Lake and an Edendale branch of the Los Angeles Public Library in Echo Park.

Edendale was centered on the valley that now separates Silver Lake from Echo Park. It was one of L.A.’s original bohemian retreats and the birthplace of its film industry and gay rights movement.

Julian Eltinge, a vaudevillian actor famous for his cross-dressing act, lived in Edendale at about the time Mack Sennett was filming the Keystone Cops on nearby Glendale Boulevard. In 1918, Eltinge built a manor overlooking the Silver Lake reservoir.

Decades later Edendale was home to pioneering gay rights activist Harry Hay. The Mattachine Society, the first enduring gay rights group in the U.S., was founded in 1950 in Hay’s living room on Cove Avenue. Like the Landacres, Hay had settled on a hillside with pastoral views and much wildlife.

The Mattachine activists aimed to break the private isolation of homosexual life and give gay people a public identity. Hurewitz said it’s no accident that such a movement was born in L.A. and Edendale.

“There’s really a different relationship between the public sphere and private lives in L.A.,” said Hurewitz, who now lives in New York and teaches at Hunter College. “You experience privacy more intensely in L.A.” The privacy that allowed gay life to flourish behind closed doors eventually gave it the courage to seek a public voice, he said.

In L.A., many people still live the way the Landacres and Hay did. They love L.A. for the intellectual and artistic ferment of the city but retire every night to their own versions of Walden — in tiny hillside bungalows and old clapboard houses with trees in the backyard. They live this way in Topanga Canyon, El Sereno and lots of places in between.

“To some of us this kind of environment is … absolutely necessary,” Margaret Landacre once wrote. Up on the place they called “The Hill,” she and her neighbors found “a degree of exclusion, the life of growing things, awareness that we are part of nature.”

A handful of Paul Landacre’s prints celebrate the couple’s daily life in the Edendale cabin. In his 1935 “Sultry Day,” a nude Margaret reads and reclines on a porch bathed in sunlight, next to a cat, with trees and a street sign visible in the distance.

Landacre’s name is still painted on the mailbox of the now-padlocked home. And the petrels he carved into the roof vents are still there too.

The conservationist Charles Fisher helped save the Landacre home in 2006 by successfully applying for landmark status. Today there’s a relatively new city of L.A. sign outside proclaiming the property city historic monument No. 839.

But L.A. still has far to go to pay proper homage to this gem of local history.

Weeds have swallowed up the staircase depicted in Landacre’s 1932 print. The cabin’s windows are either broken or boarded up. The big live oaks Landacre etched with such brio are still there, but the old curving street — the Landacres had a whole block to themselves — has been sealed off and is eroding away.

In another, prouder city, we’d do more to keep alive the history on that hillside and others like it. We’d be able to open more old doors and enter more of the rooms where our history was made. We’d share a knowledge of that history and celebrate it together. I’m hoping to live in that L.A. one day.