Grand Design: The Canals of Venice (California)

Early last century a developer had a bright idea.

Those words might be written about many developers and many bright ideas. The wide swath of territory in the Southland, bounded by oceans and mountains, was fertile ground for those looking to make a name for themselves, or simply make a buck.

Our story is about one Abbot Kinney (1850-1920), a man who made a fortune in the tobacco business and ended up dying of lung cancer. In between, he put his name on the community of Venice, California. Like many of the bright ideas that abounded around greater Los Angeles, Kinney’s vision did not play out exactly as he had hoped; nonetheless it made its mark. Beginning in 1905 he and his heirs transformed a beach village, just south of Ocean Park/Santa Monica, into pleasure grounds styled after the great Italian water-bound city of Venice.

This essay is about the canals of Venice, so we won’t go into the the details of the many attractions the Kinneys installed in their theme-park like community — the pier with its roller coasters, games, and rides, the miniature railroad line used to tour prospective real estate buyers, the bath house, amphitheater, midway, circus and sideshow performers, exotic animals, beauty pageants, restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops. Suffice it to say that Kinney succeeded in creating a carnival-like atmosphere that prevailed along the shore for four decades.

Digging of the canals gets underway with horses and mules, 1904. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00057203.

 

In laying out the community he called Venice-of-America, Kinney designed a network of interconnected canals filled with tidal water from the Pacific. Throughout history canals have been dug for many purposes — shipping and transportation, irrigation, and flood control. The Venice canals are examples of canals dug largely for aesthetic and recreation purposes. (The trenching did serve to drain the marshy land destined for building projects.) The promotional diagram below indicates seven named canals intersected by streets and all connected to each other. The largest of these was named the Grand Canal after the famed canal of Venice, Italy. The Grand Canal terminated in a lagoon (called a Bathing Lake in the image below).

Not shown here is another set of four named canals, closely parallel to each other, which were built a bit later by anther concern on the south side of town. The so-called Short Line Canals — a rectangle formed by the Carroll, Linnie, Howland, and Sherman Canals, bounded at the top by Eastern Canal and at the bottom by the Grand Canal, are what survive today as the Venice Canal Historic District. They were nicknamed for the Venice Short Line Railway which brought throngs of visitors to the coast.

Kinney was keen to bring the Venetian spirit to Southern California. His canal system came complete with gondolas and singing gondoliers. Some say he imported the gondoliers directly from Italy, although in Los Angeles it seems likely he would have found many young men willing to play the part. His canals were spanned by a number of delicately arches bridges a la Venice, Italy.

A mother takes her well-swaddled child for a ride in a gondola on the Grand Canal. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00005810, circa 1907.

 

A colorized photo, probably a postcard, shows an idyllic scene on the canals of Venice, circa 1909. The canals were nicely landscaped with floral borders, walkways, and night lighting. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009227.

 

Bathing beauties on a gondola. The same party can be seen in several images in the collection, recognizable by their bathing suits. One suspects the women may be part of a publicity campaign. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009230. The photo is undated, but is likely from about 1920. The girl on top appears to take her hairstyle from actress Mary Pickford, “the girl with the curls.”

 

Aerial view of Venice Beach about 1925. The pier, rebuilt after a 1920 fire, featured not one, not two, but three elaborate roller-coasters. The lagoon and a portion of the canal system can be seen on the right hand side. Look for the arched bridges. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009129.

 

This photo, dated approximately 1935, shows Venetian-style performers overlooking a muddy Grand Canal. The decline of the canal system is apparent from the broken timbers on what is clearly a rudimentary footbridge. Poor maintenance, the Great Depression, and the pressing needs of the automobile combined to doom the main section of canals. In 1929 the City of Los Angeles, which had annexed Venice four years earlier, paved over the original canals, leaving the Short Line Canals and a portion of the Grand Canal.  Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009197.

 

Children fish in a canal on the edge of the Grand Lagoon, circa 1925. The Hotel Antler appears on the right . The Grand Lagooon was filled in about 1929. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009222.

 

By the late-1920s, the gondolas were gone, but folks still found ways to have fun on the water. These canals are identified as Altair Canal on the left and Cabrillo Canal on the right, with “United States Island” between them, a development with rental bungalows each named for a state. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009240.

 

By the time this photo of a garbage scow on the Grand Canal was taken in 1953, the waterways were not so grand. A forest of oil rigs has sprung up behind the the canals. Sidewalks were falling apart and the water was oily and polluted. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00057305.

 

This 1960 photo was taken for the Herald-Examiner for an article about sulfur fumes emanating from the canal. The canals have clearly lost much of their romantic appeal at this point. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image # 00057284.

 

Three “men” in a tub and a girl on shore find amusement in the decaying Grand Canal. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00057279, 1962. The newspaper mentioned that the “city dads” were hoping to make improvements to the canals.

 

 

The Short Line Canals spent most of four decades in a state of slow decline, despite a number of proposals to restore them. In the 1980s residents banded together to clean and improve the remaining canals. Here a group of neighbors pull trash from the canals. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00043234, 1985, Photographer, Mike Sergieff.

In the late 1980s restoration efforts gained traction with the support of Los Angeles Councilmember Ruth Galanter and others. In 1992 work began in earnest to dredge out the heavily-silted canals, replace the walls with eco-friendly materials, and rebuild the crumbling walkways. The result was to make the canal district a more desirable, and therefore higher-rent, neighborhood.

 

A view of Carroll Canal in 2003. The caption in our catalog speaks of the changes that had taken place along the canals in recent decades. According to the caption, the neighborhoods surrounding the remaining canals were “favored by beatniks and artists in the 1960s.” The photo above displays an eclectic mix of architectural styles, as small bungalows were remade to suit a more affluent population. Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection, Image #00066952, July 17, 2003. Photographer, Cheryl Himmelstein.

 

Muralist David Legaspi III pays homage to the canals of Old Venice on the walls of the Ocean View Adult Day Health Care Center. Legaspi was a prolific artist whose murals appear all over the Southland. He passed away in 2012. Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection, Image #00066969, February 7, 2003. Photographer, Cheryl Himmelstein.

 

We’ll close with a portrait of the man with the plan: Abbot Kinney. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00075783, undated.

Far and Near: Images of Chávez Ravine

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00031398, 1952. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

Once upon a time there was a Los Angeles area called Chávez Ravine, a tightly knit group of three small neighborhoods made up largely of Mexican-Americans families and a few Caucasian bachelors. They farmed garden plots, raised chickens and goats, shopped at a local bodega, and attended mass at at Santo Niño Church.  There was a tortilleria and a woman who sold nopalitos. The children attended nearby Palo Verde Elementary School.

Goats grazed on the hillsides.

We raised chickens, rabbits, goats. We used to take the goats up the hill when the mama goat had little babies, so they could run around. We’d take formula in a bottle with a nipple and we fed them in the hills. We had a lot of good times. (Sally Anchondo)

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00033673, 1950. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

Weddings were celebrated.

When I got married I walked all that street of La Loma in my bridal gown and veil. I was an outsider, but it was like a family. Everybody came to the wedding. Everybody ate. They all knew each other. That night I was so tired I went into the home of one of his aunts. The women helped me with my dress and put me to bed so I could rest for the dance. And when they were looking for me, “Where’s the bride?” She was asleep in the house of someone she didn’t even know! That’s how people were. (Delia Aguilar)

Bridesmaids and best man at a wedding party in Chávez Ravine, Shade of L.A.: Mexican American Community, Image #00002754, 1929.

Children played in the dirt streets.

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00033695, 1950. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

It shows the way we used to live. Kids nowadays, they wouldn’t let them play like that. People were rougher then, even the kids. (Reyes Guerra)

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00033702, 1949. Don Normark, photographer.

The neighborhood overlooked, and was overlooked by, downtown Los Angeles, one mile to the south.

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00008229, 1949. Don Normark, photographer.

View Finders

Chávez Ravine found itself in the eye of the photographer several times for a variety of reasons.

Gilbert Rosales and his grandmother, Doña Martina Ayala, head to the family store where she sold chickens, home-made Mexican cheese, beans, and household essentials. Housing Authority Collection, Image #00033701, 1949. Don Normark, photographer.

Don Normark (1928-2014) stumbled onto the communities of Chávez Ravine in 1949 as a young photography student:

I was looking for  a high point to get a postcard view of Los Angeles. I didn’t find that view, but when I looked over the other side of the hill I was standing on, I saw a village I never knew was there. Hiking down into it, I began to think I had a found a poor man’s Shangri-la. It was mostly Mexican and certainly poor, but I sensed a unity to the place, and it was peacefully remote. The people seemed like refugees — people superior to the circumstances they were living in. I liked them and stayed to photograph. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in Chávez Ravine. (Don Normark)

Of Normark’s hundreds of photos, five were displayed in a1950 exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of  Art. A few made their way into the files of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). The rest were largely forgotten for many decades

In the mid-1990s, Normark returned to Los Angeles, this time seeing out the desterrados (the uprooted) from Chávez Ravine and collecting memories spurred by his photographs. The result was a 1999 book and a 2004 documentary narrated by Cheech Marin, both titled Chávez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story. In 2013 his photographs were included in an exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum titled “Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990.”

The Navarro family, Housing Authority Collection, Image #00033696, 1951. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

Leonard Nadel (1916-1990), a freelance photographer and journalist, was hired by HACLA in the late 1940s to document neighborhoods under consideration for housing projects. In the years 1950 to 1952, just on the heels of Normark, his work brought him to the neighborhoods that made up Chávez Ravine where he photographed both the structures and the people. Nadel went on to some fame documenting the Bracero Program for the Ford Foundation. His photos were featured in a 2009-2010 exhibit at the National Museum of American History titled ” Bittersweet Harvest.”

It should be noted that HACLA used the photos of both Nadel and Normark to promote its agenda — captioning them with buzzwords such as “slum,” “derelict,” “country-like,” “run-down,” and “ramshackle.”

Veteran William Nickolas with three of his six children in a home he and his wife share with her parents. Housing Authority Collection, Image #00062033, n.d. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

Residents of several low-income communities meet with L.A. Mayor Norris Paulson (at left) urging him to reverse the plans of the housing authority to raze their homes. In fact, Mayor Paulson worked to scale back the plans for housing projects, but too late to save Chávez Ravine. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00055873, July 20, 1953.

Remove and Replace

The post-war urban planning models called for slums to be cleared and replaced with planned communities of towers and garden apartments. The well-intentioned proposals of the urban planners often faced off against established, if indeed ramshackle, communities. The fight between social reformers and advocates of the status quo is one that continues today.

In July 1950 HACLA announced plans to build several housing projects in neighborhoods throughout the city, including Chávez Ravine. The 300-plus families inhabiting the hillsides were mailed notices, in English, informing them that they would need to sell their properties to the city or they would be taken by eminent domain. They were told they would be first in line for the new units once built.

Most families chose to comply after some initial protests proved ineffectual. People packed up and moved out; bulldozers moved in. By 1953 only a couple of dozen families remained on the dusty hillsides.

A man identified as “Julian” bids farewell to his friends in Chávez Ravine. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00041360, May 14, 1951.

The Hold-outs

But things were not so simple. Over the next several years plans for model subsidized housing faced a backlash from social conservatives, who, in the McCarthy Era, saw “creeping socialism” in them. Ultimately, housing projects across the city were scaled back and the plans for Chávez Ravine scrapped.

But the city still owned the bulk of the land. The death-knell for the dying community came in 1959 when the city handed the area over to the Brooklyn Dodgers for a new baseball stadium in a complicated business deal which brought the team to Los Angeles. The last few families in Chávez Ravine were sent eviction notices. Even then, a few tried to hold out. Led by the Arechiga family, they vowed to fight to the bitter end, leading to a field day for area reporters and photographers who sensed a cause célèbre.

On Friday, May 8, (“Ocho de Mayo“),  residents, along with their pets and belongings, were roughly removed from their dwellings as TV cameras rolled and cameras snapped. Even as bulldozers arrived to level the remaining homes, a number of neighbors camped out in makeshift tents from where they had to be evicted a second time. The story was picked up by the A.P. wire service under the headline “Dodger Victims.”

L.A. County Sheriff personnel carry Aurora Vargas-Arechiga from her home, May 8, 1959. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00041424.

 

News crews thronged the hill to document the eviction. Note the doghouse from where the Arechiga’s chihuahua was evicted. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00041423, May 8, 1959.

 

Members of the extended Arechiga family and supporters camped out on the property for a number of days following eviction. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00050956, May 8, 1959.

After leaving, it was sad going back to visit. There were fewer and fewer places. Bulldozers working and trucks hauling stuff away. Weeds growing, streets going to hell. Abrana Arechiga, still holding out, would yell at us out her window, “What are you doing here? You abandoned us.” (Lou Santillan)

Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00081495, 1959.

Fade-out

Today the tale of Chávez Ravine is seen as a classic case of “urban removal,” albeit one with a twist. Four months following the final evictions, a groundbreaking was held, not for new housing but for a 23-million dollar stadium. As the hillsides were leveled for the stadium, nothing was left of the communities that had once occupied the land; even the street names were erased, the school building buried under tons of fill. Only the name, Chávez Ravine, survives as an access road to the stadium and in an occasional dateline about baseball.

 

Dodgers owner Walt O’Malley displays a ceremonial groundbreaking shovel with the words “Dodgers: Chávez Ravine.” Herald-Examiner Collection, #00055863, 1959.

 

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00017632, 1952. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

Selected sources

All quotations taken from Dan Normark, Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999).

“Chávez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story,” video produced by Jordan Mechner, Bullfrog Films, 2004.

Elaine Woo, “Don Normark, who photographed Chávez Ravine residents, dies at 86,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2014.

Nathan Masters, “Chávez Ravine: Community to Controversial Real Estate,” KCET.org, L.A. as Subject, September 13, 2012.

AP Wire Service, “Dodger Victims: Homeless Huddle at Campfires,” May 9, 1959.

The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

There and back: Los Angeles Japanese and Executive Order 9066

Seventy-five years ago, in the spring of 1942, the City of Los Angeles experienced a population exodus triggered by a presidential executive order. Images in the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald Examiner Collection and Shades of L.A. Collection tell the story of Executive Order 9066 and its impact on Japanese residents and on the city itself.

From the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941, many Americans lived in fear of a further assault or even an invasion. President Roosevelt’s Executive Order, while not naming the Japanese or any other group by name, gave broad powers to the Secretary of War to guard against the threat of sabotage and espionage. Within days of the February 19 order, a series of “Public Proclamations” and “Civilian Exclusion Orders” directed that Japanese and Japanese-Americans be removed from all West Coast states in order to prevent collusion with the enemy. Virtually all Japanese, by birth or ancestry, were rounded up with scant warning and sent to  ten internment camps far from the coast. Age, sex, or condition offered no exception to the rule. Having as little as 1/16th Japanese blood marked one for removal. Orphans of Japanese blood were gathered up and transported, even if they were in the care of Caucasian families.

Big Sale in Little Tokyo

In the spring of 1942 many Japanese lived and worked in a section of downtown Los Angeles dubbed Little Tokyo. When the order came down, families were given six days to dispose of their property and belongings; each person was allowed to bring only what they could carry with them. Japanese businesses held fire sales; families sought desperately for places to store their belongings and friends to care for their property and their pets. Cars were sold for pennies on the dollar.  Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00068543, March 21, 1942.

Many Japanese were anxious to show their loyalty to the United States and its institutions. The photo editor of the image above made sure to draw attention to the sign posted above the cash register in this Japanese-run drugstore: “Please no talk war!” Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00068538, March 1942.

Although internment was carried out in waves, by early summer the streets of Little Tokyo were empty. The newspaper photo above was captioned “Shops for rent on a deserted 1st Street in Little Tokyo.” Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00022054, June 18, 1942.

Exodus

Japanese families gather with their belongings at a departure point where they will be taken to an assembly center and, eventually, to an internment camp. All persons, including children, had to wear identification tags. The intention of the tags was to prevent families from being separated. Tags also identify bales of bedding which might or might not be reunited with their owners. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00044031, April 2, 1942.

The caption for this photo from the Herald-Examiner reads “Young Japanese girls brave the early morning rain to bid farewell to friends leaving for Manzanar relocation camp.”  Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00034809, 1942.

Evacuees had to endure several weeks or months at assembly centers while basic camp structures were prepared for them in the hinterland. Assembly centers were located throughout the West at fairgrounds and racetracks where families often were crowded into horse or livestock stalls. As with all aspects of the relocation, government publicity outlets bent over backwards to give a favorable impression of their actions. The photograph above, from the Herald Examiner, is accompanied by a highly colored optimism: “A little Japanese girl meekly submits to a hair wash while a woman nearby also washes her hair on June 25, 1942. A far cry from the Axis concentration camps ravaged with torture, starvation and death, is the Santa Anita Assembly Center, where 18,500 Japanese are quartered on the grounds of the luxurious Santa Anita Race Track.” Herald-Examiner Collection, Image # 00043915, June 25, 1942.

This image (with crop marks) shows rows of temporary housing erected in the parking lot of the Santa Anita Park racetrack. The track’s parade ring is at right. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00044039, 1942.

 

Home Away from Home

Aware of the mixed feelings on internment, government and media tried hard to style detention as something in the best interests of the internees, as well as the local populace. The term “internment camp” was often replaced with “relocation center” or “evacuation center.” (The preferred term among some historians today is “concentration camp.”) Some news accounts went farther to spin the reality of the forced move, referring to “new homes” awaiting the “evacuees.” The article accompanying the photo above calls Manzanar, the destination of the motor caravan, “the new boom town, Little Tokio of the Mountains.” Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00044026, 1942.

Of course stark reality was much different. The sites chosen were in remote, harsh environments. Accommodations were hastily erected with much work needing to be completed by the inmates themselves. Residents of Los Angeles might find themselves at Gila River on an Arizona Indian Reservation, at Heart Mountain in the sagebrush desert of Wyoming, at treeless Tule Lake in Northern California, or at Manzanar — a once fertile valley drained of its water by the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

It is not surprising that there are few, if any, images of the exodus in the Shades of L.A. Collection — photos shared with Los Angeles Public Library by minority families. Those caught up in the confusion would have other things to worry about than documenting their departure and a camera would have been a heavy luxury to carry along. However, once settled in the camps, Japanese families for the most part adopted a stoic resignation and worked to recreate some sense of familiarity and normality in bleak surroundings. In the photo above, James Otake celebrates his first birthday at the Gila River camp sitting on the lap of his mother, Mariko (Mary). A cake sits next to them. Since the photo is dated 1945, James must have been born in the camp. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00000735.

A panoramic view of Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. The mountain itself dominates the landscape. Army style barracks serve as housing for the internees. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00003694.

 

Residents of the Gila River internment camp in Arizona were able to find sardonic humor in setting up a “country club.” The writing on the photo reads “Tournament! March 5, 1944.” Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004306, 1944.

Touches of home are visible in the photo of this tar paper hut at the Tule Lake internment camp, including flowers in coffee-can pot and a two-wheeler for Grace Toya. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004455, 1945.

Schooling continued in the camps. Here second graders at Manzanar pose with their teacher, 1945. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004179.

This image is labeled “Yuki and James Toya at Tule lake internment camp during winter snow, 1945.” Perhaps they are the parents of Grace Toya pictured above. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004453.

Changes at home

The wholesale removal of Japanese and Japanese-Americans meant the streets of Little Tokyo were deserted — but not for long. Real estate abhors a vacuum as much as nature does. Without paying tenants, the landlords of these buildings were able to re-lease the storefronts and apartments, in many cases to other ethnic minority groups. African-American families arrived in West Coast cities to work in the war effort. With racial covenants in place in many communities, and widespread discrimination in housing generally, the newly vacated Little Tokyo presented one of the few options available to them.

For approximately three years Little Tokyo took on the moniker “Bronzetown,” in recognition of the many African-American run businesses that sprang up there, including Schepp’s Playhouse, a nightclub. In this photo  Ruth David, William Love, and Bernice Patton (R.N., 2nd Lt., Army) relax at Schepp’s. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image # 00001830, c. 1944.

A man, identified as Alberto Munoz, prepares to re-open a cleaners established by a Japanese family. The movie poster at right advertises the Japanese film Joi Kinuyo Sensei (Doctor Kinuyo) from 1937. The star of the movie, Kinuyo Tanaka, was a popular actress in both pre- and post-war films and, later, one of Japan’s first female film directors. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00068523, June 17, 1942.

The Return

This photo accompanied an article titled “Japs leave to settle in freedom throughout the U.S.” The freedom referred to meant moving across state lines from California to Nevada. Toward the end of 1943 overcrowding at the camps forced authorities to relax some restrictions. However, this hardly meant full freedom. Those allowed to leave Manzanar had to swear they would not return to their homes on the coast. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00043908, November 17, 1943.

Tara Kawa was able to reclaim his fish market after returning from the Gila River internment camp. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image # 00043954, September 7, 1945.

In December 1944, with the war in the Pacific turning in favor of the Allies, President Roosevelt lifted Executive Order 9066. The process of re-integrating the Japanese back into the lives they’d left behind was complex; it would be another year before all the camps were completely closed. Many internees had lost everything, including friends, and did not return to California. Others were able to piece their lives back together with some help from public authorities and faith groups. The lucky ones, such as the man above, were able to re-establish their businesses.

Justice for all?

In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the man who issued Executive Order 9066, visited internees at Gila River and then wrote a lengthy piece for Colliers Magazine about internment. While acknowledging the exigencies of war, the First Lady made clear her own feelings in the matter:

“We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal. It is our ideal which we want to have live. It is an ideal which can grow with our people, but we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity, and we retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.” (Eleanor Roosevelt, “A Challenge to American Sportsmanship,” Collier’s Magazine, October 10, 1943)

In 1989 the U.S. Government issued a formal apology to those interned during World War II and provided “redress” payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee.

Sources for this essay include the website Densho.org and Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites, University of Washington Press, 2002.

Death at Midnight: The St. Francis Dam Disaster

11:58 p.m., March 12, 1928 –– Residents in the settlements of the San Francisquito Valley, some 45 miles north of Los Angeles, were shaken awake. The cause was not an earthquake, but the epic fail of the massive, newly-constructed dam looming over the valley.

When the St. Francis dam gave way, it went quickly and catastrophically. Dozens were killed in the first five minutes, inundated by a wall of water 140 feet high. As 12 billion gallons of water thundered out of the valley and on to the ocean near Oxnard, the torrent swept at least 400, and perhaps as many as 600, persons to their deaths. Following the disaster bodies were found everywhere from right up at the dam site (one) to the border of Mexico. A hundred or more of the missing were never found.

In addition to the human toll, the floodwaters devastated the towns of Castaic Junction, Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, and Saticoy in the Santa Clara Valley. Roads, bridges, and power lines were wiped out. Livestock died in the fields.

Eighty-nine years later it is worth recalling the devastation caused by miscalculating the power of water. Photos from the Los Angeles Public Library collections show the dramatic aftermath of the worst man-made disaster in California’s history.

The St. Francis Dam was built to store water from the Owens Valley Aqueduct System.  Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009818

The state-of-the-art St. Francis Dam had been open two years and its reservoir had filled to capacity for the first time when tragedy struck. In the photo above, the reservoir lake is still several feet below the lip of the dam.

 

Shiny generators at Power Plant #2 in the vicinity of the St. Francis Dam stand ready to turn water into electric power. Ironically, the power plant was destroyed by the very waters it sought to harness. Unlike the dam, the plant was quickly rebuilt. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009831, 1928. 

This photo, taken shortly before the collapse, shows the stair-step design on the face of the dam. Some “seeps” of water were considered to be no big deal. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009832.

 

Eerie Monuments

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009834 . Photo Credit, “Underwood & Underwood.”

The only major chunk of dam to remain standing following the break was dubbed “the Tombstone” by a reporter. The accidental landmark and surrounding ruins became a mecca for tourists shortly after the cataclysm. After the death from falling of one such thrill seeker, the Tombstone and other monoliths were dynamited.

 

Close inspection of this photograph reveals several people on the stair steps of the Tombstone. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009821.

 

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00075797.

 

Enormous chunks of the dam were found thousands of feet downstream, turning the valley floor into a bizarre sculpture garden. A gentleman standing in front of this “concrete iceberg” provides scale. Security Pacific National Bank, Image # 00075796.

The Frightful Flood

The horror of the catastrophe cannot be understated. Communities around the country awoke to the shocking news:

County Farm Advisor H. A. Weinland left Tuesday for the southern part of the state upon receiving the sad news that his brother, William Weinland, and the latter’s wife and ten-year-old son had been swept to death in the frightful flood through San Francisquito canyon Monday night, caused by the breaking of St. Francis dam. Weinland received a telegram from his father, Rev. William H. Weinland of Banning, telling of the death of his relatives. Weinland’s body has been found but those of his wife and son are yet lost somewhere in the depth of silt which the rushing waters from the huge reservoir above the dam left behind. The Sonoma County man’s brother was employed at one of the power stations near the dam and lived in a cottage in the valley directly below the reservoir. It is believed the flood caught the little family as they slept like it did scores of other unfortunate families. (Healdsburg Tribune, March 15, 1928)

A few fortunate souls survived the onslaught. The Associated Press paraphrased the words of an 80-year rancher plucked from the raging waters by one of his sons:

“When the water hit it, the house crumpled as though it were built of cards. I could not see a thing in the darkness and found myself clinging to what turned out to be a part of the roof of our home. Down, down with the current we went. I held on desperately. I kept saying to myself every second was my last. Then … somebody grabbed my arm in the darkness. ‘Is it you, dad?'” (Seattle Daily Times, March 13, 1928)

The report goes on to inform readers that the man’s other two sons lay in a temporary morgue nearby.

 

The clean up begins. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00017361, dated March 16, four days after the disaster. Photo credit “Underwood & Underwood.”

 

People survey the devastation along the Santa Clara River, the path the dam waters took to the sea. A railroad bridge lies in ruins. Security Pacific National Bank Collection #00070192, 1928. 

 

Schist happens

 

William Mulholland (1855-1935) in an undated photo. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00043872.

The man behind the dam: William Mulholland  was Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply (now the Department of Water and Power). His towering reputation earned in the “water wars” of Southern California was largely wiped out, along with his career, after the St. Francis Dam disaster. Mulholland had personally inspected the dam only 12 hours before the disaster at the urging of the dam’s caretaker, and had pronounced it sound.

Any number of inquiries have attempted to find the cause of the disaster. While Mulholland initially clung to the theory of an earthquake, this was ruled out early on. Most experts point to geologic factors, especially the unstable hillsides that abutted the dam made up of landslide-prone schist (a type of metamorphic rock that splits easily) on one side and softened conglomerate (a type of gravel-like sedimentary rock) on the other. In short, the  rock at the dam site was bad rock for a massive construction project.  There were also errors in design. Mulholland had twice raised the height of the dam during construction without allowing for the increased water pressure that would result. 

 

This photo from the Los Angeles Evening Herald is dated March 28, 1928, two weeks after the dam collapse; the caption reads “From districts swept by the St. Francis dam flood came more stories of heroic phone operators who stuck to their posts and saved scores of lives at risk of their own. Louise Gipe received and spread the first alarm at Santa Paula.” Image Herald Examiner Collection #00095916, Photo credit “Moss Photo.”

Even more than with the Long Beach Earthquake five years later, the St. Francis Dam disaster played havoc with communication. The disaster unfolded in the dark of night, taking power lines with it. The wave of water took five and a half hours to reach the sea, arriving just before dawn near Oxnard. For those in San Francisquito Canyon there was no early warning and no escape from the tsunami of water. Farther along the waters’ path, as the height of the wave lessened, some folks were able to escape to higher ground thanks to intrepid individuals such as telephone operator Louise Gipe who stood by her post and relayed a warning to residents of Santa Paula. Alerted by Gipe, California Highway Patrol officers went house to house to wake residents. At a work camp in the path of the deluge, the night watchman raised the alarm upon seeing the approaching wave. He is credited with saving half the sleeping workforce, at the cost of his own life.

The St. Francis Dam was never rebuilt. Lessons learned from the disaster informed the design, construction, and inspection protocols of dams throughout the country.

Disaster Response: The 1933 Long Beach Earthquake

On Friday, March 10, 1933, in the depth of the Great Depression, the Southland experienced a major earthquake, centered off of Long Beach. While named for that city, the event, and the many aftershocks, affected the entire Los Angeles basin and was felt as far south as Tijuana. Some 120 persons were killed (the exact number is disputed*): about half in Long Beach proper and the rest in communities including Compton, Cerritos, and Huntington Beach. Serious property damage occurred throughout the region, including in Los Angeles City itself.

A young seismologist named Charles F. Richter counted seven aftershocks of “marked intensity.” Richter went on to tell the United Press: “Thereafter a series of continuous quakes began. They were too frequent to be correctly tabulated. I should estimate them at from 100 to 200 up to noon Saturday.” (Quoted in Seattle Times,  “12Towns….”) Two years following the event, Richter developed his famous scale which rated the initial 1933 earthquake at 6.4.

Residents and newspapers photographers documented the devastation and the recovery efforts. In this photo essay, we will focus on immediate aid efforts and the resilience of the citizenry.

 

00058879

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00058879

The earthquake caused widespread devastation, collapsing many buildings, including 70 schools and public buildings such as the Lynwood Theater. Another 50 schools and many other buildings sustained serious damage. Fortunately, the quake occurred at the dinner hour, after school had recessed for the day. Had it happened earlier, the death toll would have been much higher and much younger!

 

00047523

Herald Examiner Collection, #00047523

Rescuers pause to listen for victims who may be trapped in the wreckage of the Stockwell Building in Compton, March 11, 1933. Compton suffered extensive destruction in its core commercial district.

 

00058878

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00058878

Medical personnel, including Catholic sisters and staff from U.S. Navy ships at San Pedro were called in to help with the wounded. With hospitals damaged, the wounded were brought to churches, parking lots, and other locations. Another photo, not shown here, shows covered bodies on mattresses behind Seaside Hospital (Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00057404).

Many were injured or killed by falling bricks in the streets.

 

Making Shift

00057405

Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00057405

In the days following the quake, and with after-shocks coming thick and fast, most families in the quake zone chose to camp outdoors, either in parks or in their own yards. The Long  Beach area was dotted with small fires such as this one. The caption accompanying this photo in the Herald Examiner read: “Through the night of the March 10 earthquake, thousands of men, women and children sat up beside bonfires in vacant lots and yards as they feared to enter their homes lest there be further temblors.”

 

 

00020435

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00020435

This family in Compton has set up a makeshift camp stove in their yard. The quake took out electric power and officials shut off gas, likely preventing further disasters.

00020448

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00020448

There’s a lot going on in this photo, including several makeshift stoves with fuel at the ready. The men in charge may be running a pop-up business, catering to those without means to heat food.

00084131

Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00084131

The Community Pulls Together

It takes a community to recover from a disaster. The Herald-Examiner’s caption for the above photo, dated March 14, 1933, read “All Southern California opened its heart and sent food and medicine to the homeless and injured. Volunteer workers are shown carrying boxes of supplies prepared by sympathetic Angelenos.”

00057407

Photo by “Crory,” Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00057407

Residents line up for food and other assistance at Lincoln Park, close by Long Beach City Hall, March 12, 1933, two days after the quake. The Red Cross and Salvation Army set up first aid tents and feeding stations. Long Beach city officials trucked in fresh water. Some restaurants offered what they had on hand at no charge.

00047510

Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00047510

Commerce must go on. With most stores and businesses at least temporarily uninhabitable, merchants took to the streets to sell their wares. In Compton they were allowed to set up within an undamaged structure — the Oil Exposition building — where they arranged themselves in the same order as their main street shops.

00057399

Frank Bentley, photographer, Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00057399

With power and telephone poles down throughout the region, communication with the outside world was difficult. Ham radio stations were credited with offering the only reliable communication for the first week following the cataclysm. According to some, the first word of the disaster came from a boy’s ham radio station ten minutes after the initial quake. Here, amateur radio enthusiasts, assisted by the Boy Scouts, offer the services of their short-wave radio station. Survivors were able to send messages to anxious loved ones via wireless technology. Press services also availed themselves of on-the-ground reports transmitted via short-wave. With the region under virtual martial law for a number of days, reporters had a difficult time gaining access to the quake zone.

 

00034804

Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00034804

Military personnel called out to assist with the recovery efforts take advantage of coffee and donuts provided by the Salvation Army in Compton. The soldier at right is reading an “EXTRA” addition of the paper with the headline “120 Killed in Quake.” Curiously, the number is fairly accurate.

If not for the newspaper, one might be led to believe this was a photo from World War I. The sailors, referred to in the press as “bluejackets,” carried bayonets while patrolling disaster-stricken streets.

Some of the men pictured appear to be members of the American Legion. The Disaster Relief Committee of the American Legion stepped up to the challenge , distributing supplies and patrolling streets. An interesting press item, copied from a March 16 letter of the American Legion post in Long Beach to his fellow commanders, offers a glimpse at the state of things five days following the quake:

Dear Comrade Commander:

Pay no attention to radio broadcasts, either commercial or amateur, requests for food until broadcast by Colonel A. C. Wyman or Ole Olson. Clothing of all kinds needed, especially men’s shoes. Send to Compton or Long Beach American Legion. Fraternally yours, L.F. Olson, acting disaster relief chairman, The American Legion, Department of California (Coronado Eagle and Journal, March 21, 1933)

 

00047508

American Legion relief station adjacent to the ruins of Compton City Hall, March 13, 1933. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00047508

 

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Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00084132

Four days after the quake, with most folks still camped out in parks and on golf courses, boredom became an issue. These young women attempt to alleviate the problem with the aid of the old upright at Long Beach’s Bixby Park.

Finding Fault?

Thanks to its location within a major metropolitan area, and with access to trained emergency response and federal assistance, recovery from the Long  Beach earthquake was relatively rapid. Within two weeks most families were able to return to their homes. Lessons were learned. Many who had believed Southern California immune from big earthquakes found out otherwise. The need for construction standards and the risks of building on landfill became apparent. A month following the disaster, the state legislature passed the Field Act, mandating state-approved standards for school-building.

At this writing, fall of 2016, a new geological report suggests that the 1933 earthquake and others of the same era and location may have been caused by indiscriminate oil drilling in Huntington Beach and the resulting effects on soil and fault lines. The past never stays dead and buried.

*Early on, the United Press reported that 151 persons had died in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

 

Selected sources:

“12 Towns Take Stock of Damage Done by Quakes,” Seattle Times, March 12, 1933. Several pages of the Seattle paper are devoted to articles and pictures of the disaster, with information taken from wire services and short-wave radio stations.

“1933 Long Beach Earthquake,” California Department of Conservation website accessed November 11, 2016 (http://www.conservation.ca.gov/cgs/News/pages/longbeach.aspx).

Tim Grobaty, Long Beach Chronicles: From Pioneers to the 1933 Earthquake (Charleston: The History Press, 2012), 148-158.

Clinton B. DeSoto, “Southern California Amateurs Rise to Earthquake Emergency,” QST, May 1933. Reprinted in EverythingRF, 2016, accessed November 11, 2016 (http://www.rfcafe.com/references/qst/california-amateurs-earthquake-emergency-qst-may-1933.htm).

Ron-Gong Lin II, “Southern California’s deadliest quake may have been caused by oil drilling, study says,” Los Angeles Times online, October 31, 2016, accessed November 6, 2016 (http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-ln-oil-drilling-earthquake-20161031-story.html).

In the Swim: The Wild Side

We wrote about swim fashions on Southland beaches in In the Swim. We will now take a look at the must-have accessory for your beachwear — an exotic animal!

In the land of Hollywood the exotic becomes almost commonplace. These photos from the archives of the Los Angeles Public Library show the wild side of California beach fashion. But first, we must add the disclaimer that exotic animals do not normally belong on  beaches and those who do should be left alone. Many of the stunts pictured here should carry the warning: Do not try this at home! (or anywhere else)

00009019 bear cub

Venice Beach is the location for many of our photos. Here a young woman feeds a bear cub from a bottle, 1936. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00009019.

 

00064163 alligator

Yes, there really was an alligator farm in Los Angeles  — until 1953. It was located right next door to the Ostrich Farm. Advertising from the Luna Park  Alligator Farm in Lincoln Heights proclaimed, with a bit of hyperbole, “Here are to be seen hundreds of alligators of all sizes, from little babies, hardly the size of a lizard, up to huge monsters, 500 years old or more. We make a specialty of alligator bags ornamented with genuine alligator heads and claws.” (LincolnHeightsLA.comSecurity Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00064163, undated.

 

00064425 woman with penguins

The photo was taken in Long Beach, “ca. 1920.”  We have no explanation for the penguins. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00064425.

 

00065006 boy with lion cub

This young man, protectively holding onto his lion cub, seems none to happy despite his trophy win at the Venice Beach Pet Show in 1936. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00065006.

 

00066776 seal

Strolling Long Beach with a seal, circa 1920. The young woman wears a beach coat with a nautical flair. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00066776.

 

00067860 baby elephant

An undated photo of a woman, probably a model, with a baby elephant. Her wool bathing costume places the photo in the late 1920s. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00067860.

 

00069336 piglet race

 

Piglets race on Hermosa Beach. The young porkers eagerly await the starting gun — well, perhaps not the one in lane two who appears ready for a nap. Although the photo is undated, the classic belted swimsuits place the event in the mid-1930s. Two girls standing at left appear to be twins. Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Collection, Image #00069336.

 

00066743 sea lion

Watch that shoe! Models feed a “sea elephant” (elephant seal) in an enclosure in Venice, probably mid-1920s. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00066743.

 

00071558 elephants at Long Beach pier

More elephants on the beach. The Long Beach Pier and Sun Pavilion form the backdrop for this photo shoot from about 1930. One of the keepers carries what appears to be a cattle prod. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00071558.

 

00117152 fawn

This 1954 photo from the Valley Times Collection is titled “Cute as a Bug,” probably the headline used in the paper. The caption used read: “Unafraid of children, this spotted fawn can be sweet and gentle but later on would not permit this type of petting without slashing out with razor sharp hoofs made for fighting off coyotes and other predators.”  Wise words. Valley Times Collection, Image #00117152.

 

We’ll end with a more appropriate way to celebrate the wild side of beach season — playing an accordion with a stuffed seagull!

00070574 seagulls

Miss California Bathing Beauty Contest, Venice Beach, 1936. This contestant displays her talent while serenading the wild life.  Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00070574.

In the Swim: Bathing suit fashions through the years

00070532 1914 woman

This blogger set out to write a post about a century of swimwear on Southland waters using images from the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection. But where to start? The collection includes hundreds of photos that would lend themselves to any number of angles: Beauty pageants? Swimsuit models? Movie stars poolside? Or how about beach-goers with exotic animals?

That last we’ll likely revisit in a later post, but for now we’ll offer a selection of images focusing on the evolution of the swimsuit.

Perhaps the earliest swimsuit image in the collection dates from about 1914 and depicts a woman in a bathing ensemble complete with tights and laced shoes. Accessories have always been a vital part of the bathing “look.” Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00070532.

00012172 Williams Bros 1916

About the same time, these brothers sport two-piece suits. Until the early 1930s male swimmers typically wore outfits that covered their upper bodies (if they wore anything at all!). Modesty was preserved via an A-line top over shorts. The Williams brothers enjoy Seal Beach, ca. 1916. Shades of L.A Collection: the Greek-American Community, Image # 00012172.

 

00070538 Rita Bell

About 1920 Rita Bell, perhaps a model, sports a wool suit much more revealing than that of the gal from 1914. She also wears sheer stockings with ankle-strapped sandals, rocks a swim hat, and deploys a swim robe. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00070538.

Young sisters Mary and Imogene Myers wade at Lake Elsinore in 1928 wearing simple woolen tunic-style suits typical for youngsters of the day. Shades of L.A. Collection: the African-American Community, Image #00001791.

By the 1930s, bathing costumes for both men and women were decidedly more revealing. Stockings were left at home. Arms, cleavage, and legs were bared. Suits were more form-fitting. The belted look became popular. Bathing suits began to be a fashion statement.

00003251 woman at Long Beach

In this photo, a young woman poses for a photograph that will become a postcard at Long Beach, 1932. Shades of L.A.: Korean American Community, Image #00003251.

00070467 mother and daughter

A mother and daughter at an unidentied beach, ca. 1937. The woman wears a conical straw topper sometimes referred to, unfortunately, as a coolie hat. A man in the background wears the belted style of suit popular with both men and women. The Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Image #00070467.

00008999 fashion police 1930s

The Fashion Police at Venice Beach, 1930s. The photo collection contains a series of pictures of both men and women wearing badges and measuring suits on those of the opposite gender. Notes with the images inform us that “pretend tickets were handed out when the swim suit was too skimpy.” Here both a man and a woman wear the popular belted style of suit, while the second man appears to have forgotten his belt. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00008999.

00070564 kayaks

Young women with kayaks, ca. 1930. These women sport a variety of bathing suit styles. This was likely part of a photo shoot ordered up by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00070564.

00073428 fur coat

The 1940s brought more styles, new elasticized fabrics, and the two-piece suit. The bikini itself was “invented” in 1946, although it would be unrecognizable as such today. Here Annie Jung dresses up her two-piece with a fur coat and heels, February 18, 1945. Harry Quillen Collection, Image #00073428.

00003832 Miss Filipino

The library files includes dozens of beauty queens in bathing costumes, a tradition that has endured for well over a century. Here Miss Filipino Community of Los Angeles, Janet Bernardino, wears a strapless one-piece, along with the requisite pumps, in 1955. Her publicity photo is signed “To a real fine guy, Roy. Love, Janet.” Shades of L.A.: Filipino American Community Collection, Image #00003832.

00119601 -- Teenagers 1963

The Valley Times published this photo, dated July 18, 1963, with the caption “Valley teens splash it up at Pickwick Pool, illustrating a few of the activities on this summer’s busy agenda.”  Patterned prints and tailored trunks were clearly in vogue. Valley Times Collection, Image #00119601. This community pool in Burbank was abandoned some years later and the land turned into Pickwick Gardens, with its ice rink and bowling alley.

00085350 - diving board girl

Whatever you wear, it’s all about making a splash: Six-year old Brenda Villa takes the plunge at Camp Commerce (still operated by the City of Commerce), Lake Arrowhead, July 27, 1986. Photo by Leo Jarzomb, Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00085350.

A Tale of Two Ranchos

Rancho Los Cerritos, c. 1890 (Security Pacific National Bank Collection, order# 00032266)

Rancho Los Cerritos and the Centinela Adobe are two of a number of historic landmarks dating to the age of the ranchos in Southern California. These historic sites are reminders of a time when Los Angeles was little more than a tiny pueblo with far flung agricultural outposts.

Today both are operated as heritage parks. As such they are nicely landscaped and staged to reflect the best of the rancho era. Images from the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection offer glimpses of a past that was as rough and tumble as it was romantic.

Rancho Los Cerritos (little hills) in Long Beach is a remnant of a 1786 land grant from the crown of Spain to its loyal leather-jacket soldier Manuel Nieto. The current adobe was constructed about 1844. After passing into American hands shortly thereafter, the estate transitioned from cattle ranching to sheep ranching. The image above gives a sense of the still desolate surroundings at the turn of the century.

Sheep dipping at Rancho Los Cerritos (Security Pacific National Bank Collection, order #00032263)

The American ranchers, the Bixby family, employed Basque sheepherders. This undated photo from the collection shows a flock of sheep readied for “dipping,” a time-honored method of ridding the animals of nasty pests in the fleece. The sheep were led one by one into a trough where they would be immersed in a noxious chemical bath. Despite concerns about damage to both humans and the environment, sheep dipping continues to be a standard practice in many places.

September 19, 1931. Rancho Los Cerritos Adobe, back view with gardens. At this date the home was still occupied by members of the Bixby family. (Security Pacific National Bank Collection, order # 00032265)

Today the Rancho is owned by the City of Long Beach and operated by the Rancho Los Cerritos Foundation.

Docent Laura of the Rancho Los Cerritos Foundation gave the author an excellent tour of the adobe.

About 1834 Ygnacio Machado built a home on his 25,000-acre rancho in the area already called Centinela Valley, a place where watchman (sentinals) kept a look-out for pirates along the coast. Some ten years after building the adobe, the lands of Rancho Aguaje de Centinela (the sentinel spring) were formally deeded to Machado by the Mexican government of Alta California. The rancho lands were used variously for cow pasture, sheep grazing, growing wheat and barley, orchards, and raising horses, and even as a riding academy.

Centinela Adobe, c. 1889. Note the hammocks swinging from the veranda posts. (Security Pacific National Bank Collection, order# 00019908)

Centinela Adobe from the front, 1927. The Adobe, with additions, was a private residence at the time of this photograph. (Security Pacific National Bank Collection, order #00019909)

The Centinela Adobe, c. 1937. Schultheis earned fame as a photographer and technician employed in Walt Disney’s special effects department. (Herman J. Schultheis Collection, order #00097850)

Today the Centinela Adobe is operated by the Historical Society of Centinela Valley and owned and maintained by the City of Inglewood. In a geographical twist of fate, the adobe considered the birthplace of the City of Inglewood is actually located just outside the city boundary in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles.

 

Centinela Adobe today. Entrance to the park is from the back of the adobe, pictured here. The front faces directly onto the 405 Freeway, built in the early 1960s.

Despite the great difference in size, these adobes share a number of features. Covered porches, thick adobe (mud brick) walls punctuated with wooden frame doors, deep-set windows, patios, and hanging lights fixtures. Each has undergone periods of improvement alternating with periods of decline. Each was rescued from possible demolition by preservation minded individuals in the 1950s.

Both sites are open to the public during published hours.

http://www.cityofinglewood.org/depts/rec/centinela_adobe/

http://www.rancholoscerritos.org/

In future posts we will visit more adobes and heritage sites in Los Angeles County.

 

Sources for this essay include visits to the sites, various websites, and the following:

Iris H.W. Engstrand, Rancho Los Cerritos, A Southern California Legacy Preserved, 2009.

“Centinela Adobe Docent Tour Information,”1972, typescript in the possession of Westchester-Loyola Village Branch Library, Los Angeles Public Library.

A Historic House through the Years: El Alisal

Renaissance man Charles Fletcher Lummis (1859 – 1928) designed and built his Highland Park home over a period of some 13 years beginning in 1897, diagnosis doing much of the labor himself. The name he gave his homestead was El Alisal, sales place of the alders — or sycamores — or California sycamores. The actual meaning is a bit lost in translation, tadalafil but the important thing is it was a Spanish name and Lummis loved the Spanish influence in California. He also loved Native American culture and dedicated a portion of his very active life to preserving both.

Much has been written about Lummis the man. We’ll confine ourselves to describing him as a collector, writer, preservationist, founder of the Southwest Museum, advocate for Native American rights, and booster for all things Old California.

One of Lummis’ day jobs was Los Angeles City Librarian. Despite lack of any formal training, Lummis was appointed to the position in 1905 based on his reputation as a “noted scholar and practical leader (Blitz). In five years Lummis worked to build the library’s collection of rare books and manuscripts, particularly, of course, those reflecting the city’s Spanish heritage. He also found himself embroiled in a boatload of office politics which led to his resignation in 1910. He left behind him the well-established and respected Department of Western History Material.

In addition to collecting books, terra cotta pots and Indian blankets, Lummis collected friends….local and national luminaries from the worlds of art, letters, music, and politics.  And he held court at El Alisal.

Exterior 1905

Security Pacific National Bank, Image #00062061

A Man’s Home

The Los Angeles Public Library’s digital photographic collection contains a number of images of El Alisal over a century of life. Most of the photos are from the Security Pacific Bank Collection and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection. The image above, dated February 5, 1905, taken while the house was still under construction, shows the castle-like embellishments Lummis craved: towers, crenellations, slit windows.

Lummis’ taste for romantic and vernacular architecture is apparent. His design for El Alisal was part medieval castle, part California rancho, part Native American pueblo. Much of his building materials were locally-sourced, including river rock taken from the nearby Arroyo Seco and discarded railroad telegraph poles used as ceiling support beams. The nomination form that successfully placed El Alisal on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 described it as “a rambling 2-story random rubble stone, masonry and concrete structure,” and noted that the building did not “meet present day requirements of the Los Angeles City Building Code.”

Security Pacific Bank Collection, Image #00062064

Security Pacific Bank Collection, Image #00062064

The dining room at El Alisal, 1910, displays an eclectic assortment of china and artwork, as well as a pair of muskets mounted on the wall. Many of the pictures and objects displayed in the house were created for Lummis by his coterie of artist friends. Others Lummis collected on his travels throughout the Southwest.

 

Security Pacific Bank Collection, Image #00062066

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00062066

This 1905 photograph shows the backyard courtyard of the home, including a large sycamore and the central lily pond traditional to California rancho style. The kitchen wing is on the right.

 

Image # 00062058

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image # 00062058

An undated photo of the front room at El Alisal, plentifully adorned with photos, artwork, mission style furniture, and Indian rugs. A portrait of Lummis by Gerald Cassidy, now at the Autry National Center, hangs on the far wall. Lummis was very much a part of the Arts and Crafts movement in California which championed rusticity, natural materials, and folk art.

 

Image # 00062058

Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Image # 00047541

This 1949 photograph is an excellent study of the fenestration at El Alisal. Lummis enjoyed designing windows; some windows were placed at child’s-eye level. The same year the Southern California Historical Society took up the idea of turning the derelict building into a museum. Although things did not pan out that way at first, in 1965 the society finally was able to acquire use of the house as their headquarters, in an arrangement with the city that lasted 50 years. SCHS offered docent-led tours of the home’s exterior and a few interior rooms. Safety concerns and the need to use some rooms for offices made a full tour impossible.

 

Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00050164

In the 1980s the exterior of the Lummis Home took on a different look as the group Friends of the Lummis Home and Garden took on responsibility for landscaping and maintaining the surrounding acreage. Lummis’ rough two plus acres were transformed into a demonstration garden of drought tolerant plants. The image above shows an editor’s crop marks indicating that the photo was destined for publication, probably in the Herald-Examiner.

 

Security Pacific National Bank Collection Image #00062085

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00062085

An undated interior shot of the ground floor tower niche shows Lummis’ own glass photographs used as small window panes. The photographs in this set of windows are now gone; however, others exist in the main room of the house and make fascinating viewing (below).

 

IMG_20160123_133505274

 

 

Security Pacific National Bank Collection Image #00031210

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00031210

The King in his Castle

Lummis in his “Lion’s Den”: the framed photo of him with Teddy Roosevelt taken during the president’s visit to Los Angeles in 1912. This image was probably captured toward the end of Lummis life; he died in 1928 at the age of 69. His home survives in the care of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and is open for public tours. There have been changes since the City of Los Angeles took over direct management of this cultural treasure and the Historical Society of Southern California moved out early in 2015. To check it out, see http://www.laparks.org/dos/historic/lummis.htm.

 

Select sources

Special thanks to the welcoming and friendly Saturday docents who gave us a wonderful tour January 23, 2016!

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