Through the Viewfinder: Echo Park, Los Angeles, ca. 1905

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This recent acquisition to the Homestead’s collection is a cabinet photograph that shows a very rural and bucolic Echo Park area of Los Angeles, probably in the first decade of the 20th century.

The view is looking to the south from just above the intersection of Echo Park Avenue, on the right, and Morton Avenue, to the left.  At the left side is a bit of the Elysian Hills, where Dodger Stadium is located.

Note that while there are suburban homes and small ranches dotting the landscape, a substantial portion of the area in view remained undeveloped to that point.  That would, of course, change dramatically as Los Angeles grew rapidly in a series of booms.

Just beyond the intersection of Morton and Echo Park is a dirt road crossing from left to right, this is Scott Avenue.  A little further in the distance is Sunset Boulevard.  Out of view and not far past Sunset is Reservoir #4, established at the lower end of the Arroyo de los Reyes in the late 1860s by the Los Angeles Canal and Reservoir Company to provide water for a town in the middle of its first sustained period of growth.

A 20-foot tall earthen dam was created and a canal to the site dug from the Los Angeles River, which was the source of the water for the project.  Another use for the reservoir was to supply motive power for the Los Angeles Woolen Mill, an enterprise of which F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman and father of La Casa Nueva builder Walter P. Temple, was an investor.

Though the mill closed in the mid-1870s, the reservoir remained in use for such enterprises as the Home Ice Company, but, after the great Boom of the 1880s, the commercial use of the body of water ended. In 1891, the Los Angeles Canal and Reservoir Company decided to sell the 33-acre reservoir property to the City of Los Angeles.

This new acquisition to the museum’s collection is a circa 1905 cabinet photograph of the Echo Park area looking south from just above the intersection of Echo Park Avenue (right) and Morton Avenue (left).  Dodger Stadium is out of view to the left and Echo Park Lake is in the distance at the center.

As Los Angeles embraced the development of substantial parks as part of beautifying the growing city, park superintendent, Joseph H. Tomlinson, stood on the banks of the reservoir as he envisioned a new park around the former reservoir.  It is said that Tomlinson was struck by the voices of workers resounding off the neighboring hills and bestowed the name of “Echo Park” to the newest city park.  The city officially designated the park site in early 1892.

Tomlinson evidently modeled the design of Echo Park after one in his native England and work continued through the rest of the decade.  The dam was reinforced, dirt from the bottom of the reservoir was used to create an island and the shore was “shored up” with loose quarried rock from the Elysian Hills.  Lawns, trees and a vast array of flowering plants and a boathouse for pedal boats transformed the site into one of the most picturesque pleasure places in the city by the time the 20th century dawned.

Now known officially as Echo Park Lake, the park is home to an annual Lotus Festival and recently underwent a $45 million renovation.

As to the Echo Park community, it is home to some 45,000 residents and has been transformed several times over in the last century from a bucolic suburb to a heavily urbanized and diverse neighborhood to a flash point of recent gentrification.  It has come a long way from what the photo depicts and it will be interesting to see what takes place there in coming years.

For more on Echo Park, click here for the website of the historical society.  A fine blog post on Echo Park Lake by KCET’s Nathan Masters can be found here.  On the topic of gentrification, check out this article by Los Angeles Times award-winning columnist Steve Lopez here.


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