by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Wednesday’s post concerning a meeting I had with Santa Monica print dealer and collector Roger Genser centered originally on a photograph from the museum’s collection taken by William M. Godfrey about 1870 and labeled “Santa Monica (Watering Place).”
Roger followed up that post by noting that the location of the photo is Santa Monica Canyon, now where Santa Monica and the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles meet at what is typically known now as Rustic Canyon.
The area was part of the Rancho Boca de Santa Monica, about 6,600 acres granted in 1839 by Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado (who granted Rancho La Puente to John Rowland in early 1842) to Ysidro Reyes and Francisco Marquez. Over time, portions of the ranch were sold off, but the Marquez family continued to own sections of the canyon for decades thereafter.
Much of my limited knowledge of the rancho came from Marquez’ descendant, Ernest, who was born in the canyon and who I knew from historical organizations over the years. Much of his massive collection of Los Angeles-area history, including thousands of photographs, is at the Huntington Library.
Ernie told me several times of his family history and his heroic efforts to preserve the Marquez family cemetery, which lies on a residential street within the canyon, but was the subject of a heated battle over an easement to give him and others access to the burial ground.
When Roger visited the museum and asked to see interesting Santa Monica-related artifacts from the collection, one object that came to mind was the 1912 map of a subdivision of Santa Monica Cañon highlighted here. After he pointed out that the Godfrey photo was in that location, it was obvious (at least to me) that a follow-up to the post about our visit should be about the map.
Drawn by civil engineers Knapp and Woodard, the map was drawn for Robert Gillis’ Santa Monica Land Company, which bought large amounts of acreage in the canyon and nearby areas during the first years of the 20th century. It takes in a section from the coast up the canyon to where the Santa Monica Forestry Station, established by the state forestry department in 1887 during the Boom of the 1880s to experiment with forest plantings, was located and which is named at the top of the map. This was also just below the Marquez cemetery.
There were 533 lots in the subdivision, the first to be created in the canyon, and once offered for sale, parcels went quickly, at least according to newspaper ads of the era. Sales were handled by the L.D. Loomis Company, which did a great deal of business in the Santa Monica area.
As is typical of booster advertisements which usually promoted a subdivision as having the best of all possible worlds, an early example about the tract from the Los Angeles Times in August 1912, featuring a contented family around a dining table, promoted the “incomparable Beach-Canyon combination” noting that “the lots SELL THEMSELVES.” Among the attractions were fine improvements in place and projected (roads, sidewalks, schools, utilities, etc.) but also that the canyon was “a nature-lover’s Mecca” with “a perfect and safe beach”
Another promotional advertisement from the same paper ten days later, played up the nature angle even more with a vignette of a winsome woman gazing through a large window at the natural beauty just outside her home. The text noted that the canyon “offers irresistible attractions to lovers of Nature,” while keeping in mind that it also had “interesting profit opportunities to investors.”
Moreover, those improvements of paved streets and sidewalks, utilities, schools and stores that were in or on the way meant “absolutely no pioneering is necessary.” Under the section about “Prices” and affordability with a guarantee of quick profits was the statement that “the giant sycamores with great overhanging limbs and the irregularity of the Canyon encourages originality in home construction.”
An article in the Los Angeles Herald in October 1912 discussed Loomis’ meteoric rise to real estate success, including “the phenomenal sale of more than $400,000 worth of property in Santa Monica Canyon in the short period of ten weeks.” The piece also included his prediction that, in a decade, professionals and businessmen from Los Angeles and the east coast would build “hundreds of substantial homes.” Indeed, a major population and development boom, peaking in 1923, came to the region after the end of the First World War.
The following April in the same paper, another article touted the work of Knapp and Woodard, described as “landscape engineers.” It pointed out that, amid the natural beauty “hundreds of men, teams, graders and machinery has produced in Santa Monica Canyon a scenic effect equaling the Riviera’s best.” Walking that sometimes nebulous line between nature and progress, the piece went on:
To preserve the natural beauty of this historic canyon of pirate and sea robber fame [!] and still add the conveniences demanded by modern times has been the none too easy tasy [task] of the landscape engineers.
After describing the work of the pair in the Santa Monica area and highlighting each individually, the article included a quote from them about their work in the canyon:
We have moved about 100,000 cubic yards of earth in grading the various lots. We have constructed over a mile of reinforced concrete channels to take all the drainage of eleven and a half square miles of the Santa Monica mountains from Brentwood Park over to the tributaries of the Rustic canyon and reaching clear to the top of the Santa Monica mountains from where one can look all over the San Fernando valley.
In the July-August 1913 issue of Out West magazine, the head of Santa Monica’s Bureau of Publicity penned a piece extolling the virtues of Santa Monica. With specific regard to Santa Monica Canyon, Jay D. Cassatt wrote:
Undoubtedly there is no other place in Southern California appealing more to the nature lover than does beautiful Santa Monica Canyon. Its history dates from the time of the early explorers and Mission Fathers. For many years prior to its subdivision and improvement this famous canyon with its mighty sycamores and cool retreats was the playground for thousands of pleasure seekers . . . ther are already examples in the Canyon showing how a cozy home can be built under or around a giant sycamore and thereby produce a pleasing rustic effect. . . Knapp and Woodard, landscape engineers, were given the task of artificially improving the Canyon without interfering with its natural beauty. The result has been one of extreme harmony with preservation of the old trees and shrubbery . . . A visit will convince you that this is the beauty spot in the heart of San Vicente-Santa Monica the Riviera of America.
Over a century later, Santa Monica Canyon in Pacific Palisades and bordering Santa Monica is a very desirable area with homes easily going in the $2-4 million range and this would, no doubt, confirm the feelings of Cassatt, Loomis, and Gillis (however else they might be amazed about how much has changed generally since 1912) about the value derived from real estate in that area.