by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As many of us ring in the New Year with family and friends this evening, there will be reflections on the year gone by and resolutions and forecasts for the one to come. Today’s highlighted artifact takes us back to the end of the Homestead’s interpretive period and a New Year’s Eve party broadside in 1929.
The event was held for members at the Sunset Canyon Country Club, built in a narrow canyon in the Verdugo Mountains above Burbank, and which operated for a little more than a dozen years. While the event promised the usual merriment expected for celebrations to ring in the new year, the timing of the flyer as well as the difficult history of the club are especially noteworthy.
As for the broadside, it referenced both the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays, telling members
Merry, merry Christmas and a Happy New Year if you happen to be one of the unfortunate ones who cannot be present at the club to personally exchange greetings New Year’s Eve.
The document continued that “everything to make this one of the most enjoyable parties you have ever experienced is being arranged” by the club’s House and Dance Committee. Dinner and dancing was $5.00 a head, while those only wanting to attend the dance were charged half that amount.
With respect to the club, it was established in late 1920 and was part of the development of a large acreage in the canyon in which property owners of cabin and home sites also held shares in the club. On Thanksgiving Day 1922, the facility opened with a $75,000 clubhouse described as having “Thibetan” architecture–it looks as if the structure had some influence by Frank Lloyd Wright and others who utilized Asian elements in their designs.
The facility included a large swimming pool, a 9-hole golf course and other amenities, including a ballroom/reception room; separate dining rooms for men and women; guest rooms; a billiard room; a roof-top garden; a children’s playground; and camping sites. The course designer, William Watson, was said to have uttered that it was “so dear to his heart that he has consented to personally manage it.” The manager of the club, William Lynch, formerly operated the famed Yosemite Lodge.
Sunset Canyon appears to have been a roaring success from the get-go, with a large membership, and well over 100 houses, ranging from cozy cabins to expensive full-time residences, built. Musicales, card parties, meetings and lectures and golf tournaments were regularly held at the facility.
In fact, the situation looks to have been so good that the club added another nine holes to the course and decided to build a new clubhouse, within just a few years of opening, and debuted the structure for its New Year’s Eve celebration in 1925. The building featured cardrooms, a ballroom, a single dining room, a lounge, a library, a ladies’ parlor and employee apartments.
Architecturally, the new facility was considerably different than its predecessor, employing a Mediterranean style. The photo from the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library, shows the new facility within the narrow confines of the canyon. The term “roaring success” has to be balanced with another problem that frequently occurred at the site and is still a matter of intense debate now–the exposure of structures in the urban-wildland interface to destructive wildfires.
The first reported fire near the club came in early December 1923, just a year after its opening, with a blaze erupted and burned 2000 acres in the Verdugos, forcing evacuations of the some 75 dwellings in the canyon. Over a hundred men equipped with fire extinguishers and using water from the pool were present to protect the facility.
Then, in a wildfire-filled fall in 1927, with fierce Santa Ana winds fanning the flames, a massive conflagration erupted in early December, sweeping up the narrow canyon and wreaking havoc. As described in a Los Angeles Times article, “the canyon is exceedingly narrow, and served as a chimney through which the flames poured.” The spread was so rapid that club members having an annual golf meeting were unable to get to their cars, which were all consumed.
The group was meeting in the new clubhouse, but the earlier incarnation “was leveled” and “ninety-eight of the 112 homes in the canyon were destroyed,” with values ranging from a $750 cabin to more substantial full-time houses made of canyon stone at up to $25,000.
What followed was an extraordinary effort in January 1928 to replant the burned areas of the canyon, with hundreds of “men, youth, and boys” from Burbank and under the auspices of the city’s parks board, planting some 365,000 seeds for trees, shrubs and other plant material, including natives like California live oak, California wild cherries, walnuts, scrub oak, juniper, sumac and holly over an area of 1,000 acres. It was stated that a main reason for the effort was to prevent the flooding that would be expected when slopes were denuded of the material to prevent erosion.
Despite the effort, the winter of 1928-29 provided the precipitation that pummeled the area and caused the deluge and mudslides that were of such concern. While there were problems throughout the area, the Times reported that “the greatest part of the damage was in Sunset Canyon,” with those residents who survived the fire left without electricity, water and gas and fourteen cars destroyed.
There was enough recovery for the New Year’s Eve party to take place at the end of 1929, but another disaster, man-made not human, was in process. The unbounded enthusiasm for stock speculation, following real estate bubbles and other excesses that marked the decade came home to roost when the stock market crashed in late October, ushering in the Great Depression.
Matters worsened considerably during the banking crisis of 1932 (when Walter Temple lost the Homestead that summer) and the club was one of the many casualties of the economic malaise. By early 1934, an auction was held to dispose of the club’s furniture and furnishings, valued at well over $40,000. Though the Burbank park commission voted in summer 1938 to purchase the golf course as a city-managed facility, the city council rejected the proposal. The following year, the Mormon church acquired the clubhouse and two acres and it still owns the facility after nearly eighty years.
This New Year’s holiday finds much of California lies in smoldering ruins from massive wildfires from the Sonoma/Napa wine country to the Thomas fire area of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and elsewhere. The story of the Sunset Canyon Country Club is a reminder that these issues of building on the fringes of wildlands bears great risk and the problem is especially acute now as more of that incursion takes place and climate change adds to the danger.
My colleagues joke that I am prone to interjecting tragedy into the holidays, such as when my 1870s living history character pondered the suspension of, loan to, and failure of the Temple and Workman bank (how could that not be discussed when that happened at the end of 1875 and first days of 1876?), so this post is entirely in keeping with that tradition!
But, despite the often dire and dismal, if timely, history given here, have a Happy New Year!