Through the Viewfinder: Lookout Mountain Inn, Los Angeles, 1912

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, resorts for locals and tourists were very popular throughout greater Los Angeles, whether they be along the coast on the many miles of beautiful beaches in the area or in the mountains, such as the San Gabriel and Santa Monica ranges.  This coincided with the gradual development of more leisure time for larger proportions of people thanks to shorter work days and work weeks, labor-saving devices at work and at home, and other factors.

Sometimes, however, these resorts were also part of a real estate development project in which lots were sold for buyers to build their primary residence or second home and the resort was part of the hook for prospective purchasers.

Lookout Mountain Park The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__Aug_14__1908_
Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1908

An interesting example of a resort/subdivision that is probably unfamiliar to most of us is found in tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection: a real photo postcard from 1912 showing the Lookout Mountain Inn, situated at the peak of the Santa Monica Mountains up Laurel Canyon from either West Hollywood (then called “Sherman” after prominent developer Moses H. Sherman) to the south or Studio City to the north.

Today there are many homes dotting the hillsides in the area, but just over a century ago, there was almost no development and some projects were targeted for leisure as well as for residential purposes.  In this case, the Lookout Mountain Park tract came into being in the summer of 1908 when a land and water company of that name announced plans for a project on 280 acres acquired for just shy of $100,000.

Lookout Mountain Park ad and image Los_Angeles_Herald_Sun__May_30__1909_
Los Angeles Herald, 30 May 1909.

The centerpiece of the plans at that time was a scenic railway up Laurel Canyon from West Hollywood, with inspiration perhaps being drawn, at least in part, from the Mount Lowe Railway above Pasadena.  While the railway was never built, a road was constructed that connected three peaks: Lookout Mountain, Wonderland Park (formerly called Mount Washington, though that name applied to a hill near Highland Park northeast of downtown) and Wulff’s Peak.  These peaks ranged from 1250 to 1350 in height.

Lookout Mountain Park views Los_Angeles_Herald_Sun__Jun_20__1909_
Herald, 20 June 1909.

Los Angeles Times article from 14 August reported that the development company would plant pine and eucalyptus trees and “will also build a hotel and a number of bungalows.  The latter are designed for renting to summer campers.”  Nothing, however, was mentioned about lot sales or private homes.  An official, A.B. Salisbury commented that:

Nowhere is there such a combination of hills, valleys and mountain rim.  I do not think it can be duplicated for scenery of a more beautiful and varied character, and I think it cannot help but become one of the great show places and pleasure resorts of Southern California.

In late October, the Lookout Mountain Park Land and Water Company incorporated with $500,000 in stock and five directors, Salisbury and two others from Los Angeles, his brother from Imperial County and a Chicago-based investor.  Notably, a Los Angeles and Pacific Railway (later part of the Pacific Electric system) streetcar line tunnel through Bunker Hill provided easy access to the new project through a Laurel Canyon line that ran just under a mile from Sunset Boulevard up to the base of the mountains.

Lookout Mountain Inn opening The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Feb_11__1912_
Times, 11 February 1912.

In May 1909, the opening took place with some 700 lots to be sold for $250, including a minimum of $5 down and payments of $1 per week.  By promoting the idea that “Lookout Mountain Park will soon become world famous as the most attractive resort near Los Angeles,” the developers claimed that land values would climb dramatically, adding that “The U.S. Census reports show that real estate increases in value twice as fast as population,” though didn’t cite where that was stipulated.

Moreover, ads stated that the tract was “for the busy and ever growing populations of Los Angeles and Hollywood to get out and up into the restful, charming mountains.”  At the same time it was added that “now as never before the high lands are sought for beautiful homes,” including for Lookout Mountain.  At the time, Sunset Boulevard was being built through the area for ease of access to downtown Los Angeles, just under ten miles to the east.

Lookout Mountain Inn The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Jun_2__1912_
Times, 2 June 1912.

By the end of May, it was claimed in ads that 100 lots were sold and there was a fanciful rendering of the project site that showed “Bungalow Land,” “Wonderland Boulevard”, “Wonderland Point” and “Lookout Mountain Boulevard” along with a depot for the proposed scenic railway that would go up Laurel Canyon to the summit near Wulff’s Peak.  A dispute with Mrs. A.M. Chalender, who owned neighboring property, over water rights from a spring, caused some early controversy, as did some survey questions involving the Laurel Canyon Land Company, though these matters were resolved.

As for the hotel, it took a few years to get built, but Lookout Mountain Inn did open in February 1912 and the 24-room hotel, perched atop a peak with fabulous views in all directions, was evidently quite popular.  Occasional references can be found in newspaper society pages mentioning visits to the inn.  An early article observed that the facility “caters to the votaries of Los Angeles’ most exclusive social circles” and that it offered “excellent cuisine, dancing, outdoor sports, and other rational pleasures,” whatever the latter was supposed to mean!

Lookout Mountain Inn RPPC

The highlighted photo is dated 29 August 1912 and shows the inn from a winding road with guardrails leading to the hostelry.  It can clearly be seen that the hilltop on which the hostelry was situated was graded and cleared for plantings, paths and other elements.  The image wound up being used in advertisements, of which one example is shown here.

Unfortunately, Lookout Mountain Inn didn’t last particularly long.  One of the biggest concerns of all of our hills and mountains is the threat of rapidly growing and all-consuming brush fires, especially when the Santa Ana winds race through the area, such as in the fall.

Lookout Mountain Inn fire The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Oct_27__1918_ (1)
Times, 27 October 1918.

In late October 1918, one such conflagration occurred, starting from the foothills in “Sherman,” now West Hollywood.  Originally attributed to a sausage roast by young men that went awry after it was assumed it was extinguished, the fire raced up the canyon and tore through Lookout Mountain Park and the inn, which was quickly burned to the ground.

The flames were moving at about 5 miles an hour and were some 500 feet wide, but it was stated that some 200 volunteers managed to contain the blaze, through the use of back fires, to 200 acres within the Lookout Mountain Park area so that it didn’t spread to nearby areas.  Still, the hotel, owned by J.H. Hartwick, was burned to the ground.

Lookout Mountain Inn The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Oct_27__1918_
Times, 27 October 1918.

It was also reported that a dozen people were trapped outdoors and in buildings, but it appeared that, aside from some minor burns, no one was seriously injured, much less killed.  Hartwick and six employees at the hotel frantically tried to save furnishings and personal belongings, but only a few items were retrieved because of the sheer force of the fire.

A couple of tales of heroism was reported concerning the efforts of firefighting volunteer Robert Collins of Sherman who was in the inn chopping the floor, evidently to try and stem the tide of the conflagration, when he was confronted by flames and the heat and smoke overcame him.  Though Collins fell to the floor, M.K. Watt, also of Sherman and another volunteer, rushed in and pulled his compatriot to safety.

Lookout Mountain fire arrest The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__Oct_31__1918_
Times, 31 October 1918.

Then, two teens, one just 13 and the other a few years older, were assisting in the effort to fight the fire and “the small figures were sent by someone into a little side canyon, where a sudden change of the wind trapped them at the edge of a high cliff.”  Not unlike the tragic Griffith Park fire of the early 1930s, these young men could well have been overcome by fast-moving flames.  But, the article went on:

With their hair singed and their arms burned in many places, the two boys finally had to make a leap for life, and rolled down the embankment to safety.

Reference was also made to a trio of local women who directed traffic and assisted firefighters in finding their way through the area, as well as provided refreshments to those working the fire.  There was also “Chevrolet Dick” Hollingsworth who used his little roadster to pull a hose truck that could not navigate a steep grade in the hills and followed this by transporting seven firefighters “up one of the stiffest hills in Southern California” so they could continue the fight.

Lookout Mountain Inn Chevrolet Dick San_Francisco_Chronicle_Sun__Nov_17__1918_
San Francisco Chronicle, 17 November 1918.

It turned out that, a few days after the tragedy, an avocado grower in Sherman, Edward N. Harman, was arrested and charged with negligence because a fire he started on his nearby property got out of control.  Arrested by the state’s deputy fire warden, Harman pled not guilty to a misdemeanor, posted $500 bail and was scheduled to appear before the Sherman Justice of the Peace, though no record of what happened was located.

The Lookout Mountain Inn was not rebuilt and the subdivision eventually was developed with more residences over the following years.  Notably, at the end of 1918, an article, reprinted in several newspapers in the state, noted that California had nearly 1550 reported fires involving forests, farmland, brush and grass involving some 330,000 acres with losses of timber, food and other items totaling just under $1.6 million.

Lookout Mountain Inn state fires Oxnard_Courier_Mon__Dec_23__1918_
Oxnard Courier, 23 December 1918.

By comparison, exactly a century later, in a horrible year that shattered all records, the state in 2018 had over 8,500 such conflagrations involving nearly 2 million acres and 24,000 structures of various kinds burned (the state with the second-highest loss of buildings, Utah, had just 450).  More than 100 persons, most of them in the terrible Camp Fire at Paradise near Chico, lost their lives.  Some estimates are that about $3.5 billion in property was destroyed during the year.

As we enter the summer and fall months, even with good rain and snow levels from this past winter, the risk of wildfires remains a major concern, so that what was experienced at Lookout Mountain a century ago could be repeated in many locations throughout our region this year.


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