by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the late 19th century, the city government of a rapidly growing Los Angeles embraced a movement for beautification and recreation in the form of public parks that was sweeping much of the nation. Though the city had the historic pre-American era Plaza and Sixth Street Park (later Central Park, then Pershing Square,) it was during and just after the famed Boom of the Eighties, peaking in 1887 and 1888, that the busiest activity to establish new parks took place.
Westlake (now MacArthur), Eastlake (today’s Lincoln), and Hollenbeck were probably the best known initially, though there were others. One notably dynamic of the flurry of park creation is that, while many residents and community leaders (including real estate speculators who hoped adjacent property would rise in value) were enthusiastic about having new parks, the ideas of increasing taxes or floating bonds were often widely unpopular.
This dynamic might have been most acute when it came to the long gestation of Elysian Park, situated due north of downtown and at what was then the northwestern limits of the city. Though 550 acres of what had been known as Stone Quarry Hills was set aside in 1886 for the park, work did not actually begin on transforming the large area for several years and it was a good decade or so before Elysian took on the appearance of a full-fledged public park.
Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a variety of photographs showing the impressive landscaping that finally was developed at Elysian Park and form a backdrop for a long struggle to make something meaningful out of what was consistently promoted as potentially one of the great parks of the United States, on par with Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, New York’s Central Park, and others.
In the late 1850s, surveyor Henry Hancock drew up a map that included 35-acre lots within city limits and about a decade later, a detailed rendering of the Stone Quarry Hills area was made. It showed several ravines, including the best known, that for Julián Chávez (a New Mexico native who came on the same Old Spanish Trail as the Workman family and who was a member of the pueblo’s ayuntamiento, or town council). Others were Solano, Sulphur, and Cemetery. The latter was so named because the Catholic Cemetery, Old Calvary, was situated at the base of the southern edge of the hills.
Skirting the western edge was the ditch of the Los Angeles Canal and Reservoir Company, which brought water from the Los Angeles River at the southeastern corner of the San Fernando Valley to town. In the flat lands northeast of the hills and along the banks of the river were tracts owned by Julián and Mariano Chávez and Juan Bouet. Incidentally, very close to these parcels was likely the spot at which the Portolá Expedition in early August 1769 came upon the Los Angeles River. A historic plaque at an entrance to Elysian Park is not actually at that spot (much as Walter P. Temple’s marker for the original San Gabriel Mission at Whittier Narrows is not where the mission actually was situated).
The hills remained in use for stone quarrying for construction projects, but there were early champions for a park there, including city engineer and longtime surveyor George Hansen and Mayor Edward F. Spence, under whose administration the 1886 designation was made.
Shortly after that announcement, at least one letter writer to the Los Angeles Times expressed displeasure with the new name, saying that it “is a little more fanciful perhaps, but not so near as sensible” as Quarry Hill, which “is a fine sounding name.” Moreover, the correspondent claimed, the name Elysian was “altogether too common. It is almost as common as heaven or hell, or paradise . . .”
It was added that “Elysium is the Greek place of rest for the happy souls of the dead, and it would be an excellent name for a cemetery, if happily located.” Moreover, the writer continued, “I am not aware that the original Elysium was ever located—except in the imagination; but our ideas of it do not accord with the topography of Quarry Hill park at all.” The new name stuck, but the actual transformation of the large property with plantings, walks, roads and other amenities took place very slowly.
Early in 1887, the Times took credit for lobbying to turn the “waste land” of Quarry Hill into the promise of Elysian Park. The paper, however, lamented that “nothing further seems to have been done to make it the attractive resort originally contemplated.” When the park was declared by city ordinance, $200 was set aside for the planting of eucalyptus trees, “but it is doubtful about much benefit coming from that paltry appropriation.”
Additionally, the editorial sharply observed that “public parks are not valued in Los Angeles as they are in all other enlightened countries.” Noting that the city would soon be second to San Francisco on the Pacific coast, the paper claimed that “there ought to have been, in our pueblo limits, thousands of acres devoted to the use of the public.” Instead, it provocatively added, “by some neglect, little short of criminal, this vast patrimony of the people, leagues in extent, has been wasted.” The Times looked forward to the passage of a bill in the state legislature for parks.
William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman, was, by then, mayor of Los Angeles and, though he proved to be an avid promoter of parks, including his donation of two-thirds of the land for Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights (which Workman founded and much of the land around the park was in development by him–again, property values and parks go hand-in-hand!), the process of getting Elysian developed was cumbersome.
In its New Year’s Day issue of 1888, the Times opined that Elysian Park “is undoubtedly destined to become the pride of Los Angeles” and “nature seems to have especially designed it for the purpose” for which it was set aside “and it remains only for art to develop it into a park of unsurpassed grandeur.” It noted that “from this tract of land the lover of the beautiful in nature can obtain some of the grandest views that Southern California presents to the human eye.”
There were a number of issues besides basic finances. One was the need to acquire private property within the park site. Another was that some of the city’s leaders hoped to use a portion of Elysian for a “pesthouse,” or a hospital for people with diseases like smallpox and others. Impatient developers who were trying to build a streetcar line through the area also clamored for more haste in improving the park.
At one point, there was a serious effort to give substantial portions of the site for the National Soldiers Home, the possible locations of which were numerous. Elysian Park, however, looked to be in the running, though the city attorney somberly informed the city council that a gift of land was not permissible by ordinance.
There was even a letter to the editor in 1895 which suggested that, rather than pour more money into the park, it would be a much better use of public funds to do what even small cities in Europe did routinely: establish a museum more accessible than the forbidding hills of Elysian Park.
The writer imagined a collection with natural history artifacts, cultural history materials and much more that would inspire the public as well as scientists and theologians. It took nearly twenty more years for that vision to be realized when the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art opened at Exposition Park at the south end of town in 1913. This is now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
In February 1889, there was an attempt to get the legislature to repeal the dedication of Elysian as a park and return the land to city purposes, ostensibly to pursue such projects as the “pesthouse.” The Times reported that business and community leaders, headed by P.M. Scott, promoter of the Elysian Park streetcar project, vigorously protested such a move, which was forestalled.
By May, the newly formed Los Angeles Parks Commission and Mayor Henry T. Hazard, Workman’s successor, toured the site. A reporter for the Los Angeles Herald went along on the junket and stated that “there are plenty of citizens in Los Angeles, both new-comers and old-timers, who do not know there is such a place as Elysian Park.”
Considered unfit for residential or commercial development because of the rough topography, Elysian Park became more valuable in the torrid boom of 1887-88 and some of it was evidently sold. The attempt to change the legislative fiat binding the city to use the land for park purposes proved, as noted above, to be unsuccessful.
The piece reported that city engineers were at work determining the best routes for roads into the property. Of particular interest to the Herald was the desirability of building roads accessible by carriage to the highest points, about 850 feet above sea level, where visitors could get “a complete view of the promised land.” With this as a prime selling point, the editorial ended with the statement that “it is to be doubted whether any city in the world can show to the tourist a more memorable spectacle.”
In its first issue of 1890, the Times noted that there were “about 35,000 trees—eucalyptus, pepper, pine and cypress—set out and growing therein” when the project started four years before. Yet, it was stated, “since that time there have been set out about 50,000 trees of different varieties, including eucalyptus of 27 varieties; live oak, pine of several varieties, pepper, Monterey cypress—covering an area of nearly 100 acres.” A half-mile of roadways were built specifically to bring water to these trees.
In that same issue, the paper printed a chart of park expenditures for the year and of just under $22,000 appropriated for the city’s seven parks and its nursery and general expenses, almost $10,000 was set aside for Westlake Park, while Elysian was allotted under $4,000.
The Herald reported in December 1891 that ex-mayor Spence, in selecting Stone Quarry Hills for a new park site, based his choice on extensive travels in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and continental Europe and noted that, as Los Angeles was destined to be “a city of magnificent proportions” and a rail and educational hub and “capable of supporting two million people,” the park was warranted.
Yet, the article added, what was needed was “a little enterprise and money carefully and judiciously expended in improving it.” With the Elysian Park street railroad in progress for better access and for other reasons, the city was “to lose no time in starting the work of making it the most attractive and beautiful park possessed by any city in the world.”
By July 1892, when park commissioner Sutherland Hutton waxed poetic about the potential of the park, it appeared that relatively little progress had been made. Hutton repeated the idea that few Angelenos were aware of Elysian and its possibilities, but believing that it “will some day be the pride and glory of the Pacific coast.” He even talked about adding another 500 acres and claimed that, despite the daunting topography, Elysian would be “a place for recreation for our citizens and visitors where they can roam through forest and dale and enjoy the ever-changing views, the shady walks, the hidden nooks, and the curious tree and plant growth, so delightful for the lover of nature.
At the end of the year, the Elysian Park Boulevard was dedicated and the event included a procession from Sixth Street Park (now Pershing Square) up to the developing north side park, though the Times took to calling the road the Camino del Burro or Donkey’s Road, though this actually was an homage to the foresight of city leaders in building a modern five-mile thoroughfare in place of what had been a narrow donkey trail. For it and the Herald the opening of the road heralded (!) a sea change in the direction the park was, at long last, taking.
In August 1893, a botanical society was formed for the purpose of having a garden in the park. During this period, private property in the midst of the hills was acquired to solidify the park’s continuity and there was talk of adding more land to make a more uniform boundary.
A Herald article from January crowed that the park would become “world famous” and applauded the work of the superintendent and crew for “consummate attention to preserving the most delightful bits of scenic effects” and for the building of roads and planting of trees in a “prolific growth of a few years.” It stated that millions of trees had been planted (though perhaps it meant thousands?) and thousands of flowers and other material. It expressed the possibility of playgrounds, lakes, waterfalls, tennis courts, picnic areas and “trysting places” to further convert was still considered as the park’s “crude condition.”
In April, the paper reported that, despite the challenges of getting enough money to the park for development, there were some significant accomplishments in getting eucalyptus trees to grow enough in number and size to provide beautiful shaded walks and carriage drives and “cool, cosy nooks” for picnics. There was, it was stated, “cool, sparkling spring water” and interior valleys with “beds of rare and delicate flowers” and the benefits of irrigated water were showing. Among the flowers mentioned were roses, calla lillies, geraniums, poppies, and pansies. Large expanses of ferns in shaded areas were also noted.
The paper did call for the creation of three large lakes, but otherwise applauded the fact that “the time and money that have been expended on Elysian park in planting thousands of trees and plants are now beginning to show substantial results, and every succeeding year will add to the beauty of this grand and unique park.”
Yet, six months later, the Herald lambasted “an extravagant outlay” at the developing park and generally decrying a plan by the city council to spend a half million dollars on schools, parks and tunnels, twenty per cent of that alone to be expended on Elysian. It wondered about the more pressing needs of streets, lights, sewers and better grading rather than ornamentation “when the taxpayers are chafing under the heavy demands of the last few years.” Not stated was the fact that America was in the grip of one of its worst economic depressions, which burst forth in 1893.
This critique was repeated by the Times in spring 1895, decrying what it called “parks and profligacy.” It noted that, in April, the parks department spent nearly $5,000, while in 1893 and 1894 the entire year’s expenses were about $7,000 and $6,500, respectively. Apparently, the city felt comfortable spending so much money because it was expected that an upcoming bond measure to fund parks and other public works would pass, though the one for parks, which was to include $100,000 for Elysian, did not.
Despite these concerns, progress continued and there was a Herald report in early January 1896 that 3500 feet of roads were recently finished at the upper elevations of the park with more to come toward the goal of having seven miles of wide-width roads. In the previous winter, 20,000 new trees were planted and were said to be thriving.
A long feature on the city’s parks in an April issue of the paper gave plenty of attention to Elysian, where “there are the grandest possibilities.” Improved access from recently completed streetcar lines and better roads for horse-and-buggy travel were noted. It was pointed out that the last two years, in particular, saw the largest transformation of the landscape of the park. The article noted that about $30,000 had been spent to date on all improvements.
In praising superintendent A.F. Schiller, the piece reported that plantings included roses, geraniums, petunias, verbena, calla lillies, pansies, carnations, poppies and many more flowers. Beyond tens of thousands of eucalypti, there were acacias, oaks, cypresses, juniper, palms and other trees noted. In addition, cacti were planted in profusion. The botanical society garden and an arboretum were also mentioned. Apparently, visitation was not as it should be, so the article called for regular band concerts to be held to drawn more people to the park.
The quintet of photos from the museum’s holdings appear to all be from the first years of the 20th century, but not long after the bulk of the work to improve Elysian, which seems to have picked up dramatically from about 1894 onward. When Griffith J. Griffith offered his rugged ill lands to the north to the city in 1896, the 3,000 or so acres dwarfed that of Elysian, which was far larger than any other park in Los Angeles to date. In later years, Elysian became home to the Los Angeles Police Academy and, very controversially, Dodger Stadium, but the park portions remain heavily used as an oasis in a city and region that grew to accommodate far more than the 2 million persons mentioned above!