by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The character of Tarzan, the Ape Man, was an American phenomenon when Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) published a story in a magazine in 1912 and followed it up two years later with a novel that quickly became a best-seller. In a very productive career spanning nearly four decades, the author published stories about planets like Venus and Mars, the middle of the Earth, Indians, westerns, detectives and other subjects and became a very wealthy man.
In 1918, the first Tarzan film was released and was a blockbuster for its time and launched a string of films on the subject over many years. Though the author did not like the depiction of a character that he developed as sensitive and refined beyond his crude origins, he profited handsomely from the franchise.
In fact, the year after that first Tarzan movie, Burroughs, a longtime resident of the Chicago area, moved west. His search for a prime suburban property quickly led to the San Fernando Valley, which was still largely rural and agricultural. In 1917, General Harrison Gray Otis, the powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times, died and his large ranch, Mil Flores (A Thousand Flowers), was put up for sale.
Burroughs purchased the 550-acre property and immediately renamed it after the creation that brought him such fame and wealth: Tarzana Ranch. Among his uses for the property was for hog raising, which was being done at the same time, for example, by another transplant from the east, Frederick F. Lewis, who acquired property in the eastern San Gabriel Valley in 1918 that he christened Diamond Bar Ranch. Other notable local swine breeders included winemaker Secondo Guasti and Anita M. Baldwin, daughter of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, among many others.
At the time Burroughs acquired his new ranch, Los Angeles was poised for the latest in a series of growth and development booms that began a half-century before, just after the Civil War, and continued, punctuated by occasional busts and downturns. During the 1920s, the city grew rapidly, but even more impressive was suburban development, whether in the South Bay, the western San Gabriel Valley (where Walter P. Temple was busy in Alhambra, San Gabriel and El Monte), and the San Fernando Valley.
Aggressive annexation efforts by the City of Los Angeles eventually drew almost the entire valley into its realm and the Tarzana Ranch was included. The property was placed under Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., a company formed in 1923, and subdivision was seemingly inevitable given the intense real estate activity underway and which, for instance, was touched upon in a recent post here about the development of Encino, which adjoins Tarzana on the east.
In fact, as surrounding property was being subdivided, Burroughs moved quickly to do the same for about 20% of his ranch, placing about 100 acres of the tract up for sale in 1922, just three years after he acquired it from the Otis estate. This area sold quickly and Burroughs penned an essay for an ad for this tract proclaiming his reasons for creating the new town of Tarzana.
This was followed up shortly afterward by the announcement that the “home place” established by Otis and then occupied by Burroughs was being acquired for the El Caballero Country Club with acreage just to the west to be subdivided and sold. Tonight’s artifact from the Homestead’s collection is an original map from about 1924 or 1925 for “Tract No. 5475” in Tarzana including the 116 acres just northwest of the new country club.
The map contains 139 numbered lots (though many were divided into lettered sub-parcels), including over 60 commercial parcels along Ventura Boulevard and mostly 26 feet wide and 100 feet deep with a half-dozen corner lots off sidestreets measuring just shy of 50 feet in width. As for the residential properties south of Ventura, these ranged widely, with smaller ones having just under 50 foot frontages and depths no smaller than a bit below 150 feet, and the largest being one-acre tracts.
A key showed that sold lots were depicted in orange, while unsold ones were in white and it can be seen that a majority of the tract was sold by the time the map was issued. As for the streets shown, most exist today, though there have been some modifications.
For example, Reseda Boulevard comes in from Ventura Boulevard and sweeps to the west toward Mecca Avenue, while the Reseda Avenue shown here was renamed for previous owner Otis. Otherwise, the orientation and routes of the other tract thoroughfares, inclding Avenida Hacienda, Avenida Oriente, Linnet Street, Wells Street and Tarzana Drive have remained basically intact.
By 1929, it was stated that there were 1,200 residents living in Tarzana, though how much of this tract included speculation on lots as opposed to homes built and permanent residents within them is now known. The regional real estate market, which was red hot in the first years of the decade, including when the first subdivision of Tarzana was created, did cool over te remaining years of the Twenties.
Moreover, El Caballero Country Club, which opened at great expense and with much promotion, did not do well as a private club, although it did host the 1927 Los Angeles Open tournament, and it admitted the public the following year. By late 1930, the club was sold and Burroughs experienced significant financial losses with it and the community broadly.
While the new owners operated the country club for a while, it reverted back to the author’s ownership in spring 1932 as the Great Depression, which broke out at the end of the Twenties worsened with massive bank failures. The facility closed and it was not until 1955 that it was purchased and, two years later, the current El Caballero opened.
The 1930 census figures released publicly at the end of the year showed that Tarzana had 842 residents, indicating many people left in the previous year. But, the community, as the region did generally, took off during the post-World War II era and today roughly 40,000 people live in the community.
This map is a great early artifact relating to Tarzana, but is also representative of the real estate market in greater Los Angeles at the time that Walter P. Temple was an active participant in many areas, such as his development of Temple City, though he was also owner of significant acreage in Owensmouth, a little northwest of Tarzana, and which was renamed Canoga Park in the early 1930s.