A Crowning Achievement? The Los Angeles Improvement Company and Crown Hill, 1885-1890

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Two days ago, a post here looked at the Centinela Colony, a project launched in 1874 during the first growth and development boom in Los Angeles and headed by F.P.F. Temple.  After land sales commenced in the first part of the following year, the scheme failed as the boom inevitably went bust, including the spectacular collapse of the Temple and Workman bank.

A decade later, the region, after languishing economically, underwent its second and much more expansive boom, propelled, among other reasons, by the completion of a direct transcontinental railroad line to Los Angeles by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in late 1885.

LAICO incorporation The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__Jan_7__1885_ (1)
Los Angeles Times, 7 January 1885.

Earlier that year, the Los Angeles Improvement Company (referred to here as LAIC) was formed and incorporated to develop an ambitious plan for the subdivision of hill areas west of downtown Los Angeles in what was generally known as the Crown Hill area, just beyond Bunker Hill.  A post on this blog highlighting a photo from the Homestead’s holdings of the Second Street Cable Railway, the first cable streetcar system in the city, briefly discussed the project.

The company was formed in the first days of 1885 and its incorporators included several men from Los Angeles, including newspaper man and real estate speculator [Thomas] Jesse Yarnell, who was a founder of the Los Angeles Times and Henry C. Witmer, a native of Wisconsin and banker who arrived in the city just months prior.

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Los Angeles Herald, 22 December 1885.

Witmer was a key player in acquiring the land on which the tract at Crown Hill was developed and another important figure was Edward A. Hall of San Francisco, who worked for H.M. Newhall and Company, an auction firm whose owner Henry Mayo Newhall, became a landowner of prominence, including the Rancho San Francisco north of Los Angeles.  Newhall died in 1882, but his sons formed the Newhall Land and Farming Company the following year and invested in the LAIC.

Later in 1885, the LAIC announced the creation of the Second Street Cable Railway (it was said that Andrew Hallidie, the developer of the concept at San Francisco, came to Los Angeles to find partners for a system in the City of Angels) and launched that project to spur interest and gain access through the steep hills to the Crown Hill property.

LA is Full Los_Angeles_Herald_Wed__Dec_23__1885_
Herald, 23 December 1885.

With the cable car system completed, an auction was held for 188 lots just before Christmas.  The sale was handled by Newhall’s Sons and Company, the auction company replacing H.M. Newhall and Company after the patriarch’s passing.  A free lunch and transportation to the tract was to have been provided on the cable line as well as by wagons accessing the property from Temple Street and lunch, but rain forced the auction to be moved to Nadeau Hall in downtown.  It was said the hall was full and Walter Scott Newhall served as auctioneer as 125 lots were sold with prices ranging from $100 to $450 each.

Notably, the day after the auction, the Los Angeles Herald published a short piece titled “A Crowded City,” stating that “Los Angeles is full and overflowing with people just now.”  With the transcontinental line completed and winter underway, tourists flooded the city and crammed into every hotel and boarding-house, as well as private homes. The piece concluded with the observation that: “Southern California is getting known as a wintering place for people in delicate health and they will come.”

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Herald, 28 January 1886.

Though the year-end auction was advertised as the sole auction, another was held a little more than a month later, but this time at the tract, and Walter Newhall again wielded the hammer.  The Herald covered the event and observed:

The day was fine and the hills had already become quite free of mud, so that getting around was not difficult.  Free tickets for a ride were furnished and crowds went forward to see the country from the sightly hills, speculate in lots to make them richer and enjoy a good breath of the sweetest air in the world . . . It was a very pretty sight to watch the clouds sweep across the mountains, to look over the great plains stretching away to the sea, and all as green as emerald, with orchards, grasses a foot high and grain fields where the blade is high enough to completely cover the ground.

An additional 128 lots were purchased, at prices between $100 and $650, and the paper noted that Newhall “cried up the lots in his usual animated style, losing no time in needless harangues to wear out the patience of the willingest buyer and losing money for owners by long-winded talk.”

The Herald added that “it is quite remarkable how universally buyers wished to secure lots on the crowns of the hills” and these speculators were congratulated for their intelligence.  As to the cheaper properties, “they were situated on low ground, or because the grade of the street was low, and there would be a great deal of cutting necessary” in developing these lots.

LAICO Natural Gas The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Mar_30__1886_
Times, 30 March 1886.

In May 1886, a third public sale was held by the LAIC on “each side of Temple Street” and “Col. W.S. Newhall knocked the property down to the eager buyers in his usually graceful style,” reported the Herald.  Amounts went from $93 to $450 with an aggregate of over $22,000 rung up.  After that, lots were handled by private sale, including by realtor L.M. Brown, whose office was across from the Ellis Villa College, which was covered in a previous post in this blog and who advertised that he “has the lots of the Los Angeles Improvement Company.”

Another feature of Crown Hill beyond the college and the Belmont Hotel, which opened in July but was destroyed by fire in September 1887 (see the above link), was what was first known as Lake Shore Park.  The Los Angeles Times of 6 July 1886 reported that the “very pretty little resort recently opened by the Los Angeles Improvement Company, on the line of the Second street cable road, is just booming.”  There was an addition of seventeen acres and company president Hall told the paper that a “menagerie” was being prepared with “a tame bear, a lot of monkeys, talking parrots, cockatoos, etc.”

LAICO Lake Shore Park The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Jul_6__1886_
Times, 6 July 1886.

Soon renamed Second Street Park and located at today’s intersection of Glendale Boulevard and the junction of First and Second streets as they become Beverly Boulevard, the park included many newly planted trees, the obvious lake, a dance pavilion, playground equipment and what was called “a beer garden.”  By the early 1890s, the site was sold and reverted to its original name of Lake Shore Park.

A mid-August report in the Herald on developments in what was termed the “New West End” which the paper proclaimed was “one of the most popular routes for a pleasure excursion in the city” and “is rapidly becoming the most aristocratic portion of the city.”  Adding that “for health this location is unsurpassed” with its ocean breezes, the Herald reported on the opening of the Belmont Hotel, the plan for a new Ellis Villa College building, improvements at the park (which was described in great detail), and new houses rising.  It added, “the Los Angeles Improvement Company is well named.  Like other corporations it is not working wholly for glory” and had “done more substantial work to beautify and improve our city.”

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Herald, 15 August 1886.

At the end of September, the Times reported that there were $50,000 in sales of lots at Crown Hill and that one purchaser took a whole block, while “great improvements are being made in the way of grading streets and building.”  With regard to building, the LAIC next turned its attention to a new project downtown on land owned at the southwest corner of Fort (renamed Broadway in 1890) and Second streets.

Owned by Henry Witmer, the parcel and an adjoining one on Fort, was transferred to the LAIC and the renowned San Francisco architects Samuel and Joseph Newsom, known for their exuberant stylings, designed what was known as the Witmer Bank Block.  Built at an estimated cost of $80,000, the four-story brick Romanesque style structure was begun in spring 1887 as the downtown building boom raged with Fort Street being an epicenter of growth.

LAICO Bldg Witmer The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__Jun_2__1887_
Times, 2 June 1887.

As the building neared completion, its anchor tenant incorporated as the California Bank with Henry G. Newhall (another son of Henry M.) as president and, among its directorate, Witmer, Hall, Moses L. Wicks and William Lacy, the latter two prominent Los Angeles capitalists (Lacy was William Rowland’s partner in the Puente Oil Company, which recently discovered crude in the Puente Hills in modern Rowland Heights).  Stockholders included Walter S. Newhall, Yarnell, and other local luminaries like attorney and judge Aurelius W. Hutton, politician Henry Z. Osborne, capitalist Hervey Lindley, and San Fernando Valley ranch owner and developer George K. Porter.

The bank opened its doors by the 1st of November and, in February 1888, formally took possession of the structure, which the Times modestly accounted as the second most attractive in town after its own, for $125,000, handing the LAIC a tidy profit.  For more information on the bank and Witmer, the Newhalls and much more, see this very interesting post by Leon Warden of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.

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Los Angeles Express, 26 November 1894.

By this time, however, the great Boom of the Eighties was petering out and would very quickly turn into a bust.  The Belmont burned down, Ellis Villa College shut its doors, and the Second Street Cable Railway, which was sold, suffered from many problems, including damage from heavy rains and floods and it, too, was closed by the end of the decade.

In the first half of the 1890s, however, a new era burst forth.  Back in March 1886, the Times reported “that gas was found bubbling from the ground on the lands of the Los Angeles Improvement Company” and was noted to be “flowing at the rate of from 25 to 30 inches an hour, and burns freely.”  The paper prognosticated that “should it be apt to be increased by improvement, there is no doubt that there is a bonanza right there for the company that owns the land.”

LAICO Witmer photo The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__Mar_5__1909_
Times, 5 March 1909.

Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield, with the most modest of investments and primitive of equipment, brought in the famed Los Angeles Oil Field in 1892 in this area and a new boom ensued that radically transformed the landscape.  An all-out “oil well war,” as characterized by the Los Angeles Express erupted.

That paper reported in late 1894 that “a leading member of the Los Angeles Improvement Company, who own a large amount of territory on the western hills, said that the company is contemplating sinking some wells on its land.”  The following spring, the firm was one of many companies and individuals involved in a lawsuit as part of the “war.”

This unused stock certificate from the museum’s collection is #132 issued by the LAIC.  Note the bunch of grapes at the left and, curiously, the dog’s head in profile at the bottom.

One of the casualties of the rush for black gold was Lake Shore Park, formerly Second Street Park, and which had undergone substantial remodeling and improvements by its new owner, G.A. Friedrich, shortly after he acquired it in 1891.  Canfield and Doheny’s first well was across the street and the November 1892 completion of their first well marked the end of the park and much of the residential use of the area for about the next fifteen years.  Read more from Nathan Masters in his very interesting and photo-filled post about the park.  There is a recent addition, though, of the Vista Hermosa Natural Park located very near the original park site.

Crown Hill is one of the more interesting elements of the Boom of the 1880s and the highlighted artifact here is an unused stock certificate, number 132, of the LAIC.  Printed in the font and styling of the time, there is a bunch of grapes at the left, which commonly implied prospects for growth, though the dog’s head in profile is a puzzler, unless it was to represent dogged determination on the part of the company to see its project through, a success that, ultimately, was only partially realized.

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