by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A previous post here highlighted the July 1926 issue of The Realty Digest, subtitiled “An Exponent of Progress,” published by Frank L. Meline, one of the most prolific and successful of the residential real estate developers of Los Angeles during the Roaring Twenties. As noted in that post, Meline was born in 1874 to Portuguese immigrants who were part of a Presbyterian colont that settled in Illinois and he came to Los Angeles in his late twenties.
An early development project of his was Windsor Square, west of downtown, and he got his big break when oilman Alphonzo Bell, who purchased large tracts closer to the coast and hired Meline to develop such high-end communities as Bel-Air, Beverly Hills, Brentwood and Pacific Palisades. By the time he launched The Realty Digest, Meline amassed an impressive portfolio of projects, as listed in the publication and including: Oak Knoll Marino (Pasadena/San Marino), Oneonta Park (Pasadena and named for the hometown of real estate tycoon and art, books and manuscripts collector Henry E. Huntington), Ramona Square (Alhambra), Edgewood Square (also in Alhambra), Pierpont Bay (Ventura) and over twenty others.
Some of the contents of tonight’s issue from April 1926, which has so much material of interest that we’ll have two parts to this post, include short articles or ads for such Meline projects as Benmar Hills in Burbank, a quartet of tracts (Brentwood Country Club Estates, Highland Hills, Brentwood Green and Tigertail Estates) in that area near the in-construction University of California at Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Pierpont Bay, and Franklin Park in Eagle Rock area of northeast Los Angeles. On the inside back cover is a statement about the firm, including a financial statement showing assets of just south of $1.6 million and liabilities of more than half that (though a note points out that Meline had other “interests and holdings, conservatively valued in excess of $3,000,000.)
As to the residential home portion of the magazine, William Tyler Miller, a landscape architect and nursery owner, wrote a paean to living by the beach, imploring readers “let’s go live with the greatest landscape in the world—the oceanL you or old, it will make us live longer and happier: it will make us stronger to flight life’s ceaseless battle.” The water will “renew our physical strength” and seeing the shore brings “comfort and inspiration” through “the greatest symbols of infinite power that we can never have.”
Notably, Miller claimed that “we can have our homes near enough the ocean to enjoy some of its life daily—no matter what our means.” He added that “Southern California is the only shore line in the world where you can live the year round in comfort!” That said, he continued that “there are two local adjustments that nearly every homemaker by the seashore must make for year-round comfort.”
The first was a windbreak around a playground or garden and the other was to protect from heat and glare during the middle of the day and an architect could design a screened porch or pergola, though “the beautiful, living way is to plant the quickest growing pine in the world, the Monterey pine.” As to appreciation of the sea, Miller impressed upon readers the idea of having windows and French doors with views, best applied in the lving room; otherwise “you offer no inducement to stir a foot outdoors.”
An Italian cypress could “frame your ocean view” if the owner was “a timid and conventional soul.” This plant “stops the band, gathers the eyes of all the tourists, makes a dramatic gesture, and megaphones ‘Here you are, ladies and gentlemen: this is the Pacific Ocean!'” Having said that he had nothing to say against it, Miller then offered that, in California, the cypress “served no useful function” and “is merely a show-off.” This didn’t stop Walter P. Temple front planting cypresses at the three entrances to his La Casa Nueva, though, he also chose to live many miles from the beach and its healthful effects for all, no matter the means!
So, the article was ultimately a diatribe against the cypress and a plea for the use instead of the stately Monterey pine, which “instead of raising a thick and jealously striking at the ocean [that would be the cypress, of course] it draws all eyes gently toward the ocean.” It turns out that Miller’s bane wasn’t just the “military Italian cypress,” but also that “every-blooming cannas, double dahlias, purple leaveed plum, golden privets, silver euonymus or any other loud-mouthed, vulgar, variegated shrubs that jazz 365 days in the year.”
Aside from the Monterey pine, Miller allowed that the Monterey cypress and Torrey pine were also quite desirable as natives were concerned, while acceptable foreigners included the deodar, the eucalyptus, and the Norfolk Island pine. The Italian stone pine was likely to become “all the rage at the sea shore” and it was efficient for shade. Still, he went on, “as California is bound to get this craze out of its system, let’s encourage it. Let’s raise a million umberllas in our seaside gardens, from San Diego as far north as it will grow.
With respect to flowering plants and shrubs, Miller abhorred cannas and salvia, but recommended the lemonade berry, sumac, wild lilac, California and Catalina cherries for shrubs, while flowers like the pink sand verbena, the sea dhalia, and the beach lupine comprised his top three. For bluffs, the sea thrift and early lupine were recommended. Color schemes should hew to blue and white in the summer, like cornflowers, larkspurs, pansies, periwinkles, plumbago, hollyhocks, daisies, snapdraons and oleander were among acceptable types, while bright reds, magentas and oranges were suffocating. If one had to grow hydrangeas, “keep them off the porches and in the garden behind the eight foot wall.” Red berries and firethorns, though, were allowable for winter.
Miller did suggest that the homeowner could do whatever they liked with their screened and concealed private gardens, but the public should not see anything that could distract them “when they want to see the ocean and think cool restful thoughts. Still, he cautioned, growing garden flowers near the ocean meant hauling in soil and having a clay base, while you would “use carloads of fertilizer, and own the water company.” If only the reader would “make your garden smaller or tie in with our great landscape tradition by planing Monterey cypress”!
For those not wanting flower, it was suggested to border a lawn with wild lilac, lemonade berry and California cherries, as well as with pittosporum, firehtorns, and strawberry guavas, among others, though Miller implored “Don’t plant a hedge.” After dismissing other beach locations, especially those in colder America climes, he ended by saying “lead me to a place where you can guarantee me nothing but flat roofed houses forever, with every cape a park instead of a hotel, and the point thereof planted with Monterey cypress as thick as it can stick.”
In “How the World is Building Los Angeles,” Phil Norton, vice-president of the Meline company, noted that cities “have originated where trade routes meet” and, because of this, “it is the destiny of Los Angeles to become the world’s greatest city of all time, because it is the meeting point of the trade from the ancient and fabulously rich East and the modern growing trade of the West.” Other factors, of course, contributed to the building of great urban centers, but “trade is the only foundation stone on which any great gathering of people may endure because trade brings most of the other elements of growth with it.” Moreover, “trade and industry have ever been and must ever be the foundation for a great city.”
Notably, Norton claimed that even as remarkable as the local climate is, “we would have become a world metropolis because of our location just as London became a great trade center under most unfavorable climate conditions,” though he allowed that “our climate makes ours a more happy existence.” He then reviewed great cities from Alexandria, Carthage and Rome in the ancient world and London, Amsterdam, New York and New Orleans in more modern times.
With respect to the Angel City, early settlers here were hampered by the purported fact that “the human mind was too limited to grasp the significance of their location.” The fixation was on climate, but
the fact that this was destined to be the world’s greatest industrial and trade center escaped the minds of the local people and the visitors who could have enlightened them were interested primarily in having a good time. It seemed that this was to be only a beautiful city after all.
With the World War I era, Norton went on, a demonstrative change came to fruition in Cbina and Japan and “the Atlantic era went into a sharp decline and the Pacific era began to take its place . . . Los Angeles advanced from a country village to a world trade and financial center, almost over night.” How much of this was due to direct relations wth Asia was not explained and Norton claimed that railroad magnate “E.H. Harriman saw this situation almost twenty years ago and prophesied that by 1950 Los Angeles would have become one of the world’s great financial, commercial and industrial centers,” as if no one else had the same thought.
The completion of the Panama Canal (a project envisioned long before Harriman, just as the development of the Port of Los Angeles was recognized decades previously, as well) was essential to “our port’s development from mud flats to the greatest harbor in the United States, which means the world, in volume of water-borne coastwise traffic.”
Norton added that it was good that Santa Monica, which lost the “Free Harbor Fight” of the 1890s to Wilmington/San Pedro, did not become the major port in the area because “beautiful Brentwood . . . is, and should be, the locale for the beautiful homes of our most successful people.” Obviously, this was Meline territory and it isn’t as if the tony Palos Verdes Peninsula couldn’t develop near the Port of Los Angeles!
With respect to the Pacific future, Norton, having covered the importance of China in the March issue (which, unfortunately, we do not have in the Homestead collection—only this and the July issue are there as of now), he turned to discussing briefly the potential of trade with India and spent more time on Siberia, then not quite a decade under the control of the Communist Soviet government of Russia. While he professed to have no illusions about the situation in Russia, Norton opined that “Russia must buy and import vast quantities of various equipment,” specifically those related to transportation to get the Trans-Siberian rail line to the Pacific.
Concerning Japan, “the bulk of Japanese expots today goes to the United States,” but food from California was necessarily going to have to go that country because “to maintain a trade balance, the country that sells must also buy.” So, just as “the Suez Canal helped build London during the Atlantic era,” the new Pacific period meant that “the Panama Canal will play an important role in the development of Los Angeles port.” The article ended by noting that this was why Meline became a commissioner for the harbor.
Edmund R. Fader of the Eberle & Riggleman economic service provided an interesting review of “Single Family Home Building in Los Angeles.” He tried to offer that the statistics he was presenting was as interesting as “the building of the home, the planning with its anticipations, the construction with the joy of watching the house grow, and even the financing with its struggles and doubts.” Obviously, this strains credulity, but, for those of us who do like stats, there is notable material here.
He pointed out, for example, that between 1920 and 1925, more than half of the $767 million spent on new construction was for home building and this is useful context for such projects as Walter P. Temple’s Town of Temple (renamed Temple City in 1928) project. Fader added that “we have spent in Los Angeles in the past six years $40,000,000 more than it cost to build the Panama Canal.” While 1925 “was not our largest home building year in Los Angeles,” that peak coming two years prior—see below, there were still enough housing units built for over 22,000 families or some 80,000 persons. Dwellings comprised 45% of the value of building permits, while in previous years it was 55%.
A pie chart showed that just under half of all dwellings were comprised of single-family houses. Apartments totaled under 18% with flats, this being a luxurt apartment though the term is hardly used these days, totaling just under 14%. Duplexes were not quite 10% of units, whie bungalow courts were just over 7%. The remaining 4% of dwellings were composed of “Single Family Houses Rear, and our controversial expansion of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) or Junior Accessory Dwelling Units (JADU) as pushed by state government to meet housig demand is interesting to consider in this regard.
Charts for the preior four years of 1922-1925 show that 1923 was, by far, the peak year with almost 44,000 units built, compared to 28,000 the year before, not quite 30,000 the year after and that drop to about half in 1925. While there was about a 25% increase in single-family houses from 1922 to 1923, the big jump was in duplexes and apartments/flats, where the former almost doubled and the latter more than doubled. While single-family house construction declined after that, there was a corresponding drop in the other dwelling types, as well, and duplexes dropped to less than a third by 1925.
When it came to value per unit, however, decreased costs meant increased value for all three categories. In terms of value per permit, single-family houses increased from about $2,500 per unit to almost $3,500. Duplexes rose in value from not quite $4,700 to about $5,450, while apartments and flats jumped dramatically from $18,000 to $28,000. With respect to value by family accommodation, the increase was more marked for single-family homeowners, though, than it was for for the others.
Fader’s summary, however, observed that there was an “apparent rising standard of living in teh community,” because while construction costs were dropping, “we have been building better and larger houses to the extent that the average per family accommodation costs a thousand dollars more in 1925 than it did at the peak of our building costs in 1923.” It is hard to place the Temple family’s extraordinary La Casa Nueva in this context, because it was not only a total custom project, it was highly so with ornamentation and decoration that sent its costs to levels that, while we don’t have documentation on that score, must have been an anomaly.
The other main point was that the majority of people lived in single-family units and
It is this group that is credited with being the stable, solid, conservative back-bone of our people. In the case of this community it is doubly so for by far the greater part of this group own the homes in which they live.
Given this situation, Fader concluded, this was “not a bad foundation on which to build a greater and better city.”
We’ll continue tomorrow with more great material from The Realty Digest relating to the film industry; the role of Southern California Edison in the “development and conservation” of natural resources;” more on the remarkable transformation of the Port of Los Angeles; an architectural plan for a reasonable home not costing above $7,000, which was likely an average for the period; and others, so check back then.