No Place Like Home: Frank L. Meline’s “The Realty Digest,” April 1926, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we continue looking at the very interesting and information contents of the April 1926 issue of The Realty Digest, published by the prominent real estate developer Frank L. Meline, we’ll pay particular attention to articles concerning the movie industry, the utility giant Southern California Edison, and the rapidly expanding Port of Los Angeles—all of which were important parts of the massively growing economic might of the region. We’ll also note smaller pieces in the publication that are also notable as part of the active promotion of the real estate industry in the area.

Pete Smith, the publicity director at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, contributed “Motion Pictures as a Progressive Industry” and began with the observation that what, not long ago, was “a great waste space of land,” now had “hundres of buildings—homes, stores—and the greatest picture plant in the world. And—motion pictures did it!” The location was Culver City and MGM played a pivotal part in transforming the “waste land into a city almost overnight.”

Moreover, the establishment of the studio there led others to follow, though Smith was careful to note that this was not a boom, but, rather, “the actual growth and rise of a city based on the advent of the studios.” He added that increasing property values by leaps and bounds, allowing for the building of homes and businesses, “is what the shadows on a screen have done” for a city that was known the world over because “the word Hollywood is known everywhere—because of the studios.” He averred that the same was true for Culver City, though that, clearly, was a stretch.

At MGM, there was a veritable city where

great shops fashion furniture, machinery, electrical equipment. Builders construct palaces and hovels—any form of building from the great circus of ‘Ben-Hur’ to a miner’s cabin. Here tons of paint and palster, carloads of chemicals, metals, textiles, arrive daily to be swallowed in the maw of the great machine which turns out screen spectacles.

With thousands of workers at the studio, this means as many houses nearby, so that “the pictures breed prosperity wherever they settle” and “are like Midas of the golden touch in their effect on their neighbors.” City founder Harry Culver was credited with having the vision to lure MGM there and Smith noted that the recent decision of First National Pictures (which merged with Warner Brothers in 1936) to build a new studio in Burbank showed that “a lively boom is gaining impetus every day.”

While the importance of the economic impact of studio employees was highlighted, Smith also noted that “the screen stars themselves are assets to the districts where they make their homes.” Beverly Hills, naturally developed by Meline, was the paramount (!) example and “houses around the homes of Ramon Novarro, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Norma Shearer, or any other star, soar in value.”

Moreover, these were considered assets to their cities because, Smith continued, “usually they lead their neighborhoods in chairty, in social activities—and in patriotism,” including their work with Liberty Bond drives during the First World War. He added that “the public sees the screen celebrity as a glittering abstraction,” but actors were “a vital influence for good” and it was “thus [that] pictures built a city—and keep it going.”

R.G. Kenyon’s piece on Edison (SCE) was on the “development and conservation of our natural resources” practiced by the firm and he began with the observation that greater Los Angeles “is a young community embued [imbued] with the spirit of youth” and, as such, “optimist is rampant” and “adversity has no place on the calendar of juvenility.” Yet, there were issues with resources even as “to the dweller in Southern California sunshine, everything is right with the world, and the future is a long way off.” Resources were not inexhaustible “and far seeing men of the state are working toward the conservation of our resources with a zeal which assures real results.”

For over thirty years, Kenyon went on, SCE created electricity through hydro-electric power plants tapping the rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada Mountains so that California was the leader of such activities in the nation. He added, “this condition can very readily be credited to the farsighted vision and pioneering courage of the Southern California Edison Company,” as it both conserved water that would otherwise “run to waste” and provided that electric power before being released “to the thirsty lands of the valley below” through irrigation systems. It was also a benefit that hazardous flooding was mitigated by these efforts.

Kenyon noted that farms in the ten counties serviced by SCE grew in number by 15% since 1920, while the average acreage dropped from almost 170 to near 150 “which seems to indicate that the use of electricity in irrigation has tended to reduce the size of the farm and increase the number of farmers.” While noting it was hard to measure the value of the firm’s conservation efforts, “it is logical to suppose that the untiring efforts made to properly meet the needs of the rancher and assist him in every way has been instrumental.”

Another important element of SCE’s work, Kenyon continued, was in steam-powered plants, including one erected at Long Beach in 1912, while advancing technology allowed the company to add a pair of massive turbines at that facility in 1925. These 450-ton behemoths had a capacity of 50,000 horsepower each and “a kilowatt hour of electricity for every pound of coal, or equivalent fuel, [is] consumed under the boilers.”

This was important because it took some 11,000 barrels of oil of 45 million cubic feet of gas was required every day and any savings was important for efficiency. The opening of the huge Long Beach oil field obviously allowed for such an expansion, as natural gas otherwise allowed to dissipate in the atmosphere was redirected to the plant. The 4.35 billion cubic feet of gas, some 6% of all the production in the country, saved some 1 million barrels of oil. A new plant was i construction in that city that, with a 70,000 horsepower capacity, would “make Long Beach the greatest steam generatoin center west of Chicago.”

Kenyon offered that “never in the history of manking has such a fruitful territory been developed which promised so little in the beginning.” Not only this, but “constructive conservation has made this development possible and an intelligent adherence to this safe and sane principle will make it possible for Southern California to continue its present rate of growth indefinitely.” This is a notable prediction for us to consider not quite a century later.

Clarence Matson, long associated with the Port of Los Angeles and author of a 1945 history about it, wrote “Gigantic Development of a Man Made Harbor,” which noted that, in recent years, the port became the second largest in the U.S., after New York, “yet only a comparatively few years ago this great harbor of today was an open roadstead into which emptied a shallow lagoon.”

Matson saw this as an epic beginning with “the time when the human race first moved out from the plains of Western Asia” and led after more than 100 generations, through Greece, Rome, the empire of Charlemagne, Spain, France and England, to the development of the New World. Notably, he characterized this latter as a march of “the Anglo-Saxon to the north, the Latin to the South,” as if never the twain shall meet. The former proceeded in a neat, linear progression across the continent, with nary a mention of the indigenous people or others, so that

Here is the final frontier—for there is no more “Father West.”

Here on the shores of the Pacific facing the Orient it is predicted thatthe Anglo-Saxon race will climax. Here it is gathering in ever-increasing numbers, and the peak of this westward movement of the ages is the City of Los Angeles.

Matson added that a third of all who migrated to the Pacific Coast by 1920 was settling in Los Angeles County, so the leap in the poulation of the city from just over 100,000 in 1900 to more than 1.1 million at the time made it clear “that at no distant day Los Angeles will become a great world metropolis.” Such a city “must have world highways” by land and sea, so that “riches may be sent out and brought in from the uttermost parts of the Earth. And so came Los Angeles Harbor.”

As for pre-American Los Angeles, its “career was a lame and halting one for many decades” with a very rudimentary port to serve the town and the Gold Rush did not do much to change conditions in the Angel City, which “was still a sleepy little pueblo with a population of only a few thousand Mexicans, Chinese and Americans.” The early stages of progress (literally) included the coming of Phineas Banning and his stage line between San Pedro, as it was then known, and Los Angeles. He brought government support during the Civil War through Drum Barracks and the system of ships anchoring in the bay and light craft taking people and cargo to and from the shore would have to change.

Matson incorrectly stated that the first local railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro, wsa built in the early 1870s, it opened in 1869, and he also said that “county stock” in it was handed over the Southern Pacific, as it the stock was publicly owned, whereas it was private. The extension of the rail line to the San Pedro portion, despite Banning’s efforts to have Wilmington be the center of the harbor, meant the former maintained prominence until the building of the Panama Canal and local improvements changed conditions. He noted early federal efforts to improve the harbor, dating to a breakwater in 1871 and later dredging projects.

The need for an “outer harbor” and competition from the Southern Pacific and its Santa Monica port (acquired in 1877 from the failed Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, of which F.P.F. Temple was first president and then treasurer) led to the Free Harbor Fight of the mid-90s which led to federal government choosing San Pedro/Wilmington as the main port for the area. That outer harbor project involved sixteen years of labor and over $3 million and paved (!) the way for further developments, including the notorious shoestring annexation of San Pedro and Wilmington to Los Angeles and a $3 million bond issue shortly afterward, that made the port the second largest in the country. Matson was slated to continue his series in a later issue, which the Homestead’s collection, unfortunately, does not have.

An interesting article concerned a plan by the Architectural Club of Los Angeles for a “Small House Plan Service” entry (the program started in 1923) for a structure to cost no more than $7,000. The program was intended “to establish a point of contact between the architects and the builders and the building public” so that reasonable cost homes could be made available and “a sufficient number of resales of each design would be made to insure the designer eventually a fair return” financially.

Among those participating were the Community Arts Association of Santa Barbara, whose sixty-two plans were prepared by “Mr. Winslow,” this being Carleton Winslow, who was a huge influence on the development of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, of which La Casa Nueva is a preeminent local example; the Common Brick Manufacturers; Association, which submitted designs for smaller brick residences; a Hillsides Competition for the Hollywood Knolls tract; the California Redwood Association and its “simple Colonial cottages;” the Architects’ Small House Service Bureau of the United States, headquartered in Minneapolis an having regional offices; and the Home Builders’ Service Bureau, organized by House Beautiful magazine.

The result was hundreds of designs for low-cost dwellings with three sets offered for sale and “if alterations are required, the client is put in touch with the designer when necessary, and an additional charge is made for the time required.” The featured home in the magazine was a Spanish Colonial Revival bungalow with two bedrooms, a bath, a living room, a dining room, a laundry room, a kitchen, a garage, a front patio and a rear porch, and which was judged to be “almost beyond criticism” because of its arrangement and location including a garage and garden on a typical lot. Also included in the plan was a fish pond and sun house “with a conveniently arranged service garden-yard,” as well.

Another highlight featured in the publication was the newly compelted Reid Studio Apartments in what is now Koreatown “within one minute’s walk of the Ambassador Hotel.” It was noted that the brick and concrete structure featured “beautiful and expensive hangings, custom-built furniture, exquisite decorations, handsome wrought-iron electrical fixtures, [and] cheery, sunny outside apartments [which] offer to the guests unstinted luxury and lavish ease. It was noted that “these apartments on account of their unusual arrangement with bachelor, double and studio apartments were filled with high-class tenants in less than ten days after completion.”

This was testament to the vision of its owner and builder, Violet Reid Urson, who was probably a rare woman developer of the era and who selected many of the furnishing and window coverings. She was denoted “a very charming and capable woman” and was lauded “for the wonderful taste shown in completing this unique building.” Nearly a century later, what is now known as the Mariposa Apartments doesn’t quite have that charm shown in the photos and a Zillow listing for a unit shows the garishly colored halls and trim in public spaces, while the apartment is pretty plain.

Elsewhere, a display home for Meline’s Benmar Hills project in Burbank shows a handsome Cotswold cottage design for a house that still stands at Sixth and Amherst streets, not far from Burbank High School. This much larger dwelling than the service plan home mentioned above was decorated by the prominent firm of Barker Brothers and was available for public viewing for a limited time. A.T. Danielson, of Barker Brothers, commented that a challnege was to decorate with “the personality of the lady of the home in mind” sothat “we begin building around the lady, that which will make her the paramount thing in the home.”

This meant not designing the interior with too masculine or feminine a style if it was too much the opposite of the female in mind and there had to be “the perfect harmony of relationship with her surroundings” leading to “a lasting satisfaction and perfect contentment.” Moreover, a goal was to be sure “that her home would have an entirely different air than anyone else could possible have because personality comes only in [a] singular person. That is what makes home interest.”

As important as it was to apply this thinking throughout the residence, Danielson observed “the kitchen is the one room in the house that is neglected more than any other, and this is a serious mistake.” The housewife, or servants, had to work in a space in which the design “makes work as easy as possible.” The piece ended by noting that up to eighty houses were expected to be constructed in the tract within a couple of months.

In the “Constructive Dreaming” editorial page, it was noted that 72% of Southern California’s residents were in Los Angeles County and 38% of all Californians lived there. While it was observed that such building meant that the county’s agricultural preeminence was vanishing, because there were almost 70 fewer farms in 1925 than five years before, it was argued that farms under three acres (such as at Runnymede in the San Fernando Valley, recently featured here) were not included and there were many more of these.

Given the ongoing debacle over the Florida land boom and bust, there was also mention here of the fact that “we here in California are speedily on our way to that development which in coming years will engender an even greater momentum” than heretofore built, though three- and-a-half years off was the onset of the Great Depression. The harbor was cited as critical to that ongoing growth and it was anticipated that

Los Angeles will some day be looked up to as one of man’s greatest achievements, a city engineered and built by man, a city that will be looke to by all men as man’s greatest accomplishment.

Other short pieces noted dramatic property increases at Beverly Hills Heights; the rising prosperity of the industrial lands of the area; the newly completed $2.5 million Shrine Civic Auditorium; and plans announced by Sears, Roebuck and Company for a Los Angeles branch, which opened in Boyle Heights in 1927 as a mail-order facility and became a store—it has just been announced that it is closing and the future of the large Art Deco-style structure, slated for redevelopment as housing above the store, is being closely watched.

This issue of The Realty Digest and the July 1926 edition that is also in the museum’s holdings is a remarkable document of the boosterism of Los Angeles-real estate and the region generally, a few years before the Great Depression burst forth and put a crimp on the extraordinary run that Meline and his company had during the Roaring Twenties.

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