by Paul R. Spitzzeri
At over 4,300 acres, Griffith Park is one of the largest city-owned parks in the country and has a diversity of uses from walks and hikes to sports to the Los Angeles Zoo and the Griffith Observatory. This northeast corner of the Santa Monica Mountains was part of the nearly 6,700-acre Rancho Los Feliz, granted to the family of that name in 1843.
The rancho was acquired in the early 1860s by the prominent Los Angeles figure, Antonio Franco Coronel, and then owned by the wealthy San Francisco capitalist James Lick, also owner of Santa Catalina Island. In 1882, Los Feliz was purchased by Griffith J. Griffith, a 32-year old native of Wales and journalist who made a fortune in mining consulting and one of the early uses of part of the property was for a short-lived ostrich farm.
Fourteen years later, towards the end of 1896, Griffith gave just north of 3,000 acres of the ranch to the City of Los Angeles for a public park, though it is clear that much of the tract, being very steep and hilly, had little, if any, development potential. He made a point of telling the City Council that “it must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses” and “a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people.”
Griffith had many plans for his gift, including an amphitheater and an observatory, but the eccentric egotistical closet drunkard’s attempted murder of wife Christina Mesmer at the Hotel Arcadia in Santa Monica in 1903 in which she was shot in the eye, losing sight in it, but leapt through the window of their room and landed on an awning below, saving her life, not only led to a two-year stint at San Quentin for Griffith, but to the City rejecting his plans.
Years after Griffith’s death in 1919, though, the Greek Theatre (1929) and the Griffith Observatory (1935) were built with funds from the estate. Mike Eberts, the authority on the park and its donor, has stated that, while Griffith was a deeply flawed individual, his gift to Los Angeles was one of the largest the Angel City ever received. His son, Van, was a long-time key member of the city park commission with major involvement with Griffith Park.
Other notable additions to the park were a zoo, opened in a canyon near the park’s center in 1912 and closed about a half-century later, with the Los Angeles Zoo opened in 1966 at the northeast corner; an aerodrome, or airfield, which was built in 1912 where the Zoo and the Autry Museum of the American West are now; and a golf course that welcomed players in 1914 and then was replaced by a new one that opened in August 1923, just days after the death of President Warren G. Harding, for whom it was then named.
As Los Angeles exploded in size and population during the late 19th and early 20th century, the importance of Griffith Park as an urban center for recreation became clearer. The highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection for this post are a trio of snapshots taken on 19 March 1925 and showing a group of well-dressed visitors posed in one of the lushly landscaped sections of the park, then spanning just over 3,750 acres.
With its abundance of trees, rocks, and, especially, ferns, it may be (and someone reading this who knows is encouraged to leave a comment about this) that the location is in Fern Dell, the southwestern corner of the park near where Los Feliz Boulevard meets Western Avenue. Its neatly groomed paths, rustic log bench, footbridge over a stream, and other elements show an idyllic retreat not far removed from the rapidly urbanizing Angel City and just the place for a relaxing visit just as winter was coming to a close.
During that month, a number of notable news notices were found in local papers concerning the park. For example, independent baseball teams, comprised of company clubs and others in the community, played games at the park, perhaps were Pote Field is now at the east end bordering the Los Angeles River and Interstate 5.
On 8 March, the Exposition Athletic Club faced off against William Lane, this latter likely a company, while two weeks later the “L.A. Chinese” walloped Miramonte, perhaps comprised of players from that area of southwest Los Angeles, by the score of 22-0, with pitcher P. Lowe only allowing seven hits, while his teammates drilled C. Tait for that huge number of runs on an equal number of hits.
Golf tournaments included one on the 21st and 22nd in which competitors sought trophies donated by the Big Bear Lake Golf and Country Club for low gross and low net scores for play at handicap on the 18-hole course. While the Harding course was the venue, there was a second one underway with a $63,600 appropriation by the City Council announced at the end of the month.
On the 20th, designer George Thomas, Jr., who was with the Los Angeles Country Club and also worked on the Harding course, told the Los Angeles Express that the new one would be equally as good. The paper added that the Harding was “one of the finest municipal tests of golf to be found in America today” and better than many touted as among the best on the planet. The new course, named for former president Woodrow Wilson opened in 1927.
Also in the works were eight new tennis courts, with construction to start by the end of March, perhaps at the Vermont Canyon location near the Greek Theatre and the Roosevelt gold course, while Sidney H. Woodruff, the developer of Hollywoodland, the exclusive residential enclave just to the west of the park, spoke on the 19th before the city’s park commission suggesting two possible locations for a polo field, while also recommending a bridle path along the Los Angeles River, apparently on the east side of the park. Speaking of horses, the first of the month included an auction of more than two dozen Kentucky-bred saddle equines at the riding academy located at the southeast corner of the park, across from the Friendship Auditorium and adult community center on Riverside Drive.
Also at the beginning of March, the Los Angeles High Schools’ Teachers Association hosted a massive event comprised of some 5,000 persons to plant wildflowers and shrubs in the Vermont Canyon section. The organization’s president telling the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News that the purpose was three-fold: to demonstrate patriotism, to model projects for other groups, and to simply have a good time. The latter was amply shown by an evening supper and singing and storytelling around a bonfire led by the School Masters Club.
Although it was an event held nearby, there was a park-related component to the unusual Glendale Commercial Air Rodeo, held mid-month at the Grand Central Air Terminal, still known as the Glendale Airport, just north of the park above where the river turns from the San Fernando Valley southward towards downtown.
The weekend event was intended to show the safety and low cost potential of commercial air travel and included formation flying, wing-walking, diving races, an air wedding and parachuting, with Ernest Davis, of Long Beach, jumping from a 1,500-foot height and “landing in Griffith Park, close to the golf course, unharmed.”
Returning to the zoo, it was big local news when it was revealed at the beginning of March that a black bear cub, known then as just “Little Bear”, was born toward the end of January, with zookeeper Otto Beyer telling the Illustrated Daily News, “I have never heard of a cub living for longer than a day or two when born to a mother in captivity, so you see our zoo has a distinction.”
To allow for a better prospect for survival, Beyer kept the birth secret for some forty days, though he revealed that a second cub was killed by the mother, Poppy (the father was Jerry), when she got worked up over the noise of the two young ones playing. He added that, when he found the pair, he placed them in a cement cave in the cage and covered the entrance with a carpet. By mid-month, the cub was named Otto, evidently in honor of the institution’s superintendent.
Finally, the other major news related to Griffith Park for March 1925 were continuing efforts to extend the ambitious Mullholland Highway, spanning the upper reaches of the Santa Monica Mountains, to the park. On the 5th, the Express reported that the City Council approved an $8,000 transfer to the park department, so that the latter could contract for the construction of the road past Hollywoodland through the park and then to terminate at the Western Avenue and Los Feliz Boulevard intersection.
The larger plan was to push the highway eastward into the Hollywoodland subdivision, where some portions of Mulholland Highway are paved and lined with houses. The route was then to follow Mount Lee Drive (the peak of that name is where the tract promotional sign was later shortened to “HOLLYWOOD” and then achieved renown for its alleged direct connections to the film industry) and into the park.
On 25 March, the Express ran a feature which began with the note that:
While the Southern California motorist is busy wearing out the highways with his gasoline chariot, men responsible for the upkeep of these roads and the building of others to relieve traffic congestion are busy looking into the future and providing for transportation routes so that centers of population move into new districts they will have some means of getting to and fro and back again.
One project was “a viaduct which is destined to carry Mulholland highway traffic over the heads of Cahuenga pass motorists,” meaning over Cahuenga Boulevard. The local manager of the Paige automobile company told the paper that he “found the Mulholland highway into Griffith park has been graded but not paved as yet and that the entrance to the western portion of the road has not been cut through to Cahuenga,” as here were high-voltage electric wires which had to be removed.
There is a Mulholland Trail that is the remnant of the 1920s highway project and which moves east of Mt. Lee Drive and wends its way to Mt. Hollywood Drive, which heads south towards the observatory. Bearing west and then south is Western Canyon Road which then turns into Fern Dell Drive, mentioned above, and that terminates at Los Feliz Boulevard near Western Avenue. So, while some progress was made on extending the famed thoroughfare to the east and through the park, it was halted with what remains as a trail.
The museum’s holdings include other pre-1930 photos, professionally taken as well as snapshots, of Griffith Park, so we’ll be sure to share some of these in future posts.