by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This post is another in a series of great aerial photographs taken by Spence Airplane Photos of sections of Los Angeles in the mid-1920s and which are representative of some of the earliest such images of the Angel City. Taken on 14 October 1925, the location of the craft was just a bit west of Carondelet Street to the west of the park and the view looks towards downtown. To the left, or on the north end of the park, is 6th Street, while at the right, or south, is 7th Street.
Between those two is Wilshire Boulevard, but east of the park the thoroughfare was known as Orange Street as it moved west from downtown. The section that continued further west to Santa Monica, established in 1875, was Nevada Street. The reason for the renaming of the part west of the park was because of the development in early 1888 of the Auburn Park Tract, which comprised 161 lots along Seventh Street and facing the park, with the developer being Henry Gaylord Wilshire.
As a previous post on this blog noted, Wilshire (1861-1927) was from Cincinnati, moved to San Francisco as a young man to join a brother named William, and then the two then headed to Los Angeles. They bought land at Santa Monica, Long Beach and Fullerton (where a Wilshire Street still exists in the downtown section)—all acquired in 1887 as the region was undergoing the great Boom of the Eighties.
Then came the purchase of the land around what was known as West Lake Park, a section that had a large portion of alkali soil and which evidently was also used as a trash dump. A tract of 35 acres, comprising one of the so-called “donation lots” laid out earlier in the century, was acquired by the City of Los Angeles in a land swap with George S. Patton, a prominent attorney, son-in-law of Benjamin D. Wilson (who came to the Angel City in 1841 with the Rowland and Workman Expedition) and father of the famous World War II general.)
It has been stated that when Wilshire was asked about allowing the extension of Orange Street on some of his land west of the park site, he agreed to provide a 120-foot wide strip of land 1,200 feet in length with the proviso that the continuation be named for him. Over succeeding decades, Wilshire Boulevard not only pushed further west, but was the prime route in that section of Los Angeles and included the famed “Miracle Mile.”
In 1887-1888, however, the area was undeveloped, though the identification of what was called the “New City Park” was part of the newspaper listing of the Wilshire gift for the new street as reported in the Los Angeles Herald of 8 March 1887. By late spring, however, as a map of a proposed line of the Los Angeles Cable Railway streetcar system showed when it was published in the Los Angeles Times of 9 June. Notably, one of the owners of the LACR was Angel City Mayor William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, and, as he would do with Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, which he established with two partners, Workman was a proponent of developing the park.
Wilshire’s “Auburn Park Tract” was first advertised on Valentine’s Day 1888, but the 24 January edition of the Herald included a note on a report of a city council meeting that Wilshire petitioned that “the City Engineer be instructed to draw plans of improvement in West Lake Park.” Work, however, proceeded slowly as there was limited funding, even as an arrangement was made by which assessments by property owners totaling $3,000 were to be matched by the City.
At the end of May, the City Council advertised for proposals to provide 600 feet of 30-inch cement pipe, apparently for the diversion of water from the municipality’s zanja, or water ditch, system to fill the lake. The council also received a petition from a “citizen’s fund” requesting that the City “accept a map of West Lake Park presented by City Engineer [William T.] Lambie and that the Committee on Parks [Parks Commission] call in 25 per cent of the subscription for the improvement of the park.” In addition, it was requested “that plans and specifications for the drainage of the lake be prepared.”
In mid-June, there was another petition by citizens to the council concerning the appropriation of funds by the City to match that from property owners around the park, but this was denied on the grounds that “the city cannot delegate the power to advertise for bids to private individuals.” If, however, the subscriptions from citizens were collected, “the city will add dollar for dollar and advertise for bids” for the work done as called for in plans. By the end of the month, advertisements were taken for bids on the grading of driveways in the park.
A letter to the Herald on 27 August referred to a statement provided by the prominent merchant Harris Newmark concerning his view on what was needed for “pleasure resorts” in the Angel City with the correspondent, subscribed as “Observer,” observing that,
It is certain that if our city is ever to become a large one, it will be in consequence of its fine climate and consequent attraction for those who have the inclination and means to make a home far removed from the disagreeable freaks of nature that makes life in the East subject to so many dangers and inconveniences.
The problem was that, for tourists and prospective property owners and house builders, Los Angeles had “no popular driveways and no public places of resort” and the writer registered disgust that there was contemplation of ending use of the “Nicholson ditch” which, it was pointed out, “means nothing more or less than shutting off the water from that pretty little lake at West Lake Park.”
All this would achieve was allow for the breeding of mosquitoes and the risk of malaria “out of the greatest natural advantage the city possesses for making the most lovely spot in California.” The letter-writer continued that “West Lake Park is at present the only one [park site] that allows of present improvement without much outlay” because of that private commitment of $3,000.
With its excellent location and the potential of surrounding development, “Observer” added that, “though unimproved, [the park] calls thousands of visitors to it every week.” Notably, the writer made the point that “the HERALD was the prime mover in the setting apart of this one spot for a park” and pled for the paper to “expose all attempts to take away from us this fairest of our jewels.”
Other than the undeveloped Elysian Park, “which must take many years and a much larger city to beautify,” the other two parks, the Plaza and Central/6th Street Park [now Pershing Square, were under four acres and “do not offer the invitation to a day in the country that the West Lake Park would.” It was asked why it would only be oceanside resorts (Santa Monica, Redondo, Long Beach and the like) that would draw visitors outside the city,
when thousands would stay at home and spend their money here if they could have this lovely spot made more tempting with the trees and flowers, of which we can in a year or so cluster extensive and beautiful varieties as would make our visitors know that nothing is impossible in glorious California? . . .
The thirty-five acres contained in the West Lake Park offers [sic] the best opportunity for growing and displaying of the numerous and beautiful varieties of trees, shrubs and flora which adds so much to the attractive features of our city . . .
An editorial by the Herald lauded the letter as complementary of the position of the paper that “the most possible should by all means be made of West Lake Park, and of all other places of public resort in or near this city.” The idea was that “it should be our pride to make this the most esthetic and beautiful city on the continent” because “all things in this line are possible to us.” It concluded, “let all good citizens take firm hold of this matter of making drives, parks and other pleasure resorts in and near Los Angeles . . . if we are to maintain the prestige we have already won among the cities of the [Pacific] Coast.”
In the paper’s issue of 14 December, another correspondent, lacking even a nom de plume, asked “why does not the grading of the streets [drives] in West Lake Park continue?” The abrupt cessation of any work at all aggravated and led to the statement that “it is very important that we have at least one attractive park which our Eastern visitors may be shown.” The “natural advantages” of the site were cited, including its ease of access from 7th Street out of downtown and that it was “directly in the line of the city’s growth.”
Given that the winter season brought many visitors, it was considered critical that the Angel City “should have attractions to keep them in the city after they arrive” and the writer fretted that if there were “meager attractions,” tourists would quickly decamp to San Francisco. On economic terms it was averred that “the city would get back 100 per cent of all the money it expends in parks in one year, and let us hope that something will be done immediately.”
In a Herald piece from 24 January 1889 about Kansas City, Missouri, the paper took the opportunity to observe that “the site of Los Angeles, set on her lovely hills, is Angelic” and that “the sunny skies and balmy airs that smile and breathe upon her are Angelic.” Yet, despite Nature’s bounty, the City was “too little disposed to supplement her grand efforts by a few finishing touches of our own.” There were park sites and the “prettily ornamented public squares” in the Plaza and Central Park, but “something should be done, and done soon, to improve the Elysian Park, the East Los Angeles [also known as “50 Acres” and now Lincoln] Park and the West Lake Park.”
The 9 March edition of the paper reported on efforts of the West Side Improvement Association by having a levy of $5 per lot from areas around the park in the belief that the tracts would benefit from its improvement with respect to planting grass and trees. Anticipating the further establishment of “a delightful resort,” the Association noted that the cable railway expected to complete its line to the park in the summer.
The editors added, “Los Angeles is peculiarly deficient in respect of her parks” and noted “it is a thing for the city to be ashamed of” because it would be easy with the local climate “to secure the most beautiful effects in landscape gardening.” With the hordes of tourists coming to the Angel City, moreover, “pretty parks would be a great source of pleasure to people of leisure,” while “the people near West Lake Park are displaying more than ordinary wisdom and enterprise” and should be encouraged “and their efforts deserve to be crowned with success.”
By the end of April, a boathouse was proposed and an official topographic map was filed, while momentum finally was developed, even as there were some concerns about contractors requiring nine-hour days of its workers, despite a new city ordinance, following national trends, limiting workdays to eight hours. The 12 May issue of the Herald included a report that John Bryson, who succeeded Workman as mayor, park commissioners, and six council members toured the park.
It was stated that 20 of the 35 acres of the site was to be devoted to the lake and “it will be large enough to admit of very pleasant rowing, and even of regattas, on a small scale” and “there will be a handsome boathouse built, of which the foundations have already been laid.” The drive surrounding the body of water, totaling three-quarters of a mile, “will be set with palms and fringed with flower beds. It was also noted that the lake edge would be constructed so that children could play in a shallow section without fear of drowning, while a fence would keep anyone from getting into deeper water.
There was concern that the lake was so close to 7th Street that winter rains would raise the water level and pose a threat to the stability of that thoroughfare. Additionally, it was stated that “at present not a living thing is to be seen growing in the tract,” but “in a short time the planting of trees will be commenced and the grounds will be sodded and the walks graveled.” The landscape gardener, Legrand, who oversaw the beautification of the Plaza and Central/6th Street Park was on the job so that “within a year West Lake Park will be a spot which citizens will point out to visitors with a very reasonable pride.” Interestingly, it was rumored that a donation of land south of 7th was contemplated for expansion of the park, though this did not take place.
While work continued, there still remained a lot to do by early 1890, as the 6 February edition of the Los Angeles Express as it interviewed former United States Surveyor Richard P. Hammond, Jr. about his impressions of Angel City parks. He noted that “West Lake Park is approached by a beautiful boulevard . . . unfortunately, just now Westlake Park is nearly all lake.
A month later, however, the Express of 3 March observed that “West Lake Park is becoming a popular Sunday afternoon resort” and added that “it will in time be the greatest attraction in the city” as “the favorite drive to the park is Orange street.” Citizens began donating boats for use by guests plying the lake and, in August, it was reported that the captain of a steamer used to transport passengers to and from Catalina Island offered to donate the craft, though this appears to have not taken place.
In late May, Governor Robert Waterman, Mayor Henry T. Hazard, and the park commissioners toured East Lake and West Lake parks, with the party spending their time at the latter “viewing the lake and improvements.” It was reported that “there are four or five men at work here embellishing the grounds,” including the installation of a fountain and redwood planks used for embankments around the lake. The account concluded, “the party seemed well pleased with the progress of the work and what had been accomplished for the money expended.”
While there doesn’t appear to have been a formal grand opening, it does seem as if the park was largely completed by summer 1890 and occasional articles noted boating parties. A 20 August snippet in the Herald recorded that
West Lake Park is really one of the most pleasing features of the city. The pretty little sheet of limpid water, the ribbon of grass around it, and the shrubs and flowers that dot the entire circle are charming. The new boat house is almost finished and a number of people enjoy a daily row on the surface of the lakelet.
An open air concert, the first of its kind located at the park, was held on 23 November with the People’s Store, owned by Hamburger and Sons and which was later called by that name before being sold to May Company, hosting the performance by two bands. Balmy weather for Christmas meant that “West Lake park was well filled,” as noted by the Herald.
Thirty-five years later, the Spence aerial photo captured the park in the midst of a fully urbanized portion of the rapidly expanding Angel City and the country atmosphere touted as a key attraction in the late 1880s was an increasingly distant memory. Wilshire Boulevard was built through the park in the 1930s and, in 1942, during the early stages of America’s participation in the Second World War, General Douglas MacArthur, as with General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing in the prior world conflict, was honored by having the park renamed for him.