Through the Viewfinder at the Playa del Rey Lagoon, Los Angeles, ca. 1904

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It has been said in previous posts on this blog before, but certainly bears repeating with this one, that it is rather remarkable how many artifacts in the Homestead’s collection have much more to them in terms of what they offer about our region’s history than meet the eye. In this case, the cabinet card photograph, taken about 1904, featured here shows a bucolic scene at the lagoon of the Playa del Rey development.

A woman stands at the southern edge of the water feature (which still survives, though in a much reduced form) and gazes out at the scenery, including several rowboats bundled together in the water; the eastern shore buttressed by retaining walls; a couple of houses built above that; part of the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance; a boardwalk at the left with a few folks strolling along it; and, most notably, a three-story structure, with towers at the corners, and which sat right up against the lagoon.

Los Angeles Herald, 1 June 1887.

The area was once part of a large wetlands area, as was so much of the coastal areas in our region, with what is now Ballona Creek once the terminus of the Los Angeles River before a flood in 1825 redirected the course of the river southward. For thousands of years, the indigenous people were drawn to this section because of the abundant plant and animals resources it provided. The natives harvested fruit, nuts and seeds and hunted game and sea life, while seafaring to the outlying Channel Islands was conducted here and elsewhere on the coast.

By 1820, the Rancho La Ballona was being used for cattle ranching by brothers Agustín and Ygnacio Machado and father-and-son Felipe and Tomás Talamantes, all of whom resided in the pueblo of Los Angeles. In 1839, Department of Alta California Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado formally granted the rancho, comprising just shy of 14,000 acres, to the four men. In 1857, Benjamin D. Wilson, oft-discussed in this blog and who came to Los Angeles with the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841, acquired Tomás Talamantes’ quarter interest by foreclosure of a loan he made to him.

Los Angeles Times, 22 June 1902.

Playa Del Rey, however, was at the northwest corner of the Rancho Sausal Redondo, which was almost 22,500 acres granted by Alvarado in 1837 to Antonio Ygnacio Avila, who, like his northern neighbors, had run cattle on the land previously; in this case, about 15 years. About a decade after Avila died in 1858, his heirs, dealing with probate and land grant confirmation expenses and the loss of revenue from the decimated state of the cattle industry following severe floods and droughts in the first half of 1860s, sold Sausal Redondo to Scottish nobleman Robert Burnett, who also purchased the Rancho Aguaje de Centinela.

Burnett returned to his homeland in 1873 and leased both ranchos to Daniel Freeman. With greater Los Angeles nearing the peak of its first boom, which began in the late Sixties, Freeman partnered with several Los Angeles capitalists to develop the Centinela townsite and subdivision on parts of the two ranchos. The president of the Centinela project was F.P.F. Temple and among the plans for development were a railroad to the Ballona Creek outfall and a wharf to compete with the ones at Wilmington/San Pedro and Anaheim Landing (where Seal Beach meets Long Beach now.)

Los Angeles Express, 14 July 1902.

In 1874, Temple and others launched the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, which was initially intended to reach silver mines in Inyo County in eastern California, but, when mining magnate and United States senator from Nevada, John P. Jones, took a majority of the stock, the railroad concentrated first on a branch line to his new seaside town of Santa Monica. This led to the abandonment of any thoughts of the Los Angeles and Pacific Railroad and the projected wharf where Ballona Creek emptied into the sea.

As for the Centinela project, sales of lots were undertaken in early 1875 amid much promotion, but the sudden collapse of the state economy (which seemed immune to the national depression of 1873) due to a stock mining speculation bubble bursting in Virginia City, Nevada with San Francisco banks, like the Bank of California, heavily affected, brought the effort to a swift end, along with Temple’s own Temple and Workman bank. The Los Angeles and Independence Railroad did complete its branch line to Santa Monica in fall 1875, but it was sold less than two years later to the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Express, 17 July 1902.

Freeman, meanwhile, reassumed control of the Centinela and Sausal Redondo ranchos, but, when the next boom came a little more than a decade later, another project arose in the Ballona area. The famed Boom of the 1880s brought the Port Ballona project, conceived by Angel City capitalists like Moye L. Wicks, Frank Sabichi and Joseph Mesmer, and included an ambitious project to dredge much of the wetlands for the creation of the harbor, while Mesmer was to build a hotel. As with so many boom-era projects, Port Ballona failed, and it was not until the next boom that a new concept was devised.

In June 1902, the Beach Land Company was formed, comprised of a large group of “moneyed men” from Los Angeles and elsewhere, to launch the Playa del Rey (King’s Beach) subdivision. The idea was primarily to have the spot become a year-round resort, with locals enjoying the cool coastal weather by either having a second house or staying at a hotel and “winter birds” flying from the frigid climes of other parts of the country enjoying the balmy climate.

A 1902 townsite map from Alfred Solano from the website

Henry P. Barbour was president of the firm and the former lawyer and magazine editor, railroad promoter, mining prospector and real estate developer, who lived for years in St. Paul, Minnesota, but also developed Gray’s Harbor on the coast in Washington southwest of Seattle, came to Los Angeles in 1902 and launched the Playa del Rey effort. He was joined by Moses H. Sherman, best known as the namesake of Sherman Oaks and the major thoroughfare in the San Fernando Valley along with street railway projects; Eli P. Clark, Sherman’s partner in the Los Angeles-Pacific Railway, which had a direct transportation interest in Playa del Rey; Eldridge M. Fowler, a Detroit lumber baron who’d recently moved to Pasadena; P.M. Green, operator of the Crown City’s well-known hotel bearing his name; Edwin T. Earl, rail shipping figure of note and owner of the Los Angeles Express; attorney and real estate investor John D. Bicknell; Hobart J. Whitley, developer of Hollywood; and banker and real estate developer William D. Woolwine.

Playa del Rey was aggressively marketed and promoted by the firm from mid-1902 with its advertisements providing the usual breathless language about the manifold benefits of the project, its unparalleled natural and human-made attributes, and the fact that potential buyers needed to act fast to get the most advantage in purchasing lots. Barbour, for example, told Earl’s paper, in its 14 June edition, that local Latino families in days of yore ventured out to the site to enjoy a day’s leisure along the shore and that his company “organized to take advantage of all the beauties of location and natural advantage for the development of such a resting place as will only attract the most desirable residents.” Moreover, he added that “there will be no saloons, the building restrictions will be held high, and the entire tract will be laid out in landscape style,” while Clark announced that his streetcar company would have a line in service within two months.

Express, 23 August 1902.

On 16 July, the Express reported on the first land sale generating some $150,000 in purchases with visitors taking a Santa Fe train to the Alla station about where Culver Boulevard meets the Marina (90) Freeway and then conveyed to the site by carriage (a direct rail line was then expected by mid-September). An existing hotel, remodeled and renamed the Playa, featured an orchestra, while Barbour kicked things off with an address at a large tent and men were grading home sites and carpenters were busy sawing and hammering on the boardwalk and the retaining bulkhead walls around the lagoon. The latter, incidentally, was affected by the expected silting, so dredging was to be undertaken and a tide gate soon installed to help minimize the effects.

It was added that two piers were to be constructed and a $250,000 hotel was projected (some accounts state this facility was constructed, but it apparently never got past the idea stage and the hotel seen in the photo, which was smaller and built for far less, appears to be confused with that intended project), while soon it was announced that a bathhouse, which was built and was intended to be replaced by a bigger and more extravagant one, and a pavilion were in the offing.

Times, 3 February 1904.

A map, published at the time, showed that south and east of the lagoon were plans for a great many lots along mostly undulating streets. While Vista del Mar, Esplanade Street and Marine Avenue have mostly retained their lines (the first was Griffith Avenue east of the lagoon, while the latter is now Speedway) and their names, most of those streets (named for principals in the project), while largely retaining the curving character as shown in the map, have other names, excepting Barbour, Rindge, and even these have been changed. The large hotel, designed in the Italian Renaissance by the firm of Hunt and Eagan and to have 250 rooms as well as a large patio and luxuriant gardens, was supposed to be built where a block between Sunridge and Rees streets and Trask and Rindge avenues.

In the 6 August edition of Earl’s sheet, a versifier known only as “C.O.H.” concocted a poem as a paean to Playa del Rey, with the author claiming that “I have visited all the resorts on the coast and am so charmed” with this new one that it called for the lines of praise including:

Have you seen the king of beaches

With its beautiful lagoon,

Where a lake of crystal reaches

Bluer far than skies of June?

On whose tranquil bosom smiling

Age and Youth may float to song

Music’s strain the heart beguiling

Will the rhapsody prolong . . .

Have you seen this gem of places

Lying snugly on the coast?

Of each that charms and graces

This one attracts the most.

Endless carnival of pleasure—

A fiesta of delight—

Nature’s gifts of boundless measure

As Del Rey bursts on the sight.

Ads promoted rail service, which were delayed another couple of months but were ready by the time the pavilion was opened for the public to enjoy on Thanksgiving Day, as well as plans for large houses, though who knows how many of these were actually built? One early promotional piece called Playa del Rey the “Venice of America,” which seems to have resonated with Abbot Kinney, who, just a couple of years later, embarked on his canal-centered community of exactly that name just to the north.

Times, 22 April 1904.

There were also plans to extend the project north of the creek where Marina del Rey was much later developed, while another novel idea was the building of a “speedway,” really an early example of a highway, from Los Angeles city limits, about 3 1/2 miles eastward, with the Automobile Club of Southern California, established in 1900, supporting what later became Culver Boulevard.

While the grand hotel to the south was not undertaken, the smaller venue in the photo was constructed in 1904, as the Los Angeles Times of 3 February briefly noted, “plans for a forty-six-room three-story frame apartment hotel and rooming house . . . have been prepared by Architect J. Lee Burton of Los Angeles for George A. Cook.” Cook was a major figure in Redlands, whose W.D. Clark, a town trustee/water company president/orange grower, was a Playa del Rey investor, going from an early storeowner to being a banker, water company president and involved in the damming of Bear Valley that created the well-known lake there.

Note the early reference to the planning of nearby Venice, Express, 22 June 1904.

The 80′ by 80′ structure, built by A.M. Collar and costing $26,000, had a boat launch right at the venue’s edge on the lagoon. Frank Lawton, who appears to have been the operator and was also the builder of the pavilion, was also named Playa del Rey’s first postmaster in early July and it was noted that the post office was in the hotel. It was, despite the usual ambitions timetable for a 1 May opening, completed by August. With the west elevation facing the ocean and the north and east sides fronting the lagoon, large sections of plate glass were utilized to take advantage of the views.

In April 1905, Lawton purchased the Hotel Del Rey from Cook for $20,000 with the Redlands capitalist taking a significant loss on his investment, even as the Los Angeles Herald of the 28th recorded that the facility “is one of the best paying properties in Southern California.” Playa del Rey failed to meet the amplified promises of its potential and Barbour sold out his substantial interest and moved to Long Beach. There, he became a well-known realtor and developer, including at Alamitos Bay and at the city’s harbor, and was president of the state realty board.

Venice Vanguard, 31 October 1917.

Still, there was another phase in the area’s development during another of the region’s fabled booms and the Museum’s collection has a 1928 map for three tracts in the Del Rey Hills subdivision. So, we’ll look to feature that object in a future post, but, meanwhile, the history of the Hotel Del Rey concludes this post with, sadly, a terrible tragedy as its demise.

The venue became the Billows Hotel and Cafe by 1914, but, under the management of Emma Shandley, it was one of several places, along with ones in Santa Monica and Venice, targeted by ounty District Attorney’s office investigators on suspicions that young girls were lured by taxi drivers, employees of the facilities and others to work as prostitutes in the establishments that were raided. It appears that the Billows shut down after this took place in October 1917.

Los Angeles Record, 20 October 1920.

Almost exactly three years later, the Los Angeles Record reported that the shuttered hostelry was taken over by a Los Angeles community service council and remodeled and furnished for use as subsidized lodging for young working women priced out of housing in Los Angeles. Included for $7 was a week was room, board, a piano and a dance floor with applicants requested to go to a downtown office building to apply for accommodations and those accepted were given a special reduced fare on the Pacific Electric streetcar to and from the facility and downtown.

This arrangement did not appear, however, to last long, as the former hotel was then leased to Ione Conant for use for the Hope Development School, which was for developmentally disabled girls. On 31 May 1924, as Mary E. Jacobs, who took over active management, was away looking for a new home, including the former San Gabriel Masonic Home, because her lease was expiring, a fire burst out at about 9 p.m. and spread with great rapidity through the wood-frame edifice. Staff and bystanders rushed to help and some of the girls residing on the first floor more easily escaped the conflagration, but those in the upper levels were confused by the smoke or trapped by the flames.

Express, 18 June 1924.

In short order, the building was fully engulfed and there were many rescuers who suffered burns, smoke inhalation and injuries from the collapsing structure as 22 girls, the matron and her son, perished in what was easily one of the worse fire disasters in regional history. While it was initially reported, based on the statements of survivors, that the deceased matron may have accidentally started the fire while using an implement to curl her hair, a 16-year old resident, who, along with others, had previously started a number of fires, confessed. She told authorities she set the blaze in the basement because she wanted herself and other girls to be free of living in the facility.

Because of her disability, the teen was not charged in the matter, but there was a great deal of debate and discussion about the role of authorities in better regulating and observing conditions in all of the various public facilities, including homes for orphans, juvenile offenders, veterans (such as the nearby national soldiers’ home at Sawtelle) and others. The horrific fire has been long forgotten, though a Los Angeles Times article by Scott Harrison from 2019 discussed it in some detail and included original photos from the paper’s archives of the tragedy.

Playa del Rey’s history is quite interesting and, when we cover the 1928 map, we’ll go into some of the later aspects of it, but this photo is a very rare early view of the project that didn’t realize its ambitious plans.

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