by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This season’s precipitation levels are the highest in nearly twenty years with more than 27 inches to date in downtown Los Angeles, the most since 2004-2005 when there were almost 38 inches. As for this March, which is just north of 7 inches, that is the most for the month since 1992 and just .04 inches more will surpass that total. This is the 10th wettest season since official records began in 1877 and, when factoring in the totals through March only, it is the 6th.
As troublesome as the rain and snow have been for many areas of California, if not as much for our region outside of those poor folks who were trapped for days in their mountain homes because of large amounts of snow, the precipitation has been such that a majority of the state has fallen out of official drought status. Given how severe and dire conditions have been in recent years—six of the ten driest seasons have taken place in the last two decades and four within the last ten years as climate change continues to accelerate—the abundance is, all in all, welcome.
The 1904-1905 season was a decent one for the region, with nearly 20 inches recorded, the most in over a decade, of which there were six very dry years, so landscapes in greater Los Angeles definitely showed the results. The featured artifacts from the Museum’s collection for this post are three glass-plate negatives of landscaping at Westlake Park, which was a horticultural highlight among the public places in the Angel City from the time it was established not far under two decades prior.
Renamed MacArthur Park in June 1942 in honor of General Douglas MacArthur, an American hero during World War II for his command of U.S. armed forces in the Pacific Theater including the Philippines, Westlake was established in 1886 during the great Boom of the Eighties. It was situated at the west end of city limits in an area considered remote from downtown, but, in succeeding years the area became a fashionable residential district with the park a centerpiece.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries constituted something of a parks boom in Los Angeles, as such prominent examples of Eastlake (renamed Lincoln in the 1910s), Hollenbeck, Elysian and the massive 4,300-acre Griffith, were established. These certainly were critical in providing badly needed public space for a rapid growing city, though very little in the way of new parks followed over the many years afterward.
The community surrounding the park still bears the Westlake name and it has transformed considerably over nearly 120 years, in terms of the demographics, with a substantial Central American population, and economically, where the high-density district (second in this regard in the city to neighboring Koreatown) has experienced significant levels of poverty, though gentrification, as in many other areas in and around downtown, has also occurred in recent years, heightening issues of housing affordability and community identity. About three-quarters of the residents are Latino and about 17% are Asian and the park remains a core public space for the area.
A prior post here detailed some of the early history of Westlake Park, covering its establishment and the efforts to improve it up through 1890, so this one will be confined to some of what was going on at the time the highlighted images here were taken. The views include a section of palm and other trees planted within a neatly-trimmed lawn adjacent to the lake (and with walkways showing evidence of recent rains thanks to human and horse prints and vehicle tracks); another lakeside image with a rain-rutted walk, a lawn, trees and a largely-hidden but very cool rustic wood bridge; and a great shot of a cactus and succulent garden (something we’ll certainly need more of in our region as climate change accelerates and water supplies dwindle) with some of the lushness of the park behind and below it and the lake off to the left.
With respect to the area surrounding Westlake Park in March 1905, there were some interesting bits of news reported in the Angel City press. For example, the oil boom that began in the early 1890s with the establishment of the Los Angeles City field by Charles Canfield and Edward L. Doheny not too far north led to a rush of prospecting around the park. The Los Angeles Express of the 8th reported that the Westlake Oil Company, which “was formed during the oil boom, which raged fiercely a few years ago.”
While there was great activity as the 19th century came to a close and the new century arose and the firm “had several wells that were good producers in their early days,” the paper noted that “the yield has steadily dwindled, and with the low price of oil the company’s affairs have not been prosperous.” Purportedly, the officers of the company were looking at issuing a three-cent dividend on stock which “represents an investment of from 50 to 65 cents,” so, “while the shrinkage in values is heavy,” stockholders “will be pleased to see the career of the company terminated even on this basis.”
As for the firm’s lands to the west of the park, the Express observed that “the cleaning up of a fine tract” would provide a new yield for real estate developers and house builders in that “there will be opened a beautiful addition to the Westlake residence section, and an example will be set which other companies probably will follow.” Real estate sections frequently included listings of property and structures in the area and, in mid-April, the “Westlake Lots,” just west of the park, a graphic of which was included, were advertised by Mines and Farish, agents for several tracts in the city, as the “Cream of Westlake Section.”
On 28 March, the Los Angeles Times ran a brief piece noting that “improvement societies in the new tracts are very wideawake [sic], but their influence is most needed in some of the older residence districts, where many properties have been allowed to retrograde.” The paper admonished owners of such places that there were damaged curbing, uprooted trees, dead lawns, “pigs (or dogs) scattering bones and upsetting the garbage cans over the grass—what are these people thinking of?” The piece ended by declaring that “such things can be and are within a stone’s throw of Westlake Park.”
Also of general local interest was the lengthy coverage of the Times in its 13 March edition of the arrival of Kang Youwei (1858-1927), who was a prominent scholar in China and leader of a reform movement there as the 19th century came to a close and the Qing dynasty continued its rapid decay. An advocate against Westernization, which he characterized as morally polluting, and a promoter of traditional Confucian values, Kang sought to end the practice of the foot-binding of Chinese women before the humiliating defeat inflicted by Japan in the mid-90s led him and others to form the Society for the Study of National Strengthening, a forerunner of political parties in China.
After Kang aggressively lobbied Emperor Guangxu for a wide slate of reforms through the Society to Preserve the Nation, but which were blocked by the Empress Dowager Cixi, who asserted her power in the control of government, he, having lost a brother to execution, escaped to Japan and then to Canada. While in Montreal, he formed the China Reform Association, known commonly as the Save the Emperor Association and later renamed the Constitutional Party, and, in exile, wrote a book about a utopian future for his homeland that some think presaged socialism in China.
The Times piece noted that Kang arrived in the U.S. several weeks prior and was a guest of President Theodore Roosevelt at Washington, but, as with so many people generally, his health was such that a doctor suggested that he go to Los Angeles to recover in a warm climate. It was added that “the distinguished oriental will be met at the depot by Mayor [Owen] McAleer and several Councilmen” along with Chamber of Commerce members, “a company of Chinese infantry,” and “every notable in Chinatown in carriages” before being taken to Chinatown, near the Plaza, for an informal reception. The article concluded that Kang intended to remain in the Angel City for a couple of months and it observed that “a house on West Seventh Street overlooking Westlake Park has been engaged” for him and his personal secretary.
Among other minor news of note for March relating to the park and area was that a “Japanese Party” held at a South Los Angeles residence and which included, among American flags and images of George and Martha Washington, decorations of “Japanese lanterns and umbrellas” and “refreshments served in Japanese dishes,” reflective of a growing interest in the exoticism of Asian societies, albeit at a shallow level. It was reported by the Times of the 5th that, “the evening’s pleasures were concluded at Westlake Park, on the lake.”
In its edition of 21st, the Los Angeles Herald reported that Gertrude Kellar Bagley and the fabulously named Captain Tuffnell Peacock were opening the Westlake School of Elocution, Expression and Dramatic Training “in the building of the school of art and design, Westlake park.” The paper pointed out that one of the more unusual offerings was to be the study of Shakespeare outdoors at the park, “boats on the lake having been leased to row the pupils about while perusing the works of the great bard.” Nothing further was located about the institution, so who knows whether the “Shakespeare in the Park” program was actually carried out?
Also reported on by the Times of the 10th was that a pair of swans was, for several weeks, readying to lay eggs at the park and it was expected that up to seven cygnets (baby swans) would soon emerge from the nest “in a secluded spot at the north end of the park, screened from the eyes of the curious by palm fronds.” The eggs were laid in the last couple of weeks of February and “a wire fence has been placed about the nest” to keep out predators as well as humans and it was observed that the swans alternated between watching the eggs and enjoying the adjacent lake. The piece ended by noting that “three broods of cygnets already have been raised at Westlake Park,” with two birds having died in unspecified accidents, while others were at Eastlake, Echo and Hollenbeck parks.
As for persons associated with the park, the Express of the 9th reported that the city parks commission ended its contract with N.H. Mullin for the boat concession at Eastlake and awarded it to Joe H. Parvin, “watchman at Westlake park,” who secured a two-year deal that was also to include the operation of a peanut and popcorn stand. Then, the Express of the 23rd discussed the matter of Westlake foreman John Farquhar, suspended in mid-February, had a hearing before the commission on charges from a worker he recently fired that he “borrowed money from several of the men under his orders” and then “allowed them time on the payroll to settle the indebtedness.”
While Farquhar professed his innocence and conveyed his desire to appear before the body and explain himself, he failed to appear at a special meeting early in March. This meant that his case was to be referred to the city’s Civil Service Commission for trial. At the end of April, however, it was reported by the Times, that Farquhar decided to resign because “he preferred resignation to facing charges before the Civil Service Commission.” John MacLean, who was at the Eastlake Park conservatory and “said to be one of the best landscape gardeners in the [parks] department” was appointed to fill the vacancy.
There were regular band concerts offered at Eastlake and Westlake parks, as well as occasional ones at Playa del Rey, a recently established seaside community with a lagoon, hotel and other amenities, and newspapers listed the programs. At Westlake, music was played by Rykert’s Military Band, usually with about ten or twelve pieces including marches, waltzes, overtures, popular song medleys and the concluding Star-Spangled Banner.
Finally, there is a very interesting article on the origins of the park under the heading of “Westlake Park Once Not Worth Two Bits” in the Herald of the 5th. The piece began with the report that “while at the chamber of commerce banquet Uncle Billy Workman, city treasurer, became reminiscent between courses and told a story about the cheapness of Angeleno realty back in the sixties—a story that seemed almost incredible.” Workman, the nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, told those assembled that,
Times was when real estate in Los Angeles was not worth two bits [50 cents] an acre. That was forty years ago, out in the Westlake section, now one of the most desirable residential districts [in the city]. A syndicate owned all of that land and it was put up at public sale, with E.W. Noyes as auctioneer. All around the deep hole in the earth now used as Westlake park the land sold as low as $5 and $6 an acre, but when it came to selling the alkali ravine not a bid at any price could be had . . . and it remained deserted and unimproved until 1887.
Workman added that E.A. Forrester and doctors Bryant and Hagan, along with other owners of the land, “proposed to pay half the expense to convert the acreage into a public park if the city would stand for the other half of the expense.” He continued that “this is the way in which land that could not be sold for two bits an acre finally became beautiful Westlake park.”
The Herald, however, commented that “it was largely through the enterprise and foresightedness of Mr. Workman, who was mayor of Los Angeles during the years 1887-8, that Westlake park was created” and it also stated that the current manager of the Angel City’s finances “has always felt elated over the fact that the park came into existence during his administration.”
In addition to a portrait of Workman, there was one of Elipha W. Noyes, who was then 76 years old and resided in South Los Angeles. It was observed that he moved from Washington, D.C. to Washington territory before migrating to the Angel City, where he affirmed that “I was the first auctioneer in Los Angeles, when acres of land worth many thousands of dollars now were sold at $5 to $100 each, and many acres could not be sold at any price.”
Noyes related how he conducted an auction for a syndicate including such prominent figures as future mayor Prudent Beaudry, attorney and judge Volney E. Howard, nurseryman Ozro W. Childs, vineyardist Mathew Keller (personally close with William H. Workman) and Stephen Mott owned the hill lands from the early Hebrew Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills south to the end of Sixth Street, where the Los Angeles Woolen Mill (of which F.P.F. Temple was a founder) was situated. This land included what became Bunker Hill, an early residential section for the well-to-do of Los Angeles.
Noyes also recalled that “I was the auctioneer at the first sale of lots at Santa Monica,” the seaside resort town of Robert S. Baker and Nevada Senator John P. Jones and which was the terminus of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, the first president of which, before Jones, was Temple. He also related that he sold lots at Artesia, Pomona and Santa Gertrudes, all of which were developed in the mid-1870s at the peak of the first boom in Los Angeles.
So, as spring has sprung amid a continuing spate of storms bringing a profusion of precipitation to our region and our parks, among other areas, will definitely benefit with blooms abundant, we’ll look to offer posts in the “La La Landscapes” series concerning regional landscaping during the season.