by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In a recent LAist article, Caitlin Hernández observes that “West Hollywood as a nucleus for LGBTQ+ culture in Southern California is practically set in stone” and the piece traces that history in the area back to the late 1920s. Incorporated in 1984, West Hollywood not only is, to quote Hernández, a “fabled and flawed LGBTQ+ haven,” but also has a large population of Russian Jews who fled the Soviet Union, especially from the 1970s into the 1990s.
There is a strong historical consciousness and awareness in West Hollywood, reflected not just in Hernández’ article, but others, such as Nathan Masters‘ piece for KCET’s Lost LA series and the City’s historic preservation office. This entry in the “Through the Viewfinder” series of posts highlighting photographs from the Homestead’s collection focuses on a 30 October 1923 aerial photograph of a portion of the community when it was comprised largely of two communities, West Hollywood and Sherman.
The name Cahuenga, with several variants in spelling, derives from an indigenous village in the southern San Fernando Valley and a vital pass of that name connecting that area with the Los Angeles plain was given that moniker. A region nestled against the southern slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains became known as the Cahuenga Valley (which proved slightly confusing given the village’s location on the other side of the range) and a township of that name developed there.
The area is also on parts of two of the pre-American ranchos established throughout greater Los Angeles, including La Brea, granted to the Rocha family and on which oil was later found that enriched such figures as G. Allan Hancock and Arthur F. Gilmore, and Rodeo de las Aguas, on which a substantial portion became Beverly Hills. In the 1860s, William Workman of the Homestead expanded his real estate portfolio by acquiring some of Rodeo de las Aguas on a foreclosure of a loan he made to Hancock, but Workman’s ownership was relatively brief.
Among other early owners of land in the Cahuenga Valley was Confederate Civil War veteran Charles F. Harper, who came to Los Angeles in 1868, as the town was poised to begin its first significant and sustained boom, and opened a tinner (as in application of tin on roofs) and plumber business that also sold stoves. Among his partners in subsequent years were George E. Long (who also served as assignee to the failed bank of Temple and Workman) and C.C. Reynolds, with whom Harper built a substantial business with hardware added to the earlier specialties.
Harper had interests in the valley as early as the mid-1870s and eventually amassed a 500-acre estate centered where Sunset and Laurel Canyon boulevards are now and the name Cielo Vista bestowed on the property. A son, Arthur, was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1905 with the strangely un-aspirational motto of “He’s Good Enough for Us” on campaign pins (the Museum has one in its collection, so we’ll definitely look to share some of his story) and then went on to a good deal more corruption than usual in city government and had the ignominious distinction of being the first recalled chief executive (the other was Frank Shaw in 1938.)
Another major figure in this area during the late 19th century was Victor Ponet, a native of Belgium who came to the Angel City just after Charles Harper and established a picture-frame and cabinet making business, expanded into manufacturing coffins and then became an undertaker. Subsequently, he served as Belgian consul and was a shrewd real estate investor, including property in downtown Los Angeles where he built a commercial structure and on Rancho Los Feliz next to today’s Griffith Park, where the Ponet Terrace tract was laid out in the 1920s. Finally, Ponet owned 230 acres west of the Harper estate and his descendants still own some of the land, devoted to commercial property flanking Sunset Boulevard, which was extended to the tract.
A third early family of note were the Plummers, with John C. homesteading 160 acres in the area in 1874 and building a house that was later moved to the Leonis Adobe historic site in Encino, while a sliver of the estate is now Plummer Park. John’s son, Eugene, though he came from English Canadian and French ancestry, adopted a persona as Don Eugenio and was widely known for dressing up in early California garb and riding a horse at all kinds of public events.
While most accounts of West Hollywood history understandably focus heavily on street railroad and real estate capitalists Moses H. Sherman and Eli P. Clark and the establishment by 1896 of the town of Sherman, there was a West Hollywood tract developed by Elijah and Anna Curson (sometimes spelled “Curzon”) slightly earlier. Curson was from England and resided in Illinois and then Lincoln, the newly formed capital city of Nebraska before migrating to Los Angeles in the early 1880s. In late 1895, the couple sold lot 2 of the West Hollywood tract, developed on a part of the La Brea ranch to Edward Howard for about $3,600.
So, while the town of Sherman, connected by streetcar to Los Angeles thanks to its namesake, slowly developed, there was always a West Hollywood community adjacent to it for a good thirty years or so. Meanwhile, figures like Ivar Weid and former United States Senator Cornelius Cole were instrumental in the establishment of what became Hollywood, that name appearing as early as February 1887, during the next big regional boom in a map submitted by Weid, while Cole’s name was bestowed on Colegrove.
The 1890s were a difficult period nationally and locally, with a major depression bursting forth in 1893 and several years of drought in the region being among the prime elements, though greater Los Angeles still experienced some significant growth. At the onset of the 20th century, however, another boom erupted and the West Hollywood area went through some important developments, including the establishment of Gardner Heights in 1903 and, two years later, the Crescent Heights tract.
During that period, the West Hollywood Improvement Association, these entities becoming very popular at the time, was formed and, in 1910, with another national depression from three years having eased and another regional growth spurt underway, the Investment Building Company launched a project specializing in a relatively new type of house: the bungalow. Among the few commercial ventures in the area during the Teens was the Milk Diet Sanitarium, launched by Dr. Margaret Gilliland on Friend Avenue, now Ogden Drive, and reflective of another trend of the time relating to diet and health.
Another prominent estate in the West Hollywood area during the early 20th century was that of Gurdon Wattles, a wealthy Omaha, Nebraska banker and streetcar company owner who acquired fifty acres of hillside land and employed prominent architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey to design an impressive Mission Revival mansion. Also of local renown were the gardens planted around the house, with part of the property now comprising a Los Angeles city park.
The next major development boom to come to Los Angeles was in the early 1920s and, in fact, it peaked in 1923 when the photo was taken (and when Walter P. Temple launched his Town of Temple, renamed Temple City, project.) The Harper estate, Cielo Vista, was developed into a subdivision in 1921 and the Hacienda Park tract was announced in October 1923 by the John A. Evans Company on land purchased fifteen years earlier by the Hacienda Park Land Company. With all of the growth, the West Hollywood Realty Board, comprised of some 65 members, promoted its work including the Multiple Listing System (MLS) that has long been standard in the real estate industry.
Notably, the 3 October 1923 edition of the Los Angeles Times reported that the Board met and “the members went on record as being 100 per cent in favor of annexation to the city of Los Angeles.” It was added that the organization was soon to organize a campaign to make absorption into the rapidly expanding Angel City—Hollywood, for example, was annexed in 1910. Obviously, this goal was not achieved, but what was developed in spring 1925 was the creation of a sewer district for the Sherman-West Hollywood area.
The 23 August 1925 edition of the Times featured reporter Helen Starr noting that “the small town of Sherman is torn with dissension as to whether she shall live nobly up to her old name or take unto herself a brand new one.” Referring to the community as a “healthy, out-door child,” the journalist continued that Sherman was surrounded by increasingly wealthy communities, such as Beverly Hills. Consequently, a movement was afoot to change the name of the town to such possibilities as Beverly Park, East Beverly, West Hollywood and, strangely, Magnetic Springs.
The Hollywood Citizen of 12 December reported that “Sherman wants to become West Hollywood” and added that the town’s chamber of commerce was at work to try to get the post office name changed and to enlist the support of its fellow organization in Hollywood for the idea. It was commented upon that “there is no strong opposition to the movement apparent in either Hollywood or Sherman,” but it was felt the question was entirely to be decided by the Postal Service.
There was some discussion of possible confusion over jurisdiction for those serviced by the post office because of the presence of the City of Los Angeles in and around both Sherman and West Hollywood, but that was soon resolved and the latter name took root. As noted above, it was almost another six decades, however, before West Hollywood was finally incorporated and 2024 will be the city’s 40th anniversary.
As to the photograph, it embraces an area from Santa Monica Boulevard at the bottom, or south, to the top of the Hollywood Hills portion of the Santa Monica Mountains, with portions of the San Fernando Valley and Santa Susana range at the top, while from west to east, the rough boundaries look to be from about La Cienega Boulevard (the split of Holloway Drive from Santa Monica, which then turns southwest, is at the bottom left corner) to Crescent Heights Boulevard.
The Chateau Marmont, completed in 1929, is where Sunset Boulevard straightens out at the right center, with that famous thoroughfare easily distinguishable became of the trees lining it. Another major east-to-west street very visible is Fountain Avenue, between Santa Monica and Sunset, while a portion of Norton Avenue is also present.
As to other north-to-south streets, these appear to include from left to right, Hacienda, Olive, Kings, Flores, Sweetzer, Harper, and Havenhurst. Toward the left-center, north of Sunset, the roads heading into the hills look to be Queens and Kings roads, while DeLongpre Avenue curves up from Fountain and then east to Sweetzer.
There are, of course, many other details that can be provided by others far more knowledgeable about West Hollywood’s history and, should anyone see this post and photo who can share more information, please do so and we’ll be happy to add that!