The Day Before Hollywood

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THE IDEA OF HOLLYWOOD as a boomtown would not have surprised those who lived there as this century began, for they worked hard toward that very ideal. But they would have been astounded and dismayed had they foreseen the kind of boomtown it was destined to become.

In 1886 Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Henderson Wilcox acquired a fig orchard in a remote suburb of Los Angeles called Cahuenga Valley. Los Angeles, an expanding city of fifty thousand inhabitants, was enjoying a real estate boom, thanks to the Southern Pacific Railroad connection, which linked the city directly with the East. Wilcox found himself paying one hundred and fifty dollars an acre for land that had cost less than two dollars an acre a few years earlier. Mrs. Wilcox, engaged in pleasantries with a fellow passenger on a train journey east, was charmed by the name of the lady’s summer home, which she called Hollywood. Mrs. Wilcox adopted the English-sounding name, and upon her return, the Cahuenga Valley-Wilcox Ranch became Hollywood Ranch. Mr. Wilcox, with the literal mind of a Kansas Prohibitionist, sought to justify the name by importing some English holly. The holly seemed to be the only plant in the entire valley that refused to flourish; it withered and died.

 

Horticulture was a sideline for Mr. Wilcox, whose passion and profession was real estate. He amused himself by subdividing his property, laying out streets in strict rectangles and lining them with pepper trees. He decorated his office in Los Angeles with an impressive map of Hollywood. The original settlers in Cahuenga Valley were not consulted about the change of name. Wilcox also was able to select his neighbors. A wealthy Colorado miner, inspired by a few flourishing lemon trees on the Wilcox ranch, bought some lots and laid out a lemon orchard, adding to it an imposing mansion. But when a Frenchman named Blondeau bought six acres at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, intending to open a saloon, Wilcox threatened to cancel the deal. Nevertheless, Blondeau in time managed to establish a roadhouse, serving meals and liquor. This delighted some of the other residents, for their aim was to spread the name of Hollywood throughout the land, and to achieve this aim many tourists were necessary. Lemon and orange orchards soon stretched across the valley, interspersed with truck gardens. Twelve thousand trees were planted in 1896 alone; samples of the fruit placed on display in Los Angeles were so impressive that the eagerly awaited tourists began arriving.

 
 

The Cahuenga Valley inspired those wealthy enough to maintain two homes to establish winter residences there. Asthmatic Easterners moved to this Eden for their health. One prospective purchaser was shocked by the high cost of Hollywood real estate; four hundred dollars an acre seemed excessive. Thirty days later, when he asked for “the best buy in Hollywood,” the price had soared to six hundred dollars. He pointed out that since he had rejected the land at four hundred dollars an acre, he was hardly likely to accept it at six hundred dollars. Thirty days later he learned the price was eight hundred dollars. “My,” he said. “That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but I believe I’ll take it.” He bought.

A local improvement society demanded “charity … more enthusiasm, more kindly feeling for all. More flowers and greater beauty, broad avenues shaded with ornamental trees.” They demanded, too, a live press agent to keep the advantages of the area before the public. One of those advantages came from the valley’s richest man, Col. Griffith J. Griffith, a Welshman who had made his fortune as a mining engineer and owned the huge Rancho Los Feliz. In 1896 he had donated over three thousand acres to the city of Los Angeles to be used as a park—then the largest city park in the world.

The fame of the little community for its park and for its orchards was eclipsed by the arrival of Paul DeLongpré, the French painter of flowers. Mr. Wilcox’s widow offered to sell him an estate on Cahuenga Avenue—with the provision that he establish a studio there. He agreed, but finding the place too small, he bought a lot on Hollywood Boulevard, for which he paid the delighted Mrs. Wilcox with three paintings. He built a Moorish mansion, crowned with cupolas, and surrounded it with a garden of such beauty that it became one of the prime showplaces of Southern California. The handful of tourists who visited the orchards multiplied to thousands yearly coming to see the artist and his dazzling garden. Newspapers praised DeLongpré and his work, bringing Hollywood immense prestige. Many tourists fell in love with the place, purchased lots, and built homes, and in gratitude to the Frenchman who attracted them, the city named a street in his honor—DeLongpré Avenue.

Most of the other streets were named after the original subdividers—Gower Street, Curson Avenue, McCadden Place. When H. J. Whitley opened his “Hollywood Ocean View” tract with immense ceremony, stockholders and prospective buyers admired the fine homes in the course of construction and toured the new Hollywood Hotel. The emotion of the day was expressed by one of the organizers, who declared, with a sweeping gesture, “Behold what God hath wrought.” A little later a group of real estate agents offered Whitley a stretch of rough land in lieu of money they owed him: as Whitley Heights it became some of the most sought-after acreage in town.