Updated: May 12, 2021
Mount Washington is a named single-family, residential district located within the City of Los Angeles. A mere four miles north of the relentless concrete and steel of the downtown global business center, it is still possible to live in a cottage, on a dirt road, with a garden and views of green hillsides. As the New York Times enthused, the views "rival those of Tuscany." Retention of such green space so close to an urban core is likely the combined result of the steep hillside terrain itself, the values imprinted by its earliest residents, and an inherent instinct to be connected to the natural environment.
This project explores some of the history of Mount Washington and tells the stories of people who successfully retained this oasis in a city often vilified for its readiness to "put up a parking lot." Growth and densification is inevitable, but paving over the natural terrain is not. This makes Mount Washington a California Story.
The California Council for the Humanities--California Stories Fund supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, funded the Mount Washington Voices Project of the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance. The Voices Project explores the history of the community from 3 perspectives: the Natural Environment of the "Hill" before extensive development and the growth of Los Angeles; the Built Environment, including the evolving architectural relationship to the Hill's natural setting; and finally the Social and Cultural Environment of a community that in working together, created this urban oasis. It does not aspire to be a comprehensive or footnoted history of the community. Rather, its purpose is to provide some insight into people, movements and physical characteristics that inevitably influence this place as Mount Washington continues each day to retell its own story.
From the start, we wondered if people drawn to live in open, natural areas were more willing to take action to protect open space, or were these values already embedded in the early development of this community? Perhaps both are true.
The Voices Project includes an archive of oral histories as well as a video which we hope to include in this website.
How did Mount Washington get its name?
"The answer is not without some uncertainty. One might think it was named for George Washington as are several mountains throughout the county. However, Donald Duke, a historian who wrote extensively about the Los Angeles and Mt. Washington Railway Co., says the best bet is that the Hill is named for Colonel Henry Washington who came to Southern California in 1852 to set survey baselines of the area including the Los Angeles River and portions of Los Angeles and Riverside counties. So, ironically, Mount Washington may be named for the man who conducted the first land surveys that let to the Hill's development."
IN THE BEGINNING
Accounts of Mount Washington's modern history often begin with Robert Marsh. An early 20th century real estate developer, Marsh conceived of a luxurious hilltop neighborhood, surrounding the Mount Washington Hotel and reached by an incline railway -- his gimmick to market and sell hilltop lots. Instantly successful, further development on the Hill preceded in fits and starts, as need for housing and building booms waxed and waned. Year-by-year and lot-by-lot, today's community emerged, from the tiny enclave of hillside hunting lodges, retreat cottages to the grand houses surrounding the Hotel. To truly understand Mount Washington though, one needs to dig deeper, not just through real estate records, but back though time.
A MOUNTAIN FROM A SEABED
Compared to the towering San Gabriel Mountains and Mount Wilson which dominates the northern views, the hill on which our community rests is small, measuring 940 feet above sea level at the water tanks near Mount Washington School. It took quite a bit of "earthmoving" for the hill to reach its current height. Five to ten million years ago, there wouldn't have been a mountain in sight because the area was 2000 feet deep at the bottom of an Upper Miocene sea. A bit might have been recognizable though. The trees growing near the ancient sea -- oaks, sycamores, and maples -- were relatives of those still here today. Much has changed since then however. Calcium carbonate cemented the seabed into rock, and the rock layers were twisted, set, folded, and thrust by earthquakes and plate tectonics well above sea level, becoming part of what geologists term the Puente Formation of rocks. Eventually, wind, rain, gravity, plants and organic acids wore down the top of Mount Washington, washing and turning the remaining surface into soil. The Mount Washington rocks now at or near the surface of the soil are mostly medium grained, light brown sandstone with some finer-grained light gray shale on the northwest side of the Hill.
Chalky deposits, often exposed by gardeners and excavators, are compressed calcium shelled marine organisms from that ancient seabed. The fairly soft, poorly cemented sandstone is particularly prone to weathering and sliding, especially when wet. This was dramatically illustrated in 1969 when an entire block of Rainbow Avenue slid into the canyon, destroying 13 homes, displacing residents, and highlighting the need for determining soil conditions prior to any hillside construction.
Few large fossils have been found on Mount Washington, but pieces of a baleen whale were found a number of years ago between Quail and Pheasant Drives.
Whether sliding homes or the fossils of buried whales, the geology of Mount Washington has its own story to tell.
Though flanked by three freeways and just minutes from the heart of the city, the Hill is a veritable wilderness compared to the more densely populated areas that surround it. The changes in elevation and topography on the Hill created small microclimates, each with distinct plant and animal life. The neighborhood can boast of at least 4 different plant communities: walnut woodlands, mixed chaparral, transitional mixed chaparral-oak woodland, and costal sage scrub.
Mount Washington also has some of the best remaining native stands of Southern California Black Walnut. However, real estate development has taken its toll here as it has elsewhere: black walnuts are a threatened plant species and the natural environment has changed. Some micro-environments, for example, have been destroyed by brush clearance and new home development, and because of the destruction of the appropriate habitat, some of our native species have disappeared. For instance, Wrentits--chaparral birds unique to the west coast-- are thought to have completely vanished from Mount Washington in the last decade. Other chaparral birds in decline include Bewick's Wrens, Spotted Towhees and several birds that nest in tree cavities--Western Screech Owls, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, and Downy Woodpeckers.
In spite of the declining habitat, 108 species of birds have been recorded on the Hill. Resident birds, those that breed here and remain throughout the year, include: Mourning Doves, California Towhees, California Thrashers, Anna's and Allen's Hummingbirds, Bushtits, and Lesser Goldfinches. Non-native resident birds include House Sparrows, Rock Doves or Common "Pigeons" and European Starlings. A relatively new visitor to Mount Washington's bird feeders is the Nutmeg Mannikin, a native of Asia that breeds in the Los Angeles River. Yellow-Chevroned Parakeets may show up at any time, particularly to feed on the fruit of the floss-silk trees. Seasonal residents and migrant birds are greatly attracted to the area, due to the environment Mount Washington can still provide compared to adjacent areas.
Homeowners have introduced a variety of "exotic" trees and shrubs, not native to the area and frequently not supportive of native animal life. For instance, the towering pines and deodars, planted over the years, have changed the habitat, since they favor more adaptive native animals that can live in big trees and tolerate people. Among these are Great Horned Owls, Common Ravens, Red-Shouldered Hawks and Band-tailed Pigeons. Other native birds that thrive in our hillside environment include the northern Mocking birds, Western Scrub Jays and House Finches.
The butterfly, our most conspicuous native insect, includes at least 29 species--Gulf Fritillaries, Marine Blues, four species of Swallowtails and the occasional Monarch. The non-native Cabbage Butterfly is on the wing every month of the year. Butterfly gardeners intentionally cultivate larval food plants and nectar sources to attract butterflies. Less noticeable to the casual observer are Jerusalem Crickets, Carpenter bees, Yellow Jackets, dragonflies, Mayflies, true bugs and beetles, termites, and scores of others.
Among non-native insect pests, we can count pantry moths, houseflies, Argentine ants, and giant whiteflies. Honeybees, though exotic and widely propagated for pollination, can be a nuisance, building colonies in roof eves, and a danger for those allergic to their venom.
Our reptiles and amphibians are more limited, with only two species of lizards, two species of snakes (none venomous), one uncommon salamander, but no turtles or tortoises. There are no native frogs due to minimal natural water sources on the Hill. The Coast Horned Lizard ("Horned Toad") used to be here, but the non-native Argentine Ant eliminated the native ant species on which it fed.
As to mammals on the Hill, there are some nice ones-- and some not so nice. Often the not-so-nice mammals are exotic or introduced pests: the house mouse, brown (Norway) and roof (black) rats, fox squirrels and opossums. The fox squirrel, an easterner, first appeared in Mount Washington in the mid-1970's. Although cute, it is a pest when eating bird eggs and fruit from backyard trees, or chewing through cables and telephone wires.
Other local mammals include Broad-footed moles and Botta's Pocket Gophers--natural aerators of the soil--along with striped skunks and raccoons. Curiously absent are rabbits and California ground squirrels, perhaps because feral cats and coyotes have eliminated them.
The Coyote is the top predator on Mount Washington. Their presence demonstrates how close to nature we really are. Coyotes cling to existence in our parks and wilder canyons, where they feed mostly on our abundant rodent population (rats, mice, gophers), along with the unfortunate house cats or dog in the wrong place at the wrong time. At night their chilling howls remind us we are truly living in a wilderness. During the day a coyote spotting triggers mixed emotions: delight at seeing such a wild creature, fear that it will attack something we cherish, wonder about what it will do next, a sense of relief when it disappears harmlessly into the brush and amazement that we can live in the City of Los Angeles and still have experiences like this.
Mount Washington's human history begins with the Gabrieliño -- the Native Americans of the area. Today their descendants still live here but prefer the name "Tongva" meaning "Sacred Spring." There were approximately 50 known village sites and about 5,000 Tongva in the greater Los Angeles are at the time of contact by Spanish explorers. The village known to be closest to Mount Washington was Yangna, in the vicinity of that is now Olvera Street. And the Sheldon Reservoir archaeological site overlooking the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena was a native people's cemetery. The Tongva spoke a Uto Aztecan language of which there were several dialects.
The Arroyo Seco creek and its tributaries, being the major source of water between the San Gabriel Mountains and Los Angeles, supported the abundance of native plant and animal resources in the region, and formed a natural route for travel for the indigenous people. Food resources would have included deer, small mammals, quail and the fruits of the abundant vegetation: acorns, yucca, cacti, chia (Salvia columbariae). These and other seeds formed an integral part of the diet. Large coastal and inland marshy areas, long ago drained and filled for development, were rich sources of edible plants, fish and waterfowl.
Recorded Western European history in the Los Angeles area began with the Cabrillo Expedition in 1542, followed by that of Vizcaino in 1602. However, impact of these intrusions on the Tongva was minimal.
In 1769, however, the Sacred Expedition lead by Fr. Junipero Serra began the process of establishing the Mission system and initiating the Spanish colonization of Alta California. Throughout California, under the Mission system, contagious diseases of European origin took an enormous toll on the Tongva. Mission conditions were harsh, tedious, confining, unsanitary, and alien to native peoples. Population decline was rapid. Though this period of California history is often characterized as romantic, it was an unmitigated disaster for California's native people.
Those Tongva who survived worked for the Missions, the Spanish rancheros, or as laborers in the Los Angeles Pueblos. José Maria Verdugo, who was granted the Rancho San Rafael by the King of Spain in 1784, employed some Tongva. His grant consisted of about 36,000 acres, reaching from San Fernando Rey de España Mission to its eastern limit, the Arroyo Seco. Mount Washington was within the Ranch San Rafael.
By 1899, most Tongva were Christian converts and had escaped to the interior of the country or were dead. The eventual systematic anthropologic study of the local Native Americas began in the early 1900s. Significantly, the history of modern anthropology is intertwined with the history of the Southwest Museum, located on the flanks of the Hill, and one of the earliest and most important institutions conducting such studies of indigenous people. Unfortunately, by the time these formal studies began, the Tongva survivors of the Mission system knew little of the traditional culture of their ancestors and much of their cultural history was lost.
ARROYO SECO CULTURE
The culture that nurtured early Mount Washington was influenced as much by the late 19th century European, social, artistic and political movements as by the verdant flora surrounding the young Arroyo Seco community. While it's true that Charles Fletcher Lummis, an iconic figure of the era, was lured to the Arroyo Seco by its great beauty, he significantly imprinted his own character and interests on the area -- ideas that remain his legacy to this day. Lummis popularized local Southwestern Native American and Hispano-Catholic cultures; coined the term "Southwest"; worked to restore and revive the California Missions; served as City Editor for the Los Angeles Times; edited the nationally read Land of Sunshine magazine (later renamed Out West) and founded the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles' first museum.
The Arts and Crafts Movement, founded in England by William Morris, though at a geographic remove, was firmly imbedded in Lummis' romantic call to flee the city and live with nature. In the 1890s and 1900s, the Arroyo Culture, greatly derived from this movement, flourished in Mount Washington and other Arroyo communities, often with Lummis at its center. His hand-built home El Alisal, meaning Place of the Sycamores, functioned as a salon for artists and writers and a venue for the lively parties Lummis called "Noises". Studios and workshops emerged on the lower slopes of the Hill and were occupied by artists, bohemians, progressives and individualists. In this way, the Arroyo Culture was born.
Lummis' influence brought like-minded souls to the area. Their ideas resisted capitalism and they argued for the formation of workers' guilds emulating those in Europe just awakening to the pressures of Industrialization. Houses and furnishings reflecting late Victorian aesthetics were abandoned in favor of simpler, less ornate yet durable and solid products in the emerging Craftsman style. Even today Mount Washingtonians can be proud of their landmark homes with furnishings that serve as eloquent testimony and a cultural record of the design and philosophy of a bygone era: that purity must reject the vulgarity of the mechanized majority.
Lummis, in 1909 during his reign over El Alisal, expressed a wish for better control over his tangle of work, sex, rivalries, offspring and income. Praising the old California rancho life, he opined: "It was nearer the life of Abraham then we shall ever see again -- and with no more faults and shortcomings and with a finer hospitality and altruism." He suggested to readers of his magazine, Out West, that early California cattle ranchers led a more pampered idle life than the earnest progressives of the contemporary era. Lummis believed the rancheros to be virtuous, moral and "obviously not so slavish" in their occupation as "those of the farmer or the money-maker."
In addition -- rare for the era and for one of his background -- Lummis condemned the xenophobia of Manifest Destiny, President James Madison's doctrine that conquering the Southern Hemisphere of the Americas was the God-given obligation of the United States. In response, in 1884 at the age of 25, Lummis became a champion of Indian rights as he tramped the continent from Cincinnati, Ohio to Los Angeles in a shrewd publicity stunt linked to his accepting the editorship of the City Desk at the fledgling Los Angeles Times. Here, he pioneered respect for the indigenous and Mexican peoples who for generations had been devastated by ecological and social eradication. The Southwest Museum was established and endures not only as his monument to our indigenous past but also as a present-day reminder of the region's resettled but unsettled future of social constructs and race relations.
Second only to his ambition to build the Southwest Museum was Lummis' work to improve the plight of the Native American. In the late 1880s, the prevailing sentiment was that Indian children must be taken from their families and educated at special "American" schools. This "Kill the Indian, Save the Child" theory of assimilation even attracted Lummis for a time, until his cross country trek and later sojourns at different New Mexico pueblos changed his mind. He "came to regard the U.S. government's Indian education policies as an abomination." In later years, he advised his old chum from Harvard, President Theodore Roosevelt, on Indian affairs.
Over his lifetime, Lummis accomplished a great deal. His activism and involvement included founding California's first historic preservation organization in 1896, The Landmarks Club. He led a campaign for the restoration of many of the Southern California missions that had fallen into disrepair. Today, our award-winning Highland Park Heritage Trust and the more regional Los Angeles Conservancy carry out Lummis' vision by performing the same advocacy to preserve our heritage.
Charles Lummis and Theodore Roosevelt tour the original location of Occidental College at 125 Avenue 50 in Highland Park.
Beyond Lummis, the Arroyo Seco attracted other creative figures to its tranquil setting. Lummis' immediate neighbors included his protégé Mary Austin, author of Land of Little Rain. In 1899 she lived on East Avenue 41, two streets south of Lummis, who published many of her works. On the same street was Idah Meacham Stowbridge's house. In 1901 the Stowbridge House held the Artemisia Bindery and later a gallery called The Little Corner of Local Art. Down the block, Fernand Lungren, a painter of the Southwest, had his studio. Maynard Dixon, the celebrated landscape painter and close friend of Lummis, occupied a Garvanza studio-bungalow where he also illustrated Stowbridges's books.
On the lower, southeast side of Mount Washington at West Avenue 43, Elmer and Marion Wachtel's 1906 bungalow studio stands today as a Los Angeles City cultural monument. Its surrounding grove symbolized its builders' allegiance to the Eucalyptus School of regional landscape painters. Further north, in Highland Park, was the distinctive home and print shop of Clyde Browne. On Arroyo Glen Street, across from the present day Arroyo Seco Library, the Abbey San Encino opened its doors in 1915. Blending mission dome and medieval arches, it contains cloisters, bell tower, chapel, minstrel gallery and even a dungeon. (Browne's grandsons, singer songwriters Severin and Jackson Browne, continue this counter-cultural spirit.) A printer, Browne maintained his Abbey Press there. While renting its studios to artists and writers, he had hoped to establish a guild with himself as abbot.
One Arroyo resident, John Warton James, proclaimed in the October 1909 issue of the Arroyo Craftsman, the benefits of "simple living, high thinking, pure democracy, genuine art, honest craftsmanship, natural inspiration, and exalted aspiration." English born and once a Methodist minister, James became an expert on Navajo blankets and baskets. Vegetarian, teetotaler, nudist and land speculator, he cultivated public fame and private scandal second only to Lummis' own prodigious shenanigans.
Perhaps the best-known writer of the Arroyo is poet Robinson Jeffers. He lived at 346 North Avenue 57 and attended Occidental College when it was located at the corner of Figueroa and Avenue 50. As a teenager, he sent his first two poems to Lummis and was rewarded with a debut in the 1916 Californios. In the words of Kevin Starr, the Californian historian, Jeffers exhibited "characteristics of an Arroyan--learning, a love of the outdoors, a certain refinement of perception and diction." Jeffers eventually settled in Torr House, a solid granite edifice that he built by hand in Big Sur. His verse preached the doctrine of Inhumanism -- in contrast to nature, people shrink to insignificance.
Robinson Jeffers' costal seclusion at Tor House and Charles Lummis' confident boosterism bequeathed conflicted inheritances. Their ambitions, however nobly intended, hawked California's unsullied allure. Great numbers of people, who read Land of Sunshine, followed Lummis west. They praised local beauty, then subdivided it.
"There's something about this place. There are lots of wonderful people here. I think what attracted me to it was the wilderness of it. The winding hillsides. And also that I don't feel comfortable with people who are very status conscious. I felt that Mount Washington was very welcoming about the diversity of people that are here. Different economic, different racial, different sexual preferences. That its like we're all folks! And maybe it's the fact its a hill - that defined geographically - that I felt there was a sense of community. We could tell we all lived together in Mount Washington." - Lynette Kampe
"There was this rope handing from one of the trees at Carlin Smith Playground. And we'd get on that thing and swing out... it literally swang out over the canyon. I don't think any kids ever fell off that rope doing that swinging from it. Of course today it would be such a liability they'd be scared to death someone would fall off. I can't picture that kids today are any way less sure-footed than kids were 30 years ago." Charles Fisher
BUILDING TODAY'S MOUNT WASHINGTON
Throughout the 20th century Mount Washington's built environment ranged from early hunting lodges and humble cottages to elegant, permanent residences designed by renowned architects.
Significant construction did not start until after the Los Angeles land boom of the 1880's. This was largely due to the difficulty of building on steep hillsides and the lack of roads for access. Mount Washington was a large undivided tract of land awaiting transition from early grazing on the Rancho San Rafael to a dramatic hillside enclave.
The first subdivision plans were filed in 1907 by developer and area promoter, Robert Marsh. Marsh built the Mount Washington Hotel, connecting it to Highland Park below with the Mount Washington Incline Railway. The Hotel opened in 1910, drawing celebrities, silent film stars and more importantly, buyers for Marsh's burgeoning hilltop development.
Steep dirt roads scraped into the Hill allowed access to home sites and development followed. Early homes were weekend cottage retreats for the well known and the well-heeled of Los Angeles and Pasadena. These bucolic dwellings provided a way to flee the city at a relatively low cost. Other homes would serve as living/work space for the growing community of artists.
Several of the Hill's landmarks were designed in the Mission Revival style, referencing the red-tiled roofs, towers and adobe walls of the earlier California Missions. Examples are the Mount Washington Hotel designed by Meyer and Holler in 1909; the Southwest Museum designed by Sumner Hunt and Silas R. Burns, 1910-1914; and the first Mount Washington Elementary School, one of three buildings that have stood on the present school site. Many homes built in the early 1900's were designed in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement. One of the finest examples of this Craftsman architecture is found in the Minster Residence at 4163 Sea View Lane (1911, architect unknown). One of the earliest houses on the Hill, its first owner used it as a sanitarium. Joseph Minster, who purchased the house in 1920 was a Los Angeles Times reporter and later editor/publisher of Gourmet Magazine. Minster did much to improve the area including convincing the city to finally pave San Rafael Avenue after his car slid off the road in the rain. He became known as the Mayor of Mount Washington and referred to himself as the one-eyed minister because his name was minister without one 'i'!
These early homes, with their mature gardens, epitomize the gracious nature of the early era on the Hill. Greatly loved and well maintained, several Craftsman style homes have been named historic cultural monuments by the City of Los Angeles. The Southwest Museum, a nationally significant site, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The construction of homes continued at a gentle pace through the middle part of the 20th century. And the idyllic environment continued to attract new residents, however now with more modern or contemporary tastes. Homes by visionary architects of the period were built reflecting evolving tastes as they transitioned from Craftsman to International to Mid-Century Modern style. Architects representing the several decades of this era include Richard Neutra, Harwell Hamilton Harris, John Lautner, Gregory Ain, A.Quincy Jones and the Hill's own James DeLong.
The Birtcher-Share House at 4234 Sea View Lane, designed by Harwell Hamilton Harris, in 1942, offers a bold and rather severe presence. Although all of Harris' houses of this period share fundamental characteristics, this one is unique in the streamlined smoothness of its cornices. This architect and this first "modern" house on the Hill established the tone for subsequent homes of the period.
The natural environment was typically an integral part of the Mid-Century architecture. James DeLong's two masterpieces, the Scholfield and Wolford Houses on Sea View Lane are perfect examples. Their large windows bring indoors the beauty of the environment by framing the views outside. Scholfield was a real estate broker who guided the development of Sea View Lane by pairing his clients with visionary architects and collaborating with Theodore Payne, the famous horticulturist. Bob is celebrated with a small park below the home he lived in for 50 years, until his death in 2001.
The 1960s ushered in a period of controversial development on the Hill inconsistent with the still relevant, turn-of-century concepts of the Arroyo Culture. In 1964, developer Ray Watt filed Tract 27907, a 232-home development called Mount Washington West. Watt designed six different floor plans that, when reversed, offered twelve "different" homes, priced from $37,500. The tract housing, built within a peaceful canyon of Mount Washington, served as a tipping point. Mount Washington West galvanized the neighborhood into organizing and making its wishes understood by local, elected representatives with respect to preserving the unique community character. Residents felt the idyllic nature of Mount Washington was threatened by Watt's development, with its massive grading and landform changes that scarred and diluted the dramatic beauty of the canyons. Mount Washington West was built, but from this point forward the community sought continued lot-by-lot development and strongly resisted tract proposals by speculative developers. Residents of Mount Washington West, using varied plantings and architectural modifications over time, have softened the repetitive designs of the tract making it more harmonious with the neighborhood.
Over the years, small development has been much more difficult to monitor and many developers have taken advantage of poor planning policies and lax city oversight of single house projects. As David Greene wrote in Dwell magazine, "...as the Los Angeles real estate market has gone from berserk to insane, the usual subjects have been joined by an influx of speculators looking to build in the next hot neighborhood. Today, giant, million-dollar cracker boxes perch on pylons, cheek-by-jowl with jury-rigged improvements on the original hunting cabins that once dotted the hills." As in many parts of Los Angeles, recent speculation housing has had an unfortunate impact in some corners of Mount Washington. New legislation, like the Mount Washington/Glassell Park Specific Plan, requires architectural variety and other controls for City Planning approval.
In contrast to these speculative housing projects, there have also been many bright examples of innovative and unique contemporary architecture on the Hill. Custom designed for their owners, these include Schmalix Residence on Mayfair Drive by local architects Fung+Blatt in 1998. This striking home utilizes structural steel, as well as off the-shelf industrial components.
Mount Washington boasts some world-class architecture and the best of it turns towards and celebrates its connection to nature.
Mount Washington reflects a rich ethnic, social, cultural and economic diversity -- film maker next door to artist or lawyer; businesswoman next door to teacher or carpenter, with plenty of ex-hippies thrown into the mix. At the corner of Museum Drive and Marmion Way, the "M.A.S.H. House," as the community has named it, proudly displays Vietnam era props and artifacts with a sign pointing to Dang Nang. Further up Museum Drive, a towering 12-foot head of none other than Elvis Presley reposed for a time--the creation of two local artists who christened their shrine and sculpture garden Holyland. Here they hosted weekly "church services" at their Sunday barbecues. A curious roaring lion's head is found elsewhere on Museum Drive. Suffering from exposure from the elements, it challenges the viewer to guess its meaning.
Several religions have their local houses of worship on the Hill or nearby. Perhaps the most notable is the International Headquarters of the Self-Realization Fellowship. The Southern California Headquarters of the Greek Coptic Church is located on Cleland Avenue. There are several Buddhist temples nearby.
Rumor has it that when Parmahansa Yogananda was looking for a home for his Self Realization Fellowship, the Mount Washington Hotel caught his eye because of the beauty and serenity of its surroundings. He called it one of the greatest points of spiritual energy on the planet. The draw of an inexpensive piece of property in need of a new owner might have been an additional attraction. The Self-Realization Fellowship has occupied the old Hotel since 1925. Its beautiful gardens are maintained by a dedicated group of monastics.
Mount Washington is even the home to the only official witch of Los Angeles. On July 21, 1969, self-proclaimed witch, Louise Huebner, wife of artist Mentor Huebner, a designer on the movie Blade Runner, cast the world's first public spell at the Hollywood Bowl before 11,000 people, to insure the increased sexual vitality of the County!
A short and incomplete list of some of the Hill's current and past persons of note would surely include: Antonio Villaraigosa, elected as mayor of Los Angeles in 2005, County Supervisor Gloria Molina, former State Senator Richard Polanco, Councilmember Ed Reyes, Patt Morrison, Los Angeles Times columnist and National Public Radio host and, of course, Jack Smith. Smith was a longtime and much beloved Los Angeles Times columnist who introduced Mount Washington to all of Los Angeles through his weekly columns.
Colleen Moore, a silent film star who lived on the Hill for a time in the 1920s, bobbed her hair for one of her films making the haircut an overnight international fashion craze and herself the epitome of the flapper. About her, F. Scott Fizgerald once wrote, if "I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch..." Other persons of note living near the Hill included John Philip Sousa, the American composer of rousing marches, who lived in the "Sousa Nook" overlooking Sycamore Grove Park, painter Jackson Pollack and glamorous film start of the 1940s and 50s, Rita Hayworth.
THE SOUTHWEST MUSEUM--CULTURAL AND ECONOMIC ANCHOR
At the metaphorical head to Mount Washington stands the Southwest Museum, an institution and cultural anchor that could not speak more eloquently to the community's values. Etched into the cornerstone on the Museum's front wall are the words Mañana Flor De Sus Ayeres, "Tomorrow is the flower of all [our] yesterdays." This was the motto chosen by Charles Lummis for the Museum, and might well serve as the motto of the community that Lummis influenced so deeply. Exit the Arroyo Seco Parkway and head towards home and it is the iconic building that dominates the landscape from nearly every direction.
The seed for the museum first began with Lummis' cross-country "tramp." During his journey he became enamored of the artifacts and stories of the native peoples of the Southwest and from that time forward dedicated himself to conserving, preserving, and publicizing the early history of the region. Historian Kathryn Smith argues in Brenda Levin's Rehabilitation Study for the Southwest Museum, that Lummis' entire early career in Los Angeles was prologue to the founding of the Museum. By 1903, he had succeeded in realizing his dream of a museum by starting the Los Angeles chapter of the Archeological Institute of America, which he called the Southwest Society. Members included prominent Los Angelinos of the day, who were willing to contribute time, money and their collections to realize Lummis' vision. Its collection was begun at El Alisal, where he accumulated a sizable number of artifacts. Lummis insisted that the only site for this museum was the hillside property dramatically perched on the shoulder of Mount Washington, a place where one could "see and be seen".
The Southwest Museum, costing $80,000, opened in August of 1914 amply fulfilling Lummis' vision. The ensuing years saw several needed expansions. These included the distinctive Mayan tunnel entrance, a new basketry wing, an uphill parking lot and the Braun Research Library. In later years, the Museum was beset with financial difficulties combined with damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Its Board of Directors, unable to make the kind of investments needed to properly conserve its priceless collection and rehabilitate the site, entrusted these assets to the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. In a merger transaction that extinguished the legal existence of the Southwest Museum Board and corporation, Autry paid no money, but instead gave its promise to hold these assets in trust and to continue the independent operation and separate identity of the Southwest Museum.
After the merger, however the Autry revealed a new plan to remove the Southwest's collection to its Griffith Park location, contrary to the Merger Agreement promises. This new plan ignored the conclusion of Autry's own feasibility study and the wishes of the greater Los Angeles community. In the tradition of Lummis, community members are working with others statewide to preserve the historic building's use as a museum. The Museum anchors Arroyo Seco heritage tourism furthering economic development goals of the community. As of this printing in July 2007, the outcome remains uncertain.
ARTISTS & THE BIRTH OF A (MOVIE-GOING) NATION
Historian Donald Duke, in his book about the Mount Washington Railway, points out that many of the earliest silent pictures were likely filmed in the shadows of Mount Washington. There were seven small silent film producers in Sycamore Grove around 1907-1913. Their one-reel films do not survive today.
William N. Selig, an operator of traveling tent shows, began to produce Kinetoscope films for his Chicago penny arcades in 1902. In 1907, he sent director Francis W. Boggs and a crew to Los Angeles for the climate to wrap up a film started in Chicago. Setting up in a large building next to Sycamore Grove, Boggs finished shooting portions of the first film in California with a narrative plot: The Count of Monte Cristo (1908). Later, he established Selig's Zoo on Mission Road (today's Lincoln Park lake area), often using his exotic animals in other silent films that were huge hits of their day, In 1947 he received a special Academy Award for his contributions to establishing the movie industry in California. Although Selig and Boggs moved their operation to the region's first permanent movie studio building in Edendale in 1909, other lesser silent picture producers were likely around during the years after the Mount Washington Hotel opened.
For this brief time at the turn of the last century, as the nascent movie industry took its first steps in California, the Arroyo Seco was home to the glamour and glitz of what was to become one of the economic engines of the region. Drop by the tennis courts of the then newly opened Mount Washington Hotel and you might run into a twenty-something Charlie Chaplin playing a set with top box office idol Wallace Reid, or drinking a refreshing lemonade afterwards with Mildred Harris, who scandalized Hollywood when, at 16, she married Chaplin. If the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel drew celebrities in the later years, the Mount Washington Hotel could boast the same allure in those heady days of the silent film era.
Consolidation of companies and studios soon resulted in the moving of all film production work to points west including a town called Hollywood. As this migration west occurred, the Hotel quickly lost its allure, despite numerous publicity efforts. "Come see Nature's Masterpiece and dine at World Famous Mt. Washington Hotel", trumpeted an ad in the Los Angeles Times in the late teens. "Make Mount Washington Your Automobile Party," suggested another. But, the Hotel closed for good in 1921, emerging briefly as the Mount Washington Military School and later the Goodrich-Mount Washington Emphysema Hospital.
Then, in 1925, Parmahansa Yogananda purchased the property as a home for his Self Realization Fellowship Church. Todays multi-billion dollar film industry is entrenched further west, but the Arroyo Seco served as its early cradle and the Hotel was its playground for those years.
Today, creative and artistic life thrives in Mount Washington and is only growing stronger as the City of Los Angeles rediscovers its historic core. Since 1989 the Arroyo Arts Collective, has gathered artists and writers from Northeast Los Angeles, evoking the early Arts and Crafts era. It hosts the Annual Discover Tour when participants visit local studios, chat with artists, and buy their work. The plein air tradition in painting also survives in a group of local artists who paint regularly at different locations on the Hill. There is even a Mount Washington Philharmonic, a group of 20 or so string and wind players, who give occasional recitals.
A reincarnation of Lummis' spirited Noises, was a monthly salon, headed by poet and musician, Roy Johnston, until 2005. It grew to 45 members from every walk of creative endeavor. They met regularly to discuss ideas, listen to speakers, and showcase their work, often meeting around a custom-designed pipe organ installed in one member's home. There was Fritz Haeg's wonderfully inventive Sundown Salon and now School, which has thoroughly radicalized the whole notion of the artist's salon through unique education and exploratory events, staged in his geodesic dome just off Brilliant Drive.
THE WRITER AT THE HEART OF US
The modern voice most closely associated with the Hill remains Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith. Jack Smith loved Mount Washington. He was a walker, avid bird watcher, champion of causes, and protector of everything. Self deprecating, droll and kind, he coined Mount Washington the "Poor Man's Bel Air" and the appellation stuck.
In print, Smith generously projected all of his personality and love for the community. He wrote about nature on Mount Washington, the colorful people, and the joys and frustrations of his own life. When, in his column he claimed to be the first person in California to spot a Grackle, it triggered letters of objection from experts. So to ruffle feathers even further, he impishly asserted the same claim in his next column. When Jack and Denise, Denny as she was called, his wife of 65 years, became concerned about the diminishing bird population, they financed a program to spay all the feral cats in the area.
Smith's writing was always intimate but never condescending, as interesting to school children as educated professionals. Children, in fact, often found their way into his columns, including his own sons, Curt and Doug, and their neighbor, Timmy. Smith also wrote a good deal about the Mount Washington Elementary School, and Denny always heavily involved in philanthropic work, served as PTA president.
The two remained involved with the school until the end of their lives. Once, after a long and difficult hospitalization, Jack returned to Mount Washington to be greeted with a banner made by the children of the school welcoming him home. Despite his illness, this gesture inspired him to return to his typewriter. Jack Smith died in January 1996, his last column appearing three weeks before on Christmas day in 1995.
The annual, Jack Smith Mount Washington Walk, a nature walk weaving up and down the Hill was established to honor Jack's love affair with Mount Washington. In June 2007, the community turned out to celebrate the opening of the much anticipated Jack and Denny Smith Multi-Purpose Room and Library at the Mount Washington Elementary School, a tribute to their long dedication to the school and community.
A CERTAIN SPIRIT OF ACTIVISM
Mount Washington would not be Mount Washington without the concern and activism it brings to important causes. Just as early settlers of the Arroyo Seco and Mount Washington prized the area for its natural surroundings, more recent residents continue to be moved by the same instincts and struggle valiantly to strike a balance between development and open space preservation.
In the 1990s, then Councilmember Jackie Goldberg said at a meeting of the Mount Washington Association, that the involvement of Mount Washington residents in issues affecting their community was unique in the city. More recently, Antonio Villareigosa echoed a similar sentiment at the November 2005 dedication ceremony of Moon Canyon as a city park. Here on Mount Washington, he said he learned the importance of access to open space and as Speaker of the California State Assembly he proposed a major increase in state funding for parks.
Surely, the major inspiration for this strong community involvement is the fact that people chose to live in this oasis of open space and beautiful vistas and thus strive to maintain such an idyllic and lush refuge so near a major downtown hub. In other words, Mount Washingtonians are a self-selecting group. Of equal importance is the history of successful activism that preceded them, proving that such values can be passed down. The individual, of course, who bequeathed this legacy of uncompromising activism was Charles Fletcher Lummis. As Los Angeles neighborhoods go, Mount Washington is small, but in terms of its impact at City Hall and elsewhere, it has made an impression in ways similar to Lummis in his day.
Lummis' death in 1928 marked the end of an era. Not long thereafter, proposals to construct the West's first freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, threatened to destroy El Alisal, turn Sycamore Grove Park into a concrete embankment and the meandering Arroyo Seco into a concrete channel. Modifications of these proposals were achieved through efforts of community groups, guided by Lummis' early example. In 1956, when the City of Los Angeles proposed development of a solid waste landfill in a canyon, residents banded together to form the Mount Washington Association. The landfill was defeated and the Association continued as the formal, community organization within which activism and advocacy occurred.
It was largely through the Association that, over the years, a number of significant projects came to fruition. These included restoration of the Carlin G. Smith Recreation Center and Park, support for the efforts to secure numerous open space parks, development of the innovative Mount Washington/Glassell Park Specific Plan, the revision of the Northeast Community Plan (zoning), and the successful advocacy for significant noise mitigation and the enforcement of safety measures on the Metro's Gold Line Light Rail. In recognition of the importance of the Southwest Museum to the city and region, the community obtained a station at the front door of the Museum that bears its name. Over the years, other special purpose organizations sprang up to meet special needs like the Babysitting Co-op, the Save Our Southwest Museum, and the Friends of Mount Washington Elementary School.
In 1997, the Self-Realization Fellowship proposed an expansion project that called for filling in the top of Rainbow Canyon and other elements which, in the opinion of most, would have caused unacceptable alterations to the Hill's environment. The proposal created a schism in the community. The resulting intense controversy sparked the formation of two new organizations.
One, C.A.N.D.E.R. focused solely on the land use and environmental impacts of the Fellowship's proposal. The second, the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance, a general-purpose community organization, formed to address the concern that excessive control by real estate development interests and apparent conflicts of interest were present within the Mount Washington Association to the detriment of the public interest. Today, the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance, The Alliance, sponsor of the Voice Project, actively serves about 650 members.
TOMORROW IS THE FLOWER OF OUR YESTERDAYS
Mount Washington: idyllic, rustic, sun-filled, diverse, artistic, historic, modern, active, laid-back, dynamic, musical, vista-enhanced, politically charged, environmentally conscious, libertarian, devout, determined, wild, loopy, savvy and undoubtedly more.
The videotaped interviews in the Mount Washington Voices Project are only a start at capturing and archiving our passion for this place. Perhaps Margaret Mead said it best: "Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, that is the only thing that ever has." How true!
We live in what we perceive as a unique patch of hillside real estate near the core of Los Angeles. Maybe not so special to outsiders -- but it's special to us. That sense of uniqueness shapes our willingness to steward and cultivate the Hill. We see how the natural, build, social and cultural environments have shaped what Mount Washington looks like today and we understand Charles Lummis' counsel that we play an important roll in determining what tomorrow will be. With knowledge about our place in time and our people, Mount Washington can look to a future with confidence.
Want to learn more about Mount Washington history? You can read full length version of some of the articles that informed this content. View oral history interviews and conduct related research at:
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Project made possible in part by a grant from the California Council For The Humanities as part of its statewide California Stories initiative. The Council is an independent non profit organization and a state affiliate of the National Endowment For The Humanities.