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Mt. Washington: Stories of an Urban Oasis

Updated: May 12

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.


AU NATUREL


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.


FIRST RESIDENTS


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, Presiden