Huntington Palisades

An Irresistible Suburb

Aerial view of the Palisades taken in December 1927. Note the circular pattern of the streets in the Huntington Palisades, south of Potrero Canyon. Also, note the white house, the first in the neighborhood, which still stands today (see below). 	 Photo: Courtesy Pacific Palisades Historical Society
Aerial view of the Palisades taken in December 1927. Note the circular pattern of the streets in the Huntington Palisades, south of Potrero Canyon. Also, note the white house, the first in the neighborhood, which still stands today (see below). Photo: Courtesy Pacific Palisades Historical Society

Imagine college students walking around a bucolic 200-acre campus in the Huntington Palisades, with views of the ocean on one side, the mountains on the other. This is just what the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet had in mind in the mid ’20s, when searching for a site for Mount St. Mary’s College. Alas, the Pacific Palisades founders’Methodists all’scotched the plan and hastily added the Huntington to their holdings. ”Located on an ocean-cooled promontory overlooking the Pacific, The Huntington was irresistible to visionary developers, who banked on the rustic surroundings and superb views to entice investors and newcomers to Los Angeles. ”As early as 1887, the prosperous businessman Abbot Kinney purchased the 226-acre parcel from the Marquez family and prepared a map of Santa Monica Heights as an addition to Santa Monica. He laid out the streets in a regular grid pattern and gave them names such as Kinney, Breeze and Pacific’which he would later recycle at his beach community of Venice. ”Kinney planted the streets in his Palisades suburb with eucalyptus, which he had imported from Australia with the mistaken idea that, apart from their landscape value, they could be marketed for construction and for oils. But as eucalyptus proved to be poor building lumber’it warped’and with the depression of 1888, Kinney abandoned his subdivision plans, leaving only the eucalyptus trees, some of which can still seen today.” ”After his vision for Santa Monica Heights collapsed, Kinney sold the entire property to Collis Huntington (uncle of Henry Huntington), who had parlayed his railroad holdings into domination of the Southern Pacific network. Envisioning a great seaport at the mouth of Potrero Canyon, Huntington made plans to establish his private estate on the bluffs above Santa Monica Canyon. He built a wharf extending 4,720 feet out into the ocean off Potrero Canyon, which during its first year of operation handled more than 300 vessels. ”When the decision was made to establish the port of Los Angeles at San Pedro, not in Santa Monica, and with the death of Huntington, his heirs eventually sold the entire 226 acres in 1926 to Robert C. Gillis. A Canadian immigrant, Gillis was president of the Santa Monica Land and Water Company, whose large-scale land purchases set the pattern for subdivisions from Westwood to Pacific Palisades in the early 1900s. ”Gillis’ purchase came at a critical time for the Pacific Palisades Founders Association, which by 1924 was beginning to drown in debt as a consequence of falling property sales. Gillis agreed to take over the property, pay the bills and continue the development program. ”Honoring the legacy of the Huntington family, Gillis named his new suburb Huntington Palisades and planned to transform it into a fashionable upper middle-class community. ”Unlike most subdividers, who adopted a grid pattern, Gillis chose a romantic scheme of curved streets and landscaped boulevards, which followed the terrain and preserved the vegetation. Concentric semi-circular drives surrounded an open park area (bounded by El Cerco Place) and intersected a broad entry street with landscaped central parkways (Pampas Ricas). ”The design reflected the high standards set by Gillis and Rev. Robert Scott (founder of Pacific Palisades and president of the Association) and included elements characteristic of the Olmsted Brothers, who laid out New York’s Central Park. ”Frederick Olmsted, the older of the two, had come out to Los Angeles to help in the planning of Palos Verdes. The Association contracted with him to provide guidance in planning various neighborhoods, including Tract II (college-named streets south of Sunset) and Las Pulgas Tract (upper Las Pulgas Canyon), and the Huntington. Their legacy is reflected in the curving streets and view lots outlining the periphery. ”Gillis divided the Huntington property into lots from a quarter of an acre to more than a full acre and set minimum construction costs from $5,000 for the smaller to $15,000 for the larger parcels. He prohibited owners from using lots for other than residential purposes, erecting dwellings of more than two stories, growing hedges to more than five feet, and placing houses without regard for setback lines. Gillis extended these restrictions in perpetuity, and established a property owners’ association to enforce them. ”Lots varied in size to accommodate large homes on the choicest sites’at intersections and along the mesa rim. Underground utilities were installed and ornamental light fixtures were provided, costing four times the normal amount for such services. A 40-acre plot adjacent to Potrero Canyon and Beverly Boulevard (Sunset) was designated for commercial use, as was a strip along the Coast Highway. ”Most of the old eucalyptus trees planted by Abbot Kinney were carefully preserved, though the new streets cut across their even rows. Street names were chosen by the project engineer, W. W. Williams, who named them after famous places (and people) in Mexico, where he had spent much of his mining career. Alma Real was named for his lady friend, a singer and dancer from Mexico; Toyopa was the name of a lost mine in Sonora, Mexico, originally called Coyuca; Chapala is the name of the largest lake in Mexico, and Corona del Mar means crown of the sea in Spanish. ”During the years that suburban layouts emerged around Los Angeles, the revival architectural style aesthetic became the mode in domestic architecture. Architects and builders turned to California’s Mediterranean climate, vegetation and sunlight and embraced Italian and Spanish styles. Soon a California architecture evolved, characterized by colors very light in tone, exteriors of plaster, adobe or stucco, and low-pitched tile roofs. ”A few great mansions, comparable to country villas, achieved the massive simplicity and elegant ornamentation of Mediterranean architecture, but when adapted for suburban living, compromises had to be made. In particular, the substitution of open lawns and driveways for front walls and central courtyards was particularly incongruous, as architectural critic Charles Gibbs Adams noted in 1928: ”’Truly we are a melting pot, not of nationalities, but of architecture,an architectural anachronism, Nordic invasion of the Mediterranean, Attila again in Rome.’ ”By 1928, the dream of Huntington developers dissolved under the harsh reality of slumping land sales. As revenues fell, progress lagged on the promised improvements and maintenance suffered. Vacant lots and parkways went uncleared and many of the original plantings died from lack of care. Paving of the streets in the Huntington continued, but the Santa Monica Land and Water Company’s tract office on the southwest corner of Chautauqua and Pampas Ricas eventually was converted into a home’one of the 600 that occupy the Huntington today. ”After World War II, building once again resumed at a record-breaking pace in all the tracts of the Palisades. The resident population grew from 796 in 1940 to 6,387 10 years later. And the predominant architectural style in the Huntington is still the 1950’s rambling, single-story ranch house with a shake roof. New construction’often imposing two-story homes’is underway on practically every street, attesting to the fact that this neighborhood is still irresistible. (Research for this article came from ‘Pacific Palisades: Where the Mountains Meet the Sea,’ Betty Lou Young, and ‘The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930,’ Robert Fogelson)