Los Feliz Molded by LFIA Over 100 Years
A Century of Los Feliz Improvement Association Action Molds Los Feliz into Today’s Beautiful Neighborhood
by Donald Seligman
“The LFIA achievements…have accomplished… making the property of each of you more valuable by being either safer, quieter, in better surroundings, more beautiful, or more readily accessible than had it not been for the Association’s work.” Edward Tuttle, LFIA President, 1943.
Los Feliz without LFIA
Let’s speculate on what Los Feliz might have become without 100 years of LFIA advocacy, based on proposals that the association successfully thwarted over the last 100 years.:
Our iconic Los Feliz Boulevard is a crowded business district, much like its stretch in Atwater to the east of the Los Angeles River, with a motley collection of businesses and dozens of billboards. There is no parkway on either side, and few, if any, trees. Any housing consists of large apartment blocks, including eight 9 to 13 story high-rise buildings comprising 3,000 units at what is now the Los Feliz Estates. A large hotel complex fills 13 acres on the southwest of the Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive intersection. Vermont Avenue remains another large commercial street all the way north to Los Feliz Boulevard. The absence of trees on it and on Hillhurst Avenue contrasts with the adjacent arboreal residential districts.
Griffith Park has been extensively developed with a major highway connection between the city and the valley utilizing three tunnels bored through Mount Hollywood. Los Angeles International Airport is located at the northeast corner of the park, while the zoo remains in Vermont Canyon. Mount Hollywood has been leveled into a seven acre site with a multistory building, a theater, a museum, a revolving restaurant and a tramway beginning at the zoo and connecting via Mount Hollywood to the Observatory and on to Fern Dell. A large 1,000 acre convention center with exhibition grounds occupies the north side of the park fronting on the Los Angeles River, next to the large prison farm which supplies fruits and vegetables to our jails. Billboards and other advertisements pepper the park landscape. Students attending the 110-acre Griffith Park southern branch of the University of California add to the park’s traffic congestion. The National Rifle Association’s gun club practices regularly just north of the Wilson-Harding golf courses, despite noise complaints from the adjacent residential neighborhoods and horse owners. The Historic Museum of Architecture and Sculpture on a hilltop adjacent to the Observatory contributes to the gridlock around Mt. Hollywood. The Children’s Museum near the Riverside-Los Feliz intersection is also a crunch point for traffic congestion.
Los Feliz students continue to attend overcrowded Hollywood High School. Public transportation is unprofitable for the large bus and streetcar companies, and so they have left most of Los Feliz with completely inadequate public transportation.
The residents of the small district feel unimportant, politically ineffectual and without influence within the giant metropolis.
LFIA: The Early Years
The vision of what the barren landscape of the Cahuenga Valley would become begins with William Mead’s 1912 proposal for the future local streetscape, including a very wide avenue with wide parkways and plantings. This pivotal year 1912 also witnessed Colonel Griffith J. Griffith’s initial offer to donate a theatre and observatory-planetarium to the city, as well as the relocation of the Los Angeles Zoo to Griffith Park from Lincoln Park. The first inklings of community were established when Mead organized three annual summer picnics in the park for the residents of Vermont Canyon, with Griffiths as an honored guest. Mead was a prominent Los Angeles citizen, and he had a vested interest in the development of Los Feliz through his ownership of a large portion of Los Feliz acreage, including most of the property north of Los Feliz Boulevard.
To further his vision, Mead organized the first meeting of the Vermont Canyon Improvement Club in the summer of 1916. The initial order of business was to limit the club’s boundaries to the land between Griffith Park on the north, Franklin Avenue on the south, Griffith Park Boulevard (then called Child’s Avenue) on the east, and Normandie Avenue on the west. Unfortunately, the records from these first years are absent, so little is known about the association’s initial beginnings other than the club was in existence until 1918, when it was temporarily disbanded due to World War I and its aftermath.
On July 7, 1922, the Vermont Canyon Improvement Club resumed its meetings. The first minutes from that date refer to the three year hiatus and the organizations initial formation in 1916. The name of the group was changed at that first meeting to the Los Feliz Improvement Association, and beautification was named as one of its primary goals. Also mentioned was traffic safety improvements, like new signals and stop signs. Strongly supported was the development of a park public bus transportation system. In this pivotal year, William Mead planted the first Deodar cedars on Los Feliz Road (later Boulevard), and the association was able to thwart a proposal to move the zoo to a Vermont Canyon location.
Soon after the beginning of the next year, 1923, LFIA began a continuous campaign to strictly define residential and business zoning. This has been a steady goal of the association throughout most of its 100 years, (e.g. current LFIA opposition to expanding a parking lot on the northwest corner of Russell and Hillhurst into the adjacent residential property). Through more than 90 years of advocacy, the association has been successful in opposing business zoning north of Franklin Avenue with the sole exception of Hillhurst Avenue south of Los Feliz Blvd.
Between 1922 and 1930, LFIA was instrumental in achieving a host of important precedent setting goals. The more than 10 real estate offices then on Los Feliz Boulevard were relocated to other business locations in 1925. Continuous lobbying for a new grade school and middle school resulted in the opening of Franklin Avenue Elementary School and Thomas Starr King Junior High School, both in 1926. Six years after Griffith’s passing in 1919, the city finally agreed with LFIA support to accept an $800 million bequest for constructing the Greek Theatre and Observatory in Griffith Park. A bird sanctuary in the park, first proposed by the board in 1922, finally opened in 1925.
In 1927, Aline Barnsdall donated Olive Hill to the city for an Art Park. This was strongly advocated by the association, and in commemoration of her gift, Barnsdall was made an honorary LFIA Life Member at a banquet hosted by the organization. One year later, important improvements requested by the LFIA to Los Feliz Boulevard were completed: widening, new lighting and buried utility lines, followed by a dedication ceremony including a parade with marching bands.
1929 was another pivotal year. To transform Los Feliz Boulevard into a residential street, 40 businesses were removed by the city, and proposals for any change in zoning from residential to business on the boulevard were successfully opposed. At the same time, the city adopted the association’s plans for landscaping the boulevard’s parkways to be paid through an assessment district and maintained by LFIA. In a more sober vein, the first death from a Griffith Park fire occurred in 1929, and the organization pressured the city to establish the first fire prevention measures for the park.
The Depression Years
Despite the desperate financial conditions in the country, Los Feliz continued to make significant progress in the 1930s under the guiding hand of LFIA. With continued advocacy from the association, John Marshall High School–budgeted in 1930 with $350,000 for the land, $450,000 for construction, and $100,000 for equipment–opened in January 1931, one year after the debut of the Greek Theatre. The association’s boundaries were expanded west to Canyon Drive that year.
The most destructive fire in Los Angeles history in 1933 caused the death of 33 Reconstruction Finance Corporation workers building park infrastructure. This lead to the placement of additional check dams and the first fire trails in the park. Two years later, with the urging of LFIA, an extensive water system in the park was placed with irrigation pipes, storage tanks, water lines, and additional fire breaks among other tactics.
The association continued to work to make Los Feliz Boulevard its showplace, and in 1934 it was successful in bringing about an anti-vendor ordinance that eliminated 37 vendor wagons on the street. That same year, LFIA and the Women’s Club cooperated to plant the remaining Deodar cedars on the boulevard. In a further beautification effort, the organization began to sponsor regular cleanups in the district, including walkways, stairways, graffiti and streets. It also successfully negotiated for the gradual removal of all billboards on Los Feliz Boulevard, a movement that gained steam in the following years but didn’t end until 1952 when the last one was removed.
In 1937, an LFIA citizen’s committee was established to plan for the Mulholland Memorial Fountain. The association organized a fund to raise money for the LADWP project. The chosen site at Riverside Drive and Los Feliz Boulevard was once the home of William Mulholland, and in 1940, the fountain was dedicated in a ceremony that featured LFIA.
Zoning issues remained at the forefront resulting in continued success in bringing about the city’s denial of spot zoning variances along the boulevard. Cleanup of the parkways and vacant lots also continued to be important association activities.
Recently rejected as the site for the new Los Angeles International Airport, the National Guard Airport on the park’s northeast acreage was deemed by LFIA to be an inappropriate use of park land. Through the association’s urging, the Parks Department announced it would not renew the airport’s lease beyond March 1, 1940.
World War II Followed by Vigorous Growth
While the war years dampened some association initiatives, several conventions were adopted that remain today: Election of officers and board Directors was changed from the January meeting to May. General membership meetings were set at two or three per year, and Board membership was raised to a maximum of 35.
After years of negotiations with all local public transportation agencies, improvements in local access to public transportation were finally realized in 1943. In addition, the city agreed at the urging of LFIA to repair all sidewalks in the district damaged by tree roots.
The 1950s began a period of remarkable growth in Los Angeles and Los Feliz was not immune to this trend. In 1954, a proposal from the city council to widen Los Feliz Boulevard between Western and Vermont into a six-lane highway was successful squelched by the LFIA. In 1958, the main entrance to Griffith Park was relocated to its present Riverside Drive location from the former Griffith Park Boulevard site, which relieved traffic, noise and congestion for the residents living there. One year later, in 1959, additional improvements to the pumps, tanks and water supply network in Griffith Park to combat fire was finished at the request of the association.
The current Los Feliz Estates property was owned by the Mead Estate, and they proposed a major complex of 3,000 apartment units in several 9- to 13-story high rise buildings in 1962, deemed completely out of character with the rest of the neighborhood. This was successfully disallowed after LFIA objections, and a ban on further high-rise apartment buildings on the boulevard was put into place two years later following the controversial construction of the Los Feliz Towers.
In 1963, Los Feliz was awarded its first historic-cultural monument, Hollyhock House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (#12). LFIA became a non-profit corporation the following year. Two years later, the Los Angeles Zoo was moved to its current location after the association fought the initial proposal to relocate it to Vermont Canyon.
In 1967, with strong support from the mayor and the Department of Recreation and Parks who were excited at the potential for financial gain for the city, a proposal was put forth to level Mt. Hollywood into a nine acre site, and then develop it with a meeting hall, a revolving destination restaurant, a theater and a museum. The complex would connect Fern Dell, the Observatory and the Zoo with an aerial tramway. LFIA was alarmed at this blatant commercialization of the park, as well as the destruction of the natural environment. Through a major effort, the association was able to successfully oppose this development.
The End of the Millennium
The 1970s were a period of continuous change, with three different US Presidents, the end of the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. Los Feliz continued to thrive, despite a local plague of air pollution and the geriatric reputation of its residents. In 1970, through LFIA efforts, the Deodar cedars on Los Feliz Boulevard were declared an historic-cultural monument (#67). In 1971, additional improvements in Griffith Park for fire protection were introduced through association efforts. When John Marshall High School was threatened with demolition after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake (which destroyed its twin in architecture, Los Angeles High School, as well as the original 1908 Immaculate Heart campus in Los Feliz), LFIA spearheaded a successful campaign to save the beautiful campus architecture.
In 1974, through the organization’s efforts, the Shakespeare Bridge was designated an historic-cultural monument (#126), and two years later, the Ennis House (#149), the Griffith Observatory (#168), and the Mulholland Fountain (#162) were similarly honored. In 1979, after the Immaculate Heart College merged with Loyola University, the few remaining original campus buildings were taken over by the American Film Institute with LFIA’s blessing.
Many additional association accomplishments occurred over the next decades. In 1986, the first LFIA-sponsored scholarships were presented to graduating Marshall High School Seniors. Two years later, the History Committee was formed and the Historic Property Survey project was launched. Nearly 3,000 architecturally significant Los Feliz homes were documented by 1996, and the results were made available to the public a few years later.
In 1991, the history of the association was published in book form in honor of its 75th anniversary, and in 1994, the oral history project was launched. In 1996, LFIA organized the restoration of the Mulholland Memorial Fountain, which was no longer functioning, and it single-handedly brought about a major restoration of the Griffith Park fire protection system, a project that was not completed until 2004. This improved system played a major role in limiting damage during the 2007 fire.
In 1997, the association awarded several thousand dollars in grants to local public schools for the first time, and this has continued until today. The association was also a major advocate for the restoration of the Shakespeare Bridge on Franklin Avenue, which was completed in 1998. Finally, the 19th century was brought to a close with the dedication of the long-sought Los Feliz Library, a special project organized and brought to reality by LFIA.
The 21st Century
To begin the new millennium, LFIA successfully thwarted the relocation of the Children’s Museum to the corner of Los Feliz Blvd. and Riverside Drive, which would have greatly exacerbated the already difficult traffic congestion. At the same time, its second publication, “The History of the Los Feliz Improvement Association,” was published to great acclaim.
The association was the primary advocate for the completion of the Rowena Reservoir beautification project, completed in 2001. It also began in this year to recognize distinguished restorations and garden landscaping with its annual Meliora Awards. In 2003, LFIA conducted its first Photo Day, the beginning of a large archive of historic snapshots and images of the district, which is now approaching 2,000 items.
In 2004, the Marshall High School Academic Decathlon Team was adopted as a special association project, and LFIA continues to make major annual monetary contributions to this worthy activity. With great fanfare and LFIA sponsorship, the Griffith Observatory remodel and expansion came to a conclusion in 2006.
The first set of historic Los Feliz note cards was published in 2007, and one year later the newly digitized Historic Property Survey was posted on the LFIA website. Early in 2009, joining together in a broad coalition of organizations, the association was partly responsible for the designation of Griffith Park as an historic-cultural monument (#942). Later in that year, its third publication and first hard-cover book, “Los Feliz: An Illustrated Early History,” was published. LFIA, also in 2009, participated in the Western Avenue and Franklin Avenue Streetscape Design Project, became a strong advocate for a new Sign Ordinance, and was one of the main contributors to the Vermont Triangle Beautification venture.
LFIA began its annual awarding of the Charlotte De Armond Leadership Award to a graduating John Marshall High School Senior in 2010. At the same time, it successfully fought proposals to allow off-road vehicles and bicycling in Griffith Park.
After years of hard advocacy, 2011 saw the successful passage of a law outlawing the sale of used cars on Los Feliz Boulevard and Franklin Avenue. This same year, the Historic Property Survey was expanded to 4,468 properties in Los Feliz, and the city adopted the Baseline Hillside Ordinance with major LFIA input. 2012 also saw the beginning of the organization’s Historic Architectural Walking tours.
The association’s fourth book, “Los Feliz and the Silent Film Era” was published in 2013. The following year, the long awaited Vision Plan for Griffith Park, a project that had begun in 2005 and was spearheaded by LFIA, was accepted by the Recreation and Parks Commission. Later in 2014, after changing to a tax-deductible non-profit corporation, funds were raised to enable the trimming and restoration in 2015 of nearly 300 Los Feliz Boulevard Deodar cedar trees.
The Significance of LFIA in Los Feliz
When acknowledging this long list of important contributions to the district, one should never forget that it is the quality and dedication of its Board of Directors that has maintained the reputation and influence of LFIA. This, more than anything else, has resulted in its remarkable achievements over the last 100 years. As an example, just consider this abbreviated roster of Directors in the 1930s: Harvey Van Norman, Chief Engineer and general Manager of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply (predecessor of LADWP); Erle C. Anthony, owner of radio stations and car dealerships; LA Times publishers Harry and Norman Chandler; distinguished author and intellectual, Rupert Hughes; Walt Disney; world-famous landscape architect Theodore Payne; Chief Engineer and General Manager of the Fire Department Ralph Scott; Director and Manager of the City Planning Commission Gordon Whitnall; and City Parks Superintendant Frank Shearer.
One must not forget the less tangible achievements of LFIA as well. As eloquently stated in 1943 by then President, Edward Tuttle: “The spiritual achievement of the Association is the creation over a period of years of a bond of neighborly good feeling, mutual trust and good will among the membership… This aspect of the Association is remarkable in view of the tendency in the opposite direction resulting from modern life in a large city. The association tends to create a small community in our area with many advantages of small community life.”
Throughout the years, LFIA’s main focus has been on recording and preserving Los Feliz’s historic architectural heritage, preventing business expansion into the residential areas through zoning variations or violations, relieving traffic congestion and the risks from dangerous intersections, controlling water run-off and drainage problems, expansion of inadequate public transportation, reducing crime, beautification of our district and removing neighborhood blight, supporting and expanding our public schools, and preserving Griffith Park. The fruits of these goals are what makes the district the attractive neighborhood we all enjoy today. The 100 year-old legacy of LFIA is one that everyone living in this beautiful district in Los Angeles can easily appreciate.