History Of The Canyon
Santa Monica and Rustic canyon are two very magical places. Christopher Isherwood who lived in various locations in the canyon described it in an article, ‘The Shore,’ written for Harper’s Bazaar in 1952. Santa Monica Canyon – known simply as “The Canyon” to its dwellers – lies just north of the city of Santa Monica. It is a shallow flat-bottomed little valley, crowded with cottages of self-consciously rustic design, where cranky, kindly people live and tolerate each other’s mild and often charming eccentricities. The Canyon is our western Greenwich village, overrun now by various types of outsiders, but still maintaining an atmosphere of Bohemianism and unpretentious artiness. The Canyon, including both Santa Monica and Rustic canyon, stretches from Mulholland Drive in the north down through Will Rogers State Park on the west to the Riviera Country Club on the East. The southern border is defined by Mesa Road, but the spirit of The Canyon ends no sooner than the Pacific Ocean. Originally home to the Gabrieleno Indians, The Canyon was a safe and fertile valley.The Canyon had been under both Spanish and Mexican control before Alta California was ceded to the United States in 1847.
It was under the Mexican government that the historic land grants were issued to Francisco Marquez and Ysidro Reyes on June 14, 1834. They were given land rights to “the place called Santa Monica,” the 6,656 acre Rancho Boca de Santa Monica. Francisco built his first home on what is today San Lorenzo Street; and Reyes built his ranch house near where Chautauqua and Sunset intersect today. Despite political changes and the challenges of Mother Nature, the beauty and peace of The Canyon began to attract near-by Angelenos. A small grocery store sold fresh produce and items from the local Rancheros and small tents dotted the mouth of The Canyon for picnicking and camping. By 1872 a hotel opened near the waterfront advertising “Come and enjoy yourself. A week at the beach will add ten years to your life.” Given the growing popularity of The Canyon, unclaimed land was to be sold at public auction. Advertisements for the July 15, 1875, auction read: On Wednesday afternoon at one o’clock we will sell at public outcry to the highest bidder, the Pacific Ocean, draped with a sky of scarlet gold. By December of 1875, a railroad had been built to ShooFly Landing where Colorado Street reaches the beach today. The Canyon now became accessible to hundreds of people. Traveling characters enjoyed days of croquet, horseback riding, and, of course, bathing. Evening entertainment, lasting into the early hours of morning, was marked by music and dancing. One such traveler was Loius Salvator, the Archduke of Austria, who wrote about The Canyon in 1867, No more economical and happier life can be imagined… than this life given over to picnicking under the trees and to enjoy the invigorating sea breeze, surrounded by congenial acquaintances.
The Canyon was experiencing a land boom during the late 1880’s attracting tycoons (either actual or potential) of every industry. One such industrious man was Abbot Kinney who opened the first forestry station in Rustic Canyon in 1887. One of his objectives was to test trees, primarily eucalyptus, as cash crops. On 247 acres of land Kinney began planting trees. Despite the success of the trees, it was clear they were not an effective cash crop and Kinney soon sold the property. Notwithstanding a devastating fire in 1904, many of the trees survived creating the plentiful and beautiful eucalyptus groves in Rustic Canyon today. A plaque was dedicated on August 18, 1971, officially designating the eucalyptus groves as a California State Historical Landmark. In July 1893, Collis P. Huntington built a 4,700 foot wharf just north of The Canyon’s outlet to the Pacific Ocean.
He intended to create ‘The Los Angeles Harbor’ right here in Santa Monica. And although the wharf was used extensively for fifteen years, it was not to become the San Pedro of today, as Huntington had hoped it would be. * In order to accommodate the now permanent population, the first school was established in 1876 at the Presbyterian Church. On October 29, 1894, the Canyon School, as it is today, opened. The original site was on the 400 block of Sycamore Road. The school has remained the cornerstone of the community even after its move to Entrada Drive in 1956. A group of erst-while parents created the first Canyon School Fiesta and Art Fair in 1934, establishing an annual celebration of canyon history that continues today.
At the turn of the century, canyon life included croquet, bicycling, baseball, tennis matches, and polo. Evenings were still filled with dancing, live local music, and enjoying the evening breeze. It was around this time that Robert C. Gillis and Robert P. Sherman, who were neighbors on Adelaide Ave near 4th Street, built an incline railway from Inspiration Point (101 Ocean Ave) down to the beach. Gillis had a family beach house located directly on the waterfront. All the neighboring families were given a key to both the railway and the beach house so all could enjoy the trip down The Canyon without the exhausting walk or ride back up the hill. Tract planning for residential homes began in 1912. Santa Monica Land Companies owned by Gillis, Sherman, and C.L. Bundy promoted one expensive new tract after another. At the place Where the Mountains meet the Sea (as The Canyon was advertised), the Bundy’s built a bath house with picnic area, refreshments, and dance pavilion. It became the favorite oasis of many until it burned down in 1927.
Eccentric style founded The Canyon. People who resided here had unique tastes. They loved the good life and the elements that only The Canyon could offer: the warmth of the sun, the ocean breezes, the hidden groves of eucalyptus and sycamore, the towering trees, and the wildlife that abounded amongst it all. For example, Mary Kyte, who lived on Ocean Avenue, bought a parcel of land in 1913 on Mesa Road (today’s 464 Mesa Road and adjacent lots). She enclosed it with a fence, built two restrooms, put in a pond, gardens, trees, and brought school children to The Canyon to go to the beach. Open spaces, recreation, and hospitality were to become the norm of The Canyon. The property remained in tact until the 1930s when it was sold and sub-divided. Portions of the restrooms were incorporated into a small house built by architect Thornton Abell in the 1940s. * It was during this romantic time that a group of men from the Los Angeles Athletic Club were looking for a spot to build a summer retreat. After considering numerous locations, there was no place as magical or as dedicated to enjoyment of the good life as Rustic Canyon. At the old forestry station, they founded the Uplifters Club. The Club was active for thirty years. They commissioned the building of the Spanish Colonial Structure, which today is part of Rustic Canyon Park, where they became known for musical and dramatic presentations, for their equestrian and polo fields, and most raucously, their annual all-male summer excursions. Committed to enjoyment of the good life, The Uplifters Club became known as the Cuplifters Club during prohibition.
Despite the good times, The Canyon fell quiet during the First World War. Many went to fight and many did not return. The fishing industry dissipated when San Pedro became the Port of Los Angeles. There was an air of caution as new families and homes began to dot the freshly laid streets. Development was speared by the Bundy’s but was also challenged by James A. (Bert) Edmundson who had moved into The Canyon in the early 1920’s. The Edmundson’s built their famous log-cabin style home at the corner of East Rustic and West Channel Road, which acted as both their permanent residence and real estate office. With growth and change, canyon residence voted to become a part of Los Angeles City. The Canyon would not feel the worst of the Depression. Beverly Boulevard, which is now Sunset Boulevard, was extended to the Pacific Ocean in 1926. This made access to The Canyon easy and reliable, attracting the eccentric and financially flourishing Hollywood crowd. Will Rogers bought his ranch in Upper Rustic Canyon in 1926 and by 1928 owned property all the way to the beach. The Riviera Club opened in 1927 with four polo fields, golf, tennis, and evening entertainment.
The 1930′s and 1940′s were again a romantic time in Canyon history. The “Bundy Ranch” was a popular site for entertainment, picnicking, and enjoyment of The Canyon breeze and beauty. Berthold and Salka Viertel, European director and actress, moved into a home on Mabery Road entertaining and welcoming numerous émigrés and Hollywood characters.The cast included Billy Wilder, Stella Adler, Sergei Eisentain, Christopher Isherwood, Arthur Rubenstein, Greta Garbo, Bertolt Brecht, and Charlie Chaplin, just to name a few.
Doc Law’s (Burton C. Law, Drugs – as it was officially know) was the prominent soda shop, drug store, and gossip spot. One of the most colorful characters of Canyon history, Doc Law ran the soda shop doing a grand business in ice cream cones but an even more lucrative business during prohibition prescribing “elixirs” and mint juleps for those who knew the password. Beachfront property became prime real estate. Companies fought for just a few hundred feet of state-owned beach in order to open restaurants and refreshment stands.
The Canyon became a local oasis.Despite the consistent business, long-time canyonites were not as happy. Although they still maintained a spirit of hospitality, The Canyon was getting smaller. Local citizens and leading canyon merchants mounted a protest campaign against the selling of state-owned beach. They made their voices heard when homes or businesses were built in obtrusive places citing obstruction of ocean views, loss of recreational space, and, most importantly, the danger of setting a precedent in Canyon development. Though some of the most decadent years in canyon history, the 1930’s were the worst decade for natural disasters. On March 10, 1933, the Long Beach Earthquake caused severe damage. And then in March 1938 The Canyon experienced springtime flooding. It is said that the famous frog of Toed Inn floated out to sea and is still buried somewhere off our Santa Monica shore. But the hospitable spirit of The Canyon was at its finest hour as stories of neighborliness and compassion abounded in the clean up.
During the late 1930′s and early 1940′s, writers, sculptors, photographers, architects, movie directors, and artists of all types with varying eccentric niceties were settling into The Canyon. Writers Esther and David Malcolmson arrived in the early thirties. They opened their home to local, young, and aspiring writers for evening writing classes. Aviator Waldo Waterman, his wife, and daughter, Jane, moved into The Canyon bringing with them many aeronautical inventions and outspoken words for aviation safety. Photographer Edward Weston lived at a variety of addresses with his young bride Charis Wilson from 1935-1937. Ms. Wilson described life in The Canyon as a ‘picnic’. His photographs were featured at the 1937 Canyon School Fiesta and Art Fair. Everyone expressed their uniqueness, even housewives. As the story goes, two women on opposite sides of Rustic Creek wanted to thwart the sale of a wooden lot between them. When one heard the real estate agent approach, they sounded the alarm. With butcher knife in hand, one would run shrieking out of her house across the bridge and into her neighbor’s home. The two would then dissolve into laughter as they watched the realtor and prospective buyers discomfort.During Word War II, again, many Canyonites went to fight. Canyon headquarters were established at the intersection of Entrada and Channel roads while a defense organization was formed to maintain block wardens and aircraft spotters. The Pacific Palisades fire department held bomb drills at Canyon School. Many, including actress Laraine Day, opened their home to servicemen and those needing assistance. Girls knitted afghans for the Red Cross. The community led a scrap metal salvage campaign.
Throughout the decades, the beach has been a cornerstone of Canyon life. The local Bath Houses hired lifeguards to watch the waters and keep their guests safe. In 1930, the lifeguard station at the mouth of the Canyon was built on a parcel of beach owned by Will Rogers. The county maintained the station for the next nineteen years. Activity around the station was constant. The 30′s saw a steady stream of those looking for a days retreat from the city. Although things quieted down during WWII, the lifeguard station became the popular rendezvous point after the war. After the breakwater was built, the beach became a popular spot for serious sun-bathers and celebrities as opposed to surfers. Beach volleyball became the popular sport with the first tournament being held in 1947. The 1950s were again a romantic time in Canyon history with the beach a center attraction. Fredrick Kohner who sat and watched the scene at State Beach wrote Gidget in 1957. With the release of the movie in 1958, beaches up and down the coast were swarmed with a whole new crowd of young and energetic sun lovers. Surfing again became popular in the canyon and businesses at the mouth of the canyon were booming as they continue to do today. The Canyon itself grew rapidly after the war. New homes and new families moved into the neighborhood. Life under the sycamores and eucalyptus seemed idyllic after the traumatic years of war. The Canyon began to take on more community structure with the formation of the Santa Monica Canyon Civic Association (SMCCA) in 1947. Their headquarters were in the Rustic Canyon Racquet Club, formerly the Uplifters Club. In the spirit of canyon tradition they had tried on numerous occasions to purchase communal land but were unsuccessful. With the help of an anonymous donor, later disclosed as Maybell Marchris, the SMCCA purchased the club and surrounding land in 1953. After remodeling the main building and replacing the swimming pool, the Rustic Canyon Recreation Center, as it is today, was officially opened in June 1961.