How L.A. Got One of the Country’s Largest Urban Parks

The recent premiere of downtown L.A.’s Grand Avenue Park and the continuing debate over the public use of Pershing Square has returned attention to a longstanding criticism of Los Angeles: its relative lack of parkland within the city limits. Yet, ironically, L.A. boasts one of the largest urban parks in the nation; at 4,310 acres, Griffith Park is four times the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and nearly five times the size of New York’s Central Park.

With chaparral-covered slopes, deep canyons shaded by riparian trees and shrubs, and a menagerie of wild animals — including the occasional mountain lion — the park is a showcase for what remains of Southern California’s native flora and fauna. Hiking trails open the park up to recreational users, while attractions like the Griffith Observatory and Los Angeles Zoo draw millions of tourists and other visitors annually.
How did Los Angeles come to acquire and preserve such a large tract of land for public recreation?

Before Griffith Park, Los Angeles had Rancho Los Feliz. The ranch lands — for millennia, home to successive waves of the region’s indigenous inhabitants — were bounded on the north and east by the Los Angeles River and encompassed the rugged eastern tip of the Santa Monica Mountains as well as the flatter lands now occupied by East Hollywood, Los Feliz, and Silver Lake.

Although the ranch’s name is often translated literally as the “Happy Ranch,” it owes its mirthful appellation to José Vicente Feliz. A Spanish soldier who accompanied Juan Bautista de Anzaon his 1775 expedition through California, Feliz was among the first residents of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles and later served as its comisionado, overseeing the town’s civil administration on behalf of Alta California’s governor. Sometime around his retirement in 1800, the Spanish government rewarded Feliz for his service by granting him 6,647 acres of land — Rancho Nuestra Señora de Refugio de Los Feliz, later shortened to Rancho Los Feliz.

After Feliz’s death in 1816, his family maintained control over the ranch through California’s transition to Mexican and then U.S. administration until 1863. That year, according to local legend, a leading citizen of Los Angeles namedAntonio Coronel unscrupulously wrested control of the property from an aging Feliz patriarch. When a younger relative realized what had happened, he cursed Coronel and the ranch, a malediction that doomed the rancho to a long succession of unhappy owners. The so-called Curse of the Felizes has been offered as an explanation for many unfortunate turns of events, including the failure of Coronel’s cattle herd in the 1860s and the Griffith Park fire of 1933.

As Mike Eberts writes in “Griffith Park: a Centennial History,” the Curse of the Felizes is pure myth. Regardless, Rancho Los Feliz did suffer the same fate as most Southern California land grants: it eventually fell into the hands of the region’s Anglo immigrants.

In the case of Rancho Los Feliz, those included James Lick, Charles V. Howard, E. L. “Lucky” Baldwin, and Thomas Bell. But it was a Welsh-born newspaper journalist and mining investor named Griffith J. Griffith who is most identified with the land. On December 8, 1882, Griffith purchased what, after subdivisions and other subtractions, was left of the original rancho. (Today, the UCLA Library’s Special Collections preserves the deed and other documents related to Rancho Los Feliz and Griffith Park.)

Accounts vary, but most put the purchase price within the range of $8,000 to $50,000. Whatever the amount, Griffith’s investment was destined to pay handsome returns, as Los Angeles was on the cusp of its first real estate bonanza.

Although he maintained his land holdings as a working ranch, growing several crops and maintaining herds of sheep and cattle, by time L.A.’s land boom reached its peak in the late 1880s Griffith had subdivided much of the rancho. In all, according to one estimate, his real estate dealings netted Griffith $1 million. It was during this period that the subdivisions of Ivanhoe and Kenilworth, which today form Silver Lake’s northern flank, were born.

But Griffith also recognized the recreational value of his ranch — particularly those parts where rough terrain rendered the land unsuitable for development. Around 1885, he partnered with Charles Sketchley to open a 680-acre ostrich farm that doubled as a public attraction. Curious day-trippers could board the narrow-gauge Ostrich Farm Railway in downtown Los Angeles to gawk at the bizarre, flightless birds whose feathers sold for three to five dollars a piece. Admission was first set at one dollar and later reduced to 50 cents.

With the ostrich farm, the idea of Griffith Park had already been born. According to Luther Ingersoll, “a park and menagerie were planned and it was hoped to make this one of the leading attractions of Los Angeles.” The farm closed in 1889, however, leaving the more extensive plans for the land unrealized.

But the farm had demonstrated the recreational potential of Griffith’s land, located only a few miles from the population center in central Los Angeles. Angelenos could travel to Rancho Los Feliz, enjoy the rural scenery from a trail or under the shade of a massive oak, and then return home — all in a single day.

Griffith Park was born on December 16, 1896, when Griffith donated 3,015 acres of Rancho Los Feliz to the City of Los Angeles. During a time when luxury resorts dotted the slopes of the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, Griffith — who grew up poor in Wales — insisted that his park was meant for those of more modest means. “It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses,” Griffith told the council when announcing his donation, “a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people.”

Some chroniclers later characterized the donation as a Christmas gift to the city. Harris Newmark later wrote that Griffith “so generously filled the stocking of Los Angeles with his immensely important gift of Griffith Park, said to be, with its three thousand and more diversified acres, magnificent heights, and picturesque roadways…the second largest pleasure ground in the world.”

The gift may have been evidence of Griffith’s charitable spirit, but Griffith Park almost certainly owes its existence to the fact that the mountainous land would not be developable for many decades. As Eberts argues in his history of the park, Griffith was paying taxes on land that had little market value. Griffith, in fact, carved out a small, flat portion of the park that did have development potential — today, the location of the Harding Memorial Golf Course — to keep for himself.

Whatever his motives, Griffith’s gift instantly gave Los Angeles one of the largest city parks in the world — on paper. But it would be many years before the Griffith Park known to Angelenos today began to take shape. At first, the city, which owned the parkland but would not annex it until 1910, seemed mainly interested in securing the water rights associated with the land; Rancho Los Feliz was one of the few other legal entities that could legitimately lay claim to the water of the Los Angeles River.

Later, the city debated how best to improve the park for public consumption. J.W. Eddy, the founder of the Angels Flight Railway, proposed building a 2,000-foot funicular that would transport park-goers to the top of Mount Hollywood, where an observatory would offer sweeping views of the Los Angeles Basin. Talks with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, promising at first, to open a federal arboretum inside the park collapsed in 1903.

Griffith’s own plans for the park, which came to include an astronomical observatory as well as a large outdoor amphitheater, were held up by scandal. In 1903, Griffith shot his wife in an alcohol-fueled rage. He was convicted of attempted murder and spent two years in San Quentin. His reputation tarnished, the city would not accept his gift of $700,000 to fund the improvements until after his death in 1919. The Greek Theatre finally opened in 1929, and the Griffith Observatory in 1935.

Other park attractions came later. The Los Angeles Zoo moved to its present location in 1966. Traveltown arrived in 1952, and the Autry Museum of the American West opened its doors in 1989.

Today, activists for environmental justice are hopeful that Griffith Park — never easily accessible except by automobile — might soon provide green space and recreational opportunities for communities that are historically underserved by public parks. A recent proposal called for an odd-shaped parcel of parkland on the east bank of the Los Angeles River to be converted into a community park, complete with strolling paths, soccer pitches, and a riverside esplanade. Griffith J. Griffith’s demand that his park serve all the city’s residents continues to reverberate.

Circa 1935 postcard of the Griffith Observatory. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

by Nathan Masters

Original Article

David Kramer