“There has just been placed on the market a tract of 140 acres of land lying in the foothills, west of Laurel Cañon,” the Los Angeles Times reported on April 29, 1906, “between those beautiful homes of A.C. Harper and Victor Ponet, running north from Santa Monica Avenue, on which the Santa Monica [trolley] car via Sherman runs.”
The “beautiful homes” were country estates owned by prominent Angelenos. A.C. Harper would be sworn in as mayor of Los Angeles eight months after the article appeared. His estate, called Cieolo Vista, stood near the foot of Laurel Canyon just above Sunset Boulevard, which in those days dead-ended at Laurel Canyon Boulevard after a 12-mile westward run from Downtown.
Victor Ponet was a successful Belgian immigrant and real-estate investor who owned 240 acres north of the trolley yards at Sherman, a village centered around present-day Boystown. Today Ponet’s descendants, the Montgomery family, still own much of the land, which includes Sunset Plaza.
“Sunset Boulevard, an 80-foot street, is being extended through the land,” the article continued, “and through Mr. Ponet’s property, which will make a very attractive scenic drive along the foothills.”
When completed, the Sunset extension wound around the foot of the Hollywood Hills for about a mile, from Laurel Canyon Boulevard to what is now Sunset Plaza. It was graded and graveled but not paved. Dusty most of the year and muddy the rest, it would remain unpaved for the next 30 years.
This stretch of country road built more than a century ago was the first leg of what would become one of the most famous boulevards in the world: the Sunset Strip.
The 140-acre residential development through which the Sunset extension ran became Hacienda Park, one of the most desirable neighborhoods in greater Hollywood in the early 20th century.
In this five-part series, we will explore the history of Hacienda Park, the Sunset Strip’s first neighborhood. Future installments will cover:
- The tragic, scandalous story of all-American silent film heartthrob Wallace Reid, one of Hacienda Park’s first movie star residents.
- The infamous 1935 murder at the Hacienda Park Apartments (now known as the Piazza del Sol) of Paul Ivar, a dress designer to the stars, in a case riven with gay subtext.
- The history of the Hacienda Park Apartments, its decline and destruction by fire and subsequent Phoenix-like rise from the ashes as today’s Piazza del Sol.
- The myth that the Piazza del Sol was owned by A-list Hollywood madam Lee Francis who ran it as a palace of prostitution.
In 1935 the Los Angeles Times called Hacienda Park “Hollywood’s most exclusive residential section.” But even then its fame was starting to wane – and today the old neighborhood at the eastern end of the Sunset Strip has been totally forgotten.
In this first installment on the history of Hacienda Park we’ll retrace the neighborhood’s rise and fall and answer an age old question: How did the Sunset Strip get its name?
The westward sprawl of Los Angeles was kick-started in the late 19th century when the interurban railroad connected Downtown with Santa Monica and the beach communities. As the streetcar routes expanded, investors bought up large tracts of farmland and orchards close to the trolley stops and subdivided them into neighborhoods.
In 1905 bankers at the Merchants Trust Company established the Hacienda Park Land Company and assembled a tract of land running north from the trolley line along Santa Monica Boulevard in what is now central West Hollywood. The 140 acres they acquired had belonged to three farm families whose last names were Rush, Moore and Newcomb.
Using today’s map, Hacienda Park occupied north-central West Hollywood, from Santa Monica Boulevard north into the hills above Franklin Avenue, and west from Sweetzer Avenue to La Cienega Boulevard (then called Newcomb Street).
Lots close to the Santa Monica Boulevard streetcar sold quickly, and by 1920 the section south of Sunset was nearly sold out. Lots atop the rugged ridges and ravines above Sunset proved to be tougher sales, however, despite the picturesque views of the Los Angeles Basin they offered. The problem was that the hillside acres generally lacked the infrastructure for homebuilding, like water, gas and electrical lines. A few lots had been sold, but the majority of the properties remained undeveloped.
In 1920 two of the biggest stars of the day – Wallace Reid, an All-American heart throb known as the “King of Paramount,” and venerable cowboy star William S. Hart – bought adjacent lots in the lower section of Hacienda Park immediately below of Sunset, facing De Longpre Avenue. The backyards of both houses were visible from the tourist buses that traveled along Sunset, which put Hacienda Park on maps of the movie stars’ homes. (We’ll trace the tragic circumstances of Wallace Reid’s death in Part 2, “An All-American Tragedy.”)
Less is known about a sprawling home that was built into the hill below Sunset at Olive Street around 1920. Unverified sources claim the house belonged to actor John Barrymore, who once lent it to Errol Flynn, and that Barrymore’s daughter Diana may have lived there in the 1940s. A section of it may have housed Butterfield’s restaurant in the 1980s, and a structure that appeared to be a carriage house and courtyard remained standing below the House of Blues until it was all demolished to make way for the Sunset Time project, which is currently under construction.
In October 1923 the Hacienda Park Land Company sold the remaining 65 hillside acres north of Sunset to the John A. Evans Corporation for $500,000. The head of the company, Jack Evans, was an up-and-coming real-estate entrepreneur fresh off a big sales success with a development in the Beverly Hills Flats.
To buy the acreage, Evans assembled investments from about 30 individuals and institutions who each contributed between $500 and $120,000. On its business page, the Times announced that the Evans company was launching the “development of a second Riviera at a cost of several millions of dollars.”
Evans’ first act was to install a pumping station in the hills, along with power, gas and sewage lines. He also built an extension of Hollywood Boulevard westward from Laurel Canyon Boulevard through the hills – claiming to a reporter that his crews had broken roadbuilding speed records.
Jack Evans’ forte was marketing. He soon rolled out an aggressive advertising campaign. Ads featured beautiful line drawings of Mediterranean-style homes in the hills and pictures of Evans himself – he made himself the “face” of the development. He also sponsored dinner hour music featuring the Hacienda Park Orchestra on KNX radio.
Among its promotions, the company held an essay contest based on the proposition that “Los Angeles Is the Most Wonderful City on Earth.” Evans told the Times, “I consider it the civic duty of all persons residing here that have a heart in the welfare of Los Angeles to do all in their power to set the eastern public right about such matters.” He also generated publicity by embarking on a tour of Europe to study the Mediterranean architecture that inspired the design of the homes he was building in his Riviera in the foothills.
In 1925 the Times reported that work was underway on an ornamental entrance to the Hacienda Park hills at Queens Road and Sunset Boulevard. “The construction of the entrance, which will have massive pillars flanking the drive, represents a large outlay,” the Times reported. “Planting of acacias is also under way. ”
By the mid-1920s, the business was booming. Evans built a substantial but unpretentious home for himself in the hills. (The house is still standing, at 1516 North Kings Drive.)
But along with success came a series of failures. Evans’ company acquired additional hillside acreage immediately west of the Hacienda Park tract to be developed as Holly Vista Estates. As part of the new development, he announced another roadbuilding project — a street running south through the hills to Sunset be called Holly Vista Drive.
It’s unclear how many, if any, lots in the Holly Vista section were sold. Holly Vista Drive was never built, or at least no street with that name appears in maps of the area today.
Around that same time the company announced a $2.5 million deal to build the Royal Palms Hotel and Apartments on Sunset. But this project apparently never even broke ground.
Evans also told the Times also that plans were in the works to install “miniature parks scattered through the hillside drives,” and that “benches, shrubs, lawns, flowers [were] being placed by a landscape engineer.” Few, if any, of these features exist in the hills today.
And while sales of residential properties were good – Evans announced record sales in 1926 – interest in commercial lots along Sunset lagged. The sales drought ended in mid-1926 when Alexander Gollos purchased a prime corner lot in the northwest corner of Queens Road and Sunset. The $382,000 project (about $5.5 million today) – a four-story luxury apartment building atop a street-level garage – opened in early 1927. It was called the Hacienda Park Apartments then; today it’s the Piazza del Sol.
Two years later disaster struck. In October 1929 the stock market crashed, triggering an economic collapse and setting the stage for the Great Depression. Spooked by the downturn, Evans’ investors demanded a full accounting of the company’s finances.
The report was damning: In 1927 Evans had made three improper withdrawals from the company bank account totaling $14,000 – a little over $200,000 today. As a result, Jack Evans was charged with grand theft.
The ensuing criminal investigation also revealed that Evans had defrauded his investors from the outset. When Evans set up the syndicate in 1923 he claimed he had contributed $120,000 to the original investment fund. This was key because, as the largest investor, Evans assumed control of the syndicate. As lead trustee, he’d hired his own company, the John A. Evans Corporation, as exclusive sales agents. As a result, his company had taken a 20 percent commission on millions in sales.
As it turned out, Jack Evans had never invested a dime in the syndicate.The investors were rightly furious about the fraud and double dealing. But after the initial hearings, the judge dropped the criminal charges against Evans, ruling instead that the matter should be litigated in civil court.
The investors immediately lodged 12 separate lawsuits against Evans seeking damages totaling $260,000 (about $3 million today). The results of the suits were not reported in the Times.
Evans was so closely associated with Hacienda Park’s advertising that his downfall permanently tarnished the neighborhood’s upscale brand.
After months of nonstop negative publicity, acerbated by the nationwide economic collapse, sales in the hills cratered. Seemingly overnight Hacienda Park disappeared from the map and soon faded in local memories. Now, 80 years later, it has vanished from local history.
The Sunset Eighties
Within a decade of Jack Evans’ downfall the old Hacienda Park neighborhood had become indistinguishable from the rest of the residential areas around Sherman. Development in the hillside areas rebounded eventually and today, in real-estate parlance at least, the hills are considered part of the Sunset Strip.
Sunset became a vibrant entertainment center in the ‘30s, with a number of hotspots in the former Hacienda Park zone, notably the Clover Club, a deluxe supper club fronting for an illegal casino that stood across Queens Road from the Hacienda Park Apartments (a parking lot today), and Club Seville, a popular club one door east of the Hacienda Park, later the site of Ciro’s and the Comedy Club today.
It was in the mid-1930s that the leg of Sunset Boulevard between Hollywood and Beverly Hills became known as the Sunset Strip. The name originated from the “county strip,” a widely used term in real-estate zoning in Los Angeles County. These “strips” were tracts of unincorporated land bounded on all sides by city jurisdictions. Before cityhood West Hollywood was a classic county strip – roughly 1.9 acres of unincorporated territory adjacent to the Los Angeles city limits to the north, south and east, and to Beverly Hills city limits on the west.
The first reference to a “county strip” in the Times was in a list of real-estate transactions from 1882. By the 1930s, there were dozens of these strips throughout the county. It may be that “Sunset Strip” evolved as a way to differentiate the county strip west of Hollywood from all the others.
The first reference in the Times to the Sunset Strip was in a column about goings-on in nightclubs in 1935. The columnist stated that a new nightspot called Club Envoy “should set the pace on the Sunset ‘strip.’”
But the name “Sunset Strip” did not sit well with the hotel and nightclub owners on the boulevard. In 1937 the Hollywood Citizen-News held a contest to come up with a classier and more marketable moniker. Judges included William Haines, the former MGM silent star turned decorator who operated an antique store in Sunset Plaza; actress Lila Lee; Francis S. Montgomery, an heir to Victor Ponet and owner of Sunset Plaza; and the Albert E. Smith, the proprietor of the Chateau Marmont.
The winning name was the “Sunset Eighties” – a reference to the fact that addresses on the Strip ran along the 8000 to the 9200 blocks of Sunset. Albert Smith told the Times, “It tells people where we are — and it’s catchy.” (But actually, it wasn’t.)
Around that same time Sunset Boulevard’s route through the county strip was widened and, for the first time, the Sunset Strip was paved.
The Hacienda Park Apartments changed owners a few times in the 1930s. Another connection to the old neighborhood was lost around 1939 when the building’s owner changed the name to the Coronet Apartments. Fifty years later an arson fire gutted the interior, leaving only its ornate concrete shell.
As testimony to how thoroughly Hacienda Park had been forgotten, when the building was designated a historic resource, the original name was listed incorrectly as the Hacienda Arms in the official record at the National Register of Historic Places. New owners repurposed it as an office building and named it Piazza del Sol.
Other than the Piazza del Sol there are a few other remnants of old Hacienda Park. The most permanent of these is Hacienda Place, a block-long street that runs north-south between Fountain Avenue and Holloway Drive, a block east of La Cienega.
Every house and apartment building in the zone that was built between 1906 and 1929 is original to Hacienda Park One notable example is the former residence, built in 1922, that houses Marix Restaurant on North Flores Street.
And remember the “massive pillars flanking the drive” for the
“ornamental entrance” to the Hacienda Park hills that Evans constructed? The column on the northeast corner of Queens and Sunset was likely removed around 1927 to make way for the Hacienda Park Apartments, but the column in the northwest corner is still there — a silent reminder of the Sunset Strip’s forgotten past.