California Fool's Gold -- Exploring Mount Washington

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 22, 2012 07:01pm | Post a Comment

One of the Mount Washington neighborhood signs    

                  A typical Mount Washington street

This here episode is all about Mount Washington -- a hilly and almost entirely residential neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles (NELA). Its neighbors are Highland Park to the east, Cypress Park to the southwest, Glassell Park to the northwest and Eagle Rock to the north.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of Mount Washington (sold)

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of Northeast Los Angeles

On this adventure I was accompanied by frequent traveling companion, Tim Shimbles.


I can’t find any authoritative record of how Mount Washington got its name. At least one source claims it was named after a surveyor, Colonel Henry Washington, who spent time in Southern California in 1855. I wasn't able to find out when the name even first appeared but I'm skeptical about that explanation.

After recently watching Stephen Fry in America I learned about another Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England. In its heyday it was was topped by a pair of resort hotels and served by a funicular train line. Los Angeles’s Mount Washington was also topped by a resort hotel and served by a funicular train line. Even if it wasn’t originally named after the peak in the east, it seems it’s development was inspired by it.


Northeast LA was been inhabited constantly for about 8,000 years. The ancestors of Tongva arrived from the Sonora Desert and had inhabited the land for thousands of years before the Spanish conquest. Spain ruled the land from 1769-1821. It was granted as part of Rancho San Rafael to José María Verdugo in 1784. From 1821 till 1848 it was part of Mexico. When the US defeated Mexico and took California but the hill that came to be known as Mount Washington remained undeveloped until the Los Angeles Railways "yellow cars" arrived in the area between 1904 and '06.

Nickel-Leong Mansion

There were very few homes in the area prior to 1910 and they were situated around the base of the hill. One of the first was the Nickel-Leong Mansion for restaurateur Max Nickel and later lived in by the well-known Leong family of Chinatown. 

Wachtel Studio-Home

Another early home was the idiosyncratic Wachtel Studio-Home, designed by Elmer Wachtel and built in 1906 as a studio/exhibition space and home for Elmer and his fellow Plein Aire painter wife, Marion Kavanagh Wachtel.


The development of the Mount Washington neighborhood was begun in earnest in 1909 by developer Robert Marsh, who built the resort Mount Washington Hotel at the summit which was served by a train, the L.A. & Mt. Washington Ry. Co. -- until the line’s closure in 1919. Today, Avenue 43 and Canyon Vista Drive run along the path of the former railway.
The Mission Revival train station on Marmion Way is now a duplex

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The hotel was long ago reincarnated as the headquarters of the Self-Realization Fellowship movement. Besides the hotel, a few, expensive first residences were sold to half a dozen wealthy men, mostly a collection of real estate men and big company presidents and managers.

Views from, of and around the former Mount Washington Hotel

The Mount Washington Hotel opened its doors in 1910. With Pasadena and South Pasadena offering much larger and more accessible resort hotels, its perhaps not surprising that most of Mount Washington’s guests weren’t out-of-state tourists. At the base of the hill, seven film studios used in Highland Park’s Sycamore Grove to shoot films and actors, verifiably including Charlie Chaplin, often gathered and stayed in the nearby hotel. When the movie industry abandoned Highland Park and Edendale for Hollywood, the hotel suffered. As mentioned earlier, the train stopped running in 1919 and the hotel afterward went through short stints as a military academy and respiratory hospital before being purchased by Parmahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship movement, in 1925. The train tracks weren’t removed until 1930. 


Steep Eldred Street and the rickety wooden stairs

At a height of 279 meters (considerably smaller than its 1,917 namesake), Mount Washington has some steep streets. Eldred Street is LA’s steepest, at a grade of 33%. Yes, there is a stretch of a San Pedro’s 28th Street that briefly attains a 33.3% grade but Eldred is apparently steepest from the base to its dead end. There, the adventurous climbing enthusiast can continue further up the hill on a rickety-looking wooden staircase. The street was laid by Delos W. Eldred in 1912 – It wasn’t until the 1950s that Los Angeles started limiting streets to grades below 15%. (Despite what is commonly claimed by Mideast Siders, the steepest streets in Echo Park and Silver Lake are officially listed as 32% and below.) The street’s residences’ mailboxes are all located at the bottom of the hill and almost everyone who lives on the hillside drives a large truck.


The entrance and museum

The Southwest Museum of the American Indian was originally opened in 1907 in Downtown Los Angeles by noted anthropologist/journalist/historian/photographer Charles Fletcher Lummis. It moved to its current location in 1914.

Memorial Pole dedicated to Henry Hunt (by Richard Hunt) 

 A sculpture of a Tongva ti'at by Gerardo Hacer

The building, designed by architects Sumner P. Hunt and Silas Reese Burns, isn’t up to current seismic standards and is thus has been closed for renovations since 2006. As of 19 May, 2012, the upper and lower lobbies will open on Saturdays only.

A garden designed and cared for by Don A. Philipp since 2000


Development of Mount Washington really began to take off in the 1920s and one early, notorious resident was F. Roninson. I can’t find any information about him and his bust except on a piece that appeared on the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance’s website called The Weird, the Wonderful and the Wacky Mt. Washingtonso I’ll just quote them:

"In February, 1924, a squad of officers of the Lincoln Heights Police Division climbed to a mansion at the top of Mount Washington on San Rafael Drive. They arrested F. Roninson, alleged proprietor of a 500-gallon still. They seized 200 gallons of moonshine and 50 barrels of whiskey mash, and exposed what they believed was one of the main sources of illegal liquor in the county."



In the 1960s, Mount Washington resident Louise Huebner (wife of artist/Hollywood production illustrator and Boyle Heights native, Mentor Huebner) was a regular fixture on KLAC and KTTV where her taped astrological spots were credited to “the staff witch.” In the summer of 1968 promoted a series of Sunday happenings at the Hollywood Bowl. At the first of them, the Folklore Festival, she was given a certificate (signed by then- Chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, Ernest Debs, whom she presented with a golden horn for his own benefit) designating her “the Official With of Los Angeles County.” In front of 11,000 people, she cast a spell to increase the sexual vitality of LA County’s residents. It sounds strange today but this was an era that produced celebrity Satanists like Anton LaVey, Jimmy Page was obsessed with Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger began to develop a following, and the Doors' Jim Morrison married a witch. 


In 1969 she published a book titled Power through witchcraft as well as an spoken word album (with electronics from Louis and Bebe Barron!) on Warner Brothers titled Seduction through witchcraft

Then County Counsel John D. Maharg asked her to rescind her title -- they claimed that their designation was meant as a joke and completely unofficial. Huebner responded by organizing a press conference at which he threatened to reverse the spell. The county backed off and its residents remained sexually vital. Huebner went on to write more books and release more records and, as far as I know, still lives near the top of the neighborhood.


In 1989, Bret Waller and Ralph Eaton began renting a house in the shadow of the Museum of the Southwest at 500 Museum Drive where they installed an artists’ shrine and sculpture garden they christened Holyland. There they held services/BBQs on Sundays. In 1991 they gained media attention after acquiring a 1,400 pound, twelve-foot bust of Elvis originally built for a State of Mississippi float in Pasadena’s 1990 Tournament of Roses parade. First the bust – made of steel, wire, fiberglass, flowers and birdseed -- had been transported by DJs Mark and Brian to Graceland but Elvis’s estate keepers were not amused. It then spent time in a Jackson, Mississippi mall until it was sold to a Cash for Cans for the kingly sum of $13.10. Waller and Eaton were artists who also worked as float-builders and caught wind of the increasingly tattered bust’s existence through the float-builders grapevine. They purchased it for $75 and Holyland unveiled it at the King’s 56th birthday service at which Dr. Brett and Rev. Ralph distributed bits of bacon -- Elvis's favorite food. Holyland ultimately closed in 1991 when the church’s landlord sold the house and gave the duo the boot.


The population of the neighborhood today is about 13,000 and approximately 61% Latino (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran), 21% white (mostly German), 13% Asian and 3% black. Owing to its hilly topography, there are no major arteries passing through it. There are only a few scattered businesses along its base; therefore, there aren’t any neighborhood restaurants, theaters, music venues, or any of the other things I typically list in these neighborhood blog entries.

I spotted a neon sign that said "Ray's Market" and thought that this would be Shimbles's and my chance to grab a bite to eat. When we walked in the door it was immediately apparently that Ray's Market is no longer -- and a woman in a cubicle chimed on cue, "There's no Ray's Market."

I also know of neither any films or TV series filmed there, nor any actors or directors who were born there... nor any bands that formed there. Dear readers, if you do, please let me know and I’ll add links to this blog entry!


Another view from Mount Washington 

Most of the sights to check out in Mount Washington are the great views it affords, the flora and fauna in the parks, and the homes.


Fung & Blatt residence

Schmalix residence

Fung + Blatt are an architectural firm founded in 1990 by Alice Fung and Michael Blatt with a focus on sustainable living and building practices. Mount Washington is home to several of their strikingly-designed homes. We stopped by their own private residence and the Schmalix Residence but there are also Fung + Blatts at 705 N Rome and 4223 Sea View Lane.


In 2011, German immigrants Frank Pasker and Grant Leiphart designed and moved into a home on Nob Hill Drive that they christened the Nob Hill Haus. It is designed to be an exemplar of sustainable living using xersicaping, gray water, a cistern and other green features. They have a blog and offer occasional open houses but on the day we stopped by (unannounced) they weren't home. The home has been immediate sensation, written about in the LA Times and receiving a certificate from the city honoring it for “outstanding creativity in architectural and sustainable design.”


Mount Washington is home to several parks that are varied in character and function but are all charming in their own way. We skipped Greayer’s Oak Park (dedicated to Greayer "Grubby" Clover, an aviator who served in France during World War II). We also passed Cleland Avenue Bicentennial Park, where we saw a child swinging.


We did check out 4.5 acre Moon Canyon Park and adjacent 18 acre Heidelberg Park. The parks were slated for development which met stiff resistance from Mount Washington's residents. As a result, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy bought the land and created the parks in 2003.


Carlin G. Smith Recreation Center was built in a narrow canyon donated to the city in 1929. After a long period of neglect, it was rehabilitated by volunteers in the 1970s. It also has an outdoor basketball court.


Jessica Triangle is a tiny, but attractively-landscaped pocket park in the middle of an intersection. It was completed in 2011.



We saved the largest (35 acres), Elyria Canyon Park, for last. It's home to one of the LA area’s last stands of black walnuts and I snapped pictures of the flowers that were blooming. We walked around a bit and only crossed paths with one person, a middle-aged Asian-American woman walking a small dog who smiled and said, "Nice day for a walk, isn't it? It was.

It was also a nice day for a meal! The only time I've ever heard Shimbles express an opinion about where he'd like to eat was when we were exploring Burbank... where he really wanted a sandwich (the place we went to was closed for renovations at the time). Since there's no where to eat in LA, I vacillated between King Torta in Lincoln Heights or Palm's Thai in Hollywood. We ended up at Sage in Echo Park. As we were leaving we saw the Eastside Tomato King's car... or one of the car's he's painted at least.

As always, you can vote for other Los Angeles neighborhoods to be the subject of future blog entries, by clicking here. To vote for Los Angeles County communities, vote here. To vote for Orange County communities and neighborhoods, vote here. For the record, there's currently a three way tie between Altadena, El Monte and El Sereno. Until next time!


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