Culver City: From Barley Fields to the Heart of Screenland

Home to two major film studios, Culver City once billed itself as the 'Heart of Screenland,'  as seen in this undated photo. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

When the Expo Line's Culver City station opens June 20, history will come full circle. Founded at the junction of three streetcar lines, the Westside community of Culver City has been without passenger rail service since 1953.

Born on the barley fields of the former Rancho La Ballona in 1913, Culver City quickly transformed itself into "The Heart of Screenland," a star-studded movie town with two major studios and several other production facilities. Though moviegoers outside Southern California were likely unaware, many of their favorite "Hollywood" pictures were actually produced several miles from Hollywood in Culver City.

Culver City owes its existence -- and its name -- to entrepreneur Harry H. Culver. Born and raised in Nebraska, Culver arrived in Southern California in 1910 and proceeded to do brisk business in real estate. Over the course of three years, he sold more than $1.5 million in acreage on the vast and mostly rural coastal plain that stretched out beyond Los Angeles' urbanized core.

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Los Angeles was in the middle of a multi-decade population boom that saw the city spilling over its historical boundaries, and Culver's experience as a real estate agent convinced him of the value of a development nestled at the foot of the Baldwin Hills, centrally located between downtown L.A. and the seaside resort town of Venice. On July 25, 1913, he announced his new town to a group of investors gathered inside the California Club.

Barley fields at the site of Culver City in 1913. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Harry Culver located Culver City in between Los Angeles and Venice, at the junction of three Pacific Electric interurban lines. 1920 map courtesy of the Big Map Blog.

Culver City's Main Street, circa 1920. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

The Culver Hotel at Washington and Culver was built in 1924. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

In this 1930 publicity stunt, Culver City celebrated a population growth rate of 1,011% during the 1920s. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Culver was not the first to find the area suitable for settlement; centuries earlier, the Tongva (Gabrielino) had founded their village of Saa'anga on the nearby banks of Ballona Creek, and the adjacent community of Palms had been established along the tracks of the Los Angeles & Independence in 1886.

But Culver carefully chose the location for his city at the junction of several important transportation routes. Early marketing materials boasted that "all roads lead to Culver City," touting the city's "3 Fast Red Car Lines" (the Venice Short Line, the Del Rey Line, and the Santa Monica Air Line) and "3 Splendid Boulevards" (Washington, National, and Pico).

"Culver City presents the greatest townsite investment opportunity on the market!" exclaimed an advertisement placed in the Los Angeles Times by the Harry H. Culver Co. "It is the logical and permanent business and residential center of the rapidly growing Los Angeles-to-Venice district!"

The town officially opened in October 1913, and Culver City quickly outgrew its original 93 acres and 250 residential lots. When it celebrated its one-year anniversary in 1914, the town had parried an annexation attempt by Los Angeles and already boasted a Pacific Electric depot, a cyclecar plant, and a macaroni factory. By the time it incorporated on September 17, 1917, Culver City had grown to 770 acres.

Macaroni may have sustained Culver City in its early years, but the film industry soon became the city's economic foundation. According to local legend, an encounter with a local film shoot inspired Harry Culver to turn his growing settlement into a movie town. Culver watched as filmmaker Thomas Ince shot a silent western, complete with painted Indians in canoes, along the banks of Ballona Creek. After the shoot, the story goes, Culver approached Ince and persuaded him to move his studio to a 16-acre parcel between Washington and Culver boulevards.

1916 view of the colonnade at the original main entrance to Ince's Triangle Studios, today the Sony Picture Studios. The colonnade still stands to this day. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

1919 aerial view of the Sony Picture Studios, then named the Goldwyn Studios. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Actor Francis X. Bushman leaves the east gate of the MGM Studios in 1954. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

1935 exterior view of the Culver Studios, then under the control of producer David O. Selznick. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, co-owners of Desilu Productions, served as honorary mayors of Culver City in 1958. Here they pose with the real mayor, Mary Louise Richardson. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

The site, which Ince named Triangle Studios, opened in 1915. Three years later Ince sold the facility to Samuel Goldwyn, and in 1924 it became the storied Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios. Eventually sprawling over several city blocks and encompassing several distinct movie lots, the MGM Studios featured soundstages, false streets, and an artificial lake. Over the following decades, MGM produced countless classic films on its Culver City campus, including "The Wizard of Oz," "Singin' in the Rain," and "Ben Hur."

Meanwhile, Ince had opened another studio a few blocks down Washington Blvd. in 1918. After the filmmaker's mysterious death in 1924, the Thomas H. Ince Studio property passed through several owners, including Cecil B. DeMille, RKO Pictures, and Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball's Desilu Productions. David O. Selznick made "Gone with the Wind" there in 1939, Orson Welles shot "Citizen Kane" on the lot in 1940, and Desilu later produced "The Andy Griffith Show" and the pilot episode of "Star Trek" inside its Culver City soundstages. Today, the historic studio continues to operate as an independent production facility.

Another studio, Hal Roach's "Laugh Factory to the World," resided at Washington and National from 1919 until 1963. During World War II the military used the facility to produce training films.

Other industries joined the film business in Culver City. Western Stove opened its factory in 1922 next to the present-day Hayden Industrial Tract. Beginning in 1931, a fleet of coaches departed daily from the Helms Bakery, delivering loaves of Olympic Bread and other baked goods to households across Southern California. The Culver City Airport and Hughes Aircraft plant, technically outside the city limits, brought jobs if not tax revenue to the city.

1940 postcard showing the Helms Bakery in Culver City. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

1924 aerial view of the Culver City Speedway, home to auto races between 1924 and 1927. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Culver City was home for several years to a dog racing track. Gamblers avoided a ban on gambling by purchasing 'stock' in dogs and then selling their investments at the race's conclusion. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library..

Intersection of Washington and Culver in 1963. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Culver City also took advantage of its independence from the city of Los Angeles by permitting -- or at least tolerating -- activities banned in the metropolis. Throughout the 1920s lax enforcement of Prohibition drew thirsty Angelenos to the night clubs and bootlegger outfits of Culver City, and in 1931 a greyhound racing track opened at the city's western extreme, at the present-day site of a Costco discount store.

Just as Harry Culver predicted, the "Heart of Screenland" became a thriving residential suburb, promoted by real estate developers as a "seaward" community with proximity to beaches, jobs, and universities. The city's population swelled from 503 residents in 1920 to nearly 9,000 in 1940.

The city's boundaries grew, too, through a series of 42 annexations that gave Culver City its odd shape. In 1924 it acquired a stretch of land along Washington Boulevard that brought its western boundary to Lincoln Boulevard, while several annexations in the 1960s made the Fox Hills part of Culver City.

By the early 1990s, Culver City's star had faded. Its downtown was ailing, and MGM, which had become a minor Hollywood player, had vacated its legendary studio facility. But Sony's 1990 purchase of the MGM Studios (eventually renamed Sony Pictures Studios) and subsequent $100-million renovation injected new life into the city. A redevelopment of Culver City's downtown followed, resulting in a walkable dining-entertainment-arts district that's home to art galleries, the Kirk Douglas Theater, and attractions just across the city limits like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Not all roads may lead to Culver City, as the development's early ads claimed, but the imminent opening of the city's Expo Line station will soon transport more Angelenos to the town that, as Harry Culver imagined, sprang from the barley fields of Rancho La Ballona and grew into "The Heart of Screenland."

Correction: An earlier version of this post had Western Stove opening in 1920. It opened in 1922. The post also stated that Sony purchased the former MGM studio facilities in 1993. Sony purchased the studio in 1990, but received city approval for its renovations in 1993. Thanks to Julie Lugo Cerra of the Culver City Historical Society for the corrected information.

A Venice Short Line car passes by the Helms Bakery in 1949. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A Santa Monica Air Line car passes through Culver City in 1950. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A special ceremony featuring Culver City's mayor and Southern Pacific Railroad officials celebrated the removal of former Pacific Electric tracks, shown here at Culver and Overland, in 1978. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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My Great Great Great grandfather David Cole moved to Los Angles in 1880's and raised lemons on a La Ballona Ranch. He died in 1888. His younger brother Cornelius followed him after receiving payment for legal services a portion of La Brea Ranch which he named Colegrove which was the maiden name of his wife Olive. Uncle Cornelius inspired many of his brothers and nephews in his escapades of gold mining and studying the law. Uncle Cornelius served one term in the House of Representatives and one in the US Senate; he lived to be 102. Corney Cole was his great great nephew Corny Cole (1930-2011) | Cartoon Brew

Beloved animator, graphic artist, book illustrator, painter and teacher Cornelius "Corny" Cole has passed away. Corney will be missed by thousands.

I am researching Harvey Wallace Burns who had a business in Culver City as an illustrator, sign painter, artist. He closed his business to move to San Francisco 1967. He claimed to have worked for the movie industry as a set designer.
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