L.A.'s Secret Gardens: The California Botanic Garden of Mandeville Canyon

A woman admires the cactus garden at the California Botanic Garden in Mandeville Canyon, 1928. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Now that warm weather has returned to the region, many Southern Californians are rediscovering the botanical joys of spring, from hillsides blooming with wildflowers to strolls through the Huntington's historic and recently re-opened Japanese Gardens, which initially opened to the public in 1928.

That same year, another Los Angeles-area botanical garden -- the California Botanic Garden -- opened across town in the hills of Brentwood. Had the Great Depression not intervened, the gardens might today be one of the largest of their kind, with specimens from across the globe planted over 800 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains' Mandeville Canyon. Instead, financial realities failed to match the ambitions of the gardens' planners, and among the gardens' only remnants today are the aging trees that grace the yards of Mandeville Canyon homeowners.

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The California Botanic Garden initially began as a hobby of businessman and naturalist H. C. Oakley, who lived in the palatial Oakmont Mansion overlooking Mandeville Canyon. When he built it in 1916, the mansion was surrounded by the native sage scrub that covers much of the Santa Monica Mountains. But within a few years, Oakley had transformed his estate into a lush garden teeming with rubber trees, bamboo, bananas, and other exotics and irrigated by a cascading stream.

By 1925, Oakley had envisioned a similar transformation in the canyon beneath his estate. Partnering with fellow garden enthusiasts, Oakley set up the non-profit Garden Foundation to purchase a vast tract of land that ecompassed all of Mandeville Canyon and stretched from Sunset Blvd. (then named Beverly Blvd.) to Mulholland Highway at the mountains' crest. Of the 3,200 acres, 800 on the floor and lower slopes of the canyon would be set aside for the California Botanic Garden.

Oakley (pointing) gazes out over Mandeville Canyon with businessman Frederick W. Taylor in 1927. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Oakley (left) reviews plans for the California Botanic Garden with botanist E. D. Merrill, the gardens' director. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

Merrill reviews plans for the California Botanic Garden. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

Map of the California Botanic Garden, as envisioned by its planners. Note that the Occidental College campus depicted here never materialized. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Map (not to scale) showing the location of the California Botanic Garden. From the 1927 pamphlet 'Objects and Purposes of the California Botanic Garden.' Courtesy of the USC Libraries.

Plans called for a smaller nucleus of formal, landscaped gardens to be surrounded by planted woodlands and hillsides sown with wildflowers. Varying elevation and shade conditions in Mandeville Canyon would create numerous microclimates where specialized gardens could thrive. Artificial ponds and streams would provide irrigation for the thirstiest of the plants. A massive arched bridge, visible from much of the grounds, would carry Chalon Road over Mandeville Canyon, while in the Forest of Fame, dignitaries and celebrities would plant a tree to memorialize their visit.

As its founders envisioned it, the California Botanic Garden would serve as more than just a destination for tourism and leisure; it would also provide vital scientific support for the economic goals of the Southwest's hydraulic society.

Dams and aqueducts were delivering imported water to previously dry places, opening up large parts of the region to irrigated farming. The gardens would serve as an agricultural laboratory where plants could prove their mettle under the California sun. Experimental fields of cotton and tea would grow on the slopes of Mandeville Canyon, while botanists would develop new cultivars of grapes, oranges, avocados, and other plants already known to prosper in California. Students from UCLA and Occidental College -- which at the time planned to open a men's campus in Brentwood -- would participate in research. The U.S. Department of Agriculture pledged its support, and E. D. Merrill, formerly dean of the University of California's college of agriculture, signed on as the gardens' director.

Southern California's business community also lined up to support the project. The gardens' board of governors counted among its members Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, entertainer Will Rogers, and USC president Rufus von Kleinsmid.

Still under development, the California Botanic Garden opened to the public in January 1928 with 75 of its 800 acres completed. Silver screen star Mary Pickford was the first to plant a tree, a Japanese cedar, in the Forest of Fame. Other dignitaries soon followed, from composer John Philip Souza to British war hero Edmund Allenby. California's governor added the state tree, the coast redwood, to the young forest. With admission free, a steady stream of Southern Californians followed the celebrities to the incipient gardens.

The Los Angeles Times hailed the new attraction.

"At once the weary city man finds himself in an enchanted region," Dudley Corlett wrote for the paper in May 1928. "The fresh breeze from the blue of the Pacific which bounds his western horizon, revives his spirits. In lifting his eyes to the majestic hills, he rejoices that he is alive to enjoy such a day in California."

In 1928, actress Mary Pickford was the first to plant a tree in the Forest of Fame. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Composer John Philip Sousa plants a tree in the Forest of Fame, 1928. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Senator William McAdoo plants a magnolia tree in the Forest of Fame. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The California Botanic Garden in Brentwood's Mandeville Canyon. Courtesy of the Pacific Palisades Historical Society Clearwater Collection, Santa Monica Public Library.

Waterfall in the California Botanic Garden. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

Pictorial California magazine featured the gardens, still under construction, in its May 1927 issue. Courtesy of the Pacific Palisades Historical Society Collection, Santa Monica Public Library.

Ultimately, a combination of financial innovation and unfortunate timing doomed the gardens. Instead of relying on admission fees or a private endowment, the Garden Foundation planned to finance the gardens by subdividing the remaining the 2,400 acres from its original 1925 purchase and selling off individual residential lots as cash was needed. Because the foundation had mortgaged the land to pay for the gardens' initial construction, it depended on continually rising real estate prices in order to pay its bondholders.

All went according to plan until October 1929, when the stock market crashed, heralding the arrival of the Great Depression. Suddenly, no one wanted to buy land in Brentwood -- then still considered a remote location. Financially insolvent, the California Botanic Garden managed to survive for several years until closing its gates permanently in 1935.

The following year, the foundation's bondholders took control of the entire 3,200-acre tract. Rechristening the land Botanic Garden Park, the company subdivided the canyon floor and sold off individual lots, marketing them as "country estates." Now, decades later, those estates host multimillion-dollar homes, and what remains of the gardens -- exotic trees, quiet ponds, and commemorative plaques from the Forest of Fame -- is hidden behind security gates.

1928 view of  a bridge crossing a stream in the California Botanic Garden. Courtesy of the Photo 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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Fantastic article, Nathan. Thanks.