St. James Park: When a Private Playground Became a Public Park

Circa 1910 picture postcard of St. James Park in West Adams. Courtesy of the South Bay History Collection, CSUDH Archives.

It's one of the city's oldest parks, and you've probably never heard of it. Founded as a stately outdoor retreat for the city's wealthiest residents, tiny St. James Park in Los Angeles' West Adams district has never drawn much notice. And yet this postage stamp of a park joined the roster of city parks the same years as the better known and much beloved Echo Park.

An acre of sprawling lawns and fan palms just off West Adams Boulevard, St. James Park was born in 1887 as the centerpiece of an exclusive housing subdivision of the same name. The tract's developers, J. Downey Harvey and George W. King, borrowed the name from the aristocratic playground in the heart of London -- a sign of their aspirations for the place. And despite a real estate bust, by the early 1890s the tract had indeed attracted some of the city's wealthiest residents. Elegant Victorian houses fronted the landscaped park on all four sides. Residents paraded down the park's drives on their horse-drawn rigs and set up a tennis court on its lawn.

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In 1891, Harvey and King offered the park to the city for unknown reasons -- perhaps to avoid maintenance costs. The city accepted, Harvey and King executed a quitclaim deed, and St. James Park became Los Angeles's seventh municipal park. Though distant and inaccessible to most residents, the park benefited from the city's care over the next few years. A stone fountain, built from rocks collected from the Arroyo Seco, rose from the middle of the tennis court. That change aroused some controversy among the park's neighbors, but there was little objection to the fan palms, roses, and giant elephant ear palm the city added by 1896 -- 14,200 plants in all.

In its early years, neighbors delighted in driving their rigs through the park. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

St. James Park, circa 1896. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

The St. James Park fountain shortly after its completion in 1896. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Another view of the St. James Park fountain Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

St. James Park in 1899. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Circa 1912 postcard of St. James Park. Courtesy of the South Bay History Collection, CSUDH Archives.

This elephant ear palm was one of the park's top attractions. Courtesy of the South Bay History Collection, CSUDH Archives.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. 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.

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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