The Lost Hills of Downtown Los Angeles

Los Angeles' first high school atop Poundcake Hill in 1883. Courtesy of Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Los Angeles is not a city short on hills. The Hollywood Sign, one of the city's most iconic structures, gazes down at the city from its perch on Mount Lee. Every summer, cars snake their way up the hills of Elysian Park to Dodger Stadium. Nearly every autumn, the city turns its attention to a range of nearby hills whose chaparral cover is reduced to ashes. A series of hills closer to the historic center of Los Angeles, however, are far less visible today than they once were.

The eventual site of the original Spanish pueblo was chosen, in part, for its proximity to several hills that would afford a defensive advantage to the frontier town should it come under attack. In later years, the hills were home to the city's leading citizens and important civic buildings. In many cases, development, industry, and traffic have flattened, lowered, or even hauled away the hills, seen as obstacles to geographic expansion of the city or to the free flow of people and goods.

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Early maps of Los Angeles, like this 1849 map by E.O.C. Ord, depicted a line of undifferentiated hills along the western edge of the town. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

View of City Hall from Bunker Hill, circa 1960s. Photo by George Mann, courtesy of On Bunker Hill.

One of these lost hills still survives in the public consciousness today. Bunker Hill is the subject of bus tours and fond reminiscences of a neighborhood condemned as blighted and demolished in the name of economic progress. It also survives physically, albeit in radically altered form; although the redevelopment projects of the 1960s reduced its profile, its rise is still evident to drivers and pedestrians, and Angels Flight once again ascends its eastern slope.

Unlike Bunker Hill, two neighboring promontories--Poundcake Hill and Fort Moore Hill--are today almost invisible features of the city's landscape.

Poundcake Hill
Located at the southeast corner of Temple and Broadway, Poundcake Hill historically has been the site of important civic buildings. Known to early Spanish settlers as Loma de las Mariposas (Hill of the Butterflies), the hill was renamed by later English-speaking arrivals for its resemblance to the plump, round dessert food.

In 1873, Los Angeles High School--the first high school in Southern California--opened atop Poundcake Hill. The Los Angeles Times wrote retrospectively in 1936 that the two-story wooden structure was so admired that tourists "came from miles around to see it, quite the finest school south of San Francisco. Its lines were classic, and it even had a cupola with a clock in it."

Before Poundcake Hill was the site of L.A.'s first high school, it was the site of an 1870 lynching, pictured here. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Los Angeles High School atop Poundcake Hill, circa 1874. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

By 1886, though, the Los Angeles City Hall and other important government buildings had moved nearby, and civic leaders relocated the high school from atop Poundcake Hill to make room for a new county courthouse. The new Romanesque building, built of red sandstone at a cost of $500,000, opened in 1891. Its striking color and architecture visually dominated the civic center area until L.A.'s current City Hall arrived on the scene in 1928.

For decades the courthouse hosted countless courtroom dramas, wedding ceremonies, and divorce proceedings until the 1933 Long Beach earthquake rendered the building structurally unsound. It was torn down three years later.

In the 1960s, Poundcake Hill was flattened to make way for a new county criminal courts building. The truncated hill is now home to the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center.

Los Angeles County Courthouse in 1898. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Fort Moore Hill
Bounded roughly by today's Temple Street on the south, Spring St. on the east, Hill St. on the West, and Cesar E. Chavez Ave. on the north, Fort Moore Hill once stood less than a quarter-mile away from Los Angeles' historic plaza at the south end of what is now called Olvera Street. The once-prominent hill served a variety of purposes over the years.

Shortly after capturing Los Angeles from Mexican forces in 1847, U.S. troops built the hill's namesake fort to discourage a counterattack. The conclusion of the Mexican-American War several months later called into question the continued need for the fort, and in 1853 it was decommissioned.

The hill served as a cemetery until 1882, when Jacob Philippi opened a beer garden there. In what was still a rough frontier town, Philippi's garden quickly gained a reputation for attracting a rowdy crowd. By 1887, he had seen enough. He sold the complex to Mary Hollister Banning, the wealthy widow of the businessman Phineas Banning.

Fort Moore Hill, circa 1880s. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Banning residence atop Fort Moore Hill, 1941. Lantern slide by F.H. Maude, courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center. LS.12351.

Banning's presence transformed Fort Moore Hill into one of the city's first upscale neighborhoods. Soon, many of L.A.'s so-called first families followed Banning up the steep slope, building elaborate mansions that overlooked the growing city.

For many years the hill was also the site of two school buildings. In 1886 the board of education resolved to move the city's old high school building from Poundcake Hill to a new location atop Fort Moore Hill at Sand Street. A contractor who claimed he could accomplish the task hoisted the building onto scaffolding and, using rollers, horses, and human labor, slowly moved the schoolhouse toward its new location. After work was underway, the contractor decided that the task was impossible after all. The building remained where his crew left it, until a new injection of funding convinced the contractor to complete the task. The old wooden structure was repurposed as a schoolhouse for younger students while a new, grander high school was built atop Fort Moore Hill.

L.A.'s first high school being transported across Temple Street and Broadway. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Los Angeles High School on Fort Moore Hill, 1908. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

A horse-drawn buggy prepares to through the Broadway tunnel, underneath Fort Moore Hill. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

By the 1940s, Fort Moore Hill had gained a reputation as an obstacle to efficient traffic. The city had long ago tunneled under the hill to extend Broadway north into what is today Chinatown. But the hill now stood in the way of the planned 101 Freeway, and a tunnel would not accommodate the new superhighway. In 1949, construction crews transported away most of the hill by the truckload. Today, driving down the freeway that bisects Fort Moore Hill's original site, little evidence remains of the commanding views once possible from the hill's summit.

Excavation of Fort Moore Hill, 1948. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Excavation of Fort Moore Hill, 1949. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA.

What remained of Fort Moore Hill in 1980. Photo by Roy Hankey, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

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 will 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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