Westlake (MacArthur) Park: How a Neighborhood Dump Became a Civic Treasure

A ca. 1909 postcard of Westlake Park. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

The is first in a series -- introduced here -- looking at the origins of Los Angeles' oldest parks.

In 1885, an unwanted block of city land sat stinking near Los Angeles' western edge, the natural beauty of its lake and marshes marred by decades of use as a city dump. It might have then seemed an unlikely location for one of the city's first parks. But within a decade, the site had been transformed from the city's eyesore into one of its treasures: Westlake Park (today, MacArthur Park), one of L.A.'s most popular outdoor retreats at the turn of the twentieth century.

Occupying a saddle-shaped depression between two ridges, Westlake/MacArthur Park was once the site of a naturally occurring alkali lake, fed by runoff from the hills to the north. When Los Angeles' urban development reached the lake's shore, the marshy site had long been home to waterfowl and an ecosystem adapted to its alkaline water -- what we might celebrate today as a wetland but at the time was dismissed as a swamp, its scenic and biological value unappreciated. Perhaps it didn't help that the lake evaporated during the drought of 1862-64, earning one of its first names: the Dead Sea. One early historian recalled the dry lakebed covered in a white crust, appearing as if a snowstorm had passed.

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Was it inevitable that the lake became a dump?

After the city tried and failed to sell the 35-acre block in an 1865 land sale (the auctioneer reportedly began the bidding at $10 an acre and eventually gave up after the price of 25 cents per acre failed to attract interest), the lake became a neighborhood dumping ground for household garbage, animal carcasses, and other waste.

Part of the original 1781 grant of pueblo lands to Los Angeles, the land never would find a buyer. But the lots surrounding the lake did pass into private hands. As those landowners subdivided their holdings during the real estate boom of the 1880s, they began to perceive the lake as an embarrassing eyesore -- a depressor of land values and a threat to their profits.

Among them was Los Angeles Mayor William Workman, who owned several lots in the neighborhood. In 1885, Workman launched a campaign to turn the site into a city park. He collected donations -- matched one-for-one by the city -- and spearheaded a city ordinance that declaring the site public parkland forever.

Some ridiculed Workman's proposal, comparing it to throwing money into a sinkhole, but the Los Angeles Times had hope. "The view which park commands is one of the grandest to be found in the suburbs of Los Angeles," the newspaper opined in 1887. "There is a sweeping panorama of the mountains and the plains stretching away to the coast, while the ocean at Santa Monica is in full view on a clear day."

One of the earliest views of Westlake Park, perhaps taken in 1891. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Another early photograph of the park, taken circa 1892. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

In the end, Workman mustered enough political support to pass the ordinance through the city council on April 13, 1886. The site was parkland on paper, but its physical transformation from neighborhood dump to public park would last more than four years and cost more than $5,000 -- a process described in detail in James Strawn's master's thesis, "Who's [sic] Park: An Architectural History of Westlake-MacArthur Park".

A construction team built a pipe to transport fresh water from the city's zanja system, raising the lake's level and reducing its alkalinity. At first, the landscaping was what Strawn describes as "ad hoc," making use of locally sourced shrubs. Around the park's perimeter, workers planted eucalyptus and oak trees donated by the state forestry board.

The park -- named Westlake in reference to its location near the city's western limits -- opened to the public on Thanksgiving weekend, 1890. The city fell in love with it almost immediately. Two streetcar lines connected the park with the rest of the region, allowing Southern Californians to enjoy the park's charms. By 1894, Charles Fletcher Lummis' Land of Sunshine magazine was describing it as "the most popular open-air resort in the city." (KCET Departure's named its blog after the magazine).

In the park's early years, the heavily alkaline soil made landscaping a challenge, but tons of fertilizer and imported topsoil eventually allowed dense tropical foliage to take root around the lake. At the outside of the park, the original trees grew into mature, shade-giving specimens. A palm-lined allée enticed buggy riders and strollers to the park's northern edge.

More amenities, meanwhile, came in the park's first decade. Boaters made use of the lake, and in 1894 the city added a three-story Victorian boathouse. Parkgoers could rent 28 vessels, including sailboats, for 25 cents an hour. Children flocked to a refreshment kiosk serving fresh milk. A bandstand, built in 1895, drew Sunday concert crowds of up to 10,000.

Westlake Park's popularity inspired several unsuccessful attempts to enlarge the parkland. An 1895 proposal to extend it two blocks south from Seventh to Ninth Street failed after voters rejected a $25,000 bond issue that would have funded the expansion. Another proposal to build a grand boulevard between Elysian Park and Westlake parks also met defeat at the ballot box.

The public may have lacked an appetite for expanding the park, but the city's well-to-do were happy to locate in its vicinity. By the time it had reached a decade in age, a fashionable neighborhood had grown up around Westlake Park. The first stretch of Gaylord Wilshire's boulevard began on the park's western edge, and residents of Wilshire's tract included such luminaries as Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis.

Subsequent decades would bring many changes to the park. In 1934, a causeway extending Wilshire Boulevard through the park split the lake in half. In 1942, the city changed its name to honor Douglas MacArthur, reportedly part of William Randolph Hearst's scheme to elevate the general to the presidency. Later the park struggled with crime. But for a time it was revered as a civic treasure. "Of all the parks in Los Angeles," Belle Sumner Angier of the Times wrote in 1903, "there is none better loved by the people than Westlake."

Boating became so popular that a temporary boat shed was constructed in the park's first years. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Sailboats were a common sight on the Westlake Park lake. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Visitors could also rent rowboats at Westlake Park. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

A three-story boathouse replaced the temporary shed in 1894. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

A cactus garden in Westlake Park. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

A three-tiered fountain near the lakeshore. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

A seal pool was a popular attraction in the park's early years. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Concerts at the Westlake Park band shell could attract crowds of up to 10,000. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

By 1897, two streetcar lines connected Westlake Park with the rest of the growing region. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

A buggy path became a palm-lined walking path. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Aerial view of Westlake Park in 1921, before the Wilshire Boulevard causeway split the lake. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Completed in 1934, a causeway connected Wilshire Boulevard with Orange Street, linking the grand boulevard with downtown Los Angeles. Orange was renamed Wilshire. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

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, 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. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and 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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