Sign of the Times II: Outpost Estates and the Importance of Mythmaking | KCET
Sign of the Times II: Outpost Estates and the Importance of Mythmaking
Hollywood is a city of self-aggrandizing, oversized myth-makers. It is a place where it's not uncommon to meet someone who has changed their name, their story of origin, and their body. Many of these folks cling optimistically to the capitalistic belief that if the product (themselves) is perfected, then the market, and an Oscar will soon follow.
You find these strivers at Runyon Canyon every day, from sun up to sundown with their enhanced chests and tan, taut abs. As they walk up the punishing steps to the top of the Santa Monica mountain peaks, most are too busy looking towards the future to stop and look at the twisted metal sign, the wreckage that once spelled "OUTPOST" that has been pulled to the edge of the trail.
If they paused to inspect this artifact, once the largest neon sign in America, they may feel a strange kinship or sense of comfort. Because the men behind the "OUTPOST" sign were just like them -- hard working pioneers who believed in the American Dream and the importance of myth, glamour, and one-upmanship years before the first movie cameras were ever pulled into the perfect California sun.
In 1903 General Harrison Gray Otis, Los Angeles Times publisher, raging jingoist, and decorated civil war veteran, bought twelve acres of land directly east of Runyon Canyon, around the area that is now the intersection of Sycamore and Franklin, from H.J. Whitley and General M. H. Sherman for the princely sum of $7,000. The property, only a 25 minute trolley ride from the hustle and bustle of the Times downtown newsroom, was in the hamlet of Hollywood, a sweet smelling countryside of rolling hills and sycamore trees that was incorporated the same year.
On the property was a three room adobe, built from indigenous sycamore around 1855, that had once belonged to the Castilian (by way of Baja, California) Don Tomas Urquizdez, the first homesteader in Hollywood. It was said that the adobe was a meeting place for the surrounding rancheros and the site of around 30 hangings of convicted horse thieves -- until 1878, when Don Thomas, old and blind, returned from celebrating the Eve of St. John at the San Gabriel Mission to find his land seized by a greedy gringo who had discovered Urquizdez's failure to record a deed of ownership.
The General christened this rustic retreat "The Outpost" and built a "chalet" near the old adobe. The chalet was to be a rural clubhouse for the general's fellow military cronies, so it was only fitting that a flagpole, a gift from army men in British Columbia and said to be the tallest in the country, was erected in front of the chalet.
The property continued to evolve. In May of that year, the L.A. Times reported that a large group of friends and admirers of the General met at 10:45 a.m. on Fourth street in Los Angeles, where they took the private trolley car, the Mermaid, to "The Outpost." In celebration of Arbor Day, they surprised the General with unique trees, shrubs and plants from "as far as India and as near as Indio." Members of the planting party were said to "be handy with a spade" and the event was a great success.
Mr. Otis Regrets
For all its natural beauty and historic architecture, the real reason the General considered "The Outpost" his perfect retreat was because he believed (or wanted others to believe) the founding of his beloved California had been forged in the old adobe, and by being its owner he was a cementing his place in the pantheon of great Western trailblazers.
In the spring of 1907, fifty national officers of the California Congress of Mothers took a field trip to rural Hollywood. After visiting the General's neighbor Paul DeLongpre, whose flowering gardens were already legendary, the delegation, led by Mrs. A.B. Cass, headed over to "The Outpost."
There they were greeted by Otis himself and toured the property. Then by "special request" (one assumes it was probably not too hard to get Otis to comply) they crowded around the vine covered portico of the old adobe as he began to lecture. They listened as he recounted that in 1847, in these very thick walled rooms, his hero, General John C. "the Pathfinder" Fremont, and Mexican governor, Andres Pico, had signed the historic Treaty of Cahuenga, in which the Mexicans had given up their arms and agreed to obey the United States.
Ten years later the old General was still telling this story to the military Order of the Loyal Legions at an al fresco barbeque on the grounds of "The Outpost," as he doubtlessly had dozens of times before.
But the next day, on June 13, 1917, a curious thing happened. The Los Angeles Times, the newspaper where Otis was still president and general manager, issued a "Correction of an error relative to place of signing." According to the unsigned article a "statement" had been made at the BBQ the previous day concerning the treaty which was not "strictly accurate." A personal and historical investigation had uncovered that the treaty had not been signed at the old adobe, but rather at a now destroyed adobe across the Caheunga Pass in what was now Universal City. However, the article insisted, a preliminary meeting concerning the capitulation had taken place at "The Outpost." The current owner (who was comically not named, since it was well known) had "no desire to make claims for possession of any historical significance by this property that cannot be substantiated."
Whether the octogenarian General finally fessed up or whether the paper finally felt it could no longer perpetuate the myth is a mystery that died with Otis only a month later when he succumbed to a heart failure at the home of his son-in-law Harry Chandler.
The Hollywood General Otis left behind was a very different from the quaint countryside of 1904. Hollywood was already firmly entrenched as the motion picture capital of the world when Mrs. Louise Knappen Wooliett, president of the Hollywood School for Girls, and three others bought the "The Outpost" from the Otis Estate in 1921. Mrs. Wooliett planned to turn the property into an artist's retreat and studio, but the dream soon fell through and the property was then sold to movie pioneer Jesse Lasky for $157,000.
The man who had brokered the deal, Charles E. Toberman, soon discovered the error of his ways. In 1907, native Texan Toberman had opened his first land development business in a 10-by-10 foot lean-to on the corner of Hollywood and Highland. By the 1920s Toberman was already well on his way to earning the nickname "Mr. Hollywood," eventually building Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Egyptian Theater, Hotel Roosevelt, Hollywood Studios, El Capitan, and his proudest accomplishment, the Hollywood Bowl. He also single-handedly developed over 30 subdivisions from Beverly Hills to North Hollywood.
But Toberman's main focus was Hollywood. In 1924 he acquired a good deal of acreage to the north of "The Outpost" in the hopes of developing a housing tract. However, Lasky's "Outpost" blocked access to Sunset Boulevard, already a vital road that linked all of Los Angeles. So just two years after brokering the original deal, he bought the twelve acres from Lasky for an astounding $275,000. According to Toberman, the deal was so important that he stayed with Lasky until he signed, even as a fire swept through his beloved Hollywood Bowl.
From the get go, the newly christened "Outpost Estates" was a thoroughly modern, California-centric development. The roads were white concrete and curved to accommodate existing trees, while an on-site greenhouse crew planted hundreds more flora and fauna, carob trees being among the favorites. Homes had to be designed in Spanish, Mediterranean or California modern style, have red tile roofs, plenty of patios for "outdoor living," and be approved by architectural committee before being built.
Toberman was also an innovative and aggressive promoter of the Estates. A miniature Spanish model home could be viewed at his Hollywood office, where you could also pick up a pamphlet titled "Hillside Homes of Happiness" that showed glossy images of the estates and shared cutting edge floor plans. When the crash temporarily halted building at Outpost, Toberman started his own credit union to help finance home loans for the middle class. The morbidly curious were also invited to view a 600-year old sycamore, said to be the very one that 30 cattle-rustlers hung from, and to visit the site of the now-torn-down Uriqudez/Otis homestead where it was now claimed (in a re-imagining of the Otis legend) that General C. Fremont had stationed his headquarters and lookout. Afterwards you were also invited to tour six newly built Mediterranean style model homes: all move-in ready!
And of course there was the "OUTPOST" sign, 30-feet high and red neon, built to out-class and out-shine the "HOLLYWOODLAND" sign a couple of hills away.
Hillside Homes of Happiness
Outpost Estates flourished over the years, eventually winding from Franklin Avenue all the way up to Mulholland Drive and the typical community stories unfolded: Two former Yale men, class of 1905, discovered they were now next door neighbors; actor and resident Melvyn Douglas hosted a party for Secretary of labor Francis Perkins; Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra fought through their honeymoon; a couple named the Griffen's sued their next-door neighbors for building a "spite fence" that devalued their property and running them out of the neighborhood.
During the '50s and '60s many homes that Outpost residents considered architecturally uninspired were squeezed into the neighborhood due to the high demand for desirable addresses and diminished aesthetic oversight. To regain control, a homeowners association was formed in the late 1967. In the 1980s the group helped stop development of Runyon Canyon.
It is fitting that in 2002, when Outpost residents and avid hikers Bob Eicholz and Steve Scott discovered the carcass of the long dismantled metal sign, they drug it closer to the most popular trail at Runyon Canyon Park so that the citizens of Los Angeles could again be reminded of the history, that may or may not have happened, right next door.
Thank you to the Outpost Homeowners Association
Top: Remains of the "OUTPOST" neon sign at the top of Runyon Canyon. Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa