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The Colonists: The Many Cultures That Have Called Palos Verdes Peninsula Home

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There is nothing quite as exciting as discovering a whole other world in your very own county. The Palos Verdes Peninsula (home to the small cities of Palos Verdes Estates, Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills, and Rolling Hills Estates) in Los Angeles County is just that. Its green terraced hills are dotted with exotic stately mansions, and the bluff topped sea shore feels more like Europe than the pedestrian beaches that surround it. The Peninsula's rich geographic beauty and abundant resources have caused it to be rediscovered, time and time again, over the centuries by colonists from all over the world. Each group has shaped the evolution of Palos Verdes into what it is today -- a unique, SoCal outlier where "genteel" country life still tenuously exists in the midst of a teeming metropolis.

Native Americans called the peninsula home for thousands of years. Later grouped under the blanket term Gabrielinos, (for the San Gabriel Mission) they were seafarers and fishermen, who lived in small communities all over the Palos Verdes Hills. The Palos Verdes tribes were very social and mobile within Southern California. Trading brought them in frequent contact with Native Americans from the Los Angeles area and Catalina Island. They ate a diet rich in shellfish, abalone, deer, sea gull, and coyote. The Gabrielinos used clam shells as currency and lived in circular homes made of willow branches. These homes usually contained a central fire pit.

Palos Verdes Peninsula, in the southwestern corner of L.A. County, juts out into the Pacific Ocean. | Photo: dsearls/Flickr/Creative Commons License

On the morning of October 8, 1542, explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's Spanish expedition arrived at San Pedro Bay. Smoke was rising on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, probably from signal fires that burned through the night to guide fishermen home.

Cabrillo named the harbor "Bahia de los Fumos"' (Bay of Smokes). Though the expedition did not go on land during their brief visit, they did speak with a group of Gabrielinos in a canoe, who told them there were other white men in the interior (probably survivors of the ill-fated Coronado expedition). Over the next century, other European explorers infrequently skirted Palos Verdes shores, leading natives to tell tales of the ominous "great houses on the sea."

In 1784, the Peninsula became part of Rancho San Pedro, a massive Spanish land grant given to Manuel Dominguez. The Peninsula's terraced hills had little natural vegetation besides shrubs and small plants, so it was primarily used for cattle grazing. Around 1810, a man named Juan Jose Sepulveda was granted the right to run cattle on a portion of the Rancho. This land eventually became the 31,629 acre Rancho Palos Verdes (Ranch of the Green Sticks), which was formally granted to his heirs in 1846.

The Sepulveda children loved riding their horses from their San Pedro homestead through the rough, mostly uninhabited hills. They would often visit a group of whalers who called a large bend in the shoreline home. This sweeping bend was also the home of hundreds of sea otters. For decades, sneaky East Coast smugglers had trapped these otters for their skins. In the 1850s, the bend became one of eleven whaling outposts on the California Coast under the direction of Captain C.M. Scammon. Most of the friendly, hard-living sailors were Portuguese, and the bend was eventually named in their honor. In "Palos Verdes Peninsula: Time and the Terraced Land," historian August Fink recalls one encounter between two curious Sepulveda children, Juan and Francisco, and the whalers:

As they rode over the terraced slopes of the Palos Verdes Hills, they could see the whaling boats lying along the kelp below; their colored sails gaily decorated with strange and wonderful emblems designating the vessel to which they belonged. Approaching the cove, the stench of oil and blubber hit their nostrils...A crude shack stood at the base of the cliff ... Outside were two enormous copper kettles set in a rude furnace, formed of rocks and clay, in which the whale fat was being tried out...Suddenly the shouts of the lookout man, stationed on the bluff above, cut through the noise. Everyone stopped work to watch. He had sighted a whale!

Francisco sneaked onto a whaler's boat and participated in the violent execution of the large whale. When he returned to shore, his terrified brother saw the exuberant look on Francisco's face. He said nothing, and they rode back to the homestead in silence.

In 1882, much of Rancho Palos Verdes (with the exception of San Pedro) was sold to Jontham Bixby, a rancher with extensive land holdings. His niece, Sarah Bixby Smith, recalled life in Palos Verdes in the book, "Adobe Days":

Those were the exciting mornings when, at dawn, the men and boys started off for the roundup on the hills ... Uncle Jontham and Father in a single buggy with two strong horses that would take them up and down the ravines and over the hills where no roads were.

In 1894, an Englishman named Harry Phillips was hired as the ranch's manager. Phillips built his first home near present day city hall in Rolling Hills. He expanded the ranching operation and started a significant farm on the Peninsula, often hiring recent Japanese immigrants to plant vegetables in the hills around Portuguese Bend. The Japanese and American farmers worked side by side, in harmony. The farmers, who Fink calls "frugal, dependable, generous, industrious," participated in numerous social activities together, including an annual rodeo that glorified the area's Spanish/Mexican past.

The Bixby family's anti-growth outlook kept developers at bay until 1913, when they decided to sell almost all of the property. That year, a deal for the 16,000 acre parcel of land fell through, leaving a real estate man named Carl F. Schrader ninety days to secure a new buyer. Schrader hurried to New York to look for capitalists with big dreams and bigger pocket books. One of the men he wanted to see was Frank Vanderlip, the former farm boy turned president of National City Bank of New York (now Bank of America). Schrader later described their meeting:

I was determined to see Frank Vanderlip ... his representative said "land deals would not be entertained." Finally, I said that all I wanted was ten minutes. The interview was granted and I started boiling down the proposition by my watch. I saw Vanderlip and at the end of the ten minutes he said, "You have impressed me. Make good, and the money is waiting."

Although he had never seen the Palos Verdes, Vanderlip cobbled together fifty investors to buy the ranch. At a meeting on March 13, 1914, Schrader was ecstatic, telling a rapt audience:

Palos Verdes was the greatest buy, on the greatest piece of land, on the greatest ocean, in the greatest state, adjoining the greatest city, with the greatest climate in the world ... an international country club and an international yachting harbor will be established in our midst, while fifty miles of new boulevard will be created, and the finest of residential palaces will arise on a once barren tract, bringing wealth, refinement, culture and beauty.
palos-verdes-european-feel, by klxadm

When Vanderlip visited his new colony, he was awestruck by its natural beauty, which reminded him of the coast of Italy. He planned on turning the Peninsula into a magnificent private residence park, a "multi-millionaire residence colony," where "palatial homes with elaborate grounds will be the rule." According to the Los Angeles Times, Vanderlip and his capitalist brethren had for "several years been combing the western hemisphere in a systematic search for a spot favored above all other as the site for such an all year round colony." And here it was! Vanderlip hired the architect Myron Hunt and the legendary landscape firm of Olmstead Brothers to turn the Peninsula into a blooming paradise. Over 100,000 trees and shrubs were planted. A country club, modeled after the Lakeshore Club in Chicago, was drafted. There would be polo grounds, swim clubs, tennis courts, golf courses, a yacht club, and three planned cities. One newspaper reported:

The architects have also drawn up tentative ground plans for the three model villages in the colony it is planning to establish in different parts of the property. These places will follow the true "town planning" idea, their streets radiating in orderly arrangement from business and civic centers. In each village the architecture of every building, from the business blocks to the humblest cottages, will be regulated, it being the intention of the syndicate to create towns having all the charm of some of the places that so delight tourists traveling in certain rural districts of Germany and England.
Harry E. Benedict, Mrs. Frank Vanderlip, Frank Vanderlip Jr. standing before cypress trees at Portuguese Bend, 1964. | Photo: Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library/Creative Commons License

In 1916, Vanderlip built a summer home on the bluffs above Portuguese Bend. But WWI and other distractions caused the Palos Verdes project to stall. From 1921-1923, the fascinating developer E.G. Lewis (founder of the planned Utopian towns of University City outside St. Louis and Atascadero on California's Central Coast) took control of the project. Unfortunately, Lewis's shady business dealings brought him down, and Vanderlip and other associates reclaimed control of the project. Construction on the great Peninsula began at a breakneck pace. By December 1925, it was reported that 65 percent of available lots had been sold, extensive tree lined boulevards had been built, a clubhouse had been constructed, and 200,000 trees had been planted. In 1926, a visitor described driving on the new Pacific Coast Highway through Palos Verdes:

On entering the Palos Verdes property the motorist passes through a riot of flowers, trees, and shrubbery planted within the last two years ... Through the developed portion of Palos Verdes the road is double barreled with provisions for a beautiful parkway through the center. It overlooks the ocean for the entire distance, with new coves, inlets, bluffs and shore line vistas disclosed at every turn. It passes the new government lighthouse at Point Vicente where half a dozen government buildings have been designed in accordance with the suggestions of the Palos Verdes Art Jury. The road touches the edge of the bluff above Portuguese Bend, famous landing place in the old days of whale fishermen and now an anchorage for pleasure craft. In the hills of Portuguese Bend, Frank A. Vanderlip is now developing a 240-acre estate at a cost of $250,000.

On his private estate overlooking the Pacific, Vanderlip built the Villetta (also known as Villa Narcissa, after Vanderlip's formidable suffragette wife). The Villetta was an elegant, Tuscan style home filled with priceless art. It was built as the guest house for the not yet built "great villa," which would be copied after the palace of Pope Julius II. The family planted cypresses with seeds Narcissa brought back in a suitcase from Italy, and Frank imported peacocks for his impressive aviary. Other homes and a hunt club were built on the property, which is now one of the most beautiful estates in all of Los Angeles.

The depression stalled growth on the Peninsula and dashed Vanderlip's dreams of a palace fit for a pope. Construction continued at a slow pace, and by the mid '30s, the Peninsula was becoming an extremely fashionable rural enclave for blue bloods looking for a "simple" life. Horses were a big part of Peninsula life, and residents spent many happy hours riding on bridle trails through the terraced hills. In 1938, a year after Vanderlip's death, the Los Angeles Times breathlessly reported on a hunt held at the ranch on the "Hollywood Rivera":

Gathering at the impressive hunt club buildings, the horsemen [were] sartorially correct, with pink coats and brass buttons, mounted their thoroughbreds and dashed over hedge and field at the heels of the hounds. At twilight the fox hunters enjoyed a buffet dinner served in the old world courtyard of the hunt club.
The Wayfarers Chapel | Photo: Hadley Meares

After Vanderlip's death, his sons Frank Jr. and Kelvin took center stage in developing the Peninsula. There were huge new developments built in the area during the '50s. These communities brought more middle and upper middle class folks into the land of the one percent. Kelvin's wife, Elin, a brilliant Nordic beauty originally from Oslo, became the official grand dame of Palos Verdes. The costume parties and haute monde teas thrown at Villa Narcissa became legendary. In 1955, (a year before Kelvin's untimely death) columnist Christy Fox described a visit to Villetta:

Only those who have trudged up the 265 steps to the hilltops high above Elin and Kelvin Vanderlip's beautiful home, the Villetta, at Portuguese Bend, can imagine the spectacular view of the Pacific. It's as though one could reach out and collect a handful of those shimmering little islands. So when about 60 of their friends -- all costumed elegantly, as befit those people of the High Renaissance-made the trek, the panorama was dramatic as well as spectacular.

Calling herself a "Norwegian in an Italian house who has a French passion," Elin worked tirelessly to secure two of the area's landmarks. One was Nansen Field, a recreation center dedicated to Scandinavian-American heritage. The other was the breathtaking Wayfarers Chapel at Portuguese Bend, the all glass Lloyd Wright-designed church dedicated to religious figure Emanuel Swedenborg. In her later years, Elin's parties at Villa Narcissa often benefited Friends of French Art, a charitable organization she founded in 1979, to save threatened French art and architecture. Elin died in 2009. The grand Vanderlip estate's future is now under debate, with some calling for it to be turned into a museum, 'a la The Huntington or Getty Villa.

All over the Peninsula, there is a feeling that the crowded metropolis is threatening its delicate border. A recent visit revealed stretches of seafront crowded with gaudy golf courses and upscale gated communities. Though expensive, they lack the charm of other parts of the Peninsula, where the quaint rolling green hills, fragrant blossoms, and fanciful country estates make a visitor want very badly to call Palos Verdes home.

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