To walk the border of the sprawling City of Los Angeles as it is today (about 503 square miles) seems an inconceivable feat for most. But what if that walk circumnavigated the city as it was in 1781 or 1850, when Los Angeles was square-shaped measuring four square leagues? In 2019, pedestrian advocacy organization Los Angeles Walks started a series of four walks — titled #LA4Corners — that retraced each of the four borders of the city when it was a young pueblo. The walk totaled approximately 26 miles. Each leg averaged six to eight miles, though freeways, hillsides, housing tracts and industrial sites made it impossible to walk the route in a direct line. While organizers facilitated conversations about street design as it related to pedestrian safety, presenters (and participants) shared enough local history to fill a book. These are just a few historical highlights from the #LA4Corner walks that began and ended at the plaques at each of the original four corners, placed by the Los Angeles Historical Society (LACHS) between 1978 and 1983.
When Governor Felipe de Neve established Los Angeles as a Spanish pueblo in 1781, he drew upon the Law of the Indies, a series of proclamations developed in the 16th century that provided guidelines for new Spanish colonies. The new pueblo was laid over an existing network of Tongva villages that had developed over thousands of years. Spanish officials "drew Los Angeles into existence not on a blank canvas but instead upon a complex social and spatial landscape that bore the scars and cleavages, both deep and shallow, of historical and contemporaneous Indigenous-colonial exchanges," according to historian David Torres-Rouff in his book "Before L.A." The Law of Indies required that Spanish colonies be built near Indigenous villages for labor and located 20 miles from the ocean, near a fresh water source. Street grids were to be built at a 45-degree angle off the cardinal directions. Though in the book "Los Angeles Maps," D.J. Waldie explained, "The non-existent streets of the not-yet-city in 1781, as drawn by Governor Felipe de Neve, were cocked an imprecise 36 degrees."
While no formal survey exists from the Spanish and Mexican period, a diseño published in "Four Square Leagues: Los Angeles Two Hundred Years Later" shows the square-shaped pueblo surrounded by several ranchos. Diseños were hand-drawn sketches that defined property ownership in California, oftentimes relying on natural landmarks to indicate boundaries. When LACHS started setting the plaques at the original four corners in the late 1970s, the organization referenced Henry Hancock's 1858 survey of the city lands. As development grew beyond the city's original boundary, later surveyors used the Jeffersonian grid as mandated by the Public Land Survey System, causing a clash of street grids in Los Angeles.
Western Border: Walking through Hoover Street
A walk of Los Angeles's original four corners begins at the city's original northwest corner, which is now a busy five-point intersection at Fountain Avenue, Hoover Street and Sunset Boulevard. When the pueblo was founded, this area was probably dotted with a few well-worn roads leading to a nearby Tongva village, which was eventually swallowed up by Rancho Los Feliz by 1795. One hundred years later, pedestrians near this corner would've watched as Red Cars on the Hollywood Line rolled through Sunset Boulevard. While there is little trace of that history on the streetscape, there is a plaque about 500 feet away from the original northwest corner, just outside the Sunset Boulevard gate of what used to be KCET studios. In fact, the LACHS co-hosted the 1979 dedication ceremony with KCET because the studio had been designated as a Historic-Cultural Landmark the year before.
Today, the original western border follows Hoover Street through Silver Lake, Westlake and Pico-Union, but when it was surveyed in 1858 the land was mostly unoccupied. Hoover Street was named for Swiss doctor Dr. Leonce Hoover, a military surgeon in Napoleon's army who moved to Los Angeles in the 1840s. He and his son Vincent played prominent roles in the city's early civic history.
By the late 1800s, Victorian cottages and Craftsman bungalows weren't the only structures popping up along Hoover. Oil wells sprang up throughout Westlake as part of the Los Angeles City Oil Field that stretched from Vermont to Elysian Park. While not all struck it big, an Uncle Sam Oil Company well gushed in 1899 on Hoover, just north of 6th street. A few years before, the widow of the once-owner of Catalina Island, Clara Shatto, donated her property on the southwest edge of the oil field to the city with the condition it be a park. Despite warnings from self-serving oil speculators that the land was too saturated with oil to operate as public space, Sunset Park was dedicated in 1899. Now Lafayette Park, this is the site of the historic Felipe De Neve Branch Library (built in 1929) and "Hope at Lafayette," a new homeless shelter made out of refurbished shipping containers.
One clear indication that Hoover once served as the city's western border is how streets east of Hoover intersect with the streets west of Hoover. Since the Law of the Indies required streets to be cocked at an angle from the cardinal directions, most streets within Los Angeles' original border intersect with Hoover at the diagonal compared to those west of Hoover established with the orthogonal system. This created a number of triangular and odd-shaped blocks east of the street. One historic landmark built to fit its uniquely shaped site was the First Church of Christ, Scientist at Hoover and Alvarado. Architect Elmer Grey designed this Italian Romanesque church in 1912, which is now the Central Spanish Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Pico Union. Across the street, a 1901 Queen Anne home featured in an early edition of "An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles" still stands.