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Riots, Love Fests, Buried Secrets: Griffith Park's Hidden Histories

A view of the Wisdom Tree in Griffith Park from a helicopter October 13, 2019 | Mark Rowlands
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Los Angeles, city of dreamers and doers; perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in over 4,300 acres of rolling hills, steep inclines and blessed flat land. Bordered by the 5 and the 134 freeways, Griffith Park, a sprawling landscape of chaparral, brushy scrubs and oak woodland, has been the canvas on which many Angelenos have drawn their dreams and aspirations.
Take for example, the Griffith Park Teahouse. Under a blanket of darkness in June 2015, a “ragtag group of L.A. enthusiasts built a Japanese-inspired teahouse — a love letter to the city. On the side of the structure, blank wood shingles hung on hooks, with a nudge to write down a wish for the city. By the end of the guerilla project, over 6,000 wishes were collected, including Stephanie’s, which read “hoping all these beautiful wishes come true ... and more rain.”

But long before the teahouse was even conceived, a lone pine tree stood sentry atop Burbank Peak. Some accounts say the tree has been standing guard for almost 40 years. It was Mark Rowlands, owner of a special effects lighting company, who first put an ammo box, journals and pens by the tree, but even then a binder already existed at the locally christened Wisdom Tree (aka The Giving Tree or Magic Tree or even the Tree of Life). One Wisdom Tree letter writer was Cadet Christian Beckler, who wrote, “Don’t have a clue how many times I’ve been here… this place seems to have a magnetic presence in a crazy life. It has brought me peace in times of hardship and difficulty. It is my church.”

Since Colonel Griffith J. Griffith and his wife, Mary Agnes Christina "Tina" Mesmer gifted the initial 3,015-acre land to the City of Los Angeles on December 1896, Griffith Park has also become the literal landscape where the city's never-ending and ever-changing answer to the question of its identity plays out.

Griffith J. Griffith with wife, Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer | Image of Griffith courtesy UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, Image of Mesmer courtesy Van Griffith
Griffith J. Griffith with wife, Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer | Image of Griffith courtesy UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, Image of Mesmer courtesy Van Griffith

“Griffith Park goes through all of the things that Los Angeles, California and the United States go through,” says Sarah Wilson, The Autry Museum of the American West’s education curator. The museum is currently working on “Investigating Griffith Park,” a community-led effort to build an exhibition surrounding the park in time for its 125th anniversary in 2021. “It is a microcosm of the city, of the country, of the region.”

A group of men stand before a wagon and a painted banner with reads, "Griffith Park, 3015 acres — Our greatest park. The largest mountain reservation within a city." | UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library
A group of men stand before a wagon and a hand-painted banner, "Griffith Park, 3015 acres — Our greatest park. The largest mountain reservation within a city." | UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library

Griffith Park is one of the few places where Angelenos can face the true diversity the city has to offer, says Casey Schreiner, founder and editor of Modern Hiker, and author of the forthcoming book, “Discovering Griffith Park: A Local's Guide.” “You've got hikers. You've got trail runners. You've got gardeners. You've got horseback riders. You've got tennis players. You've got golfers. You've got picnickers. You've got people who want to see a museum. It is one of the few places where Angelenos are kind of forced to get out of their cars and actually bump shoulders with people. It is a really kind of a magical place, I think.”

So magical that it’s become one of the most popular filming locations in Los Angeles. Since its inception, Griffith Park has stood in for a World War II battlefield, a billionaire vigilante’s dark lair and an aerospace defense complex, among many incarnations.

More importantly, it is also the set for real-life human drama. Here, hippies staged be-ins; men cruised for action after dark; cowboys and cowgirls put on the state’s first gay rodeo. It is where the day before Memorial Day 1961, 75 police officers were called to the park’s cheery merry-go-round (where Walt Disney purportedly dreamed up his Disneyland ambitions) to quell a crowd armed with rocks, baseball bats and bottles, angry over the carousel operator’s harsh treatment of an African American teen. At the time, the merry-go-round was routinely reserved for white families. Like elsewhere in the nation, especially in Alabama, the question of racial equality was raising a conflagration in Los Angeles.

Seven years later, Memorial Day 1968, once again by the merry-go-round, the scene was a more positive one: a “gay day” in the park. Men and women gathered to listen to civil rights activist Mike Hannon talk about working with the law in a homophobic society.  “We don’t have too much left to remember the day, but we know that it enshrined Griffith Park in the public gay memory as a revolutionary place. Somewhere where gay stories could be told – eventually – out in the open,” wrote Henry Giardina on The Pride L.A.

Bright pink Gay-In poster | USC
Bright pink Gay-In poster | USC

Then, there are the strange things that have happened at the park: 1932 tourists carting away cups and buckets of Fern Dell’s magical, healing spring waters; 1979’s Tetrick Trail Run, an eight-mile run that seemed common enough, except for their real-life nude mile markers; or a long-running “breakfast club” with heavyweight members such as Cecil B. DeMille, Jack and Harry Warner and Tom Mix, founded on tenets of ham and eggs. “The idea behind ham and eggs is that everybody there is a ham and an egg,” says Los Angeles Breakfast Club president Lily Holleman, “Everybody has equal standing. Nobody’s better than the other. Nobody should take themselves too seriously.” For nearly a century, the club has been hosting a 7 a.m. Wednesday breakfast gathering near or at the park’s environs.

Griffith Park could have just become one of the many hilltop communities the city boasts of, where modernist homes set on stick legs teeter precariously on mountain faces or mansions command splendid vistas from their floor-to-ceiling windows, but it was Colonel Griffith’s caveat (that the land would be used “perpetually as a public park”) that intertwined the park’s destiny with that of the city’s.

WATCH: Learn more about the surprising history of Griffith Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the United States.
Griffith Park: The Untold History

Beginnings

Before it was Griffith Park, the land was home to the Tongva. According to Schreiner’s forthcoming book, there are at least three known settlement sites within Griffith Park: “one near Fern Dell, one west of Travel Town near Universal City and one where the Feliz adobe and ranger station are today.”

A Spanish land grant then gave José Vicente Feliz, a then-retired Spanish governor’s representative, permission to occupy 6,647 acres of this land just outside El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles after his service.

Under Feliz’s care, Rancho Los Feliz — which has also been translated to “The Happy Farm” apart from being named after Feliz — seemingly lived up to its name, “forming an integral part of the life of the young village [Los Angeles].” One account asserts that the rancho became the gathering place for rehearsals during Christmastime.

 Hand-drawn diseño for the Rancho Los Feliz
Hand-drawn diseño for the Rancho Los Feliz

As California was annexed to the Mexican Federation, Rancho Los Feliz stayed in the hands of the Feliz family. Thanks to Doña María Ygnacia Verdugo, the Feliz family secured the land’s water rights and confirmed her title to the rancho. But nothing lasts forever.

As Dona Verdugo grew older, she deeded the land over to her daughters, who would sell it for $1 an acre. The remaining portion of the rancho passed on to her son, Antonio, whose death would spark rumors of the “Curse of the Felizes.”

The land would pass onto a series of owners until it was sold to Griffith, who finally gave 3,105 acres to the city of Los Angeles, even though it was outside the city limits. He correctly predicted the city would soon outgrow its current boundaries. The city was grateful for the windfall (Los Angeles Times called it a “princely gift”), but even from the beginning, it had no idea what to do with this swath of chaparral. It did, however, know it wanted what came with the land — water rights. In his acceptance speech, then-Mayor Frank Radner said the city’s “future depends on it.” Griffith Park didn’t just mean more green open space for Los Angeles; it meant greater control over the city’s water supply.

Making Landmarks

Like all generous gifts, this vast tract of land came with strings in the form of the Colonel himself. Griffith, with his outsized and complex personality, would be the park’s most vocal champion. As a self-appointed guardian angel for the park, Griffith called out city officials when illegal loggers cut down the Rancho’s many shade trees for profit under the city’s neglectful watch. He would support failed plans for Griffith Park to be turned into a federally-run arboretum. He backed efforts to build roads and transportation leading to the park. He dreamed of seeing an observatory (and the Greek Theater) built in his lifetime. Griffith would even present the city a gift of $100,000 towards its construction on Mt. Hollywood in 1912. His constant support of “an outlet for the population that chokes in the streets and alleys of our cities,” as he writes in his self-published book, “Parks, Boulevards and Playgrounds,” was work for the tireless and the Colonel had energy to spare.

After the Colonel’s death, his only son, Vandell Mowry Griffith (or simply Van), inherited the mantle of guardian to the park and the many projects it entailed. He would see the Greek Theater and the Griffith Observatory built. As municipal bus commissioner in 1919, he added a route into Vermont Canyon in support of low-cost transportation to Griffith Park. He would actively pursue a plan to turn the park into a lush forest complete with a network of sprinklers, greening the vast space.  During a stint as park developer from 1920 to ‘21, Van proposed even more projects on Vermont Canyon, including tennis courts, campgrounds, picnic facilities and even a bird sanctuary.

Until today, Griffith’s descendants continue to watch over the park. They spoke out against the entrance fees to the park the city had introduced in 1981 (the fees were rescinded 3 years later) and pushed for historic monument designation in 2008. They continue to support community efforts to keep the park open for all through the Griffith J. Griffith Charitable Trust. "As time goes on here, we get farther away from who actually gave away the park," Griffith Van Griffith told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't know what the future would hold, but I hope the city respects that the Griffiths are still around, looking over their shoulder."

Van Griffith continued his father's legacy as caretaker of the park. Click right or left below.

Progress of Griffith Park Observatory | Dick Whittington Photography Collection,1924-1987, University of Southern California Libraries
1/6 Progress of Griffith Park Observatory | Dick Whittington Photography Collection,1924-1987, University of Southern California Libraries
Greek Theater | The California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California Library
2/6 Greek Theater | The California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California Library
Two boys on the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round| Dean Musgrove, Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
3/6 Children on the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round | Dean Musgrove, Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Amateur baseball game in Griffith Park | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
4/6 Amateur baseball game in Griffith Park | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Womens Play Day, Griffith Park 1932 | Dick Whittington Photography Collection,1924-1987, University of Southern California Libraries
5/6 Womens Play Day, Griffith Park 1932 | Dick Whittington Photography Collection,1924-1987, University of Southern California Libraries
Van Griffith (83) at the Greek Theater | Photo by Doug Carter for Glendale News-Press October 25, 1971
6/6 Van Griffith (83) at the Greek Theater | Photo by Doug Carter for Glendale News-Press October 25, 1971

"Mr. and Mrs. Los Angeles, their children and their relatives, move en masse in mammoth Griffith Park on week ends." | Drawing by Bill MacArther for LA Mirror May 29, 1954
"Mr. and Mrs. Los Angeles, their children and their relatives, move en masse in mammoth Griffith Park on week ends." | Drawing by Bill MacArther for LA Mirror May 29, 1954

City Dreamscape or Scapegoat?

Archery class at Griffith Park's Boys Camp | Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection,University of Southern California Libraries
Archery class at Griffith Park's Boys Camp | Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection,University of Southern California Libraries

As the city grew up around Griffith Park, it increasingly saw the park as the answer to its myriad problems. Faced with the city’s rapid growth and increasing crime rates, the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Parent-Teacher Association, the Social Welfare Commission, the Prisoner’s Friend Society and the Anti-Saloon League proposed the creation of a Municipal Prison Farm. A city ordinance passed January 2, 1918 set aside 120 acres on the remote northern side of the park, far from residential neighborhoods for the farm. Prisoners would build a four-room farmhouse, barn and tool shed. They’d grow potatoes, corn, alfalfa, cabbage, among other vegetables and sell it to the public. In exchange, they would get food, lodging and regular baths. The plan was a moderate success. No major incidents occurred, but economics (the farm didn’t break even) eventually shuttered this benevolent experiment in 1924.

After the farm closed, Griffith Park became a convenient encounter with the wild for young boys and girls.  A boys’ camp opened February 27, 1926, just north of where Travel Town sits. Motion picture cowboys including Tom Mix, Monte Montana and William S. Hart entertained about 4,000 children. The camp had room for 100 boys. Cabins for ten boys each were made out of discarded utility poles and arranged in a circle. A converted barn with climbing ropes and whatnot hung from the rafters was their gymnasium. The rest of the site had a swimming pool, tennis courts, baseball diamonds and a football field.

A girls’ camp also opened the same year west of Wilson Golf Course with space for 120 girls. While no road was built to the girls’ camp (supplies and provisions had to be carried up by burro), it did have 16 cabins, a lodge, a dining hall, an outdoor sports area and a swimming pool set on a ledge.

Even today, Angelenos still get away and camp at Griffith Park. The boys’ camp hosts boys 7-17 years old and regularly plans events including summer camps, plus mother/son and father/son events. The girls’ camp now called Camp Hollywoodland also hosts summer and fall programs, mother/daughter and father/daughter weekends.

Griffith Park was also home to yet another camp, this time for the Civilian Conservation Corps, another of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs designed to employ young men in environmental projects around the park. The CCC also built three sites where they would live while working on these park projects. SP-13, which eventually was never used; SP-21, more commonly known as Camp Griffith Park and was visited by President and First Lady Roosevelt; and SP-40, which would eventually be occupied by Travel Town. All three sites would disappear from the park. The first was destroyed by fire of October 3, 1933. The latter two were dismantled as soon as CCC work in Griffith Park was deemed complete or near enough completion to turn over to park personnel.

“This is part of the whole problem of putting up a Griffith Park exhibition, you know,” says Wilson, “There are no monuments or plaques. All these moments exist through ephemeral pieces.” Again and again, key moments in city history played out at the park, only to be forgotten.

During the World War II, the former CCC camp near present-day Travel Town would be turned into a POW camp, sometimes processing transient prisoners on their way to more long-term facilities or vice versa, as fairly long-term accommodations for prisoners that couldn’t be handled by the other overcrowded facilities. Japanese, Italian and German prisoners saw Griffith Park not as an escape from the city, but a cage where their freedoms were curtailed.

In an oral history, Amy Uno Ishii remembers getting an anonymous phone call three weeks after her father George Kumemaro Uno was picked up by the FBI in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The caller suggested they drive down to Griffith Park. There, they found a slew of military police guarding their prisoners, one of which was their father. In an effort to add to his comfort, Ishii and her siblings pitched goods: soap, toothpastes, shaving kits and things, over the double enclosure that surrounded the POW camp. Uno was just one of potentially 550 prisoners that were held at the detention facility.

After the war, Los Angeles faced a housing crisis. Its veterans, who staked their lives on the battlefields, now had no place to stay. Once again, the city looked to Griffith Park for answers. Los Angeles responded by building the largest veterans housing project in the country, the Rodger Young Village, on 114 acres of the park where Van Griffith’s aviation park lay fallow. Dedicated April 27, 1946, before a crowd of 2,000 people and celebrities like Jack Benny and Bette Davis, the village welcomed its first residents about a month later. War veteran James Parkhill, his wife and two small children moved on May 23, 1946 after five months of living in a trailer behind the Hollywood Bowl. The family paid $35 every month to rent half of a Quonset hut. Parkhill’s family finally had two bedrooms (about a 100sqft. each), a 32-square-foot bathroom, electricity, plus hot and cold water. In short, a place to call home.

"Los Angeles Cares for its Veterans" Roger Young Village postcard | Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles
"Los Angeles Cares for its Veterans" Rodger Young Village postcard | Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles

Very soon, a community truly grew around it. When Griffith Park turned 100 in 1996, Thayne Powell Martin wrote to the Los Angeles Times, recalling his childhood at the village:

In 1946, my family moved into a Rodger Young Village Quonset hut and lived there for almost three years.

We had all a small town needed: market, drugstore, malt shop, recreation room and laundry facilities (wringer washers, of course — the clothes had to be brought back to dry on the clotheslines beside each hut). A dental office looked out over the equestrian trail in the back of the village. I remember having a stubborn tooth removed while horses passed by.

There were few automobiles, although there was a small shuttle bus. The Pacific Electric Co. offered regular bus service from the park entrance to 5th and Main streets downtown. From