The Romance of Real Estate: Boom and Bust in Gladstone | KCET
The Romance of Real Estate: Boom and Bust in Gladstone
The writer for the Los Angeles Herald knew his stuff. There was, he said, a favored place just 45 minutes by train from Los Angeles that “comprises … the finest land on the globe, with ample water rights and a water power equivalent to 250 horsepower.” And that wasn’t all, the Herald reported. “A grand avenue, 88 feet wide, bordered with shade trees and containing two highways, extends from the Sierra Madre to the south side of the tract. In the center of this highway, ten electric masts are being erected so that the great highway that cuts the land into two royal domains will be lighted from (and after) tonight with the pure light borrowed from the sun by the permission of that luminary.”
According to the Herald, Professor Warren, “the electrician in charge of the manufacture of electric energy in Los Angeles,” would provide the promised lighting. William Gladstone, briefly the Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1887, provided the townsite’s name. Gladstone, “the most beautiful land that the sun ever shone upon,” would be the city of destiny for smart buyers who got in early. “Business lots … will double in value within a week after the day of sale,” developer H. H. Boyce confidently predicted.
In 1887, not just Gladstone but all of Los Angeles was busy selling itself into existence. The ballyhoo for Gladstone was typical: A spate of breathless newspaper advertisements, a glowing report in the Los Angeles Herald, a band wagon with Gladstone banners parading Los Angeles streets, and an excursion on opening day to take “anxious speculators” out to the townsite, where, after a free lunch, the sale began.
In a year when lots in Los Angeles that had sold for $500 an acre were now offered at $5,000 an acre, Boyce’s promise of a 100-percent return in a week seemed modest. When Azusa was subdivided, J. M. Guinn told the members of the Historical Society of Southern California in 1889, “Two hundred and eighty thousand dollars worth of lots were sold the first day. … Not one in a hundred of the purchasers had seen the townsite, and not one in a thousand expected to occupy the land.” The L.A. property flipper had been born.
Had you seen Gladstone on its inaugural day in April 1887, you might have wondered what passion or desire could so completely obscure what little was actually there. Gladstone was a bit less or a bit more than 500 acres of pasture and orange grove next to the crossroads settlement of Centra (between what is now Azusa and Glendora). There were a few houses in the neighborhood and a blacksmith and a laundry. There was a post office in Centra. There was Captain H. Fuller's Hinda Vista Hotel, although it was only his house made over for the purpose.
But there were plans, the advertisements said, for a bank, a streetcar line, and a grand hotel in Gladstone to be built in the best style of the boomtime: a florid, multi-story confection in millwork and bright paint that, like so many other hotels of that year, would eventually have burned to the ground, become a church-affiliated college, or been carted away to another speculative townsite to lure another wave of real estate romantics.
In some historical accounts in the aftermath of the boom, Gladstone doesn’t get its hotel. In other accounts, the Hotel Brunjes is built, left vacant, cut up, and reassembled in Azusa.
The boomtime of 1887 had a fluid, phantasmagoric quality, as if scripted by Tim Burton. Maybe the hotel in Gladstone was there; maybe not, like the waterfall that would power the electric lights, like the quarry that would make stone cheaper than brick for building the new bank and the Santa Fe depot, like the bank and the depot, like Gladstone itself, which existed, if it existed at all, only in the advertisements in the Herald and on a subdivision map (surveyed by V. J. Rowan) of which, C. C. Baker later wrote, “there is of record only … one block.”
Gladstone – “The Richest Settlement in Natural Advantages in California” – was, in the official record, just a block long and a block wide. But that was enough in the boomtime to stir unmet desires.
In the paper towns of Los Angeles County, 79,350 subdivided acres had been listed with the county assessor by the fall of 1888, yielding a minimum of 400,000 house lots. Guinn, using data he gathered from the Los Angeles County Recorder, estimated that the paper value of real estate transactions reached $200 million. He surmised that another $200 million in purchase contracts for property had traded hands in San Diego, San Bernardino, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties. “Could we have kept the boom running for another year,” he told the historical society members, “we would have made enough to pay off the national debt.”
The promoters of Gladstone did their part to convince prospective buyers that the boom would go on and on, propelled by the abundance of Southern California and the gullibility of buyers. “Nearly all the land in Gladstone is covered with blooming vineyards and orchards, the latter mostly in orange groves,” the advertisements claimed. “The capital stock of the company is $1,000,000, of which a large sum has been expended for lands, roads water pipes, surveying and electric lights.” A bank, a train depot, and streetcar line were promised.
All of Southern California, it seemed, bloomed between the spring of 1886, when the boomtime began, and the summer of 1888, when the time ran out. In Gladstone, the electric lights went on in July 1887 and soon flickered out. The right-of-way for the streetcar line was graded, and then the franchise lapsed. Water pipes, waterless, rusted in place. The bank never sought a charter. The train depot remained a rumor. The roads of Gladstone led to dead ends.
According to Baker’s “The Rise and Fall of the City of Gladstone” (1914), “newspaper accounts said $100,000 worth of lots were sold” when sales began in April 1887. “While there was great excitement, there is indisputable proof that nothing was sold. There are of record only two deeds covering bona fide sales by the company, one dated in November 1887, and the other in June 1888, both sales being to (Gladstone) residents, and the consideration amounting to $2862.50.”
In September 1888, the Gladstone Improvement Company sold the few lots it actually held (most were under lease agreements), and the water pipes and electric lighting equipment – “everything except the grading of the street car line,” as the Glendora Signal newspaper put it – was removed.
Guinn in later years lamented that the spectacle of boomtime towns like Gladstone had faded so quickly, the grand hotels gone (or relocated), and the advertisements and news reports – the “literature of the boom” – “buried in waste baskets and cremated in kitchen stoves.” No one, he said, would remember the location of these paper towns.
Guinn wasn’t entirely correct. Twenty years and another boomtime later, several paper towns reappeared as names of a stop along the Pacific Electric lines that Henry Huntingtoonspread across the county. Some boomtime subdivisions, like Burbank and Glendale, lay dormant and then revived a generation later. Wildomar in Riverside County faded after 1888, grew again in the 1980s, and finally incorporated as a city in 2008. The cycle of boom to bust was almost complete when cash-strapped Wildomar faced disincorporation a few years later.
Memory of the 1887 boom left Southern California with a fractured narrative. The division is still with us. The “literature of the boom” promised that limitless desires would be satisfied here. The history of the boomtime warned that nothing here was as it seemed.
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