Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

Start watching
SoCal Update

SoCal Update

Start watching
a large damn with graffiti of a woman with a hammer on it, mountains in the background

Earth Focus Presents

Start watching
Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
Professor T

Professor T (Belgium)

Start watching
Artbound

Artbound

Start watching
Emma

Emma

Start watching
Guilt

Guilt

Start watching
Line of Separation Key Art.

Line of Separation

Start watching
Us

Us

Start watching
The Latino Experience

The Latino Experience

Start watching
Key Art of "Summer of Rockets" featuring Keeley Hawes and Toby Stephens.

Summer of Rockets

Start watching
Death in Paradise Series 10

Death in Paradise

Start watching
millionaire still

KCET Must See Movies

Start watching
Independent Lens

Independent Lens

Start watching
MJ250sC-show-poster2x3-Bflky7i.png

Tending Nature

Start watching
Earth Focus

Earth Focus

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

When East Hollywood's Barnsdall Art Park Was an Olive Orchard

Support Provided By
ucla_olive_trees.jpeg
Some of the olive trees of Barnsdall Park, pictured here in 1929, date from 1890, when the site was planted as a commercial olive orchard. Courtesy of the Adelbert Bartlett Papers. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Before the Hollyhock House, there were olive trees -- a veritable army of them, some 1,225, each spaced 20 feet apart, marching up the hillside in an orderly grid formation. Above them rose the unconquered crown of the hill, which stood bald and barren some 89 feet above the flatlands of East Hollywood.

This arboreal phalanx -- in reality, a commercial olive orchard -- was the work of Joseph H. Spires, a Canadian immigrant who arrived in Los Angeles in 1886 and soon became the real estate broker for the Los Angeles Pacific electric railway. Around 1890, Spires bought a 36-acre tract encompassing a round, flattened hillock near the townsite of Prospect Park (today, East Hollywood).

Spires likely wanted the site for its development potential. The hill's summit offered unobstructed, commanding views of the Los Angeles basin, from the eastern Santa Monica Mountains (then still the private reserve of Griffith J. Griffith) to the Pacific shore -- an ideal place for a grand hotel. But such development was still years off. So to ensure a more immediate economic return on the land, Spires planted an orchard on the hill's slopes, leaving only its summit bare and unplanted.

His choice of crop -- olives -- might have been unusual for what was then called the Cahuenga Valley. In nearby Hollywood, scented lemon groves were all the rage. But olive cultivation, if successful, promised three to four times as much revenue -- about $1,000 per acre annually. Spires' olive trees also resonated with growing comparisons between Southern California and the Mediterranean, voiced most famously by Charles Dudley Warner in his 1891 book, "Our Italy."

Soon, the promontory acquired its name: Olive Hill. And while Spires, who died in 1913, never did build his hotel on the hilltop, his olive grove and its Mediterranean associations did provide a useful backdrop. In 1916, the hill stood in for Jerusalem's Mount of Olives in D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance." Four years later, on April 4, 1920, an estimated crowd of 10,000 assembled around Olive Hill for Hollywood's first Easter sunrise service with the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- a tradition that moved the following year to the Hollywood Bowl.

By then, Spires' widow had sold the 36-acre tract to Aline Barnsdall of Chicago. The philanthropist and oil heiress envisioned a stately home and a theatrical arts center atop the hill, and when her architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, drew up the first master plan for her Hollyhock House, he incorporated the existing olive orchard into the landscaping.

But despite Wright's plans, time was not kind to Spires' olive trees. After Barnsdall's death in 1946, her Olive Hill Tract was split into several parcels. The grove along Sunset fell decades later to make way for a Kaiser Permanente hospital. Along Vermont, a shopping center replaced part of the grove. By 1992, development and neglect had decimated the initial army of 1,225 olive trees -- only 90 then remained. Recent renovations funded by the Metro transit agency have restored parts of the grove, however, and visitors to Barnsdall Art Park still wind through the former orchard today along a driveway originally built for olive pickers.

Another C.C. Pierce view from Olive Hill circa 1890, looking north toward Mt. Hollywood (on the left) and the future site of Los Feliz. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
A C.C. Pierce view from Olive Hill in 1896, looking north toward Mt. Hollywood (on the left) and the future site of Los Feliz. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
The view from Olive Hill looking circa 1921, looking north toward Los Feliz and Griffith Park. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
The view from Olive Hill looking circa 1921, looking north toward Los Feliz and Griffith Park. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Asian American laborers like these two men on an unidentified Los Angeles olive grove likely planted and maintained the orchard on Olive Hill. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Asian American laborers like these two men on an unidentified Los Angeles olive grove likely planted and maintained the orchard on Olive Hill. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
The view from Olive Hill in 1896, soon after the promontory was planted with olive trees. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
The view from Olive Hill in 1896, soon after the promontory was planted with olive trees. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
A circa 1920 aerial view of the Olive Hill Tract, which has since been sliced into the Barnsdall Art Park, apartment homes, a shopping center, and the Kaiser Permanente hospital. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
A circa 1920 aerial view of the Olive Hill Tract, which has since been sliced into the Barnsdall Art Park, apartment homes, a shopping center, and the Kaiser Permanente hospital. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Support Provided By
Read More
A view of the iconic landmark, the Bradbury Building, showing dark, ornamental grilling and brickwork and layers of stairs.

The Savvy Mexican Businesswoman Behind the Iconic Bradbury Building

While the building’s namesake Lewis Bradbury is often referenced in historical accounts, his wife Simona is rarely mentioned alongside him even though she oversaw his business affairs after his death, including the completion of the iconic Bradbury Building.
Photographic portrait of Mrs. Arcadia de Baker; previously Mrs. Abel Stearns, Arcadia Bandini, ca.1885. She can be seen from the waist up turned slightly to the left in an oval cutout. Her long dark hair is parted up the middle and pulled back to her neck. She is wearing a frilly shawl over a frilly dress with a low neckline.

The Powerful Mexican Woman Who Helped Shape Early Santa Monica

Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker was rich, beautiful and connected. This savvy businesswoman would be an important player in early California and helped shape Santa Monica and the west side of Los Angeles.
A black and white photo depicts a row of cabins are arranged in a line along a steep slope. Each one is affixed with screened porches.

They Built This City: How Labor Exploitation Built L.A.'s Attractions

In the early 1900s, Los Angeles’ temperate climate and natural attractions drew droves of tourists seeking an escape from crowded, industrial cities. But behind the pristine curtain of Mt. Lowe’s tourism industry was a harsh reality of labor exploitation that continues to disproportionately affect Los Angeles’ Latinx population today.