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

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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.
Learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright's time in Los Angeles on "ArtboundS9 E1: That Far Corner - Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles.

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."

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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 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.
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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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