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A Guide to a Century of Culver City, the Heart of Screenland

Culver City
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Now in its 100th year, with a yearlong celebration wrapping up in September 2017, Culver City doesn’t quite get the attention of L.A.’s other neighbors — like, say, Pasadena or Santa Monica.

And a lot of that may have to do with its location.

Cartophiles will note that the municipality — named after Harry H. Culver, who created it — is surrounded on all sides by either the City or County of Los Angeles, an irregularly-shaped parcel that abuts West L.A. to the north, Venice and Marina del Rey to the west, and South L.A. to the south and east.

Main business district, Culver City | Los Angeles Public Library
Main business district, Culver City, 1938 | Los Angeles Public Library

It’s not quite coastal, but it’s also not that far from some of the sites of uprisings during the L.A. Riots of 1992.

But it’s this central geographic position — supposedly halfway between Los Angeles and Venice — that helped Culver City rise out of the former Rancho La Ballona and expand into a major thoroughfare along the historic train routes of the Southland.

Even today, you might be inclined to just pass Culver City, as you’re careening down the 10 or 405 freeways or even rattling along the Expo Line. But a century after its founding, there’s no time like the present to explore its many boulevards, production facilities, arts and architecture.

Here are the five best ways to concurrently experience both the past and the present of the former “Heart of Screenland” — from its Main Street beginnings to the rolling hills where some choose to spend all of eternity.

1. Movieland Magic

MGM Administration Building | Los Angeles Public Library
MGM Administration Building, 1939 | Los Angeles Public Library

When people say "Hollywood," they don't necessarily mean Hollywood Boulevard or even old Hollywoodland. It’s generally not a geographic reference. They actually mean the moviemaking communities of Silverlake (Edendale) and Culver City and now, Burbank. And if you know anything about the history of movies in Culver City, you’ve probably heard the tales of “Munchkins Gone Wild” at The Culver Hotel (then known as the Hotel Hunt) during the filming of The Wizard of Oz in 1938. The Art Deco, Flatiron-shaped hotel not only has erected a mini shrine to the film just inside its front door but also has surrounded itself with statuary related to the film and the original book. On the lot of the former Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios nearby (now home to Sony Pictures Studios and Columbia Pictures), you can find one lone yellow brick as well as a trap door in the soundstage where Margaret Hamilton melted into the floor as the Wicked Witch of the West. Though subsequently downsized, the lot — which once sprawled across hundreds of acres of Culver City — still contains some 1930s-era original buildings, many with Art Deco elements. But Culver City is also where many other iconic films in the American canon were shot — including Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, and King Kong, all filmed at Culver Studios (now owned by Sony). Culver City — from its current downtown to its former southwest quadrant (now the Los Angeles neighborhood of Playa Vista) — was where you could find Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, Hal Roach and Howard Hughes at any given time. And by the 1940s, half of all of the movie production in the country was happening here. Although Culver Studios is not open for tours, you can get through the gates of Sony Pictures Studios (and walk under its giant rainbow) by taking a tour.

Culver Hotel
Sandi Hemmerlein
Sony Picture Studios
Sandi Hemmerlein

2. A Cold War Time Capsule

Culver City isn’t known for its military armaments or as a battleground for anything but catfights between starlets, but you can find plenty of relics and remembrances from the Cold War hiding out in plain view. For the centennial celebration, Culver City’s official Cold War museum, The Wende Museum, has launched a dedicated website titled Cold War: Culver City where you can access a map to guide you in tracking down the extant sites, read community stories and explore how this “international conflict” (which extended from 1945 to 1991) impacted Culver City and its many industries. Unfortunately, the Wende Museum is currently closed as it moves into the decommissioned National Guard Armory building, which was built in 1949 and abandoned in 2012. However, when it reopens in November, you’ll be able to see its amazing collection of Eastern European and Soviet artifacts and visit the only institution of its kind in the world. You don’t have to wait, however, to explore how Howard Hughes thrived as a Cold War defense contractor by designing and building missiles and performing pioneering work in avionics and electronics. You can visit the former headquarters of the Hughes Aircraft Company by visiting the newly rechristened Hercules Campus, redeveloped by The Ratkovich Company and leased to such tenants as Google. And if you know where to look in Culver City, you can also come across a fallout shelter or two (including at the Culver Hotel) and a cold war siren or two (including at Veterans Memorial Building).

Hercules Campus
Sandi Hemmerlein
Hercules Campus
Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Revolutionary Rail

Whether you’re talking about the Culver City of days gone by or of the present day, the subject of trains is bound to come up. Today, Metro’s elevated light rail runs along Exposition Boulevard, having begun service in 2012 (with the Expo Line extension to Santa Monica following in 2016) — but it was built along the ghostly right-of-way of long-defunct rail companies. In fact, trains used to take passengers and freight down Venice, Culver and National boulevards as part of the Redondo Line, the Venice Short Line and the Pacific Electric Santa Monica Air Line — the latter of which ended service in 1953. While no original stations exist in their original locations, you can still find the Ivy Substation, which provided electricity to the Pacific Electric’s late-19th century predecessor, the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad (later the Los Angeles Pacific Railway Company). The historic Mission Revival substation from 1907 still stands on a two-acre, triangular parcel at Culver Junction, where Culver Boulevard meets Venice Boulevard — now known as “Media Park.” It may no longer power the trolleys along the long-lost "Balloon Route" excursion from downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean, but it does serve as a landmark gateway to Culver City. It was rehabilitated for public use in 1993 and is currently occupied by The Actors’ Gang theater company. Go Metro and disembark at the present-day Culver City Station, approximately at the site of the old Ivy Station, and imagine how the streetcars used to crisscross those intersections.

Expo Line
Sandi Hemmerlein

4. Modern Architecture

If you’re looking for Craftsman bungalows, go to Pasadena. If you want Queen Annes and Eastlakes and other Victorian masterpieces, head on over to Angelino Heights. But if you’re looking to stare down a Pterodactyl, explore a Beehive or take shade under an Umbrella, you’ve got to enter Culver City’s Hayden Tract. Located more or less between the present-day Expo Line and the Ballona Creek, tucked in the corner between Washington, National and Jefferson Boulevards, it’s become a haven for experimental architecture that reuses extant buildings from the tract’s industrial past. Given its proximity to the former Pacific Electric right-of-way (and Southern Pacific freight track), this was an ideal location for a subdivision dedicated to the post-WWII manufacturing and building boom, but it had more or less gone bust by the 1970s and 80s. In 1986, the deterioration of the buildings provided an opportunity for developers to reimagine the area and attract a whole new class of residents and tenants — and that has transformed this warehouse district into an icon of world-class design by architect Eric Owen Moss, whose sculptural approach to buildings defines the area now known as Conjunctive Points. Recommended for fans of Frank Gehry’s undulating facades, topsy-turvy towers and skewed asymmetry — as the starchitect’s influence on Moss is obvious — you can make a good walking tour out of the cluster of closely-knit buildings. Start at the tract’s entrance with the Samitaur Tower (built 2011 and named after the developers of Conjunctive Points as well as the builders of its structures, Laurie and Frederick Samitaur Smith) and make your way past the exteriors of office buildings, sound stages, parking structures and even the enclave-in-progress, The New City. While many of the structures are occupied by private businesses (in industries ranging from advertising and graphic design to software development and studios), you can access interiors by patronizing a public business or two. For starters, you can take a dance class at Your Neighborhood Studio, located in the Conjunctive Points Theater building, or embark on a dining adventure at Vespertine, located in The Waffle Building.

Hayden Tract
The Umbrella  |  Marc Teer/Flickr/Creative Commons License

5. Eternal Rest for the Dearly Departed

First opened in 1939, the entire property Holy Cross spans across 200 acres now within Culver City limits, thanks to Fox Hills being annexed in 1964. But what’s remarkable about this final resting place isn’t necessarily its size or location or even the many screen stars (like Rita Hayworth) and screenland moguls (like Mack Sennett) who are buried there. And besides the fact that it’s a place where the dead are laid to rest, it’s earned a macabre reputation as the burial sites for both the Manson family’s most infamous murder victim Sharon Tate and Hollywood’s most infamous bloodsucker, Bela Lugosi (a.k.a. Dracula). But all celebrity stalking aside, the mid-century modern mausoleum building from 1961 is worth a visit if only for the lovely painted murals by mosaicist Isabel Piczek in the Sanctuary of the Risen Christ. At its center stands a 1300-square-foot mural of, as the name implies, the resurrection of Christ, and the surrounding stained glass windows depict the Stations of the Cross along the front-facing side of the building, both on the ground level and upstairs. Designed by architect Ross G. Montgomery (better-known for his Catholic churches than for his Catholic funerary architecture) along with his associate William Mullay, the reinforced concrete mausoleum sits atop one of the cemetery’s characteristic rolling hills — the view more or less unobstructed, thanks to the Forest Lawn-style flat grave markers. It’s also a great spot to watch planes take off from and land at LAX. And as you can find both The Tinman (Jack Haley) and The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) interred at Holy Cross, it’s become a necessary stop along the Wizard of Oz historical trail.

Holy Cross
Sandi Hemmerlein
Holy Cross
Sandi Hemmerlein

Bonus: Although the former Culver Theatre near Main Street in downtown Culver City no longer screens movies, the Streamline Moderne palace from 1946 has been renovated into a legit playhouse and renamed the Kirk Douglas Theatre. There, you can see live stage productions by its resident theater company, Center Theatre Group, which also operates it.

Culver Theatre, exterior | Los Angeles Public Library