History of Windsor Village

This history is taken from the Historic Resources Survey Report written by Architectural Resources Group (ARG) and the Windsor Village Association, © 2010.

EARLY HISTORY OF WINDSOR VILLAGE

The large expanse of land that is now occupied by the City of Los Angeles was once inhabited by Native Americans of the Tongva (or Gabrielino) tribe. The Tongva people regularly navigated the Pacific Ocean and inhabited the islands of Santa Catalina, San Nicholas, San Clemente, and Santa Barbara as well as much of the Los Angeles basin and parts of what is now Orange County. A relatively peaceful culture, the Tongva subsisted on what the land had to offer for thousands of years before the arrival of European visitors. It is estimated that approximately five thousand Tongva resided in the region when the Spanish began the mass colonization of native peoples under the mission system in the eighteenth century.

The Mission San Gabriel, which is located near the present-day city of Montebello, was the fourth of the California missions, a system established by Spanish friars with the intention of converting the Indians to Christianity and stripping them of their cultural traditions. The Tongva were largely subject to the Mission San Gabriel, which was in the proximity of their native territory, and their subsequent mistreatment and exposure to European diseases quickly decimated the population. Those that survived were used as laborers in the construction of the Spanish missions and pueblos; it has been noted that “nearly everything grown or manufactured at the pueblos resulted from the labor of Indians.”

LaBrea tar pitsThe mission system deteriorated in the early nineteenth century as the Spanish began to lose ground to Mexico. Mexico declared its independence in 1821, and the Secularization Act of 1833 signaled the end of the mission era. The mission land once under the jurisdiction of the Spanish was deeded to individuals by the Mexican governors and slowly the missions were disbanded. With its temperate climate and fertile soil, the new settlers found the land perfect for raising cattle and crops; the basin was soon dotted with the ranches of Californios. Even in those days a road meandered east to west in the approximate path of what is now Wilshire Boulevard from the Pueblo of Los Angeles (near downtown) to the sea. This dirt road, then called the La Brea Road because it passed the tar pits, passed through nine ranchos on its way east from the Pacific: Topanga Malibu Sequit, Boca de Santa Monica, San Vicente y Santa Monica, La Ballena, San Jose de Buenos Aires, Rincon de los Bueyes, Rodeo de las Aguas, La Brea, and Las Cienegas.

The land on which Windsor Village is located was part of the Rancho Las Cienegas. Comparably small at approximately 4,500 acres, the Las Cienegas was patented to Juan Abila in 1871 and appears to have extended roughly from today’s Wilshire Boulevard south to Baldwin Hills. Reports from this time indicate that the rancho was almost entirely a swamp and that it took subsequent draining and grading to become valuable land for residential development purposes, which it did after the turn of the twentieth century.

SUBURBANIZATION: RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT, 1910-1945

Theme: Transportation: Streetcar Suburbs

Although most of the buildings and landscape features of today’s Windsor Village didn’t materialize until the late 1910s and early 20s, the early development of the neighborhood is directly tied to the patterns of growth related to the vast network of streetcars which, until replaced by the automobile, largely governed where residential development occurred in early Los Angeles. Therefore, although there are only a few buildings present from this period, it is worthy of discussion due to its impact on the early subdivision and character of Windsor Village.

In the late 1860s, after almost twenty years under the rule of the United States of America, California’s rancho system began to disintegrate. The vast acreage was bought up by a handful of wealthy land barons, who in ensuing decades subdivided the land for development. Immigrants arrived from the east in droves, many drawn to the area for its agricultural and, later, oil opportunities. The Central Pacific Railroad was completed from the Midwest to northern California in 1869, and many arrived by rail and made their way south by carriage. By 1876 the Southern Pacific had laid tracks to Los Angeles and immigration ensued on a massive scale. A second transcontinental rail link—the Santa Fe Railroad—arrived in 1885, sparking a passenger fare rate war between the two railroads. The price of a trip to Los Angeles from the Midwest plummeted; that, coupled with a voracious advertising campaign touting the “good life” in California, enticed many to make the trip. A reported 120,000 people made the journey in 1887 alone.

2- celebrators opening pico hts e r 1887In addition to the transcontinental railroad, several local streetcar lines cropped up at the end of the nineteenth century. Sensing opportunity in the vast, undeveloped acreage in the growing Los Angeles area, Henry Huntington purchased and consolidated the existing streetcar lines and began to lay miles of new track. In 1901, Huntington’s Pacific Electric Railway was incorporated and a major rail expansion ensued. The quickly expanding network of streetcar lines began to enable the development of commuter suburbs in what was previously undeveloped land. Among the first of these were located south and west of the city in neighborhoods like College Heights (near USC, which was founded in 1880) and Pico Heights, which stretched westward along Pico Street toward Los Angeles’s western boundary, which at the turn of the twentieth century was located at today’s Arlington Avenue. The land from Arlington to the Pacific Ocean was at this time considered to be “the country,” mainly comprising alfalfa and 1887 Opening of the Pico Heights streetcar line barley fields, grazing pastures, oil derricks and swampland.

The existence of reliable transportation to and from downtown as well as the construction of a number of upscale institutions in the Pico Heights area, such as the Los Angeles Country Club and the Harvard Military Academy (both sited near the intersection of Pico Street and Western Avenue), transformed what was previously open land into a fashionable new residential district. So fashionable, in fact, that after only about six years at this location the owners of the Country Club decided that the links would be more valuable cut up into residential lots, which sparked the development of today’s Country Club Park neighborhood. The section of Windsor Village that was originally part of the Oxford Square subdivision was subdivided concurrently with this early development, although its location west of Arlington and a short walk off the streetcar lines kept it mostly undeveloped until the late teens. A 1913 map of Los Angeles shows a virtual drop-off west of today’s Fremont Place, with a small portion of Windsor Village still without platted streets. The Tenth Street streetcar line culminated at Rimpau and the Pico Heights streetcar at Victoria; in the early teens, this was literally the end of the line for westward development in the City of Los Angeles, the very edge of the City which gave way to open land and, ultimately, the ocean.

Theme: Developers and the Development Process: The Subdivider

Today’s Windsor Village is a conglomeration of a number of tracts that were platted and subdivided in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Crenshaw Boulevard (formerly known as Mont View Avenue) was the first to be subdivided; it formed the western boundary of the Mont View (1904) and Boulevard Heights (1905) tracts, both of which stretched eastward. Emil Firth’s Oxford Square Tract (1907) comprises the southeastern part of the survey area; this large subdivision originally stretched from Pico Boulevard to Francis Avenue on Windsor Boulevard and Victoria Avenue. The land between West 8th Street and Wilshire Boulevard was subdivided in 1912; that between Francis and West 8th in 1917; and between Olympic and West 9th Street in 1920.

Emil Firth and Oxford Square

EmilFirthAdvertisementFirth’s Oxford Square tract was surveyed in 1907, and lots were ready for sale the following year. The tract, which centered on Alta and Delaware Streets (changed to Victoria and Windsor, respectively, in the late teens), stretched from Pico Boulevard (then Pico Street) northerly to Francis Avenue, terminating just two blocks south of Wilshire Boulevard, which at that time was still an unpaved road. The southern portion of the tract, near Pico Street, was positioned on a bluff with commanding views of the mountains to the north. These lots were larger than those down the hill and appear to have been offered at a slightly larger sum. No stranger to tract development in the southland, Oxford Square was a shrewd investment on Firth’s behalf. Not only was the area in the vicinity of the Harvard school and the former Country Club, but it was also situated in the proximity of several streetcar lines. Furthermore, the tract was located two short blocks south of Wilshire Boulevard. Although this length of the boulevard was unpaved and mostly undeveloped at this time (locals referred to it as the “Dead Mile”), its eastern stretch was lined with stately mansions. The first years of the twentieth century brought the construction of upscale hotels and restaurants on Wilshire near Lafayette Place, and certainly its westward expansion appeared imminent.

Firth offered Oxford Square “villa lots” at a starting price of $1000. This was a considerable sum for a speculative lot in 1908; for comparison, a lot in the Redondo Villa tract, which was located farther south on the Redondo Beach streetcar line, was listed at a price of $90 only two years earlier. Firth positioned Oxford Square among the ranks of Los Angeles’s finest residential developments, with building and lot restrictions to ensure the construction of “tasteful” residences and streetscapes of wide avenues and regularly spaced palm trees. Luring buyers, Firth offered free excursions to the tract from his downtown office and ran advertisements in the Los Angeles Times nearly every day. An advertisement from 1908 stated:

Oxford Square is now open for your inspection, presenting you with an excellent opportunity to get in on the ground floor at opening prices. Situated between Wilshire Boulevard and Pico Street, in the most popular part of the city, Oxford Square occupies a high plateau with a fine mountain view. The street improvements, consisting of wide concrete walks, combination curbs and gutters and oil tamped streets, are all completed and of the very best quality. The park ways are lined with beautiful large palms. The avenues are 70 feet in width and the lots 171 feet in depth, with a private driveway in the rear. Ornamental electroliers occupy the street corners. In fact, no money or effort has been spared to make this one of the best improved tracts in the city. Pico Street is asphalted, making an excellent auto drive. The Pico street electric line passes by the property. The electric subway line has a right of way through the tract and has agreed to build its station there. The Los Angeles Pacific line is one block distant and the Ninth and Sixth Street lines are only a short distance away and will soon be extended to Oxford Square. The prices for these beautiful lots range from $1000 up and terms are extremely easy. I shall be pleased to show you this high class property at your convenience. Emil Firth.

Subsequent advertisements referred to the area as “refined and aristocratic,” and located in the “fashionable Wilshire district.” By 1909, several of the lots at the southern end of the tract had been sold and homes were under construction.

The residential lots of the Oxford Square tract which are part of today’s Windsor Village were likely somewhat less desirable in the early 1900s due to their relative distance from the streetcar (prospective buyers would have entered the tract from Pico Boulevard); as such, it appears that no Oxford Square lots north of Olympic were built upon in the pre-World War I era. However, the street improvements implemented by Firth remain to this day, and were it not for the widening of Olympic Boulevard circa 1930 there would be little distinguishing the Windsor Village side of Oxford Square from that of its southerly neighbor.

Theme: Transportation: The Automobile and Suburban Development

Although the neighborhood’s early platting was influenced by its location near the streetcar lines, the continued evolution of the built environment of Windsor Village is directly related to its adjacency to Wilshire Boulevard. If residential lots in today’s Windsor Village were somewhat less desirable than their southerly neighbors due to their relative distance from the Pico Heights streetcar line in the early 1900s, they were perfectly poised for upscale residential development in the 1920s due to their proximity to Wilshire. Thus, while only a handful of residences had been constructed by the late nineteen teens (of which only a few survive today) the majority of the area was built out with single-family residences by the early 1930s.

Looking east - Wilshire and Lucerne - 1939

Looking east – Wilshire and Lucerne – 1939

Wilshire Boulevard began in 1895 as a 12,000-foot long street running west from Westlake Park. Gaylord Wilshire, who sensed the potential of an east-west corridor stretching west from downtown into the barley fields and swampland that, at that time, made up the land between city limits and the ocean, envisioned a boulevard lined with stately mansions. To ensure an upscale identity, he convinced City Council to pass an ordinance guaranteeing that Wilshire Boulevard would remain open to automobile and pedestrian traffic only, with no railroads, streetcars or heavy trucking permitted. Almost immediately some of Los Angeles’s most influential citizens began building their palatial residences on Wilshire, most of which were described in detail in the pages of the Los Angeles Times (whose editor, Harrison Gray Otis, had a mansion at the corner of Wilshire and Park View). The imminent westward growth of the City provoked this commentary in the Times in 1914: “Among the many phases of the tremendous development and growth of Los Angeles and surrounding territory in the past decade, none as been more remarkable than the transaction from low-priced barley fields to residence property valued at $10,000 per acre in eight or ten years in the district west of Westlake Park.”

The residential nature of the eastern stretch of Wilshire was fleeting; by 1920, most residents had relocated to points west and the section near Westlake Park became a fashionable hotel district. Also by this time, Wilshire Boulevard had been widened and paved from Westlake Park to the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, and commercial development began in Miracle Mile. The stretch of Wilshire between Westlake and Western was rezoned from B-class residential to C-class commercial. Large resorts such as the Ambassador Hotel began to appear in the early 1920s, and the prestige of the boulevard as a residential address gave way to the glitz of its imminent large-scale commercial development. Also by this time, nearly every person of means in Los Angeles had an automobile, which enabled development even further from the city center. As homes on the boulevard itself were transplanted with hotels, restaurants and department stores, residential development adjacent to Wilshire Boulevard proliferated on an enormous scale. In the 1920s, Windsor Square and Hancock Park were the desired addresses among the City’s elite.

Wilshire Boulevard construction - 1928

Wilshire Boulevard construction – 1928

Windsor Square, which is located directly to the north of Windsor Village across Wilshire, was purchased and subdivided in 1911. The subdivision, which originally stretched from Wilshire to Third Street between Irving and Plymouth Boulevards, was marketed as Los Angeles’s most exclusive neighborhood, with restrictions ensuring that only grand residences be constructed. The influence of Windsor Square on development south of Wilshire was inevitable, with the Los Angeles Times publishing near-daily advertisements and articles chronicling the grand homes being constructed in the area. Several of the streets in Windsor Village were platted and named before Windsor Square was conceived; however, by 1920 the names of these streets had been changed to correspond with those of their northerly neighbor. The streets of Windsor Square were English in theme: Windsor, Plymouth, and Westminster, to name a few. Likewise, in Windsor Village: Alta Avenue was changed to Victoria Avenue; Delaware Avenue to Windsor Boulevard; Burck Place to Lucerne Boulevard; and so on. At this time the overall area was known as the Wilshire District, but it was not uncommon for real estate brokers to use the Windsor Square name while hawking buildings for sale south of Wilshire, hoping to capitalize on the reputation of the exclusive subdivision.

Construction in Windsor Village in the 1920s was somewhat less grand than that occurring to the north in Windsor Square, varying from large, two- and two-and-a-half story residences on the larger lots of Windsor and Victoria (Oxford Square) to smaller one- to one-and-a-half story bungalows on Lucerne, Plymouth and Lorraine. Buildings from this era were often constructed in Period Revival styles such as English Tudor, French, Spanish Colonial, and Colonial Revival. By this time, nearly all residences had detached garages positioned to the rear of the lot, accessed by a narrow driveway. The 1920s represented the most prolific era of development in Windsor Village, following the general pattern of development in Los Angeles. According to historian Kevin Starr, by 1930 “Los Angeles had a population of 1,470,516, which represented a tripling of its population over [a period of] ten years.” New construction met the needs of the growing population; in 1918, 6,000 new building permits were issued in Los Angeles. In 1919, that figure more than doubled to 13,000, increasing to 37,000 in 1921, and 47,000 in 1922. The boom peaked in 1923 with an astonishing 62,500 new building permits for an estimated $200 million in construction. Following this trend, by 1930, a large majority of the lots in Windsor Village had been developed with single-family houses.

A major change occurred in the neighborhood in the early 1930s with the widening of Tenth Street and its subsequent name change to Olympic Boulevard. By this time the popularity of the automobile had already made its imprint on the development of the city, and several arterial roads were widened and converted to parkways. Tenth Street found this fate circa 1930 and was renamed for the 1932 Summer Olympic Games, which were held in Los Angeles. The widening and subsequent commercialization of Olympic Boulevard had a profound impact on the Oxford Square tract and, consequently, Windsor Village. The tract was essentially bisected by the commercial thoroughfare. Although streetscapes of the northern and southern portions of the tract remain similar, they are all but cut off from one another by Olympic Boulevard.

8thSt-house movingDevelopment in Windsor Village continued in the late 1930s, with some existing single-family houses demolished to make way for multi-family housing. The area between Francis Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard was zoned for higher-density residential construction, and developers took advantage of the adjacency to Wilshire and constructed grand apartment houses in the era’s most fashionable styles, such as the Streamline Moderne and Hollywood Regency styles. Despite the change from low-density to high-density residential in parts of the neighborhood, the area retained its air of exclusivity. This is illustrated in a 1939 neighborhood scuffle in which a local judge moved two small, nondescript bungalows to Windsor Village, an “exclusive Wilshire neighborhood,” causing a “neighborhood indignation storm.” The houses, which were moved to West 8th Street, between Lucerne and Plymouth Blvds, no longer exist.

Theme: Deed Restrictions and Segregation

Like most residential tracts developed in the early half of the twentieth century, homeownership in Windsor Village was likely not available to all Los Angeles citizens. In addition to placing restrictions on the physical appearance of lots and home design, many developers and homeowners’ associations worked to place restrictions on who could purchase residences in certain neighborhoods. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis notes that, “Private restrictions, for example, normally included such provisions as minimum required costs for home construction, and exclusion of all non-Caucasians [and sometimes non-Christians as well] from occupancy, except as domestic servants.”

Racially restrictive covenants first began to appear in the years during and after World War I when large numbers of African Americans began to migrate to California in search of employment. White homeowners attempted at first to pass restrictive zoning ordinances that would keep their neighborhoods homogenous; although this was deemed unconstitutional, restrictive covenants offered a more discreet method of segregation. The covenants were essentially private contracts wherein buyers pledged not to sell their house to blacks as a condition of purchasing their home. Covenants differed from neighborhood to neighborhood; many also included exclusionary language in reference to Jews, Italians, Russians, Muslims, Latinos and Asians. Although restrictive covenants were not unique to Los Angeles (in fact, they occurred throughout the country), they were particularly rampant in the area due to the massive amount of development that occurred during the 1920s boom years—the heyday of restrictive covenants. According to Davis, “In this fashion, 95 per cent of the city’s housing stock in the 1920s was effectively put off limits to Blacks and Asians.”

It is interesting to note that Oxford Square was originally developed by a Jewish man, Emil Firth, who would likely have been restricted from certain neighborhoods himself at this time. The 1930 census indicates that every resident in Windsor Village was white, with the exception of a few housekeepers with Mexican surnames. Several residents on Victoria Avenue listed Yiddish as their primary language, so it is clear that the neighborhood was always open to Jewish residents. However, deed restrictions were implemented in the neighboring tracts of Country Club Park and it is very likely that Windsor Village had similar restrictions in the 1920s and throughout the prewar era.

Theme: Social Institutions and Movements

EbellThe 1920s saw the construction of grand, institutional buildings on Wilshire Boulevard within the Windsor Village project study area. The Wilshire United Methodist Church, located at 4350 Wilshire Boulevard, was constructed in 1924 by prominent local architects, Allison and Allison. This impressive Gothic edifice was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1973. One block west and only three years later, the Ebell Theater was constructed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style by noted Los Angeles architects Sumner P. Hunt and Silas Burns. Located at 4400 Wilshire Boulevard, the Ebell was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1982.

ruskinOff Wilshire and within the Windsor Village community, the Ruskin Art Club moved into the small Spanish Colonial Revival residence at 800 S. Plymouth Boulevard in the mid-1920s. Designed by architect Frank Meline in 1922, the building was originally constructed by the Congregational Church Extension Society as a Sunday School Room and Parish House for the nearby church (now Wilshire United Methodist). The Ruskin Art Club was established in 1888 by some of Los Angeles’s most prominent and socially-elevated women. Limited to a membership of 100 to maintain its exclusivity, club members held annual study programs and dedicated themselves “lovingly and earnestly to the study and democratic availability of art,” developing an extensive library and raising untold sums of money for museums, exhibitions, study programs and public art. The Club met in various locations throughout the City before settling into the clubhouse at 800 S. Plymouth in the mid-1920s; their selection of this location is indicative of the exclusivity of the neighborhood at the time.

Windsor Village’s proximity to the University of Southern California as well as its being home to such prominent institutions as the Ebell and the Ruskin Art Club made it a desirable place of residence for some of the City’s most socially active citizens and educators. Victoria Avenue, in fact, was at one point known as “Professor’s Row” for its high concentration of USC professors and their families. A quick search in the social pages of the historical Los Angeles Times indicates that many women in the neighborhood during the 1920s and 30s were active in a number of social committees and clubs, including not only in the Ebell and the Ruskin but also the Hollywood Opera Club, the Women’s Committee for the Philharmonic Orchestra, and many others.

RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE POST WORLD WAR II BOOM (1946-1962)

Theme: Transportation: The Automobile and Continued Residential Development

By 1945, Wilshire Boulevard was Los Angeles’s defining thoroughfare, lined with theaters, churches, department stores, theaters, hotels, and social institutions—all with plenty of surface parking for the mobile Angeleno. The boulevard defined the linear arrangement of Los Angeles and seemed to appropriately usher the City into the modern era; buildings were often designed to look like the products sold within them, signage loomed on both sides of the boulevard on nearly every block, and traffic jams were commonplace. However, the stretch of Wilshire that forms the northern boundary of Windsor Village remained relatively quiet in the 1940s and early 50s. With the exception of the Ebell Club and the Wilshire United Methodist Church, the boulevard was mostly undeveloped and lined with austere streetlamps. Sandwiched between Miracle Mile to the west and the dense, commercial district to the east of Western, the relative peacefulness of this part of the Wilshire District likely made it a desirable place of residence, and residential construction once again proliferated in the postwar era.

Although some postwar construction in Windsor Village entailed demolition and infill, there were still a number of vacant lots to be developed. The most drastic change in building character occurred in the northern part of the district, nearest to Wilshire Boulevard. Whereas the area north of Francis Avenue largely comprised single-family homes and small apartment buildings in a 1948 aerial, by 1954 the character of the neighborhood was already beginning to change. Approximately 40 new buildings were constructed in Windsor Village in the 1950s alone, most of which were multi-family dwellings north of Francis. Buildings constructed in this era differed from their late-1930s counterparts stylistically and in the way they filled the lots. The Revival styles popular in the pre-war era gave way to Modernism, and postwar apartment buildings in Windsor Village tended to fill their lots entirely, placing parking underground and courtyards at the center of buildings rather than in the front or back yards.

HHPark'76It was during this time that the Windsor Village of today largely took shape. With continued commercialization at its parameters in the postwar era, the neighborhood found logical boundaries in Wilshire, Crenshaw and Olympic. Fremont Place, which is a gated community, forms the western boundary. Additionally, in 1962 the trapezoidal-shaped piece of land between Francis, Lucerne, Windsor and West 9th Street was acquired by the City and converted into a neighborhood park. The three existing residences on the lots were demolished to make way for a large condominium development. Local residents, with the support of Councilman Harold A. Henry, fought the development and succeeded in turning the land into much-needed open space for local residents. The park, which was renamed from Windsor Park to Harold A. Henry Park in 1966, is now the centerpiece of the neighborhood.

The years following World War II brought about much social and demographic change to the Wilshire District. Restrictive covenants were deemed unconstitutional by the SupremeCourt in 1948; this, coupled with an influx of African American residents in the city looking for employment in wartime industries during World War II, caused the diversification of neighborhoods that were previously open to whites only. Neighborhoods in the Pico Heights and West Adams area saw an influx in African American residents as many of the wealthier white residents moved to upper-class developments in Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica. Windsor Village was part of this overall trend; today, it is among the most diverse neighborhoods in the City with large percentages of Asian, African American, Latin American, and Caucasian residents comprising its population.