In July, 1922, the oak trees of Temescal Canyon shaded the first of the yearly Chautauquas sponsored by the Methodist founders of Pacific Palisades. The two-week gathering, based on a lecture movement that originated in Chautauqua, N.Y., mixed religious exhortation, educational seminars and cultural performances.
In a campground spread over more than 200 acres, the participants moved from activity to activity: gospel singing and hymnology, a lecture on Latin American affairs, a concert by the great contralto, Madame Schumann-Heinck.
The last Chautauqua was in 1933. And ever since, the fate of Temescal Canyon has been a source of controversy in the Palisades, where various civic groups have fought to preserve as much of the Chautauqua flavor as possible.
"After all, that canyon is the cradle of the Palisades," said Ronald Dean, president of the Pacific Palisades Residents Assn., which represents 1,700 families.
Now the owners of more than 160 still-rustic acres above Sunset are planning to make changes. Some of those proposals are drawing criticism.
The Presbyterian Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, which represents 285 churches, is seeking city and state permission to expand the capacity of its conference center from 135 to 500 overnight guests. The synod wants to tear down some of its oldest buildings, dating back to the Chautauqua days, and build new structures, as well as adding hookups for recreational vehicles. The development would be concentrated on 15 of its 147.6 acres.
The Palisades-Malibu YMCA is negotiating to buy three acres from the synod for a new facility to replace its cramped headquarters in the Palisades village center.
A third project, development of a 20-acre park by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, has not generated vocal opposition. But some community leaders believe the park may not be able to serve its intended purpose as a gateway from the urban environment to the wilds of the Santa Monica Mountains if the Presbyterians and the YMCA proceed with their plans.
Hikers who begin on the conservancy's trail would still have to cross the Presbyterian property to reach trails in Topanga or Will Rogers state parks, which link up with a vast Santa Monica Mountains network of walkways.
'Much Too Large'
The conservancy and the 450-member Temescal Canyon Assn., which includes neighbors and hikers, have expressed concern that the proposed construction would lessen the natural atmosphere along the trail. "We feel it's much too large," said Philip Leacock, president of the canyon association.
Despite the synod's assurances that the public would continue to have access to two marked trails on the conference grounds, there is fear that outsiders may someday be cut off.
Below Sunset, the canyon already has irrevocably changed. Community groups lobbied the city throughout the 1930s and 1940s to buy and preserve the lower 80 acres, but their efforts were in vain. The property was sold by one movie director to another for use as a private residence.
Today, Temescal Canyon Road cuts a wide asphalt swath from Pacific Coast Highway to Sunset, bordered by a city park with picnic tables on green lawns that gives way to homes, a theater under construction and Palisades High School, which opened in 1961.
"That was the exquisite part of the property," said Thomas R. Young, curator of the Pacific Palisades Historical Society.
Flanked by Trees
But above Sunset, there is still a trail and it is still flanked by oaks, sycamores and willows. The mountains conservancy expects to finish its park, with additional short trails, parking spaces and restrooms, in 1987, according to Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston.
The conservancy trails will connect with the main trail, which begins as an asphalt path near the Palisades' first permanent structures, a meat
market and grocery store that now serve as the Presbyterian conference center's office and cafeteria. The trail runs past stretches of lawn and small stucco Chautauqua cabins with Spanish tile roofs that are grouped among the trees.
Throngs of outsiders pass through on their way to Topanga and Will Rogers. Each month, between 500 and 1,000 hikers sign the campground register to gain entry to the Presbyterian property, synod consultant Ann Krueger said.
Neighbors have won battles to keep out a junior high or alternative school, and even a miniature golf course, in the days when the Los Angeles Unified School District owned the land now destined for the conservancy park. They watched the threat of a housing tract fade away five years ago when a developer backed out of a deal to buy part of the synod's land.
Compared with those possibilities, synod officials believed their decision to keep most of the property open and continue using it as a conference center would be accepted easily by the neighbors.
"We have been surprised at some of the criticisms," said Dr. Ray Heer, the synod's associate executive for conference programs and management.