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From a Desert to a Sea of Suburbia

Born of a city's need for water, the Valley evolved from farmland to an American dream, emerging at century's end as an urban melting pot.


Magnolia Park, established on Burbank's western edge, had 3,500 houses within six years. When the city refused to pay for a street connecting the subdivision with the Cahuenga Pass, developer Earl L. White did it himself and called it Hollywood Way.

Industry drove the development of Burbank. First National Pictures (later Warner Bros.) bought a 78-acre site in 1926. Brothers Allan and Malcolm Loughead, founders of the Lockheed aircraft company, opened a manufacturing plant in 1928, and a year later famed aviation designer Jack Northrop built his historic Flying Wing airplane in his own plant nearby.

The Valley's first commercial airport, Grand Central Air Terminal, opened in Glendale in 1929. Metropolitan Airport, later Van Nuys Airport, opened in 1928. Nearby, Amelia Earhart built one of the first lakeside homes in a subdivision carved from the Toluca Ranch.

Lankershim also grew, partly due to its proximity to Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. In 1927, a commercial developer bought a 200-acre section of the town for filmmaking and called it Studio City. That same year, Lankershim borrowed the name of its famous neighbor and became North Hollywood.

Author Edgar Rice Burroughs bought 540 acres in the West Valley in 1919 and called it Tarzana Ranch after his most famous character. By 1924 he was ready to jump on the subdivision bandwagon. "Formerly we were way out in the country," he wrote in a letter, "while now everything is rapidly moving in our direction."

Farther west, Victor Girard arrived at what later became the intersection of Ventura and Topanga Canyon boulevards, and envisioned a town graced by Oriental-style buildings. He bought 3,000 acres and built a land office resembling a mosque. He put up false fronts of other exotic buildings, making his new town, named for himself, look like a giant stage set.

1930-1939 / Depression Downturn

The Depression slowed development to near standstill, but farming on irrigated land thrived in the north Valley. Dusty landscapes became crop fields and orchards. A billboard proclaimed that the Valley had a population of 1 million--white Leghorn chickens.

Farm workers from the Midwest poured into California, fighting for jobs in the Valley, where wages for laborers were an average $2 a day, compared with $1.26 nationally. Shantytowns arose along railroad tracks.

The movie business continued to thrive. Warner Bros. bought an additional 80 acres in 1936 and Walt Disney Productions moved to Burbank in 1938. Movie stars and executives bought large lots--Barbara Stanwyck and Zeppo Marx raised horses in Northridge and Harry Warner moved onto a section of the West Valley later called Warner Ridge. Al Jolson became honorary mayor of Encino.

Real estate began to bounce back mid-decade. In Burbank, a 100-home construction project began in 1934. By 1936, property values in the city exceeded pre-Depression levels.

Other ventures, including the dream that was Girard, foundered.

In another aviation milestone, United Airport (eventually called Burbank Airport) opened in 1930.

1940-49 / Boomtown

World War II forever wiped out the Valley's image as an agricultural center.

Even before the war, Lockheed doubled in size to produce the airplane that became the workhorse of the Allied air campaign--the P-38 Lightning.

In March 1941, Lockheed and nearby airplane manufacturer Vega (they merged in 1942) had a combined work force of 25,800, more than any aviation employer in the country. By October, that work force had doubled.

But the "stucco spread" of new homes couldn't keep up with new arrivals. In North Hollywood, huge eucalyptus trees planted in the 1870s were cleared to make way for offices and factories.

Some Valley outposts were still too remote for development. In Girard, where lots sold for as little as $200, residents changed the community name to Woodland Hills.

A few months after the Pearl Harbor bombing, 3,000 Japanese living in the Valley were ordered to internment camps. The farms many of them had operated were turned over to the federal government.

The 1943 Gordon Jenkins song "San Fernando Valley," first recorded by Roy Rogers and made a hit by Bing Crosby, included a line about "cow country." But RFD postal routes were rapidly disappearing. Industry jobs, made plentiful by the war, paid better than farm work.

By 1944, Lockheed had 94,000 workers in Burbank--nearly half of them women. Smaller defense industries dotted North Hollywood, and military clothing was made in San Fernando.

Lockheed bought Union Air Terminal. During the war years it became the nation's busiest airport, even though it was covered by acres of netting and topped with fake houses and trees for wartime camouflage.

Within two years of the war's end, Lockheed employment had fallen to 20,000, but the momentum of the Valley couldn't be restrained. Explosive growth was occurring in what was to become the Valley's most famous attribute: single-family homes.

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