Historic Echo Park
Historic Overview
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Looking south at intersection of Echo Park and Morton avenues c.1905. Courtesy Mike Balmer.
The Presence of the Past
     At the end of the 19th century,  a horse-drawn trolley rambled up a dirt road that is now Echo Park Avenue, which lead into hills covered with  "luxuriant" fields of native grasses and "scores of varieties of beautiful wild flowers." The small farms and ranches that dotted the hills and canyons of Echo Park, and its sister neighborhoods of Elysian Heights and Angelino Heights, eventually gave way to Victorian mansions, Craftsman bungalows, Spanish Colonial style homes and brick storefronts. By the Great Depression of the 1930s, there were few empty lots to build upon. Echo Park may have changed dramatically over the past century, but it has managed to retain  the historic character and strong sense of identity that sets it apart in a modern and sprawling metropolis.
Our Founder
     If one person could be said to be the founder of Echo Park (1892), Thomas Kelley would come close. In the late 1880s, the carriage maker turned real estate developer teamed up with other investors to purchase about 70 acres that included Reservoir No. 4—what is now Echo Park Lake.  Kelley and his business partners sold off pieces of what they called the Montana Tract to individuals who built the business district along Sunset Boulevard and the densely packed homes and apartments that surround Echo Park Lake.

Echoes of the Past: Legend says the lake got its name after workers building the original reservoir said their voices echoed off the canyon walls.

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Boathouse lighthouse shines again.

An Urban Oasis

     Echo Park Lake, featured in countless photographs, movies, murals and postcards, is the historic heart of the neighborhood and is ringed by  several landmarks:

 

    The Art Deco-style Lady of the Lake statue (1934) located near the boathouse was designed by artist Ada Mae Sharpless.  In 1999, after more than a decade in storage, the statue was restored and returned to the parkThe giant pink flowers that emerge every summer from the Lotus Bed have dazzled park goers for more than 70 years. Who planted the lotus in the northwest corner of the lake remains a mystery…On the southern edge of the park, the Spanish Colonial style Bellevue Recreation Center designed by Allied Architects, the same firm responsible for County USC Medical Center, opened in 1925…A boathouse  has operated at the lake since 1896, with the first structures built in the Victorian style.  The current Spanish-Colonial style boathouse was built in 1932.

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Fremont Monument in Elysian Park
 The city’s second largest park (at 575 acres) is also one of the oldest, having been dedicated in 1886. Landmarks dot Elysian Park's steep hillsides and narrow canyons, including Southern California’s first botanical garden ( 1893) and the Los Angeles Police Academy. Barlow Hospital (1902), one of the area’s oldest continuously operating medical facilities, and  Dodger Stadium (1962) sit on the park’s southern boundary.
       Located in the hills east of Echo Park Lake,  this pocket of Victorian-era Los Angeles was one of the city’s first suburban developments when it was founded in the mid 1880s by William W. Stilson and Everett E. Hall. Stilson’s wife, Mary Elizabeth, and her sons kept the development going after his untimely death in 1888, shortly after the first homes were built. The multicolored Victorians on Carroll Avenuemany featured in television shows and movies—are the stars of the neighborhood. But Angelino Heights also boasts an impressive array of architectural styles, including Mission Revival, Craftsman and  Streamline Moderne.

Elysian Heights

      The wooded hillsides make the northern edge of the neighborhood feel like an extension of Elysian Park. Early automakers tested their newest models on Baxter and Fargo streets to prove they could climb some of the city’s steepest streets. The remote and rustic atmosphere made these hills popular with those seeking seclusion, including free thinking members of the Semi Tropic Spiritualists Association., whose midnight dances, seances and readings by “spirit mediums” attracted large crowds as well as  ire of neighbors and city officials.

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Paul Landacre
Artists in Residence
      Echo Park has long nurtured a creative spirit. Not surprisingly, many artists, such as director John Huston and ‘70s rock superstar Jackson Browne, worked in the entertainment business. Childrens book author Leo Politi lived in Victorian era Angelino Heights and Carey McWilliams, who chronicled the struggles of the state’s working class during the Depression, resided in a hilltop home on Alvarado. Chicano painter Carlos Almaraz captured vivid images of the view of Echo Park Lake from his apartment window. During the 1920s, bookseller and art dealer Jake Zeitlin was the center of cluster of Modernist artists, including Elysian Heights neighbor Paul Landacre, a famed wood engraver. Nearby, one of Los Angeles’ most influential modernist architects, Harwell Hamilton Harris, lived in a tiny house of his own design that can be reached only on foot. Musicians, from opera singer Mariyln Horn to jazz great Art Pepper, were also at home here.
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Step This Way

      More than two dozen public stairways cross the hillsides of Echo Park, concrete reminders of a neighborhood designed before the automobile came to the dominate the landscape and culture of Los Angeles.   Many are modest links that connected hill dwellers with the streetcars below. But some, including the Laveta Terrace  Baxter and Clinton Stairs, are impressive and stylish public landmarks that reward those who climb them with stunning views.  In fact, at more than 230 steps, the Baxter Steps are perhaps the tallest in the city.

Red Gulch

     A large population of Socialists, Communists and other progressives earned Echo Park the nickname Red Gulch (or Red Hill) during the middle of the 20th Century.  A large contingent of “Red Diaper babies,” the children of progressive parents, attended Elysian Heights Elementary School. The McCarthy era of the 1950s took a heavy toll on local residents, with many  losing their jobs or being blacklisted.

Spanish is Spoken Here: But so is Chinese, Italian, French and English (of course). Echo Park has long served as gateway to immigrants. An Italian family, the Angonas, crushed grapes at a winery just north of Sunset Boulevard. Swedes ran the Elysian Heights Improvement Assn. more than 100 years ago. The city’s first Jewish cemetery was created near what is now Dodger Stadium

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Echo Park Ave. car.

Riding the Rails
      Street car lines helped make Echo Park a viable community by connecting it to central Los Angeles and other nearby towns. A cable line opened on Temple Street in 1886, putting Angelino Heights within commuting distance of downtown Los Angeles.  Three years later, a horse drawn line started on Echo Park Avenue. The sounds of clattering trains were replaced by roaring buses by the 1950s.

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Sister Aimee's home: The Parsonage

Sister Aimee
      Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson emerged as the nation’s first religious media star during the 1920s by broadcasting her sermons on the radio to millions of listeners.  She was the star of flamboyant  religious services that filled her  5,500-seat church, Angelus Temple (1923),  which rises across the street from Echo Park Lake. Her celebrity status earned her a line in the song “Hooray for Hollywood.”

Jensen’s Recreation Center

     Towering walls of red brick and terra cotta tile and a roof top sign blazing with more than 1,300 colored light bulbs have made Jensen's a neighborhood landmark since it opened in 1924 in the heart of the Sunset Boulevard business district. The sign depicts a man bowling a strike, a reminder of the former bowling alley that used to operate in the basement. The Italian Romanesque structure, which includes stores and apartments,  is a city cultural historic monument

Film History
      In 1909, years before Hollywood became the movie capital,  the first of a string of  silent film studios began operating along what is now Glendale Boulevard in a part of Echo Park then known as Edendale.  Early movie stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson and the Keystone Kops performed before the cameras in converted cottages and barns. Edendale’s most prominent movie company,  Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios,  now a storage building on Glendale Boulevard, is a Los Angeles historic monument

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Mack Sennet's Keystone Studios

The Oil District

      The area south of Temple Street was home to the state’s first major oil field, where as many as 500 wells were in operation by the mid 1890s. The first gusher was struck in 1892 near the corner of present day Colton Street and Glendale Boulevard by Edward L. Doheny, who used the trunk of a eucalyptus tree as a drill. Many residents were less than thrilled with this new industry that literally sprang up in their backyards. "Here the hundreds of greasy derricks and puffing engines in the heart of a residence section form a unique and not altogether attractive sight, “ according to the Los Angeles Times in 1897.

Echo Park Historical Society        ephs@HistoricEchoPark.org        (323) 860-8874        P.O. Box 261039, Los Angeles, CA 90026