A Landmark Park
Echo Park Lake was declared City of Los Angeles Cultural Historic Monument No. 836 on March 1, 2006. The Echo Park  Historical Society nominated the lake and the park grounds for landmark status. Click on the link below to download a copy of the monument application (in PDF format) with details about park history and significant buildings and landscape features.
 

Historic Landmark Application

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Echo Park Lake Monument Fund
The Echo Park Historical Society would like to thank the people who contributed to the Echo Park Lake Monument Fund. The fund was used to help defray the costs of hiring a consulant to research the lake's history and submit the application to the city.
Click here to view a list of supporters

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Echo Park Lake Walking Tour
In 2005, the Echo Park Historical Society launched a new walking tour to celebrate the 110th Anniversary of Echo Park Lake's opening to the public. The tours continue in 2006. Click here for a schedule of this and other walking tours.

More info on Echo Park Lake and other city parks
Historic Echo Park
Echo Park Lake
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The Historic Heart of Echo Park

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Undated photo courtesy of the Heritage Dept., International Church of the Foursquare Gospel

Echo Park Lake: The First Quarter Century
     Echo Park didn’t start out as a man-made lake. Instead, its earliest use by the city was as a reservoir, storing water in a section sometimes known as the city’s “West End.” In those years, the hills and canyons that were poised to become our neighborhood were thought of as the city’s west side.
     The Los Angeles Canal and Reservoir Co. formed Reservoir No. 4 in 1868. The company obtained the water by digging a ditch that sent water flowing from the Los Angeles River – in the area now known as Los Feliz – along a zigzag path that emptied into the reservoir.
     Los Angeles passed up on the chance to purchase the land around the lake. But by the late 1880s, Thomas Kelley – a carriage maker whose name was spelled with and without an “e” in various documents – purchased the property along with five other speculators.
     Kelley subdivided the area into the Montana Tract, listing its lots for sale in an 1887 edition of the Los Angeles Times. In those years, Angelino Heights had just gone through its first major development boom, with cable cars sending prospective buyers from downtown Los Angeles west on Temple Street.
     The notion of waterfront property must have sounded very appealing to the half-dozen businessmen who owned the lakeside property. But they soon discovered that the city still held the right to overflow the reservoir by up to 40 feet – an option that, if exercised, would have rendered their land worthless.
     In those years, Reservoir No. 4 was held in check by a dam in the vicinity of Bellevue Avenue. From there, water traveled down the Woolen Mill Ditch to a mill near present-day Fifth and Figueroa Streets, not far from where Kelley lived.
Kelley petitioned the city to provide a quitclaim, essentially a land swap, converting the reservoir lands into a park and private residences. That request, and quite possibly a legal challenge, led to three years of debate by the parks commission, the city council and the mayor.
     In 1891, the city’s health officer inspected the dam and determined that, if it were to hold a greater volume of water, would pose a danger to residents who lived south of Bellevue Avenue.
     “The existence of this reservoir at its present site I consider a menace to the life of everyone living along the Arroyo de los Reyes,” according to his statement in the council’s minutes. “I have seen this reservoir so full during the rainy season that I feared the bank would give way.”
     Two months later, city leaders struck a deal with the men who owned the land around the reservoir. Kelley and his associates – including William LeMoyne Wills, who like Kelley, would later serve on the school board – gave up 33 acres of land around the reservoir so that it could be used as a park.
     In exchange, the city agreed not to overflow the reservoir land, making the remaining land held by Kelley and his associates – including the street that would soon become Sunset Boulevard – far more valuable.
     When Mayor Henry Hazard signed the paperwork in 1891 allowing the park to be created, he envisioned a grand boulevard on Alvarado Street that would transport residents from Westlake – now MacArthur Park – to Echo Park Lake and then northeast to Elysian Park.
     “(O)pen a good drive into this park on a continuation of Alvarado Street passing Reservoir No. 4 which should be ornamented and few cities would have as fine a drive or one containing a greater variety of scenery,” said Hazard, in his message to the council.
     The city began work landscaping the park in October 1892. By 1895, the park and accompanying boathouse were completed.
      But it didn’t exactly win rave reviews in a Times article published on Jan. 1, 1896, which said:
     “There has perhaps been less talk, newspaper and other, about his park than about any other, and it does not seem, thus far in its existence, that it were worthy of much."
   Designed in the rustic style, one bridge helped pedestrians reach the island, while a second passed over the lake’s northwest corner, where the ditch delivered water from the Los Angeles River (and lotus now grow).
     By 1899, city leaders were intent on adding even more green space, by extending the parkland south to Temple Street. Bounded by Temple on the south and Bellevue on the north, the area was completed by 1907, with an extensive network of playing fields and courts for tennis and croquet.
     One year later, the Echo Playground had a beautiful one-story clubhouse that served many of the neighborhood’s needs. Built by the same firm that went on to design the Southwest Museum in Mt. Washington, the clubhouse was only the city’s second recreation center, offering the neighborhood’s first lending library and numerous sports, music and civic activities.
     Still, Echo Park residents remained unsatisfied. By 1912, there were already calls to replace the Victorian-style boathouse. One resident complained about the peanut shells that littered the park grounds. Another voiced outrage at the site of couples “spooning.”
     Things got worse by late 19-teens. By then, motion picture companies on Allesandro Street – now Glendale Boulevard – had been using the park as a filming location. City leaders responded by barring Keystone Studios, home of the Keystone Kops, from shooting any of its comedies at the lake, on the grounds that too many flowers were being trampled.
     By 1920, many of the hills surrounding the lake were still untouched. Farm houses lined the northern edge of the lake, while four-unit, Craftsman-style apartment flats ran up Echo Park Avenue and Alvarado Street. Kelley died in 1906, the same year he built a house for his sister at 1467 Echo Park Ave.
     Within a few years, Kelley’s heirs had sold off much of his land to Henry Christian Jensen, who built the Sunset Pharmacy at Sunset and Echo Park and the motion picture house known as the Globe Theater – now Guadalupana – at 1624 Sunset Boulevard.
     Still, the biggest development boom in Echo Park’s history – one that would have serious consequences for the lake -- was just a year or two away. Those changes would make the lake even more of a hub for the neighborhood.

Echo Park Lake, 1920 to 1945

        Echo Park Lake had become a citywide attraction by 1920, perhaps not as large as Westlake or Hollenbeck Park, but a lovely setting nonetheless. It was also poised to become the site of a major transformation, with the coming decade delivering the biggest economic boom the Los Angeles had ever seen.

        The 1920s brought a new wave of development to the neighborhood and the surrounding city, with Spanish-style cottages and apartments coming into vogue. The much more romantic style, prompted in part by servicemen who had seen Europe during World War I, brought an end to the Craftsman, or Arts and Crafts, architectural style.

        Where there had been farmhouses or vacant lots, builders added Spanish-style courtyards and apartments with arched windows and red-tile roofs around the lake. The structures graced Logan Street, Laguna Avenue and Glendale Boulevard -- or ran up the steep hills of Echo Park Avenue.

The boom did not stop there. On Sunset Boulevard, just one block north of the lake, Henry Christian Jensen opened the Jensen’s Recreation Center, which combined a billiard hall with bowling and shopping – and featured a whimsical rooftop sign comprised of 1,300 light bulbs. That attraction, which opened in 1924, was joined by a series of new brick storefronts that gave Echo Park a bona fide shopping district one block from its lake.

        Meanwhile, just south of the lake, the city of Los Angeles added a new recreation center in 1925, one designed by Allied Architects, which also built the County-USC Medical Center in Lincoln Heights. On the same playground, the city built a Spanish-style library on Echo Playground in 1928, one with an indoor fireplace where librarians held storytime for younger children.

        The biggest attraction of all was Angelus Temple, which opened in 1923. Founded by Aimee Semple McPherson, a pioneering evangelist who became a celebrity in her own right, the 5,400-seat Angelus Temple was an instant hit with the public, drawing crowds to the lake and listeners to Sister Aimee’s radio program, which broadcast on KFSG – “Kall Foursquare Gospel.”

        With the stock market crash of 1929, the boom period quickly drew to a close. (Despite the initial financial shock, it took three years before Mack Sennett, who had launched numerous silent comedies from his studio on Glendale Boulevard, lost his financial empire.)

        While the federal government floundered, Angelus Temple provided much-needed relief. Anthony Oaxaca Quinn, who went on to star in “Zorba the Greek” and many other films, credited Sister Aimee with keeping his family fed. The city offered its own response, embarking on a series of public works that would provide much-needed jobs.
   The projects included a new boathouse in Echo Park Lake to replace the 1896 structure that stood on the lake’s eastern edge, as well as a statue that was added to the peninsula in 1934.
        Originally titled “La Reina de Los Angeles,” or Queen of the Angeles, the statue eventually became known as the Lady of the Lake. Designed by Ada May Sharpless, the statue featured a series of reliefs of important city icons, including the Hollywood Bowl, the Central Library, the Los Angeles Harbor and the San Gabriel Mountains. The boathouse opened in 1932, designed in – what else? – a Spanish motif with red-tile roof, arched doorways and a lighthouse with a working beacon.

Echo Park, 1945 to 1980

     The middle of the 20th century ushered in a period of decline for Echo Park Lake, the community park that had captivated Angelenos with its quaint boathouse, charming footbridge and beautiful Lotus bed.  By the end of World War II it was an established venue for weekend picnics, leisurely lakeside strolls and even a toy boat regattas for children.

      Few events symbolized the change in the park’s fortunes than construction of the Hollywood (101) Freeway between 1944 and 1950, which was rammed through the center of the adjacent Echo Playground, a trapezoid-shaped block extending from Temple Stret north to the Lake, eliminating the homes of scores of residents who once had been within walking distance of the lake.

      Until then, Echo Playground had offered a fountain, two basketball courts, two croquet fields, two tennis courts, a sports field, outdoor gymnasium and walking path surrounded by grassy areas. In the freeway’s wake, the remaining playround space was reconfigured to provide tennis courts, a baseball field and one basketball court wedged against the freeway.

      Although the offramp to Echo Park Avenue allowed cars a new route to the lake, other means of reaching the park disappeared.  The Pacific Electric Red Car that ran up Glendale Boulevard along Echo Park Lake served its last passenger in 1955.  Another  trolley line on nearby Sunset Boulevard had been discontinued two years earlier – replaced by a bus route known in those days as a “Motor Coach.”

     Some of the charming, small-scale housing that had stood within walking distance of the lake began to fall. A bungalow court facing the lake on Lemoyne Street -- designed in 1913 by renowned architect Irving Gill -- was razed in 1957 and replaced by two stucco boxes with tiny slat windows.  Homes were also demolished up the street on Logan and Lemoyne to make way for municipal parking lots.

     Another neighborhood icon that disappeared was the unusual domed structure  that had once housed the American Institute of Mentalism, a Mission-style complex that sat on Clinton Street above the lake.  An even bigger blow came in 1971, when the Sylmar earthquake significantly damaged the Echo Park Public Library, one of the few attractions left on the playground eviscerated by the 101 Freeway.

     The 1928 Spanish-style library had featured arched doorways, red-tiled roof and a fireplace where children attended story time.  It was demolished  by the city in 1974.

     As the decades passed, Echo Park Lake attracted a greater number of working-class immigrant families, many of whom had moved to the neighborhood after  leaving Mexico, Central America or other far-off parts of the globe.   Those families were drawn to the greenspace surrounding the lake’s beauty, boats and walking paths

     Still, city leaders did not provide a commensurate level of police services to patrol the park, as the surrounding neighborhood found itself coping with increased violence from street gangs.  Although gangs had been a presence in the neighborhood as early as the 1950s, they were concentrated in much larger numbers and made their mark with graffiti on nearby homes, staircases and park buildings.

     The Los Angeles Times encapsulated the change in mood with a 1971 article titled “Which Way for Echo Park – Inner City Oasis or Slum?”  That story described , among other things, the fatal stabbing of a youth on the Glendale Boulevard, underneath the 101 Freeway overpass, just a few yards from the lake.

Echo Park Lake, 1980 to 2006: A Renewal Begins

      As it neared the end of its first century, Echo Park Lake had become a victim of urban neglect.  The Spanish-style boathouse no longer had a red-tiled roof or a beacon burning in its lighthouse.  St. Athanasius, the shingled 1890 church across the street, was demolished and replaced by a massive Episcopal headquarters and hulking parking garage.

      And in particularly symbolic moment, city officials ripped out a graffiti scarred Lady of the Lake, a 1934 Art Deco statue, and placed it in a crate in its maintenance yard.

      Yet efforts also began to highlight the beauty of the park, such as the Lotus Festival, an annual event that began in 1970s and attracted Angelenos from across the region.

      In the early 1980s, just a few blocks from the park, a hardy band of activists in Angelino Heights won approval of a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone – the first in Los Angeles – to provide protections for its many Victorian and Crafstman-era homes.  And by 1995, the park’s 100-year anniversary, a handful of other civic groups had stepped forward to focus on Echo Park needs, from public safety and street trees to youth activities and protection of green space.

      In the early 1980s, just a few blocks from the park, a hardy band of activists in Angelino Heights won approval of a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone – the first in Los Angeles – to provide protections for its many Victorian and Crafstman-era homes.  And by 1995, the park’s 100-year anniversary, a handful of other civic groups had stepped forward to focus on Echo Park needs, from public safety and street trees to youth activities and protection of green space.

      One of those groups was the Echo Park Historical Society, which formed the year of the lake’s anniversary and made the protection of historic architecture and natural spaces part of its core mission.  But there were others, a mix of newcomers to Echo Park and seasoned veterans who, with the EPHS, advocated for the relighting of the Jensen’s Recreation Center sign, one block north of the lake, and the restoration of  the Lady of the Lake.

      The statue did finally return in 1999, finding a new home next to the boathouse, with particularly vocal advocacy coming from Echo Park resident Suzanne Kimbrough.   The neighborhood rallied to fight off proposals that would have diminished the park, including one for a concrete plaza and 80-foot wall to surround the bust  of Jose Marti, the renowned Cuban poet.

      The frequent threat to green space in Echo Park and elsewhere prompted neighborhood activist Isa Kae Meksin, to call for the park to be added to the city’s Historic Cultural Monument registry.  That proposal, which would require changes to the park to receive extensive public review, was taken up by the EPHS in 2005 and funded by dozens of generous contributors who view the park as a neighborhood treasure.

     The Cultural Heritage Commission approved the nomination in December.  The plan is opposed, however, by the Recreation and Parks Department and still must go before the Los Angeles City Council.

     Meanwhile, the EPHS has worked with city officials to relight the lighthouse, and an array of city and federal elected officials – from U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra to City Councilman Eric Garcetti -- have been working to identify the money to give the full boathouse a proper restoration.

      Still, much, much more needs to be done.   The lake’s landscaping, walking paths and water quality will be an urgent focus in coming years.  The park needs help to cope with the various urban ills.  But as a new century is under way, the prospects for the iconic Echo Park look better than they have in a generation.

This series on the History of Echo Park Lake appeared in the quarterly issues of the EPHS News during 2005.

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