Issue: Issue Winter 2006/2007
Hollywood's Forgotten Past
I had always wondered about the house at the corner of Wilcox and Fountain. For the past several years, it was vacant with numerous “For Sale” signs dotting the perimeter. With Hollywood’s successful renaissance, the large plot would definitely be a prime building site; except for the old house sitting catty corner definitely had a story to tell.
As a native Angelino, I knew little of our city’s history past the mission days and even less about Hollywood before the movies. There were interesting old photographs, the Victorian era Janes House that had once sat right on Hollywood Blvd. And, there were the street names: De Longpre, Hudson, Wilcox, Waring that I knew were the same as the early settlers of this area. I’d heard of Daeda Wilcox and the legend of how Hollywood got its name but so much history had been eclipsed by the chance arrival of filmmakers Griffith, Lasky and DeMille.
My idea of our first settlers was vague at best. Photos of fields and groves brought to mind ranchers and farmers eking out a living from the land. It was not until I began searching for the builders of that mysterious house on Wilcox that my quest began to reveal those idyllic decades of Hollywood’s history that are now only a faded memory.
The house, known as Orchard Gables, was part of a 500 acre parcel owned by Cornelius and Olive Cole since the close of the Civil War. Rancho La Brea, an immense Spanish land grant, had been acquired by Major Henry Hancock. Ten years later the title was involved in litigation. Cole, representing Hancock carried the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court clearing title for his client. Following the successful outcome of a long fight, Hancock deeded and undivided one tenth interest of Ranch La Brea to Cornelius Cole as a fee for his services.
Cornelius Cole came to California in February 1849 once of the first to make the overland trek to the gold fields. He had just graduated from Wesleyan University, the son of a prominent Connecticut family. Contrary to what one might think about the 49ers, among them were men such as Cole for whom the call to adventure was irresistible. Although he was successful at mining, he sold his stake in a mine which would become one of the highest gold producers in the region deciding that practicing law was much less backbreaking. It was not long before he counted Stanford, Hopkins, Crocker and Huntington among his clients assisting in the formation of what would eventually become their vast railroad empires.
With such friends and resources, in the 50’s, Cole was elected District Attorney of Sacramento. In 1861, he was elected to the House of Representatives. A founder of the Republican Party in California and an abolitionist, his success in the political arena was as noteworthy in an area where many held the opposite view about slavery. His tenure in the legislature would be notable for his role in not only keeping the Western States in the Union, but as being the instigator responsible for what was known as “Seward’s Folly,” the Alaska purchase.
A confidant of President Lincoln, he was on the dais at the Gettysburg Address and had visited with him the morning of the president’s assassination, chatting as they often did about the wonders of California. Cole would remain in Washington to cast a vote in the Andrew Johnson impeachment, but would loose his re-election bid when he chose the side of the people against the interests of his political support – the railroads. Following an illustrious term in the Senate, Cole came to Los Angeles, and settled.
Loss of his Senate seat was Los Angeles’ gain. Cole, his gracious wife, Olive, and family left their comfortable home in San Francisco for their 500 acre ranch and formed the town of Colegrove, just to the South of Wilcox’s Hollywood. Bounded by Sunset (named by Cole) on the North, to Melrose at its South, Seward (his son) on the West and Gower on the East, Colegrove would have the first post office in what was then known as the Cahuenga Valley. The family ran the Lemon Grange and was instrumental in introducing lemon growing in the valley.
He wrote “I am astonished at the beauty and rapid growth of the pueblo of Los Angeles. The variety, abundance and perfection of its fruits, the great acreage of what and barley, the immense vineyards and the attractive homes fill me with wonder. All the southern half of California is now much excited over the certainty of having within a short time railroad connection with the Atlantic states. That achievement will result in a rush for homes in this Garden of Eden, quite comparable to the Gold Rush of ’49.”
The Coles, Wilcoxes, and most of the first residents of the valley weren’t “pioneers” in the classic sense. Mostly well bred and educated in the East, these men and women brought a love of culture and refinement to the fertile valley. They build large, beautiful homes and welcomed visitors from around the world to their orchards and gardens. Noted artist, Paul DeLongpre, was among Hollywood’s first tourist attractions as was the well respected Senator Cole. Recognized as a philosopher and sage, he was the most prominent and influential of its citizens. Cole, who by then was known as the “Grand Old Man of California,” died in his home in Hollywood in 1924 at the age of 103.
Today, only a few remnants of this halcyon past remain, but a visit to such historic sites such as the Janes House (now the Memphis Restaurant), the 1905 Mission Revival home (now the American Society of Cinematographers on Orange) or the former Rollin B. Lane chateau (now the Magic Castle) and the names of our various streets, Cole, Wiloughby, DeLongpre, Vine and Wilcox remind us of our town’s first residents whose love of the land and this place called Hollywood is part of our rich heritage.
The search for the origins of that old house had revealed a past and a rich heritage relatively unknown. I did learn that in 1904 Cole deeded the 10-acre property to Paul Holman, son of William S. Holman, a Congressman from Indiana who was a member of the U.S. Congress at the same time he was there. Although surrounding land belonged to the Cole family, the only record of the Holmans is on deeds when it was sold in 1913. By that time, Colegrove had been annexed into Hollywood and Hollywood had become part of the City of Los Angeles.
Even in those early years, the seeds of the future development were sown. Cornelius Cole knew the power of the railroad and began subdividing his land in the early part of the century anticipating major growth. He lived to see the rise of another powerful industry, one that would also change the world and how we see it.
Note: Many of Cornelius Cole’s descendants still live in Los Angeles and his papers recording his remarkable life are in the UCLA archives. I’m grateful to his great-granddaughter, Barbara Osthaus for sharing her family photo album.
Picture 1: Senator Cole appeared as himself in a 1923 movie about Abraham Lincoln. This photo from the Cole family photo album captures that historic moment. Cornelius and Olive Cole's son, George Townsend Cole, a well known artist of the day was an early set designer. Whether this set was his design is unknown.
*On May 11th, the Cultural Heritage Commission voted to take the property at 1277 N. Wilcox under consideration for historic designation for its European arts and craft architecture.