Issue: Issue Spring 2010

Whitley Heights

By: DH
Traveling along Franklin Avenue, the east/west thoroughfare north of Hollywood Blvd., you might not notice the most historic enclave of 1920s residences from the Golden Era of silent films and speakeasies, aka The Roaring Twenties, rising above Franklin Avenue. And roar they did in those days of high living, laughter and a new industry that seemed to have no bounds. Ethel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, Carole Lombard, Rudolph Valentino and many others lived and held legendary parties that marked an era and the early Hollywood film industry.

The First Family of Hollywood: H.J. Whitley, his wife Virginia and their two children. This photograph dates from the 1880s.

Named for the developer Howard Johnston “H.J.” Whitley, Whitley Heights was considered his crowning achievement. He had employed architect A.A. Barnes to create a Mediterranean village and to ensure its authenticity sent him on a tour to study the architecture and landscaping of Spain and Italy. The beauty and seclusion of Whitley Heights’ architecture and terrain quickly made it the most desired residential area of the Hollywood elite of the day. Fashionable Hollywood Boulevard with its shops, restaurants and nightlife lay at their feet. The studios that employed them were also just a brief automobile trip away. Paramount, Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros were a few miles away.

While the names of filmdom’s past and the lifestyle they enjoyed are scintillating indeed, the story of H. J. Whitley is a story in its own right. Born in Toronto, Canada in 1847, Whitley moved to Chicago where he founded a number of enterprises including a hardware store and a candy store. He became interested in land development and was elected to the board of the Chicago Rock Island Railroad. During the westward construction of frontier railroads from the late 1870s to the early 1890s, he founded scores of towns in the Oklahoma Territory, Dakotas, Texas and California. It is estimated that he founded over 140 towns in his lifetime. In each town, he built a bank and a hotel, schools, churches, parks and other civic improvements followed.

In the Jazz Age, life was a party, and Whitley Heights was Party Central for the Hollywood set.

In the mid 1880s, HJ arrived in Southern California. He was well known as a land developer and many tried to follow on his coattails. As president and major share holder of the Los Angeles Pacific Boulevard and Development Company, he orchestrated the building of the Hollywood Hotel, and construction of a bank which were located on the corners of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland. According to Margaret Virginia “Gigi” Whitley's memoir, her husband, H.J., known as the "Father of Hollywood," coined the Hollywood name while on their honeymoon in 1886. The story goes that the name caught on and was documented by H. H. Wilcox when he subdivided his 160 acre farm in 1887 and registered it as the Hollywood Tract. However, historians credit Wilcox's wife, Daeida, for the naming.

Whitley did not limit his land holdings to Hollywood. From the moment Whitley saw the San Fernando Valley, he was engaged in another venture. By 1909 Whitley had pulled together a group of the most powerful men in Los Angeles.  They purchased a 47,500 acre ranch for $2,500,000 from wheat magnate Isaac Newton Van Nuys that comprised nearly the entire southern half of the San Fernando Valley. From this land, he built the towns of Van Nuys, Reseda (formerly Marian) and Canoga Park (formerly Owensmouth).

But it was the beauty of Hollywood that held his fascination and his heart. He had a quest to make a very fine residential development on the hill of his share of the Hollywood property. He had to bring new ideas to create a premiere development on the side of the hill in the fast changing times. This was at the end of the Victorian culture. Homes were built with the living up stairs for the views of the ocean and valley. He employed architects to go and study the hill developments of Spain and Italy. He sought to create a masterpiece of architecture to be preserved for all times. In 1982 the U.S. Government named Whitley Heights a National Historic District. Today, Whitley Heights is all that remains to remind us of those halcyon days and the triumph of building a dream. Rising above the humdrum of Hollywood, one knows they have come upon a very special place when they happen upon the winding streets of Whitley Heights. Progress took part of the Heights when the Hollywood Freeway was built in the mid 1950’s, but it still retains its charm and it’s not hard to imagine the clinking of cocktail glasses and music of the notorious Jazz Age wafting from the open windows onto flower-filled courtyards below.