Hillside Homes of Happiness
Hola friends - I was thinking about this on my morning Runyon hike today as I prepared mentally for a class I’m developing on Los Angeles history. One of the themes: in the midst of all the much-derided construction and the ever-changing landscape of our great city there is plenty of history that remains intact…or just beneath the surface…or in this case, rusted and overgrown with chaparral.
Case in point: Angelenos who regularly hike the canyons have no doubt wondered what all of that rusting, gnarled metal is on the side of the Runyon Canyon east trail. I did…so I had to figure out the story. Turns out, it’s the remains of the old Outpost Estates sign. Much like the neighboring and now uber-famous Hollywood(land) sign…a few miles away, this rusted heap once promoted a real estate development on the Hollywood hillside.
Ahh…but I didn’t stop there. Turns out there is a good deal of history to the area with a little myth sprinkled in. The land was once owned (in the mid-19th century) by one Tomás Don Urquidez, a Castilian who was among the first homesteaders to the area. His adobe structure, built from local sycamores, was apparently a local meeting place as well as the site of at least 30 horse-thief hangings. Dang.
The “Outpost” moniker we owe to the next owner, General Harrison Gray Otis, a Civil War and Spanish-America War veteran as well as the first publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Otis liked to make the apocryphal claim that the old adobe on the property was the very place where famous California pathfinder and future presidential candidate John C. Frémont signed the Treaty of Cahuenga with Mexican Governor Andrés Pico…ending the fighting of the Mexican-American War in California. This myth took hold until the early twentieth century, when the Times put the myth to rest by printing the whereabouts of the actual signing - Campo de Cahuenga…near modern Universal City.
The good general was heavily involved in the expansion of Los Angeles and was instrumental especially in developing large commercial and agricultural tracts in the San Fernando Valley. When he died in 1917, the property changed hands briefly a couple of times until it landed with developer Charles Toberman in 1920 - who Christened the area “Outpost Estates” and who promised to develop “Hillside Homes of Happiness” to be “one of the most exclusive and beautiful residential places in the world.”
Toberman is better known in local lore as “Mr. Hollywood,” the developer of such famous tourist destinations as Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the El Capitan Theater, and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. To daw attention to this development, as any savvy developer would do, he had erected a giant “OUTPOST” sign in red neon, some say the world’s largest of its kind at the time…which would clearly have been more conspicuous than the nearby Hollywoodland rival.
But alas it was the conspicuous nature of the sign that authored its demise. During WWII, Los Angeles was under strict blackout orders, fearing the ever-present threat of a Japanese attack by air and sea. I suppose authorities with the local Civil Defense Corps decided a giant glowing red beacon was a bad idea. And thus the city had the sign dismantled and its whereabouts were not discovered until 2002, when two hikers found the remains of the sign down the hillside and dragged them closer to the trail where they now rest.
So next time you’re doing the LA thing and hiking Runyon, you’ll have a cool story to take along :)