CityDig: How the Most Famous Street in L.A. Went From Rodeo De Las Aguas to Rodeo Drive

L.A. History, Urban Development Add a comment

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This 150-year old document shows a piece of land that had many lifetimes before it became the precious real estate it is today. In the beginning it was a prime spot for the Tongva Indians who lived near the area’s plentiful water supply, thus prompting them to name it “The Gathering of the Waters” in their Shoshonean tongue. Eventually white families showed up and brought with them trouble for the Tongva (then called Gabrieleno or Fernandeno tribe in reference to their connection to the missions).

Mexican/Californian governor Juan Bautista Alvarado gave away the land in a grant to Maria Rita Valdez Villa, the widow of a soldier who was to be rewarded for his service. Ms. Valdez Villa, a powerhouse of mixed descent, built a home, ran a cattle ranch, and filed for land rights after statehood. After that daunting process she took legal American possession, and just in time to turn a nice profit: She sold the land to Don Benito Wilson and famed surveyor/cartographer Henry Hancock for $4,000 in 1855. Unfortunately, a drought threw a wrench in Wilson and Hancock’s development plans, and in 1868 they sold their stake to a land company fronted by Edward Preuss. Preuss planned on establishing a German colony similar to Anaheim out in what would someday be Orange County.

This map shows that dream, with the crisply designed township of Santa Maria at the center and 36 five acre lots to 75 acre agricultural parcels surrounding it (each selling at about $10 an acre). One little hint to the location is that the Los Angeles pictured here eventually became Wilshire Boulevard.

The Germans moved in to set up Santa Maria, but again a drought dried up their hoffnungen. A pair of brave lima bean farming capitalists, Henry Hammel and Charles Denker, took over in the 1880s, renaming the fertile ground Morocco. A national economic collapse, however, kept them from getting their farm fez on the agricultural map (so to speak). Finally, around the turn of the 20th century, Burton Green and the Rodeo Land and Water Company bought the land in the hopes of discovering oil (and money) underneath. It was then that the area was renamed Beverly Hills.

The Beverly Hills hotel was built at the center of what was once to be Santa Maria, and great care was given to the layout of streets, landscaping and the structures built for commerce and residence. The city was incorporated in 1914 and developed a reputation for being a nice place for the rich and famous, including Mary Pickford, Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and early studio heads. After World War II, Beverly Hills became an internationally acclaimed destination, and the true location of abodes that appeared on Maps to the Stars. The main shopping drag still bears the old name Rodeo, but instead of a surplus of water (which we could really use right now), you’ll find a surplus of plastic being used to charge expensive wares.

Above: Map of Santa Maria 1869, Map of Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, John P. Schmitz et al, 1869

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week. 

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