This Map Shows Silver Lake Before It Was an Artists’ Enclave

Birds, fish, and Billy Mulholland loved the Silver Lake reservoir first
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Silver Lake and Surroundings, Baist Atlas Plate 42, 1921

This real estate atlas sheet showing most of the Silver Lake Reservoir Complex and its surroundings around 1921 tells plenty of stories about an area currently known as Hipster Heaven. Silver Lake wasn’t always full of coffee houses, cool cafes, tattooed millennials, BOB revolution baby strollers, grandpa hats, artists in V-necks, and very pricey real estate. Very early on the area was dubbed Ivanhoe by Hibernian Hugo Reid, a great humanitarian and admirer of novelist Sir Walter Scott who viewed the green hills from afar and thought they looked like his native Scotland. This was way back before statehood, when L.A.’s rolling mountains were inaccessible to all but the stout of heart and land speculators. By 1904 the Pacific Electric streetcars rolled out into the hills and the green slopes became dotted with charming cottages (that would probably list at $1.5 million today). Around this time William Mulholland and others decided that the area would be an ideal place to put in a couple of reservoirs for drinking water in case the aqueduct system failed. The Department of Water got the land and began hydraulic sluicing through the valley, creating the Ivanhoe reservoir in 1906 and the Silver Lake reservoir in 1907. Silver Lake was not named for its shimmering waters but rather for Water Board Commissioner Herman Silver, who was instrumental in completing the reservoir’s development. In 1912, the neighborhood was lushly landscaped with 2,000 trees planted by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Three years later, Glendale Boulevard offered even more local access to the common folk. More cottages, some of them designed by preeminent architects like Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, John Lautner, Eric Llloyd Wright, and Gregory Ain, were built in the hills.

The reservoirs were intended to be used for emergency backup only, but by the time this map was created in 1921, the demands of Silver Lake’s booming population called for them to be put into service.

Mulholland had seeded Silver Lake’s big pond with black bass to keep the number of minnows, which clog reservoir pipes, to a minimum. (In 1916 the Los Angeles Times called “Billy” the “foster father of most of the bass in the city system” because he was so encouraging of fishing in the reservoir.) But as the years went by, the fish were fished out of the water. The reservoir underwent reconstructions in the 1930s and 1950s and a fence was placed around the perimeter during World War II.

The Silver Lake Reservoir Complex is now owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and covers some 127 acres, 96 of which include open water and paved roads. Two acres which include two terrific dog parks and a pocket-sized recreation center are maintained by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The splendid two-acre “Silver Lake Meadow” opened to the public in April, 2011 and has been an unqualified success ever since. While Silver Lake is now an enclave for many artists and itinerant drummers, it is also a link to the Pacific Flyway, a migratory route for birds that head north to Alaska during breeding season and south to Mexico in the winter months. Seeing the Great Blue Herons who nest in the eucalyptus groves along the reservoir take flight and soar like the emperors of all Los Angeles airspace is one of the city’s most breathtaking sights.

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