How a Visionary Scoundrel Created Woodland Hills in the 1920s
Wednesday, April 16, 2014, by Steven Treffers
[Victor Girard, left, surveying the scene in 1924. Image via USC digital library.]
With its curvy, tree-lined streets, there's not much to separate Woodland Hills from the other suburban San Fernando Valley neighborhoods that line the Santa Monica Mountains. But the thousands of trees that gave the community its name shade a more interesting and disreputable past. The seeds of Woodland Hills were planted in the 1920s with the town of Girard, an ambitious subdivision by the self-proclaimed "human dynamo" Victor Girard. Equal parts visionary and scoundrel, the not-so-modest land developer saw big potential and even bigger profits in the agricultural fields of the southwestern San Fernando Valley. In 1922, Girard set out to create his namesake and transform a cow pasture into a Moorish-themed country getaway with nothing more than a promise and other people's money.
Girard's entry into the San Fernando Valley in the early 1920s was not without risks. Although the arrival of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 had helped to spur development in areas like present-day Chatsworth and Canoga Park, the land was typically subdivided for small farms and the Valley continued to be largely agricultural. The development that followed Southern California's population boom in the following years occurred mostly within the Los Angeles Basin and to the south and east. For the time being, the San Fernando Valley remained outside the population and housing boom of the 1920s.
But Girard established himself early on as a land developer who wasn't afraid to work on the geographic fringes. In 1907, at the age of 26, Girard opened his first subdivision in the West Adams neighborhood at Jefferson Street and Sixth Avenue. Other developers warned that the tract was too far from the city center and no one would buy. But Girard proved them wrong—he sold all the lots within five years as the city grew out and beyond the development. He then opened a subdivision along Crenshaw Boulevard between Venice Boulevard and Adams Street. As he later recalled, "everybody gave me the 'ha-ha' again. Why that tract was out in the sticks! Is it?"
[One of Girard's many ads in the Los Angeles Times.]
Girard recognized the same potential in the San Fernando Valley and organized the Boulevard Land Company to purchase a section of land in the southwestern corner of the Valley in 1922. Tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains at the intersection of Topanga Canyon and Ventura Boulevards, its location was perfect. Both roads were already established routes and frequented by sightseeing Angelenos driving up the coast from Santa Monica, through Topanga Canyon and back along Ventura Boulevards. In planning the new community, Girard wanted to step away from the area's agricultural past and create "small hillside country estates." Small was the key word in this description as he proceeded to carve 6,828 lots out of 2,886 acres during a time when the typical Valley lot was no less than 80 acres. Never one for modesty, he named the new community after himself and declared "San Fernando cities [welcome] with open arms the new town of Girard."
Girard knew he had his work cut out for him if he was going to attract residents to a barren and sun-parched cow pasture. The first order of business was planting more than 120,000 sycamores, eucalyptus, fir pine, and pepper trees across the townsite. Next was the construction of a town center at the corner of Topanga Canyon and Ventura Boulevards. The buildings and towers were designed in a Moorish style because he "desired to give the old Mission style of architecture a rest." The buildings straddled Topanga Canyon and extended along the south side of Ventura Boulevard. But this "Turkish City" was a mirage, many of the buildings nothing more than false storefronts. Basically sets, the buildings were empty and were only constructed to give those driving by the illusion of a busy town center.
[A view east along Ventura Boulevard with false storefronts in the background. Image via the Los Angeles Public Library.]
This fondness for Middle Eastern styling and false appearances is one that Girard carried with him from an early age. He was actually born Victor Girard Kleinberger and began selling fake Persian rugs door-to-door as a teenager. Five-foot-five with a sickly appearance, he learned quickly to use these shortcomings to his advantage. A favorite sales approach was to throw a rug at the base of the door (so it couldn't be slammed in his face) before faking a coughing fit and mumbling something about authentic rugs and tuberculosis. Girard also recognized the importance of appearances and putting on a show. With anti-German sentiment bubbling over near the end of World War I, he made the decision to drop the last name Kleinberger in a much-publicized act of patriotism. With a quick wit and likable personality, Girard was able to charm potential investors into purchases they might have never made otherwise. These traits also allowed him to hide many of his inadequacies, including his inability to read a blueprint or understand a balance sheet.
The town of Girard officially opened in 1923 with an advertising blitz. Newspaper ads and pamphlets distributed in train depots and hotels across the region promoted the new town's location and the soon-to-be developed amenities. These ads stretched the truth. For instance, even though the Santa Monica Mountains and a windy 12-mile road separated the town from the coast, potential residents were told they should expect to be cooled by ocean breezes during the hot summer months. The ads further promoted the town as a once in a lifetime investment opportunity, with one ad proclaiming, "Every Southern California town has been a successful town. There have been no exceptions … Mark this prediction: History will repeat itself in Girard." In addition to the ads, Girard conceived a promotional technique that continues to be used by time-share agents today. Offering a free lunch, he organized "sucker buses" to shuttle prospective buyers on a sightseeing tour that included, among other things, a stop at his new town.
[A Ticket for one of Girard's "sucker buses." Image via the USC Digital Library.]
Would-be buyers could purchase an undeveloped parcel for as little as $500, or choose from a small selection of houses that would be constructed on the lot of their choice. With an advertised "marvelous view," $1,625 bought a four-room house that could be designed in the Moorish style Girard loved so much. However, the most common pick was a small cabin that sold for $985. Sometimes placed on lots as small as 50 by 125 feet, the cabins were in line with Girard's standards and thus constructed with cheap materials and wooden foundations that sat directly on the ground. The sales team shared Girard's approach and used whatever methods necessary to close the deal. They accepted nearly anything for a down payment, even watches. Frequently salesmen sold the same prime lot as many as 15 times to unsuspecting buyers, who were later surprised when they received the deed for a different piece of land. Yet somehow the small community took hold and began to grow in its first two years.
Encouraged by the initial success, Girard continued to actively develop and advertise the townsite. In addition to full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times, he started the Girard News, a newspaper that almost exclusively reported on the town's unprecedented growth. New amenities included stables for the recently formed Girard Pick and Spur Club and a golf course at the new Girard Country Club. Working with other San Fernando Valley developers, Girard also pushed for the construction of a scenic highway that followed the crests of the Santa Monica Mountains and would eventually be known as Mulholland Drive. Other improvements included nearly $300,000 of new streets, which were of course heavily promoted in newspaper ads. But what buyers didn't realize was that they would be paying for these improvements. Girard and the Boulevard Land Company used the 1915 Improvement Act to borrow the money, adding a lien on every lot in the town and therefore forcing the residents to repay the funds at a later date.
[One of Girard's Moorish-style houses. Image via the USC Digital Library.]
These shady tactics went largely unnoticed through much of the 1920s, due largely to the dynamic growth of the town. But after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the cracks began to show and the community quickly unraveled. As residents faced their own personal struggles, they were soon confronted with the debt that Girard had incurred on their behalf. Many simply left—by 1932 there were only 75 families remaining. Girard and the Boulevard Land Company faced a slew of lawsuits, most of which accurately contended the company had misrepresented the land it was selling. Unable to sell the heavily taxed 1,350 acres it still possessed, the Boulevard Land Company eventually folded.
[Aerial view of the developing town of Girard, 1924. Image via the Los Angeles Public Library.]
While the community of Girard remained small over the following decade, the thousands of trees that dotted the landscape continued to grow. With the Great Depression over, the remaining residents made the decision to erase their connection with Victor Girard and in 1941 renamed the community Woodland Hills. Development in the San Fernando Valley and Woodland Hills exploded after World War II, and over the years most of Girard's contributions have disappeared, except for a few of the original cabins and the renamed Woodland Hills Country Club. Victor Girard laid low following the fall out, eventually (and improbably) returning to real estate and developing properties until his death in 1954. Although he never again developed anything as large as Girard, he continued to prophesy the future of real estate in Los Angeles. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1939, he predicted, "I'll tell you what I see; I see a Greater Los Angeles solid to the Pacific and reaching back to the valleys."
How a Visionary Scoundrel Created Woodland Hills in the 1920s - Curbed Features - Curbed LA