A thousand years before Julius Caesar set foot in Rome, the Tongva [ /ˈtɒŋveɪ/ or tong-vā] people indigenous to the Woodland Hills area were enjoying beautiful views from the top of Topanga Canyon and living in the same balmy Mediterranean climate we do today. For millennia the native population thrived on fish and small game, growing to an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 by the time the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was established in 1771. But 220 years later the Tongva stood at the brink of extinction, ravaged by smallpox, measles, and other Old World diseases that killed 95% of their people.
The area that was to become Woodland Hills was dry and largely unpopulated in 1900, though limited portions of the land were being farmed for citrus, walnuts, and wheat. Water remained a major issue: either there was not enough to support residential development, or too much of it due to flash flooding during the Southland’s torrential rains in winter.
Completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 by William Mulholland solved the shortage of water by building an aqueduct from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. News of a steady supply of water newly available in the Valley attracted homesteaders from across the United States. The news also caught the attention of Victor Girard (originally named Victor Girard Kleinberger), a Persian-rug salesman from Kentucky.
Girard purchased 2,886 acres of land in the southwest corner of the San Fernando Valley in 1922, then subdivided the land into tiny lots, 6,826 of them. After building two Turkish mosque-inspired buildings and towers on Ventura Blvd., one on each side of Topanga Canyon Blvd., early in February 1923 Girard held the Grand Opening of his new town, “Girard.” During this period he planted 120,000 eucalyptus, pepper, and other shade trees throughout the area (Brenoff, 2008).
Girard provided free transportation for prospective buyers from downtown Los Angeles, with his “sucker busses” driving to Santa Monica and up the coast to Topanga Canyon before turning inland to his sales center on the corners of Ventura and Topanga Canyon Blvds. Visitors arrived to see two exotic-looking ‘mosques,' each with its own minaret looming over the landscape like a lighthouse. Stretching eastward toward Don Pio Drive was a long, single story building that appeared to house thriving businesses but in fact was nothing more than a façade of theatrical scenery designed to deceive.
After Girard's complimentary barbecue lunch, prospects met his aggressive team of commission-based salesmen, who worked hard to sell his lots. For sale were those undersized lots of undeveloped land—the more attractive of which were, according to some accounts, sometimes sold and resold multiple times to unsuspecting buyers. Nevertheless, thousands of parcels were sold as the population began to grow.
Girard’s success began to fade, beginning with a brush fire in 1927 that burned the Girard Golf Clubhouse to the ground. When the emergency call for help went out to Van Nuys Engine Company No. 39, the fire department responded by "indicating that the Girard division never existed or was no longer in operation” (Carmack & Treffers, 2014). Landowners began to complain about Girard’s deceptive sales practices and unusually small lot sizes, since parcels selling elsewhere in the Valley were many times larger.
The October 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression ended further development in Girard. To avoid bankruptcy Girard attached liens to landowners’ land without informing them, ultimately causing many to walk away from their properties. Soon after, Girard’s company collapsed, and Victor Girard moved on to new adventures in real estate development elsewhere. Girard died in 1954 at 74.
During the Depression the population of Girard declined to 75 families, but the town remained on the map. In 1941 the community established its own Chamber of Commerce and renamed itself Woodland Hills, an appropriate moniker considering the many thousands of trees that had matured since being planted throughout the area in the 1920s. Also in the 1940s, Harry Warner developed a horse ranch on the 1,100 acres he purchased.
Amidst the postwar housing boom of the sixties and seventies Harry Warner’s ranch was subdivided and sold to become the home of Warner Center, Topanga Plaza, Kaiser Hospital, Rocketdyne, and Litton Industries. In 2005, a citizen’s advisory committee created the Warner Center Plan 2035, a development strategy that will create many thousands of new jobs and dwelling units in Warner Center.
in his own words
No Speculation in the Future of Valley, Says Victor Girard
Greatest Growth in History Is Prediction for Years Yet To Come
By Victor Girard
The future of the San Fernando Valley is not a speculation. Those with foresight can clearly observe that the growth of this great section will be greater even than in the past. Los Angeles and every city in the valley are destined to spread out over great areas. Populations are increasing so rapidly that this is absolutely inevitable.
Those who read the daily newspapers will recall that the great sage, Arthur Brisbane, told us that such will be the future of this section. Such good, sound advice cannot be ignored. Those people who have come to Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley and will continue to come are those who will continue to come are those who seek the famous Southern California climate, of which there is no equal. These people are not in search of apartments or the congested sections of the city. They want a home where they can secure the advantages of the climate and sunshine which brought them here.
It is for this type of citizen that the real estate operators should build. Distance which might appear today as a detriment will be tomorrow an advantage. Rapid transportation is in its infancy.
Every year there are new inventions which erase distance from our minds, causing us to think in terms of time. It is now possible to travel from the San Fernando Valley to Los Angeles in one hour, while twenty years ago this was a long one-day trip.
It is only in the great open stretches that ideal home communities can be built. The building of extensive recreational facilities requires the use large plots of ground, which are no longer available in the near-in sections of the city.
No Southern California residential section is complete without outdoor recreational facilities as these are the need of the families who have chosen this land [sic] their home, and will in the future choose to come here to bring up their families.
The living scale of those who make their homes in Southern California is above that of the inhabitants of the tenement districts, yet the subdividing in the past five years has hardly touched the present and future need.
Most of the new residential sections that have been developed have been expensive places of residence for people of much larger incomes. For those of modest means the only solution has been the apartment house, congested areas.
A fulfillment of this need, which is not so apparent at the present time but continues to become more so as the new families continue to come, is the obligation of our city builders. What a great land will this Southern California be within the years to come. It will be composed of communities of owners of healthy attractive homes. There is no force in the world great enough to stop the people of this great nation from coming here and enjoying what we have to offer them.
There is not an energetic, hard working person in the nation who does not look forward to spending his profits amid the charms of this section.
Room in Plenty
For these people California should build. We have room for them and to suggest that this great State should not be prepared for their coming would be selfish.
Home sections where ideal standards of living can be maintained are to be encouraged. The great Los Angeles of the future will house fewer people per square miles than any other city in the United States. That will be its success—a home for every happy family.
The great areas of the San Fernando Valley, which but a few years ago was a desert waste needing only the water brought there by the aqueduct, will be the residential spot for a million families.
Brenoff, A. (2008). Dig into History, You’ll Strike Snake Oil. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2008/feb/10/realestate/re-guide10
Cacioppo, R. K. (1982). The History of Woodland Hills and Girard. (Girard photo). Panorama City, CA: White Stone, Inc.
California State University, Northridge. (n.d.). (Reliable Service Garage advertisement). Delmar T. Oviatt Library. Retrieved from http://digital-library.csun.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/SFVH/id/3543/rec/16
Carmack, S. and Treffers, S. (2014). Historic Impacts Report for the Old Fire Station 84 Pocket Park Project, City and County of Los Angeles, California. (PDF). Retrieved from http://www.laparks.org/environmental/pdf/oldFire/appB.pdf
Pierce, C. C. (n.d.) Drawing of Tongva village of Yang-na Indians in Chavez Ravine. Retrieved from http://dotsx.usc.edu/newsblog/index.php/main/comments/l.a._times_features_usc_digital_library_image_of_chavez_ravine_village/
Rocketdyne. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. (photo). Retrieved September 11, 2015, from
Treffers, S. (2014, April 16). How a Visionary Scoundrel Created Woodland Hills in the 1920s. Curbed LA. (Girard quote). Retrieved from http://la.curbed.com/archives/2014/04/how_a_visionary_scoundrel_created_woodland_hills_in_the_1920s.php
Water and Power Associates, Inc. (n.d.). William Mulholland Biography. (Mulholland photo). Retrieved from http://waterandpower.org/museum/Mulholland_Biography.html
Sources used for Figures
Figure 1. The Girard News, December 27, 1924, page A-7
Girard, V. (1924, December 27). No Speculation in the Future of Valley, Says Victor Girard. The Girard News, p. A-7. Retrieved from http://digital-library.csun.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/SFVH/id/3317/rec/1