Not finding a satisfactory history of the evolution of Wilshire Boulevard in Kevin Roderick’s Wilshire Boulevard book, I searched for old maps to find the answers (my review of Roderick’s Wilshire Boulevard book).
The Los Angeles Past blog led me to the 1897 edition of Maxwell’s Los Angeles City Directory at the California Digital Library (details about each map used in this post are at the bottom). This map covers a radius of 3.5 to 5 miles around Los Angeles Plaza Park (El Pueblo / Olvera Street, the historic center of Los Angeles). As Figure 1 below shows, Wilshire was just four blocks long at that time, with its eastern end at the edge of Westlake Park1 (renamed MacArthur Park in 1942 after General Douglas MacArthur) and its western end at Hoover Street (where the N-S and SW-NE grids meet). It appears that the basic skeleton of today’s Wilshire is in place, with its future ‘conquests’ of Sixth Street to the west and Orange Street to the east already in use as active streets. (Bizarrely, there is a discontinuity in Sixth Street where the two grids meet at an uncompleted section of Hoover Street. Why did this happen? It seems like a major planning oversight.)
Figure 2 below is also from Maxwell’s directory and shows the area between Westlake Park and downtown. Orange Street connects the center of the park with downtown, ending at Figueroa. Wilshire eventually took over this part of Orange plus an extension that required a combination of building demolition and building modification to create a continuous path to today’s terminus at Grand Avenue (a piece from Southland explains how that extension happened with before, during and after photos).
You can see the final eastern path of Wilshire in Figure 3, which is a detail of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) “Hollywood” map from 1953 (scale 1:24,000). Wilshire is the red diagonal line in the middle of the image that runs through MacArthur Park to downtown. The big Wilshire-related differences between the 1897 maps and this one are a clear path between the park and Grand Avenue and the park is bisected by the boulevard (a project completed in 1934).
Figure 4 is a detail of a 1902 map produced by Henry Rueger (also obtained from the LA Public Library). It covers the same territory as the Maxwell map (and probably used the Maxwell map as the starting point). Between 1897 and 1902, Wilshire took over Sixth Street west of Hoover, while Sixth Street took over Ward Street west of Hoover. At last, both streets were properly aligned at the grid shift.
The western boundary for both the 1897 and 1902 maps is Arlington Street, so they don’t show the far western edge of Sixth or Wilshire — like whether there was a connection to the old Rancho roads or just a dead-end or tee somewhere out in the western grasslands or oil fields. I found a partial answer while poking around the LA Public Library’s map collection in the form of a USGS map from 1900 that covers a significant amount of the Los Angeles area (scale 1:62,500; E-W: Santa Monica to Monrovia, N-S: La Crescenta to Vernondale). In Figure 5, it looks like today’s Wilshire doesn’t pass over the 1900 roads (the solid lines; dotted lines are city boundaries, I think). If you go west from West Lake (green arrows), the road veers to the west-north-west (red arrow) onto a road that may or may not have a modern counterpart (perhaps it is part of 3rd Street?). Out to the west (blue arrows) the old road looks like the current boulevard: the road goes E-W through Rodeo de las Aguas (now Beverly Hills), makes some wide curves, passes through the Soldiers Home (near the present-day VA complex and military cemetery), and lines up with Santa Monica’s grid on the left of the figure.
Figure 6 is a larger piece of the 1900 USGS map that shows vast open areas between downtown and Santa Monica. There are many interesting things in the map, but here are two: 1) Were railroad lines were converted to roads? For example, was the right of way of the Pasadena and Pacific Railroad given over to Santa Monica Boulevard? 2) In relative terms, the city of Palms (absorbed into Los Angeles long ago) is quite large. Palms’ grid of about 10 streets is the biggest street network between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica — Beverly Hills is non-existent, as is the Westside. So the next time I’m in Los Angeles and pass through the Palms area, I’ll have a lot more respect for it, perhaps making a point of looking for ‘historic’ central Palms (and, if the stars align, eating a meal at Niki Nakyama’s highly regarded n/naka). The town of Palms seems to be a real estate speculation project from the 1880s with a name — and plenty of imported trees2 — to proclaim that residents can live “the good life” in the new city.
To sum up, here is a summary of Wilshire’s historical growth, moving from downtown to the ocean:
- Orange Street from Grand Avenue to the eastern edge of MacArthur Park
- A roadway through MacArthur Park that was finished in 1934
- The original Wilshire Blvd on the west side of MacArthur Park
- Sixth Street for some unknown distance
- A new roadway through today’s Miracle Mile area
- Historic Rancho roads through Beverly Hills and Westwood
- Nevada Avenue in Santa Monica to the bluffs above the ocean
- Figure 1 and 2: 1897 Maxwell’s Los Angeles City Directory, downloaded from Calisphere. Public domain (published before 1923).
- Figure 3: USGS Historical Map Collection via this search tool, to end up with this JPEG of the 1953 Hollywood map. Public domain (U.S. Government product).
- Figure 4: Map of Los Angeles by Henry Rueger, 1902, downloaded from the LA Public Library Map Collection. Public domain (published before 1923).
- Figure 5 and 6: Topographic map of Los Angeles, United States Geological Survey, Edition of 1900, reprinted 1908. Downloaded from LA Public Library Map Collection. Public domain (U.S. Government product and published before 1923).
- This alignment would doom the park to bisection a few decades later — how typical of Los Angeles to put a major road through a park instead of instead continuing Sixth Street to the northern corner of the park to connect with the other Sixth Street. But that might have required harming some commercial interests. The city’s growth was so developer-driven, fragmented, and unplanned that there was not the foresight to set up a huge park like New York’s Central Park or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
- Palm trees aren’t native to Los Angeles and they needed to be imported. 99% Invisible has a podcast about the palm trees of Los Angeles.