A postcard of the Cahuenga Pass showing the cross erected in 1923 in memory of Christine Witherill Stevenson, one of the prime movers in establishing the Hollywood Bowl. Listed on EBay for $6.50.
Throughout the history of Los Angeles, the movement of traffic has driven both transportation and development. With the construction of interurban railways in the early 1900s, far-flung areas could be easily reached, leading to new construction and population growth. The introduction and wide dissemination of low-priced automobiles beginning in the mid-teens also facilitated easy movement throughout the city and further development of rural property. As more people crowded onto narrow or clogged streets during the 1920s, a new plan was required to solve congestion issues while at the same time aiding increased construction in both the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood.
The San Fernando Valley itself helped lead the way in the development of both new roads and real estate speculation. In the early 1910s, land speculators in both the Lankershim and Van Nuys areas advocated for the construction of streetcar lines to their areas, with many serving on the board or owning the railways themselves. With the introduction of the Pacific Electric Railway line from Hollywood to Lankershim (now North Hollywood) and Van Nuys in 1911, many real estate subdivisions opened. Others began springing up after the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, which brought water to the San Fernando Valley when Valley residents voted to annex themselves to the city of Los Angeles.
Jan. 29, 1928: A map of the “Five-Finger Plan.”
After World War I, real estate speculation began in earnest, as developers bought huge swaths of land to sell to increasingly upwardly mobile middle-class residents, some looking for their first homes and others looking for their own small ranch in the area. Mulholland Highway and Canyon Roads also greatly aided real estate construction throughout the foothills. Traffic through the narrow, winding Cahuenga Pass Road increasingly became congested traveling to and from the San Fernando Valley. The February 24, 1928, Van Nuys News quoted traffic experts as calling the Cahuenga Pass Road “the most heavily traveled highway in the world, with practically no outlet for the traffic.” 37,210 automobiles traveled through the Cahuenga Pass every weekday, reaching a peak of 51,000-60,000 on Sundays.
San Fernando Valley real estate man Harry Merrick had advocated for more and better roads since 1922. The former president of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce, Merrick had pushed for construction of Mulholland Highway to aid his development of the Hollywood Country Club property in Coldwater Canyon. Speaking to various Chambers of Commerce and Development Associations throughout the San Fernando Valley, Merrick promoted the idea of bigger and better roads to help increase the Valley’s population. Soon he began lobbying Hollywood business interests as well.
The persuasive Merrick earned the support of Hollywood financial and businessmen in 1925 for his plan. The April 26, 1925, Los Angeles Times reported that landowners of 1800 acres from Los Angeles River on the North to Highland Avenue and Cahuenga Avenue on the south, Mulholland Highway on the West and to Griffith Park in the east had embraced the idea for the “Five-Finger Plan,” and then gained the support of the Los Angeles City Council as well. Voters approved a referendum allowing for construction and improvement of roads that month.
Speaking as if the voice of the Los Angeles’ Board of Public Works, Merrick stated that the “Five-Finger Plan” would be expedited by the Board of Public Works and cost approximately $3.75 million. “It will be one of the first units of the major traffic street plan which was approved by the voters of Los Angeles.” Two Cahuenga Avenues would be constructed, one on the west side and one on the east side of the road. Cahuenga would be widened to Melrose Avenue and the part south of Sunset Boulevard would fork, leading to the construction of what is now Wilcox. Highland Avenue would be widened below Sunset as well, and Yucca, Ivar, and Cole Avenues would be widened and improved. Bridges would be constructed across the Cahuenga Pass Road at Mulholland and across Highland at Cahuenga. The Cahuenga Pass Road would be widened to 140 feet all the way to Lankershim Boulevard, and widened to 100 feet all the way to Saugus. “This will give North Hollywood one of the greatest systems of highways in the world.” The April 28, 1925 Van Nuys News declared that this proposed improvement project would “complete the development of the San Fernando Valley.”
Under the proposed “Five-Finger Plan,” Yucca would serve as the thumb, Vine would act as the index finger, Wilcox would serve as the little finger, and Cahuenga and Ivar would act as the other two fingers. Improving the five streets would alleviate traffic problems flowing in and out of Hollywood it was hoped.
A map of the “Five-Finger Plan” in the Van Nuys News, Feb. 24, 1928.
On May 9, the North Hollywood Association was formally organized at the Hollywood Athletic Club, with Harry Merrick elected as President, followed by the announcement that the Board of Public Works had approved almost $5 million to the improvement and construction of the “Five-Finger Plan.” Supervising engineer Dewitt L. Raeburn of the Department of Public Works stated that surveys had begun for the widening of Cahuenga in Hollywood. On November 1, Los Angeles Mayor Cryer signed an ordinance announcing the city’s intentions to widen Cahuenga from Hollywood Boulevard to Highland Avenue.
Some citizens decried the proposed project, suing the city in order not to see their land condemned or property taxes increased for the project. The Los Angeles Traffic Commission began a strong campaign arguing for the construction of the project, filing an interlocutory decree on October 26, 1926, asking to proceed, receiving it in spring 1927. City Commissions studied the area as they strategically developed their construction plans.
City Councilman Robert M. Allan, a sponsor of the “Five-Finger Plan,” announced in the March 28, 1927, Los Angeles Times that “I am now working to put through a highway on the east side of the Pass. This will give Cahuenga Pass two broad highways over the hill and relieve traffic congestions for all time. The west highway cracked the bottle neck which throttled Hollywood’s outlet to Ventura Boulevard, but the east side will smash it.”
By February 24, 1928, the Los Angeles City Council had approved the “Five-Finger Plan” after lobbying from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which recognized the aid it would provide the heavy population growth of the area. In a March 14 Los Angeles Times article, Thomas Bennett of the Chamber pointed out the exploding values of real estate throughout the area over the past twenty years. He described M. P. Sherman making a 10,000 percent increase in his 1,000 acre Sherman Oaks property from when he purchased it in 1915 to when he sold it in lat 1927, yielding profits of $12 million. In 1912, the southwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street was sold for $8,000, and in 1926, a 99-year lease was taken on the property for $5,000 per front foot or $500,000.
By August 1928, property valued at $15 million had already been constructed or was in the process of development, including the Hollywood Warner Bros. Theatre, Dyas Department Store, Plaza Hotel, Bank of Hollywood, and Vine Street Theatre, all located on Hollywood Boulevard, much near Vine Street. The Mack Sennett Studio had also opened on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, with expansion of Ventura Boulevard, Sepulveda Boulevard, and Riverside Drive expected to aid construction in that area as well. The city hoped to clear up all condemnations, claims and assessments by early 1929 in order to begin construction in 1930, two years ahead of schedule.
Aug. 10, 1930: REO Speed Wagons at work in the Cahuenga Pass.
Condemnation proceedings took a while however, as Leonard Woodruff did not approve of his settlement for his property at Ivar Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, arguing that it should be for what the land would be valued at after the completion of work, not for what was worth when approached. Losing at the District Court of Appeals and California Supreme Court, Woodruff appealed all the way to the Supreme Court in October 1930, losing there as well.
The City Council approved appropriating $7 million from the 9 cent tax fund allocated to street improvement projects to begin work on the project. $200,000 would be allocated to construct a Cahuenga Avenue east of the Cahuenga Pass Road. The County would also allocate money to the construction of these roads. Real estate man Harry Jones estimated that approximately $20 million would be spent in improvements to the Hollywood and Studio City areas.
On January 16, 1929, the Board of Public Works filed the “Five-Finger Plan” assessments map with the city clerk, which the January 15, 1929, Van Nuys News called “the largest street improvement ever proposed in Los Angeles,” approximately $4.25 million.
After an all day and part of the night protest and appeals against the assessments for the implementation of the “Five-Finger Plan,” the Los Angeles City Council voted to approve the project on February 19, 1929, voting unanimously to appropriate over $350,000 for the improvement of streets after their widening. They also approved spending an additional $350,000 to match the almost $150,000 appropriated for the paving of streets. The Courts approved condemnation of property on May 1, 1929.
The City sold the first $2 million in bonds with an interest rate of seven percent to the Elliot Horne Company on May 31, 1929. On July 8, the City Council asked City Engineer Shaw to draw all the plans and ordinances required for the project. Judge Craig ruled in favor of final condemnation of the needed property on October 8, 1929. The City Council approved all re-zoning of the land for the project on May 6, 1930.
The “”Five-Finger Plan”” as shown in the Van Nuys News, 1925.
Beginning on March 1, 1930, the Board of Public Works improved, widened, and repaved Hollywood streets and completed other improvements through the pass. Throughout the summer they would lay cement along the streets to be widened, before paving, grading, laying sewers, sidewalks, and ornamental lights in the fall. No work would occur continuously on Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard, construction on one would prevent work on the other at the same time. The city rushed to finish work, as more than 10 miles of road required construction, all at the same time.
The Board of Public Works widened Cahuenga to 94 feet from Highland to Yucca, and 80 feet from Yucca to Hollywood Boulevard. Yucca and Argyle from Cahuenga and Franklin were widened to 94 feet. Ivar Avenue was cut 70 feet wide between Yucca and Hollywood, and a new Ivar was cut from Hollywood Boulevard south to Salem (now DeLongpre) to connect diagonally with Cahuenga. Wilcox Avenue would also be extended south from Sunset Boulevard to Santa Monica Boulevard, as would Cahuenga. Cole Avenue was created as well. At the same time, some additional streetcar lines were laid to assist with connections and increased traffic as well.
Cahuenga Boulevard on the east side of the Cahuenga Pass Road was constructed to match the one on the west side, through the Cahuenga Pass, totaling 140 feet in width, with both costing approximately $1 million. Ventura Boulevard was widened to 70 feet for eight miles west of Lankershim Boulevard. A Mulholland Highways Bridge was constructed over the Cahuenga Pass Road.
By January 4, 1931, most of the work in Hollywood was completed, providing roads to direct automobile traffic from the Wilshire Boulevard and mid-city area north to Hollywood and in to the San Fernando Valley. Congestion was alleviated for the time being, though ownership of automobiles continued growing over the next several decades. Beginning around the same time however, streetcar ridership began declining, and the cars were totally eliminated by the 1950s. Traffic once again exploded in Hollywood, finally leading to construction of a subway line in the area.
Just like in the 1920s, development is exploding in Hollywood at the present time, but little is being done to alleviate the traffic problems it causes, save for constructing bicycle lanes and encouraging people to ride the bus or subway. Will another “Five-Finger Plan” be required to solve Hollywood’s traffic problems, or the construction of additional subway lines to alleviate traffic concerns?