Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Hollywood Reservoir – Hollywood’s Forgotten Lake


Mulholland Dam
Feb. 2, 1924: Hollywood Dam under construction.

A virtually forgotten oasis located in what was originally known as Weid Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, the Hollywood Reservoir served as much as bucolic paradise as water supply when first constructed in 1924. The decorative concrete structure has survived storms of protests for more than 90 years to serve the many needs of Hollywood and Los Angeles residents.

As early as 1897, newspapers described Weid’s Canyon as a quiet, peaceful place for strolls and picnicking. Named after its original owner Ivar A. Weid, who owned a quarry nearby and died in 1903, the gentle bowl was first surveyed as a possible site for a dam in 1912. The little town of Hollywood found itself desperate for water to feed its many crops, asking the city of Los Angeles for annexation in 1910 in order to obtain its needed supply. The 1913 construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct provided an even greater source of water. By 1920, Los Angeles itself began looking for suitable locations throughout the metropolitan area on which to construct dams to service local communities, especially as it weathered a series of droughts.

Hollywood at Play, by Donovan Brandt, Mary Mallory and Stephen X. Sylvester is now on sale.


A safety spillway is bored through the dam, Popular Science, March 1931.

In 1922, Water Superintendent William Mulholland himself proposed the location of Weid Canyon as the most suitable site on which to construct Hollywood’s reservoir. Virtually the only large nearby canyon with little to no population, its closeness to both Hollywood and the aqueduct pipes on the San Fernando Valley side would also provide easier access and construction. Mulholland himself remembered quarrying rock in the canyon in 1882 for construction of Los Angeles’ new jail.

At the same time, a committee organized by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and led by leading resident Dr. Edwin O. Palmer, proposed that the canyon serve as location for a highway to connect Hollywood with the San Fernando Valley. The July 22, 1922 Holly Leaves reported that the committee considered it the best spot for a highway, even better than the road that already traversed the Cahuenga Pass, and that its height above the city rendered it a major threat to flood and destroy the area in case of an earthquake.The July 14 issue of Southwest Builder and Contractor quoted Palmer as saying that it was “more important it should be used for a highway than for a reservoir.”

The Van Nuys News followed the dramatic ins and outs of the story, anxious for a large supply to serve Hollywood without touching water supplies in the San Fernando Valley. They reported on July 18 that no organization had ever surveyed the canyon and its hills as a possible construction site for a highway, only half a mile from the Cahuenga Pass Road.

Palmer organized a group of citizens to campaign for highway construction through Weid Canyon but the city overcame his protests. The Hollywood and Los Angeles Chambers of Commerce along with highway engineers found in August that the Cahuenga Pass with its road provided easy access to the San Fernando Valley, while construction in the deep and high canyon would be difficult and expensive. Mulholland turned to his trusted assistant H. L. Jacques for help in devising a beautiful structure to complement its gorgeous location.

Mulholland Dam 1934

Dirt is used to reinforce the dam, Popular Science, April 1934.

Construction on what was then called Weid Canyon Dam began April 1, 1923. The waterworks centered on a gravity-centered concrete dam 210 feet tall, 160 feet thick at its base, 16 feet wide at its top, and 933 feet long, arched inward towards the lake in order to provide greater strength and support against the force of the water.

Pouring of concrete began in September that year, with a wooden trestle built above Holly Drive on which trucks would pull up and dump their loads of concrete. The first concrete dam constructed in Los Angeles would hold 8,000 acres a foot of water. Impressed with the dam’s look and speed of construction, the Bureau of Water Works passed a resolution on December 28, 1923 to name the dam the Hollywood Reservoir at the request of William Mulholland, since it served the local community.

At the same time as work proceeded on building the dam, a beautiful scenic highway named for the illustrious water chief was moving forward. Hollywoodland developers, who supported the idea of building the road, which would lead through its tract from Griffith Park and on to the Cahuenga Pass, also suggested the idea of a roadway atop the dam, allowing views of dramatic vistas on either side. Hollywoodland developer S. H. Woodruff wrote a full page article in the Los Angeles Times March 23, 1924 plugging both the dam and his hillside housing tract, noting plans to build homes on the east side of the lake to take advantage of the gorgeous views. He described the “beautiful Mulholland High Way taking shape” and the striking dam soon to join it.

Construction concluded December 24, 1924, with the Board of the Public Service Commission passing a resolution December 26 to change the name of the reservoir to Mulholland Reservoir in recognition of Mulholland’s dedication to building Los Angeles’ infrastructure. Two days later on December 28, grand celebrations would salute the opening of the new Mulholland Highway, both scenic drive and real estate access road.

May 21, 1929

May 21, 1929: Mulholland Dam in the Sedalia (Mo.) Capital.

To celebrate Mulholland’s Irish heritage, the city of Los Angeles chose March 17, 1925 as the official dedication date, inviting all citizens to come and witness the grand ceremonies at 2 pm. Public Service Commission President R. F. Del Valle presided over the ceremony, attended by Los Angeles Mayor Cryer, movie dog hero Strongheart, and other city leaders. H. L. Jacques helped introduce the dedication of two bronze plaques, and William Mulholland himself spoke, acknowledging the work of Jacques and others in making the dam the most beautiful in Los Angeles’ system, decorated with elegant bear heads in honor of the state animal around its southern top.

The Van Nuys News reported that day that the 200 foot tall dam was one of the five highest in the country at over 700 feet above sea level, and that unlike every other large dam structure, it was situated in a thickly populated metropolitan area and at an elevation to overlook Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles.

By April 14, 1925, the 16 feet wide road atop the structure was completed, allowing the passage of automobiles from the Cahuenga Pass and into the new Lakeside section of Hollywoodland before ascending into the full development. Publicists for the real estate tract employed the lake as a selling tool for the next couple of years, especially in late December 1926 when announcing oil man P. M. Longan’s purchase of the palatial $250,000 home designed by John L. De Lario atop a hill overlooking the new lake. Saluting Mulholland’s creation, the home was christened Castillo del Lago.

While building Hollywood Reservoir, Mulholland also began planning and constructing a new dam in San Francisquito Canyon, exactly copying his Hollywood plans. Situated with one wall on a landslide area, the dam gave way in 1928, leading to the deaths of hundreds of people and millions of dollars in damages. Mulholland decreased water levels in the Hollywood dam immediately for safety purposes following the St. Francis Dam destruction, but Hollywood residents feared for their safety.

Clare Woolwine, 63rd District assemblyman, requested that Gov. C. C. Young immediately begin investigating all Los Angeles dams, especially the Mulholland Dam, for any construction defects or leaks. The Chamber of Commerce considered draining and possibly emptying the dam to prevent any destruction to the residents of the movie capital of the world.

Many Hollywood citizens demanded steep decreases in water levels and the immediate decommissioning of the dam. Veteran Hollywood producer David Horsley spoke out against its location high in the Hollywood hills above the city as well as its concrete construction, claiming that it would suffer the same fate as the St. Francis Dam in case of earthquake. He advocated for the dam’s closure, and if the city took no action would take legal action to force it to comply. Horsley called the dam a “menace” due to bad design and location.


July 19, 1931: The Mulholland Dam may be a “psychological menace,” Athens Sunday Messenger.

On July 23, 1928, consulting engineers reported to the Los Angeles City Council that the dam was “a safe and permanent structure” per the Los Angeles Times. The three nationally recognized engineers noted that the reservoir’s construction “was a proved and conservative type,” comparing it to the city of San Mateo’s dam which survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake though only 500 feet from the San Andreas fault.

Horsley dismissed the reports, saying he failed to believe the dam safe, or built well, and he filed suit two days later against the city, demanding the Hollywood Reservoir be closed and drained. Over the next six years, multiple engineering studies and hearings would consider the safety and construction of the Mulholland Dam and Reservoir while Horsley and associates pursued legal avenues to force its closure.

On May 7, 1930, State Engineer Edward Hyatt approved the city of Los Angeles plans to retrofit and strengthen the dam by installing a spillway and constructing a berm of rocks, dirt, and trees adjacent to the Hollywood face of the dam in order to provide greater protection against earthquakes. Opponents dismissed the idea, claiming it would provide no further protection.

Horsley and his band of followers continued their loud denunciations of the dam and its location high above Hollywood. The Van Nuys News called the dam “a psychological menace” to these opponents in its July 16, 1931, edition. The group continued protests to the City Council and Water and Power Board, which both considered draining and emptying Hollywood Reservoir. The San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles advocated for keeping and restoring the dam, worried that their residents would lose water if forced to rely on fewer water supplies, putting a heavy burden on their residents. After new engineering studies confirmed the strong rock foundation and finally tired of the unceasing negativity, the city moved ahead on March 23, 1933 with its plans to bolster and hide the Hollywood face of the Reservoir, finishing construction in 1934.

Though complaints lingered through the end of the 1930s, most eventually came to accept the idea of a safe dam high in the hills above Hollywood, especially when they could no longer see the gigantic white wall looming above them in the canyon. It gradually disappeared from memory as well, almost forgotten as a place of beauty, though the city considered building a park adjacent to it in the 1930s.

The Hollywood Reservoir no longer serves as Hollywood’s water supply, superseded by the construction of two giant tanks in the hills above it following the events of 9/11, with the city fearing contamination and poisoning by terrorists. It stands in peaceful splendor, gracefully surrounded by trees, nature, and quiet, an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city. Though the Hollywood Sign and the city of Hollywood can both be glimpsed from its path, the Hollywood Reservoir seems to float in its own Brigadoon-like atmosphere, an arcadian paradise almost lost in time.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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