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The lost architecture of the San Fernando Valley

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From the glamorous home of G. Henry Stetson to an amusement park that gave out free beer, these places have all disappeared

A 1947 photo by Julius Shulman of the Richard Neutra-designed Josef Von Sternberg house.
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

The 20th century was a whirlwind for the San Fernando Valley. Within the span of a few decades, the once agricultural area became part of the city of Los Angeles, gained access to the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s water, and saw an incredible post-war boom.

The region’s popularity never waned, and as it grew, it sometimes did so by paving over some marvelous older buildings. In honor of Valley Week, we’re taking a look at some of that lost architecture, from a drive-in to an Anheuser Busch amusement park to a house considered to be an example of Richard Neutra’s best work.

Some were felled in the name of progress. Others were victims of nature. But the thread that connects them all is that none of them exist in the Valley anymore.

Josef Von Sternberg House

Photo by Julius Shulman
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Designed by famed modernist Richard Neutra, this grand Northridge residence was built in 1936 for director and cinematographer Josef von Sternberg.

Architectural Digest writes that the house featured an aluminum facade and, inside, a double-height living room to display artwork. A shallow lily pond wrapped around the front of the residence like a moat. Noted photographer Julius Shulman photographed the house.

Von Sternberg relocated before World War II, selling the house to The Fountainhead author Ayn Rand. (Rand reportedly loved the house.)

Though it is considered by many to be an example of Neutra’s best work, the house was demolished in 1971, perhaps because of the then—owner’s post-Manson murders fear of hippies squatting there, a 1999 Los Angeles Times article says. The land was sold for development, and is today occupied by a housing development.

Rancho Sombrero

Courtesy of Los Angeles Times Photo Collection

This glamorous Spanish-style home in Sylmar belonged to G. Henry Stetson, whose father invented the famous cowboy hat that bears the family name.

Originally a massive ranch measuring nearly 300 acres, the appropriately named Rancho Sombrero (“Hat Ranch”) was rumored to have the country’s largest private swimming pool, and was, understandably, a hot spot among the fashionable and famous, KPCC reported in 2008.

A 1990 Los Angeles Times article says that in 1959, Stetson sold most of the ranch to the Mormon church to build a college, but the deal allowed him to live out the rest of his life on the property. (Hugh Hefner got a similar deal when the Playboy Mansion was sold last year.)

However a fire in 1963 led to a mudslide that filled the house and the pool with mud. The 1971 Sylmar earthquake further damaged the house; Stetson and his wife Sybilla moved to Woodland Hills, and the church demolished most of the estate and later sold the land.

Most of the land is now a mobile home park. The project’s developer, Continental Mobile Housing, donated some of the estate’s land to create Stetson Ranch Park in lieu of paying the park fees required of developers at the time.

United States Veterans Administration Hospital

A 1948 photo of the hospital.
Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
A 1964 aerial of the hospital grounds.
Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

This Sylmar hospital was the first Veterans Bureau hospital built on the West Coast. Multiple expansions grew the hospital to 20 buildings spread out across the foothills, and the facility once had “one of the finest tubercular institutions in the world,” the Los Angeles Public Library says.

Unfortunately, the hospital’s 1920s-era unreinforced concrete buildings collapsed during the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, killing “at least 44 people,” according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

In its place lies the 97-acre Veterans Memorial Park.

The Valley Music Theater

An opening night for the Valley Music Theater is captured in this July 8, 1964 photo.
Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Backed by Hollywood heavy-hitters like Bob Hope and big-name broadcaster Art Linkletter, the Valley Music Theater in Woodland Hills—the Valley’s “first cultural center”— opened in 1964 with a bang, the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1989.

The cool, concrete domed structure was built as a state-of-the-art live music venue, and it drew 600,000 attendees in its first year. Yet, just two years later, the theater was struggling financially.

The Valley Music Center closed and declared bankruptcy that year, but was revived in 1972 under new management (Sammy Davis Jr. was a partner). Despite a line-up that included boxing matches and performances by Tina Turner and Ray Charles, operators still struggled to make the place profitable.

In 1980, the theater was sold and used as a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall. In 2004, it was sold to a developer, and in 2007, demolished for condos.

Gates of Girard

Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

The “mosque-like gate” to Victor Girard’s nearly 3,000-acre development, Girard, is the not even the most interesting thing about the community, which, since 1941, has been known as Woodland Hills.

The town of Girard opened in 1923 with fanfare that included promises of amenities not yet built.

Girard ultimately got into trouble around the time of the Great Depression. Residents had figured out he’d sold some lots more than once to different buyers, and they sued him. Girard also had financial trouble paying off the mounting debts for the development. Ultimately, his land company went bankrupt. Only a few of the cabins and the neighborhood’s golf course (an amenity touted by Girard) remain.

Royal Albatross gas station

Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The Valley is rich with programmatic architecture, but the Royal Albatross gas station was a straight-up airplane that was used a gas station. Gas pumps were set under the wings of the plane. (There was at least one other instance of airplane-as-gas-station in LA around the same time.)

The Los Angeles Public Library’s photo archives place the gas station at the eastern end of the triangle of land bordered by Ventura Place and Ventura and Laurel Canyon boulevards, in Studio City. The photo is dated 1939.

It’s not clear what happened to the airplane, but it is definitely not at the same site anymore. (There is a Shell gas station in roughly that spot now.)

Van Nuys Drive-In Theatre

Photos dated 1948 (day) and 1979 (night) show the drive-in’s marquee and mural.
Sensorsock (1948) and Glenn Morgan (1979) / Creative Commons
A 1964 aerial of the theater.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The Van Nuys Drive-In opened in 1948 as a one-screen theater with a mural painted on the back of the screen and a marquee along Roscoe Boulevard. It was eventually converted to a triplex, and it lost its mural in the process, says Cinema Treasures.

The drive-in was popular, but over time, that mattered less and less. The 1990s were rough for LA drive-ins. Between September 1996 and January 1997, six in the LA-area shuttered, the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1997. The closures had “less to do with depreciating numbers of patrons than appreciating land value,” said the Times.

The Van Nuys Drive-In eventually succumbed to the trend. It closed “for the season” in 1996 and was demolished in the late ’90s. At the time it was torn down, the Van Nuys Drive-In was the last drive-in in the Valley. (The Winnetka 6 in Chatsworth was the last drive-in in operation; it lasted until 1997.) There’s now a middle school on the site.

Busch Gardens Van Nuys

Busch Gardens in 1966.
Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Built in the mid-1960s, Van Nuys’s Busch Gardens rose next to the Anheuser Busch’s brewing plant. The approximately 17-acre amusement park included free beer, a monorail which peeked into the brewing plant, a lagoon with boats that guests could ride (a la Disney’s Jungle Cruise), and the pavilions pictured here, which stood 22 feet above the water.

The park lasted until the late 1970s, when “the demand for more beer moved the company to pave over the gardens for more production space,” says a 1994 Los Angeles Times article.