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West Lake Park (later MacArthur Park) from Seventh Street and Alvarado Street, Los Angeles, photographed around 1930.
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MacArthur Park’s glory days

It reigned for a half-century as a grand setting for outdoor concerts and boat rides

If you had asked Angelenos in the first half of the 20th century what the name “Westlake Park” meant to them, there is little doubt you would have received glowing responses. The 35-acre recreation area, now known as MacArthur Park, was said to be a place where “palms whisper in this island of quiet in the midst of roaring city traffic.”

It was “the most popular open-air resort in the city” and “the most beautiful.” According to the Westlake Weekly, by 1910 around half-a-million people visited every year. Westlake, the neighborhood that had grown around the park, was an “exclusive, high-class residence district,” lined with New York style apartment houses, Queen Anne-style mansions, and cultural institutions like the Otis Art Institute.

A cactus garden in the 1890s—an early attempt to beautify swampland.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Not so long before, the acreage had been a rural, stinking marshland with an alkali lake, used primarily as a dump for residents in the nearby heart of Los Angeles. Near the western boundary of the small city, the area was an eyesore and a wasteland.

It was transformed, when, according to historian Nathan Masters, prominent leaders in the community who owned land around the lake sought to make the hilly expanse a tony suburb of LA.

Led by Mayor William Workman, one of the landowners, a campaign to turn the lake area into a park was launched. In 1886, the boosters were successful, and Westlake was “forever dedicated to the use of the public as such park and reservoir.”

Freshwater was pumped into the lake, trees were planted, and promenades were installed in the manner of grand parks on the East Coast and in Europe.

Benches lined walkways that circled the lake’s boundaries.
USC Digital Library

The park was officially opened over Thanksgiving weekend in 1890. It quickly had the desired effect on property values in the nascent neighborhood, which was soon the home of grand Angelenos, including Harrison Gray Otis and Ida Hancock.

Over its first 40 years, Westlake Park went through a series of graceful iterations. A buggy trail on a portion of the lake was planted with palms and renamed the posh sounding “Palm Drive.”

Color-enhanced postcards from the Los Angeles Public Library photo collection show the boathouse (top left), bandshell (top right), lovely flowers and walking paths (bottom left), and a horse and buggy (bottom right).

Over its first 40 years, Westlake Park went through a series of graceful iterations. A buggy trail on a portion of the lake was planted with palms and renamed the posh sounding “Palm Drive.”

Westlake was an exclusive neighborhood, but the park was easily accessible to all Angelenos via streetcars that stopped right at the park.

A boathouse at the lake.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

A series of bandshells sheltered free outdoor concerts and dances. There were also boathouses. The most elaborate had a “mansion-style staircase,” which “flowed all the way down to water level,” giving visitors access to the lake. Boating was a popular pastime, with sailboats, canoes, and rowboats all available for rent.

A dippy boat.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

In 1914, the Los Angeles Times described an idyllic summer night at the park: “Westlake seemed to have taken upon itself a subdued festival attire last evening. Miller’s Military Band was playing to a large audience scattered around the edge of the lake. Numerous boats were lazily moving on the surface of the water, the red lanterns at the stern of each canoe casting long and dancing crimson shadows.”

By the 1920s, many of the rapidly expanding city’s richest residents were moving west to build their mansions, but the park remained popular.

In 1932, the Herald-Express held its annual model yacht race at the park, filling the lake with more than 3,000 miniature boats. In many ways, this picture-perfect event was the last hurrah of the Westlake Park of old.

Since the late 1920s, the city had been debating how to fix the fatal flaw in Wilshire Boulevard, builder and booster Gaylord Wilshire’s grand thoroughfare from Downtown to Santa Monica. The park lay in the direct path of the boulevard, causing a detour that city leaders said impeded traffic and stunted development.

“Construction of an automobile thoroughfare at Westlake Park,” the LA Times editorialized in 1931, “is the sole remaining project facing authorities before Wilshire Blvd. becomes a complete wide artery leading from the business section to the sea.”

Several plans were drawn up, including a picturesque ornamental bridge and a daring underwater tunnel. But in 1932, it became clear that the city was set to choose cheapest option, a “land-fill” road, which would bisect the lake and park with a “river of concrete” at an estimated cost of $93,000.

1931 bridge proposal of Wilshire Boulevard extension.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Residents and business owners in the grand old Westlake neighborhood were outraged. Not only would their park and neighborhood be bisected by a major road, the construction would majorly disrupt the ecosystem of the park.

The lake would be drained and massive amounts of earth moved.

In March 1932, the Wilshire Community Council filed a protest with the city against the dirt road. The next month, 800 concerned citizens met at the Royal Palms Hotel under the auspices of the Westlake District City of Commerce and the Wilshire Community Council to urge city leaders to oppose the plan.

Westlake activists continued to fight the plan stating it was “the most expensive, obnoxious method” proposed and that it would annihilate “the beautiful tropical scene” of the park.

On October 4, 300 residents crowded into a meeting of the public works committee in a desperate attempt to save their beloved park. According to the LA Times:

Speakers protested against any construction in the park, but were adamant against the dirt fill proposition. Arguments voiced by the speakers were that it will mean the destruction of a great deal of park area, that it is an unnecessary improvement, that due to the topography of the region the dirt fill roadway will bring traffic hazards and that the cost of the project will be a drain on the public purse.

Community leaders even took their case to court, claiming that the original land grant for the park did the not allow for such a major project. The Los Angeles Superior Court agreed with the plaintiffs, and the project was stalled. However, the ruling was overturned by the California State Supreme Court in 1934.

“Although local community leaders were able to delay the beginning of construction by citing the original 1886 ordinance’s noncommercial clause, the city council ultimately approved the low-cost alternative,” Jose A. Gardea, author of MacArthur Park (Images of America), explains.

The digging began in earnest in 1934. The lake was drained, statues were moved, and hundreds of wildlife were displaced.

1938 view of Westlake Park, bisected by Wilshire Boulevard.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

When the Wilshire extension was finally opened by Mayor Frank Shaw in December, city and business leaders celebrated. More than 3,000 people crowded to watch cars traverse the new road, which now was indeed an expansive avenue from “the city to the sea.”

For many Westlake Park lovers, the new bisected park was an entirely different beast. As Gardea notes, the park was now becoming more and more a “drive-through” park instead of a “destination park.”

The Wilshire extension added big city flavor to the once quiet park- along with some big city problems. The tunnels which connected the park’s two halves created unsafe areas that drew crime and unseemly assignations. Fumes from cars made the air sooty and unhealthy.

In wasn’t long before the name Westlake Park itself was threatened. According to Gardea, in 1942, William Randolph Hearst suggested changing the name of the park to honor World War Two hero General Douglas MacArthur, who Hearst wanted to make a viable presidential nominee.

Once again, the city brass was enthusiastic and approved of the change, and once again Westlake Park lovers and neighborhood residents were appalled. City Hall and local papers were sent dozens of letters in protest, written by people who saw the old Los Angeles they loved rapidly slipping away. One letter from a man named Edwin L. Quinn to the LA Times read:

With due regard for all patriotic considerations, it is with the deepest sorrow that I learn of the passing of the name of Westlake Park. After frequent visits to those recreation environs, extending over a period of 46 years, Central Park [renamed Pershing Square in honor of John J. Pershing in 1918] and Westlake Park will always remain just that to me. Individuals and heroes may come, and individuals and heroes may go, but parks go on forever. It does seem that fitting tribute to our great might be expressed without destroying names which have become traditional.

He was joined by other irate people, some of whom had stronger arguments than others. “The old name is so embedded in the history and traditions of the city that it deserves to be retained permanently,” a man named J.F. Lilly wrote.

Unveiling of General MacArthur statue.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

“Moreover, it has a distinctive meaning, in that it is toward the west part of the city and is a really beautiful lake... Let’s allow our pioneer names to stand, unless they are inappropriate!”

A concerned Westlake resident name Bo Gilkey blamed the name change decision on “political aspirations along with hasty judgment and hero worship.”

Westlake businessman Arthur Day was more pragmatic: “I feel that we should at least wait until after the war.”

Again, the city gave lip service to the protestors, inviting them to voice their concerns. But, in the end, the name change was approved. In June 1942, Westlake Park was officially rechristened MacArthur Park. A new era had begun, and the name that had meant so much to so many passed into obscurity.

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