Historian of the Valley hangs up his tour shoes

"Fernando" statue, meant to symbolize the native inhabitants of the San Fernando Valley, in front of the Van Nuys municipal building on Saturday. LAO photos.

richard-hilton-panorama.jpgI tagged along Saturday on the final walking tour of the old core of Van Nuys given by Richard Hilton. He's a volunteer docent for the fledgling Museum of the San Fernando Valley, and for several years now has been leading weekend walking tours of the original Van Nuys and North Hollywood central districts. Word got out that Saturday would be Hilton's last monthly trek, so there was a larger crowd than usual. Included among the history fans were several officials of the museum, a representative of the city's Survey LA project, and reporter Dana Bartholomew of the Daily News (and DN photographer Hans Gutknecht.) From Bartholomew's Sunday story:

If anyone knows every nook, cranny and historic secret in Van Nuys — “the town that was started right!” — it’s Richard Hilton.

For years, the New York transplant and beagle-leading champ of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show has led preservation efforts and tours throughout the Hub of the San Fernando Valley. But on Saturday prior to a move back East, he led his last historic walking jaunt.

“I love this town because I think it’s been so underutilized and under appreciated,” declared the docent of The Museum of the San Fernando Valley, who will soon publish an early history of Van Nuys. “Its history is the Valley’s history....

It was five years ago that Hilton, an actor and writer living in Valley Glen, noticed a forlorn bungalow built in 1911 during the first land auction hosted by Van Nuys pioneer William Paul Whitsett. The developer who owned it razed the historic house for condos.

The loss set in motion monthly educational tours to raise awareness of the Valley’s historic core.

The reference to the Westminster Kennel Club is about Hilton's beagle, Teddy, who won best in variety honor at the show three years ago. Hilton and his wife, Diana Lipari, are moving to outside of Boston to take up dog breeding in a place where rain does actually fall during a year. On Saturday, Hilton introduced his listeners to the basic backstory of the Valley — mission land turned farm land turned suburban boom towns. He told them how Van Nuys was subdivided out of bare, flat, treeless earth in 1911 by the syndicate of Los Angeles interests that had bought up half of the Valley to cash in on the water soon to come down William Mulholland's aqueduct from the Owens Valley. They laid out a town, started building some Potemkin houses to make prospective buyers think there was activity, and threw a big real estate sales party. Soon the new town of Van Nuys had a hotel, a doctor, a baseball team and a couple of manufacturing factories providing jobs.

Hilton ties his solid grasp of the facts into a coherent story, which I what I most admire about his work and passion for LA history. He took his crowd around the Van Nuys Civic Center and into a local church filled with Judson Studios stained glass, pointed out the original storefronts that still face Van Nuys Boulevard at Sylvan Street, and even lured his tailor out of his shop to say a few words about being in business for 50 years. The walk through a hot Valley morning ended with a surprise interlude inside out of the sun. Two of the walk's participants, lawyers Julie Sherman and Aaron Straussner, opened up their restored — and air conditioned — offices in the former Depression-era city branch library on Sylvan Street (it's on the National Register of Historic Places) to let everyone toast Hilton with champagne.

Hilton tells a story about Van Nuys.


Hilton being congratulated by Scott Sterling, president of the Museum of the San Fernando Valley.


Law offices in former Los Angeles Public Library.

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