When Van Nuys was a name downtown too

barclay-garyleonard.jpgThe former Van Nuys Hotel. Photo by Gary Leonard.

Writing in the Downtown News, longtime local historian Greg Fischer visits the corner of 4th and Main in what's called the Old Bank District to remind people why the name Van Nuys is on a few things in Los Angeles. At that corner is the Barclay Building, erected in 1897 as the Van Nuys Hotel, at the time considered a very nice hotel by Los Angeles standards of the day. You can still see the Van Nuys lettering high on the facade of the Barclay if you have the right vantage point. A good spot for that is diagonally across the intersection in the Lankershim Building, the first loft housing retrofit in the Old Bank District.

The Van Nuys and Lankershim names are intimately linked in Los Angeles history, and not just because both are the names of north-south boulevards that take a dogleg or two as they cut across the Valley. From Fischer's piece:

Isaac Newton Van Nuys, from an old Dutch family in New York, arrived in Los Angeles a few years after the Civil War. In 1880, he married the former Susanna Hill Lankershim, thus uniting the Van Nuys and Lankershim families. Susanna’s father, Isaac Lankershim (changed from Lankesheim), was a partner with Van Nuys in a farming syndicate that owned almost the entire southern half of the San Fernando Valley, some 60,000 acres south of Roscoe Boulevard.

The property had been acquired from Don Pío Pico, the last Mexican governor of the portion of California that today is in the United States. Don Pío’s brother, General Andrés Pico, held the balance of the Valley lands, about 60,000 acres north of Roscoe Boulevard. No doubt the sale of the southern half of the Valley helped Don Pío finance the building of the Pico House hotel at today’s El Pueblo Plaza. It opened in 1869, about a year after Pico sold the Valley acreage.

In 1896, Isaac and Susanna Lankershim Van Nuys built the Van Nuys Hotel on the northwest corner of Fourth and Main streets. It was constructed on the site of the former home of Colonel James Howard and his wife. Howard was a prominent attorney and the Howards lived next to former Gov. John G. Downey. These were the days when South Main Street was very “in” as a residential neighborhood....

his hotel is where Henry Huntington stayed while on trips to scope out Los Angeles as a place in which to invest, long before he built his estate at San Marino. President William McKinley stayed at the Van Nuys when visiting Los Angeles in 1901, several months before his assassination. A photo from the time shows the president in a carriage arriving amidst a throng of well-wishers jammed into the intersection. The hotel is decked out with flags in every window and guests waving at the presidential entourage.

It was on that trip to Los Angeles when McKinley was photographed in a crowd at the Soldier's Home that became the West LA Veterans Affairs campus, and also when he attended a party at the home of LA Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis that I talk about a bit in my book on Wilshire Boulevard. The Otis home at the corner of Park View Street was one of the first homes built on the new Wilshire Boulevard, if not the first.

Just to be clear, since I know LA's history is not everybody's cup of tea, the Roscoe Boulevard that Fischer refers to at the time was just a plough furrow scratched into the grass range of the Valley to mark the Lankershim ranch's boundary. Decades later, when the Valley acreage began to be divided up more, a road gradually began to appear along the boundary between south and north. The name for Roscoe Boulevard came from one of the towns established along the railroad tracks; that settlement was renamed Sun Valley in the suburban era.

That 1870s dividing line between ranches, and later subdivisions, is also why some main streets across the Valley — Sepulveda Boulevard is a good example — follow different alignments on either side of Roscoe. Through the years, the traffic jams that resulted from a forced turn to continue driving on Sepulveda and other streets were relieved by smoothing out the old mismatch. That's why Sepulveda, arrow straight for most of its traverse of the Valley, curves gently just below Roscoe.

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