By Rory Mitchell
The sandstone cliffs that have lined Sunset Boulevard through Echo Park and Silver Lake for the past century are collapsing. The Eastsider reported a year ago when a 20-foot chunk of the cliff on the north side of Sunset near Coronado Terrace toppled to ground during a storm. Last month, the steep slope west of Benton Way collapsed, blocking the sidewalk and spilling into the roadway. After the February 2010 landslide, a city engineer reported that “the oversteepened cut slope is a public safety hazard” and that “in the long term, the slope needs to be stabilized.”
That city engineer is far from the first person who has warned about the need to prevent the walls of sandstone from tumbling onto Sunset Boulevard. In fact, these slopes began collapsing and crumbling almost as soon as the hills were cut and graded in the late 1880s to form a channel that would one day carry Sunset Boulevard and spur the development of Echo Park and Silver Lake.
Our current situation began with E.C. Burlingame, a grading contractor with a diamond studded watch who made the initial cuts through the hills as he blasted a path for the Ostrich Farm Railroad. The railroad would not only deliver customers to the Ostrich Farm in Griffith Park by way of Sunset Junction but would also open up the “Northwestern Hills” – which included present day Echo Park and Silver Lake – to development. The 80 foot wide “Ostrich Motor Road” that accompanied the railroad is what would become modern day Sunset Boulevard.
Burlingame’s paid advertisement in the L.A. Times of May 1887 announced, ”E. C. Burlingame, grading contractor, is the most reliable man in the business in this city.” This self-description is in stark contrast to the Times Editorial column later that year calling him “ignorant, unprincipled & dangerous.”
Burlingame’s excavations were slipshod by the standards of his day, as well as ours. The American Railway Engineers Handbook of 1901 allows for “perpendicular cuts to be made in hard rock that will not disintegrate by exposure,” it also cautions that “it is a frequent blunder that slopes in cuts are made too steep” and warns of “the dangers of accidents from possible landslides.”
The end result of the work of Burlingame and the Ostrich Farm Railroad is described in a lawsuit filed in 1893, before work would commence on Sunset Boulevard. Colonel George H. Smith, a lawyer and former Colonel in the Confederate Army owned 140 acres of hill country from west of Alvarado to Silver Lake Blvd. His lawsuit sought compensation from the railroad for the damage done to his land by the “deep cuts and high embankments” made “to such a manner as to greatly injure the land.”
Col. Smith won his lawsuit against the Ostrich Farm Railroad, now known as the Los Angeles and Pacific Railroad (later the Santa Monica Railway, before the Pacific Electric) and was awarded $6,000 in damages.
Before the ink was dry on the settlement, the promoters of the Northwest Hills had begun to organize to open and widen Sunset Boulevard to 100 feet and connect it with the network of boulevards already built in Hollywood. The city engineer drew up a plan for Sunset Boulevard which followed the grade of the Ostrich Farm Motor Road, yet Col. Smith refused to give the right of way that would allow the city to build the improvement.
From 1893 to 1902, Colonel Smith would insist that the path of Sunset Boulevard follow a route that swing north at Waterloo Street, climbing the hill before following the path of modern day Elsinore Street. This route would have avoided further widening of the cut between Waterloo and Coronado, as well as the one at Benton Way.
In May of 1901 the City Council promised the use of the city chain gang to widen the cuts along the route Sunset would take. The chain gang had been working sporadically on Sunset Boulevard since at least 1899, when it was reported that a convict named George Limebeck had taken “French leave” when he slipped his foot from a ball and chain and scrambled over an embankment to escape on a westbound Santa Monica Electric Car.
Why, then, did Col. Smith finally relent and allow the route of Sunset Boulevard to follow that of the Ostrich Farm Motor Road when he deeded a strip of land 100 feet wide to the city for $1 in 1902? As the roadbed of Sunset Boulevard is a narrower 74 feet across between Waterloo and Coronado and west of Benton Way, it seems likely that Colonel Smith, the younger brother of a railroad engineer, gave the right of way to the city with the understanding that the cuts through his hillsides would be widened no further.
In 1903 the City of Los Angeles began to widen Sunset Boulevard with a new contractor, Charles Stanbury. There was talk of using a steam shovel to widen the cuts through the hills east of what is now Echo Park Avenue and west of Douglas Street. Finally, in May 1904, the promoters that had fought for Sunset Boulevard for the past 15 years made up a “grand parade of automobiles, carriages and tallyhos, with fluttering pennants” and a dozen Electric Railcars made their way up the still unpaved Sunset Boulevard. ”Bunting streamed from almost every house along the way… Children appeared with their heads wreathed in flowers and tooted tin horns, while young men and women waved little flags in jubilation.”
The festivities were marred only by the fact that the “practically completed” Sunset Boulevard was just that. A protest to the City Council made two weeks later against Stanbury’s work included the following: “The sidewalks have not been cleared of debris in a number of places, especially at a point near the intersection of Reservoir Street where the wall of the cut has caved in, depositing ten tons, more or less, of earth thereon.” This collapse would have been just west of the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Parkman, where today stands a strip mall and the Thirsty Crow.
In 1907, the backers of Sunset begin to discuss paving the boulevard and turning the “grewsome” old Spanish Cemetery “into a beautiful city park.” As early as 1912 the Automobile Club had identified Sunset Boulevard as one of the few “asphalt boulevards” and a touring route for the city. In 1940, the Works Progress Administration built the retaining wall (pictured in the gallery) on Sunset west of Benton Way. The other partial retaining walls built along Sunset Boulevard through Echo Park and Silver Lake are of unknown provenance, yet suggest numerous other instances of collapse.
An engineer with the City of Los Angeles says that a retaining wall is the most likely solution for stabilizing the sandstone cliff between Coronado and Waterloo. The oppressive nature of a 30 foot high cement retaining wall looming over Sunset Boulevard could be partially alleviated by an enormous mural from a local artist but there might also another option.
It could be possible to rock bolt and shotcrete the cliff together, as seen at boulderscape.com. This would preserve the natural beauty of the sandstone cliffs, while preventing a house from sliding down into the westbound lanes of Sunset Boulevard during rush hour. However, this approach could require an easement from the homeowners on the cliffs above allowing the city to encroach into their property with rock bolts.
For the homeowners who live above Sunset Boulevard and the pedestrians who walk below, we cannot afford to wait yet another century to stabilize our sandstone cliffs.
For more of the history of the people and events in this story, as well as pictures and maps, please visit valleyspringlane.tumblr.com.