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Canadian born Hobart Johnstone Whitley came west by way of Chicago. He had a vision for development. Almost every town he created had a bank and hotel as its foundation. His simple plan was to followed the railroad. Whitley married in 1886 and the couple honeymooned in Southern California. The experience piqued Whitley's imagination. Upon return, he opened a jewelry store on Spring Street in Los Angeles. Soon after, he began buying land, lots of it. One parcel, the Herd Ranch, included 480 acres above the Cahuenga Valley. In 1889 the purchase was finalized. H.J. and his bride renamed it Whitley Heights. Not one for small gestures, Whitley planted 10,000 trees and invited 1,000 people to a barbeque. This established him as an early founder of Hollywood.

In December 1902, along with two other investors, Whitley opened the elegant Hollywood Hotel on Highland Avenue. He was already a principal in the Los Angeles Pacific Boulevard and Development Company. The following year he erected the first structure in Whitley Heights, a Mission Revival bandstand in the style of the Hollywood Hotel. Looking southwest from this site one could see citrus groves all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Hollywood Bowl opened almost two decades later.


Whitley saw the end of Victorian culture and believed Mediterranean architecture would be more compatible with Southern California climate and landscape. An avid traveler himself, he hired architect Arthur Barnes to tour Europe and study architecture and landscaping. Concerts were held to entertain prospective buyers of the tracts. The majority of the houses were built before the stock market crash of 1929. Barnes trained a cadre of young assistants to carry on his work, creating homogeneous yet individualistic homes. Whitley is quoted in an article in the Los Angeles Times, "Whitley Heights will be my last sub-division. I look upon it as the culmination of a lifetime of development, and frankly, the most beautiful piece of property I ever developed. I have held it for about eighteen years with the idea that it should be my last piece of development work."

The concept of a hillside development in the Hollywood area was new. Roads were graded and retaining walls were constructed for many steep embankments. Flights of pedestrian steps were built to to traverse the entire hill to conent different levels. To protect cars from backing off the steep grades, decorative iron posts and heavy oblong link chains were installed.


Silent screen stars gravitated to this secluded hillside setting and its easy commute to RKO Pictures, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Chaplin Studios. Early residents included Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova, Barbara La Marr, Francis X Bushman, Blanche Sweet, Norma Talmadge, Eugene O’Brien, Marie Dressler, Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery, and Gloria Swanson. Some stars transitioned into talkies. As the Golden Age of film approached, Bette Davis, Tyrone Power, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Maurice Chevalier, Donald O’Connor, Barbara Stanwyck, and Rosalind Russell moved into  Whitley Heights. William Faulkner wrote several screenplays on the hill. Other writes include Ben Hecht, James Hilton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anita Loos, Peter Milne, and Lenore Coffee. 


After 1930 other styles of architecture were introduced. Watsonia Terrace is named after developer Arthur Watson, who hired set designer Harry McAfee to design his Normandy cottage on Milner Road. German expatriate Kem Weber trained at Bauhaus. Kern started out as an industrial designer before designing the Walt Disney Studios and was the architect to three private residences on the hill.


The Hollywood Freeway began construction in 1946, dividing Whitley Heights. This development impacted dozens of significant homes. Rudolph Valentino’s residence on Wedgewood was destroyed. After the Topside estate was demolished, the Whitley Heights Civic Association sought to retain the character of the neighborhood. Community involvement led by Brian Moore resulted in Whitley Heights nomination to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1982. It was added to Historic Preservation Overlay Zone in 1982.

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