The following is excerpted from the "Cultural Resources Documentation Report Westwood: North and East Villages" Prepared by Johnson Heumann Research Associates for the City of Los Angeles Department of Planning May 15, 1987
The first owner of the land now known as Westwood Village was Don Maximo Alanes who received the "Rancho San Jose de Buenos Aires" (see map) as a land grant from Governor Micheltorena in 1843. The vast rancho stretched from what is now Sawtelle Boulevard on the west to the City of Beverly Hills on the east, from Sunset Boulevard on the north to Pico Boulevard on the south. Eventually, it was acquired by Don Benito Wilson, a land baron with extensive holdings in the San Gabriel Valley, who used it for cattle grazing. In 1884, John Wolfskill, a former state senator and rancher who came to California during the Gold Rush, bought the property and several years later built a home on what is now the site of the Mormon Temple on Santa Monica Boulevard. Portions of the 2,000 acre Wolfskill Ranch, as it came to be known, were to be developed as truck farm sites. There was also a plan for a townsite, "Sunset", but the development never materialized. The ranch was intact at the time of Wolfskill's death in 1913, the last of the great ranchos to be so.
Six years later, wealthy retailer Arthur Letts bought the entire property for $100 an acre ($2,000,000). Letts, an Englishman, was the founder of the Broadway Department Store and was an initial investor in a similar enterprise founded by his former employee, John G. Bullock. Letts' interest and involvement in Los Angeles retailing made him very comfortable financially. He owned a large estate in Hollywood, a Tudor mansion surrounded by formal gardens filled with statuary. Always interested in downtown real estate development, he also invested in ranch land and subdivisions in Hollywood as well. He was particularly attracted to the Wolfskill ranch because its diversity made it suitable for a variety of uses. Unlike Wolfskill and the Santa Monica Land and Water Company, whose activities had been based around the Beverly Glen/Santa Monica Boulevard area, Letts was primarily interested in developing estate parcels which he called "Holmby Hills" after his birthplace on the northwestern edge of the rancho near Beverly Hills. Another member of his family, however, saw the potential of the rest of the rancho as a place for the growing middle class of Los Angeles. Son-in-law Harold Janss was a vice president of the Janss Investment Company, a successful real estate development enterprise originally formed by his father Peter in 1893. The Janss Corporation eventually developed a number of subdivisions in Southern California, including parts of Monterey Park, Boyle Heights, and a significant portion of the San Fernando Valley. Peter's sons, Edwin and Harold, played active roles in the company, and by 1920 were officers of the corporation. They saw in "Westwood Hills" the opportunity to create a premier middle-class subdivision for the Westside. By 1922, they were aggressively promoting homesites south of Wilshire Boulevard. Janss was a full-service company. It employed its own architects and engineers, did all its own public improvements and grading, and even planned parks and school sites.
North of Wilshire, however, things were proceeding more slowly. The landed gentry who bought estate sites in Holmby Hills liked the rural character of the area, with its riding trails crisscrossing a multitude of small canyons and arroyos. The hilly terrain was considered unsuitable for large subdivisions. Several of Letts' friends felt that part of the site would be ideal for a university, and Letts, a former trustee of the Los Angeles State Normal School, as UCLA was known until it became part of the university system in 1919, was not adverse to housing a prestigious campus on a portion of his holdings. It was clear that the school was fast outgrowing its quarters on North Vermont Avenue, where it had relocated from the present site of the Public Library at Fifth Street and Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.
In 1925, the Regents formally announced that the search for a new site was underway, although several Regents, including prominent attorney Edward A. Dickson, had been exploring possibilities for years beforehand. Dickson had a particular fondness for the Letts Tract, which reminded him of the Berkeley campus. He had approached Letts with his ideas, but Letts' failing health had precluded any formal arrangement. Upon Letts' death in 1923, the Janss Corporation became the executors of his estate. The stage was set for the development of one of the most interesting planned communities in Southern California.
UCLA considered seventeen sites for the University, narrowing the choice to five (Burbank, Fullerton, Pasadena, Palos Verdes, and Westwood), finally deciding on the 'Westwood - Beverly Hills" location on March 20, 1925. Its stated reasons for the choice included an ideal climate with an ocean breeze, the large site (over 375 acres), and its proximity to Los Angeles, which contributed over three quarters of the student body. The site was not free, however. Janss offered the Regents 300 acres at $2,000 per acre and an additional 75 acres at $7,500 per acre. Bond issues were passed by the cities of Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Venice (then, a separately incorporated municipality). The 1.3 million dollar proceeds enabled these municipalities to acquire the land and deed it to the University. Eight additional acres were donated by Alphonso Bell, developer of Brentwood and Bel-Air. So began a public/private partnership which would master-plan the area of the Wolfskill ranch north of Wilshire Boulevard to Sunset.
As soon as the University's plans had been announced, the Janss Corporation went to work. There were no support services for the campus: no housing, no shops, restaurants, markets, entertainment facilities. Janss began to plan "a town for the gown," a complete business/residential/entertainment district which would be fully integrated into campus life. In addition to the business center, the concept included both multifamily and single family residences designed to encourage the families of students to settle in the area. By 1928, the Village was being actively marketed. In January of that year, the Janss Corporation announced that sales had broken all records and that this was due, in large part, to the "rapidly increasing demand for income sites adjacent to the campus. The available income sites are fast diminishing in number, according to Mr. Janss, and listing of lots for resale is at its lowest ebb, due to the rapidly approaching opening of the University which is expected to attract a minimum of 5,000 students and their families. As the majority of these will be renters, present owners of income sites are expecting unusual value increases due to the fact that purchase on today's pre-University price basis indicates a maximum return on investment." (Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 1-21-28). In February of 1929, building activity had increased to the point that Janss found it advantageous to create a separate construction and development arm, known as Westwood Mortgage and Investment Company. Controlled by Janss officers, the new company had twenty-six buildings under construction just sixty days later. Included were four sororities, one apartment, four duplexes, and seventeen single family residences. In addition, the company announced plans for three additional sorority chapter houses, three apartments, three commercial buildings, three duplexes, and three residents.
Janss took great care to ensure that the character of the Village and the surrounding residential area would guarantee its status as a premier business and residential development. The roughly triangular plan with its intricate pattern of intersections, and its principal axis culminating at the entrance to the University, was designed by Harlan Bartholomew, City Planner of St. Louis, and L.D. Tilton of Santa Barbara, to include a central parkway with lawn, flowers, and palm trees, and to give each streetscape its own particular interest. Enhancing this concept were various urban design features, most prominently the streetlamps with standards of blue and gold sporting university symbols, and the landscaped "islands" of greenery at the southern entrance to the enclave and adjacent to the Janss headquarters building. The corner buildings, characterized by towers, were especially intended to be the visual reference points of the retail center. Design restrictions were imposed to ensure an overall "Mediterranean" theme. All proposed designs were approved by an architectural jury, the result being diversity within an overall unity. Most of the designs for the commercial structures tended to be Spanish or Classically influenced. The relationship of buildings to one another was carefully orchestrated, as evidenced by the cornices, floor lines, proportions of openings, and juxtaposition of solids and voids throughout each streetscape.
Many of the larger buildings in the Village had multiple uses; both the Janss Building and the Holmby Buildings, for instance, had student dormitory space on their second stories. Realizing, however, that students would not be their only clientele, if plans for the surrounding homesites and income lots materialized, the Janss Corporation made provisions for what they termed "the most discriminating shopper from the estates" close by. It is to this added dimension that the commercial area owes its unique blend of both pedestrian- and automobile-oriented development. Pedestrians were intrigued by the wide sidewalks and pleasant landscaping. Corner buildings were accessible from both streets, and, as the ultimate pedestrian environment, interior courtyards, often decorated with brightly colored tile, provided a pleasant respite from the busy sidewalks. The district's most distinctive feature, its towers, were a direct response to the Holmby and Sears Buildings, the Fox Theatre, and four gas stations located near the south entrance to the Village, served to orient the motorist as he proceeded north toward the University and the adjoining residential areas.
The intimate scale of the Village attracted branches of specialty stores as the area became one of Southern California's most successful suburban shopping centers. Bullock's, Desmond's, and other fine clothiers opened shops filled with quality clothing, while gifts, books, and other services abounded. By 1940, Janss was advertising the Village as "America's most unique shopping center", and extolling the virtues of its "stunningly decorated and appointed stores" which attracted shoppers from all over the world.