The colorful stucco houses along 81st Street in South Los Angeles look like they belong in a storybook. Painted pink, blue, green, and orange, they feature peaked Spanish tile roofs, rolled eaves, arched entries, and stained glass windows lined with colorful ceramic tile. The front yards are gently mounded and neatly kept. On this hot and sunny Saturday, someone is preparing for a child’s birthday party, while others are doing yardwork or gathered on shady front porches.
The Vermont Knolls Historic District was originally developed by the Walter Leimert Company, best known locally, perhaps, for Leimert Park. The Leimert Company specialized in affordable, orderly, and modest homes in distinct neighborhoods, set apart from the existing grid by curving streets. Developed from 1928–1939, the Vermont Knolls Historic District reflects suburban trends during the transition between the streetcar and the automobile. The five-cent streetcar fare from downtown was featured prominently in advertisements, but the homes feature porte-cocheres to accommodate the family car.
Like many folks during the pandemic, my husband and I made daily neighborhood walks part of our work-from-home routine. But after several months, we felt like we were wearing a groove along too-familiar sidewalks. Desperately seeking new areas to explore, we consulted HistoricPlacesLA, which led us to Vermont Knolls.
HistoricPlacesLA is a joint project of the Getty Conservation Institute and the City of Los Angeles. Launched in 2015, it was the first online information and management system specifically created to inventory, map, and describe Los Angeles’s significant cultural resources.
The site is powered by Arches, an open-source software developed by the Conservation Institute and the World Monument Fund to inventory and help protect cultural heritage. Created originally for archeological sites—ancient tombs, pyramids, and temples—it’s an important tool for all heritage types, including coffee shops, diners, and celebrities’ homes in our own backyard.
HistoricPlacesLA contains information gathered through SurveyLA, an ambitious citywide survey to identify significant historic resources. “We asked community members to identify places in their neighborhoods that had social or cultural meaning to them,” said Ken Bernstein, who heads the City of L.A. Office of Historic Resources. That information was combined with research conducted by professional survey teams. Updates are coming soon to the HistoricPlacesLA inventory, he promises, along with an upgrade to a newer version of Arches.
Type in “LGBT” and you can create a tour ranging from Liberace’s house in the San Fernando Valley to the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake. Search “African American” and you get 99 results, including the Sugar Hill Historic District in the Adams-Normandie neighborhood and the former home of the California Eagle newspaper in South L.A.
Using HistoricPlacesLA, my husband and I have wandered through the Miracle Mile North Historic District, the Gregory Ain Mar Vista Tract, Lafayette Square, Baldwin Hills, and the Japanese American community along Sawtelle Boulevard, in addition to the Vermont Knolls Historic District.
During this time of social distancing, we wear masks, make way on sidewalks for other pedestrians, and patronize local businesses (here’s looking at you, Tacos 1986 on Beverly Boulevard and Orleans & York Deli on Crenshaw).
My husband and I thought that these would be our travel years. But due to circumstances beyond our control, we’re sticking close to home. It’s not so bad. As Dorothy Gale once said, there’s no place like home. Especially when it’s Los Angeles.
Oh, and if you enter “Wizard of Oz,” you can find the traditional ranch house in Bel-Air designed by Wallace Neff where Judy Garland lived from 1938–1943.
How to Use HistoricPlacesLA
There are several different ways to use HistoricPlacesLA.
Here are a few ways we like to use it:
1. First, seek out historic districts, where you can focus on a few blocks that tell a compelling story about the city.
Click on the “Search” button on the home page and you’ll see six “Popular Searches.” Click on the Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZ), where you’ll get a list of neighborhoods with historic, cultural, and architectural significance.
We use the “location filter” to the right of the search field to see these districts displayed as red pins on a map of the city. Clicking on the “+” and “-” icons allows you to zoom in and out. If you click-and-drag on the map you can move the map to a desired area. Click on an individual red pin and you’ll get a pop-up. Click on the blue “view report” button in the pop-up and it will provide a handy map of the district. Scroll down to see the full report, it includes a description and statement on why the neighborhood is significant.
2. The home page of HistoricPlacesLA offers featured searches: Modernism in LA, the Entertainment Industry, and Pre-1900 LA. Click on any of them and you get a list of historic resources included in that category. Click on “location filter” to the right of the search field, and you get red pins that indicate where each resource is located. You can zoom in to a smaller geographic area using the “+” icons and map out your route. Clicking on individual red pins gives you a pop-up with info about the site.
3. Use the “Search” feature to find what you’re interested in.
4. Click on “Map View” to identify a part of town to explore. For instance, I can drill down to Laurel Canyon by selecting “Map View” and clicking the “+” icon to zoom, then I clicked-and-dragged to move the map to Laurel Canyon. I clicked on a red pin at random and found a stone gateway I’ve driven past many times before, which has the words “Vincit Veritas” etched in stone (Truth Prevails). The record connects it with Errol Flynn, Jimi Hendrix, and W.C. Fields. I love LA!