February 12, 2016

Photo Essay: A Historic Oasis in the Valley of the Oaks

One of the stops on the Portola expedition of 1769—when Spanish explorers first arrived—was right here in the San Fernando Valley, in the LA neighborhood now known as Encino.

But at the time, it was an Indian village (a "rancheria," to the Spaniards) known as "Siutcanga" that the Tongvas (who the Spanish called "Fernande├▒os" or "Gabrielinos") had occupied for several thousand years.

Once Mexico gained control over Southern California, the rancheria became known as "Rancho Los Encinos," in reference to the oak trees that grew in abundance in the Valley.

Those that inherited the rancho from the Mission Indians that were granted it were unable to run it themselves, so in 1849, they sold it to a ranchero named Vicente de la Osa. 

De la Osa built a long, narrow adobe whose every room has at least one door that connects to the outside.

An excellent example of the basic Californio style, many of the adobe's adjacent rooms don't even connect to each other—which means you've got to go outside and then go back inside to move your way from room to room.

De la Osa established a small vineyard on his rancho, where he also raised sheep. But his real success came from renting rooms to people who were traveling along the El Camino Real.

After de la Osa died in 1861, his widow briefly took over operations of the ranch but then transferred the property to her daughter and son-in-law. When her daughter died in 1868, Eugene and Phillipe Garnier stepped in and purchased it.

At the time, in the early 1870s, cattle ranching had been more or less wiped out by three years of drought in the LA area, which created an all-out sheep boom—and the Garniers took full advantage of it, earning a reputation for producing the finest wool in all of Southern California.

But whenever there's a boom, there's a bust—and in 1873, the sheep business went belly up and the Garniers went deep into debt, along with the rest of the country who were hit by the nationwide depression.

Flat broke, the Garniers lost their ranch to auction in 1878, when it was purchased by their main creditor, a Basque named Gaston Oxarart. When he died in 1886, the ranch passed to his nephew Simon Gless (yes, a relative of actress Sharon Gless), who sold it to his father-in-law, Domingo Amestoy, in 1889.

This was the last time the 4,460 acre ranch was sold as a whole. After changing hands so many times, it's amazing that there's anything left to see.

And over time, it was split up and parceled out... many of the other ranchos from the Spanish and Mexican land grants.

In 1949, the State of California purchased the last remaining parcel of land, thereby creating the present-day Los Encinos State Historic Park.

It was all thanks to the efforts of a local preservationist named Mary Stuart, who mobilized the local community to save the De La Osa adobe, Garnier House, sheepherders' shelter (later used as a blacksmith shop), and pond from developers.

Although Mrs. Stuart couldn't protect the abode from getting hit pretty hard in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the damage from it ended up revealing historic details that had been long covered up: underneath the crumbling plaster lie frescos and walls that were painted to look like marble (during the Garniers' time).

All of the damage was painstakingly catalogued...

...and while much of it was repaired...

...portions were left exposed to show the "before" and "after" of their post-earthquake restoration work, for which the park earned a Governor's Award for Historic Preservation.

During their time here, one of the biggest contributions the Garniers made to Rancho Los Encinos was building a stone-walled pond in the shape of a Spanish guitar... the site of a natural spring.

It's now filled with ducks, geese...

...and a few interlopers.

For a few coins you can get some bird feed... lure some friends over.

Just be careful, because in case you were wondering, ducks do bite (especially when they're hungry).

Upon the shore of the pond was once the original location of the first El Torito tiki bar / Mexican restaurant, now the Lakeside Cafe.

The pond is fed by the artesian well, and it used to drain into a stream that drained into the Los Angeles River.

It now drains into the flood control system.

And while it's not exactly a "lake" per se, it provides a nice, natural body of water for nature and recreation—in a valley that's dry and hot for most of the year.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: In the Footsteps of the Pioneers
Photo Essay: A Day at the Rancho, A Step Back in Time
Photo Essay: The View from a Famous Mapmaker's Estate

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