April 01, 2021

Photo Essay: The Retirement Ranch of An Oil-Employed Fossil-Finder, W.W. Orcutt

At one point a few years ago, I'd set off to visit and document all the historic ranges in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and its environs.

But somehow after 10 years in LA, I still hadn't made it to Orcutt Ranch.

Maybe it's because its name didn't carry the same weight for me as "Paramount Studios" or "Lake Enchanto" or "Gillette" (of the razor empire). 

Its namesake, William Warren (W.W.) Orcutt, was a SoCal oil geologist and Union Oil exec whose name is less recognizable to us today than perhaps it was in his heyday. (Or, at least, to me—a California transplant.)

But Orcutt was significant enough to have a town name after him in Santa Barbara County—and for his permanent vacation home and retirement home in the West Hills area of the West San Fernando Valley to be preserved.

After all, he's the one who discovered the fossil beds of the La Brea Tar Pits in 1901!

Orcutt hired Phoenix-based architect L.G. Knipe to built an adobe ranch house, which was completed in 1926... recreate the experience of life on an early California hacienda.

Its design is Mediterranean in nature, with its Spanish tile roofs...

Junipero Serra statue

...central courtyard...

...and fountain. 

Glazed tile panels on the exterior of the home depict Early California domestic life...

...representing Native American, Spanish, and Mexican traditions. 

One feature that visitors might find shocking is the inclusion of bas-relief swastikas above doorways and windows and in the floor tile...

...but this was a common Native American design motif at the time, with ancient traditions predating Nazi Germany by several years. 

The entire 24-acre property has been designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument...

...from the formal gardens... the massive 700-year-old coast live oak tree that serves as the ranch's centerpiece (hence the Orcutts' name for it, "Rancho Sombra del Roble," or "Rancho In the Shade of the Oak"). 

The ranch originally sprawled across 210 acres—much of which is present-day Canoga Park (except this particular section, which was designated West Hills in 1986). 

But somehow, Orcutt Ranch doesn't seem to get the attention it deserves—except for by wedding parties, who like to pose under the pergola in front of the three muses, or "divine graces," carved out of Italian marble. 

The Orcutt ranch house was also used as a film location for scenes in the film La La Land [spoiler alert!].

On an average day, when the property hasn't been rented out, it's quiet and uncrowded, with plenty of room by the grotto...

...under the palm trees by the creek...

...and in the shade on a nicely tiled bench (or a chair fabricated out of faux-bois). 

The ornamental plantings include calla lillies and irises...

...and other exotics (like a bamboo forest)...

...interspersed with California natives, like the western redbud (Cercis occidentalis). 

The big red barn has been used to host farmer co-ops and museum displays, but it now stands empty and stoic. 

The historic crop fan spins but does not appear to blow...

...and the orange trees blossom in a fragrance that tantalizes visitors until that one weekend a year (in July) when they can come and pick some citrus to take home. 

This area of the West Valley was once known as the town of Owensmouth—founded in 1912 and annexed to the City of LA in 1917. 

That is, until 1931.

That's when the lady of the ranch, Mary Logan Orcutt, campaigned with the Owensmouth Woman’s Club for a change to their hometown name. 

According to a 1991 article in the Los Angeles Times, one local socialite had questioningly complained, Who Owen was anyway? And why did she seem to live in his mouth?

W.W. died in 1942, but his wife Mary continued to live on their ranch even as it received its status as a local monument in 1965. 

She died in 1972, just short of her 100th birthday. And it's thanks to her efforts that Orcutt Ranch is now a Los Angeles city park for all of us to enjoy. 

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