Looking Back Down Rodeo Drive…

Talk about falling down a rabbit hole! It started when I was browsing the pages of Los Angeles Magazine and noticed a question in the “Ask Chris” column: How did Rodeo Drive come to be the most luxe street in Los Angeles?

As always, Chris Nichols offers the answer in a tasty bite, hitting the high spots: “The road connecting the Beverly Hills Hotel to the Beverly Wilshire,” “the Brown Derby,” Fred Hayman and the Rodeo Drive Committee, etc.

Still, I was curious about the details. The name emerged from early California history, when what we now know as Beverly Hills was part of a land grant called El Rodeo de las Aguas. When Burton Green purchased the land in 1906, he and his co-investors imagined a new community with houses, stores, and a rail line (later the trolley known as “The Dinky”) running up Rodeo Drive. They hired landscape architect Wilbur D. Cook to design the first roads (Rodeo, Canon, Crescent, Carmelita, Elevado, and Lomitas, along with the Santa Monica Park greenway), platted a subdivision, and started selling lots the very next year.

By 1912, a lima bean field had been transformed into the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Rodeo Drive rail line had become a bridle path (I love picturing people riding horseback down the median!) Two years later, the hotel and subdivision had attracted enough interest for Beverly Hills to incorporate as a city.

With time out for World War I, the next major landmark was the development of the Wilshire/Rodeo intersection. The Beverly Wilshire Apartment Hotel (later the Beverly Wilshire Hotel) was completed in 1928 on the former site of the Beverly Hills Speedway. The (late, great) Brown Derby opened in 1931 and Haggarty’s Department Store in 1938.

A 2011 article paints wartime and post-World War II Rodeo Drive as “just a regular city street, with a grocer, a gas station and a hardware store.” Regular or not, Beverly Hills had attained enough dazzle for it to start showing up in television shows.

Carroll & Company opened in 1950, and in 1952 Frank Lloyd Wright completed Anderton Court Shops, his last Los Angeles building. But it was really the 1960s that solidified the name Rodeo Drive as an international destination. Fred Hayman opened Giorgio in 1961 and the fashion world’s shopping landmarks opened one after the other: Gucci in 1968, Van Cleef & Arpels in 1969, Vidal Sassoon in 1970, and the Polo Store in 1971. The Beverly Wilshire opened a new wing that year, and the street’s glamor continued to grow, helped along by a publicity campaign by the Rodeo Drive Committee.

The rest, as they say, is history. There were about 65 stores along the two-and-a-half block stretch of Rodeo Drive by 1981, and another 45 added when the Rodeo Collection opened in 1983. Two Rodeo Drive was added in 1990.

But if I can get back to the rabbit hole for just a minute… Water and Power Associates, in the course of their work on critical water and energy issues in the region has assembled a virtual history museum that includes some 14,000 images. Open up Early Views of Beverly Hills and I guarantee you’ll lose track of time. The photo of the Beverly Hills Hotel standing almost entirely alone on an undeveloped landscape is enough to make you gasp. Even if you don’t find the White Rabbit, you’ll find plenty of amazing history. Special thanks to Water & Power Associates and to Chris Nichols for launching this journey.

-Joyce Rey

Joyce Rey
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