Thursday, February 24, 2011

History of Rancho Los Feliz and where Griffith Park began

Rancho Los Feliz was given to Corporal  Jose Vicente Feliz as one of the first land grants in California. He was a veteran of the Anza Expedition of 1776 and thereafter served as a guard at the Pueblo of Los Angeles. In 1787 Governor Fages appointed him Comisionado of the Los Angeles Pueblo, also giving him the powers of Mayor and Judge. For his service, Feliz was granted Rancho Los Feliz. The grant was confirmed in 1843 by Governor Manuel Micheltorena, to Jose Feliz' daughter in law, Maria Ygnacia Verdugo de Feliz. When Maria's husband died, she inherited the rancho, and later married Juan Diego Verdugo.  When Maria Ygnacia Verdugo de Feliz passed away, Don Antonio de Feliz inherited Rancho Los Feliz.
Los Feliz Adobe, ca 1900.  The house was originally built in the 1830s.
Today, the much altered house serves as the Griffith Park Ranger Station.

 Don Antonio de Feliz resided on the hacienda with his sister Soledad and his niece Petranilla . On his deathbed, rumor has it that his signature was affixed on a will drafted by Don Antonio Coronel. Feliz then died of smallpox in 1863. When his niece Petranilla discovered that her uncle had been tricked into signing away the entire inheritance over to Don Antonio Coronel, she put a curse on all of the land, the new owners, and swore that no one would ever benefit from the ill-gotten spoils.  

And so it became serious, as the curse seemed to take effect almost immediately.  Many of Coronel's close associates suffered violent deaths, their cattle sickened and died, and their lands were ravaged by flood and fire. Coronel, wanting to get rid of the curse, sold the property to a James Lick, a wealthy businessman who then died in 1876. 

If there really was a curse, then it was the family of Griffith J. Griffith for whom its gravest retribution was reserved.  A native Welshman, Griffith had arrived in America at the age of fourteen with little more than his ambitions.  By the early 1880s, when he was in his early thirties, he had made himself a rich man, having worked as a mining engineer, then as a highly sought consultant.

Griffith J. Griffith in the 1880s.

 In 1882 Griffith moved to Los Angeles from the  Bay Area and  purchased the accursed Rancho Los Feliz.  In 1887 he married Mary  Agnes Christina Mesmer in 1887, daughter of a wealthy local family. In 1888 their  son, Vandell M. Griffith was born.

In 1896, the couple presented the City with the lands that would eventually become Griffith Park, but the city was reluctant to acknowledge the gift or put the land to the use for which Griffith had intended the donation.  This was due to allegations that the gift was little more than a bribe to evade an outstanding tax debt.  Although the City hesitated for two years before finally accepting the gift in 1898, they could have had no inkling of the scandal that was to come.

Although Griffith was generally believed to be a teetotaler,  he was a chronic alcoholic who drank on the sly.   Thinking a change of scene would do her husband good, Mary decided to take him for a vacation to Santa Monica where they stayed at the Arcadia Hotel. 

Arcadia Hotel, Santa Monica.

During one of Griffith's drunken episodes he drew a revolver, ordered his wife to kneel,  and  then shot her in the right side of her head, blinding and disfiguring her. Griffith then pleaded that Petronilla's curse on the land  had  caused him to drink, thereby leading to his criminal behavior.  

Although he almost certainly failed to convince the court of this,  Griffith did ultimately get off with a penalty that seems absurdly light, considering his crime:  he spent only two years at San Quentin, 1903 to 1905. During this time, Mrs. Griffith successfully sued for divorce, obtaining sole custody of their son.  Although, in those days, divorce plaintiffs had to show cause, the judge granted this decree after four-and-a-half minutes' consideration.  It remains one of the fastest divorce decrees on record.  

Griffith's very considerable remaining wealth notwithstanding, he was now a broken and defeated man.  In 1912, he attempted to donate some  additional land for Griffith Park, as well as $100,000 for a Greek-style amphitheater, but the City believed he was merely trying to buy his way back to respectability.   However, when he died from liver disease in 1919, he had bequeathed the land and $700,000 to the city, with the additional stated objective of establishing an astronomical observatory.   There was also a permanent endowment for Park maintenance. His post-mortem generosity was now happily accepted.  A full figure bronze statute stands at the entrance of Griffith Park and Fern Dell, and this spot which was one of the first areas which the Feliz family developed.

Griffith Statute at the entrance to Griffith Park

Soon after Griffith's death, the Greek Theater and the Griffith Observatory were built.  

Griffith Observatory: Detail of planetarium dome

Many people accept the  legend that Griffith Park is haunted.  There have been sightings of the spirits of Petranilla, Don Antonio de Feliz and even Griffith himself within the confines of the thousands of acres that are now Griffith Park, Los Angeles. 

Stay tuned in for a blog on all of the wonderful things to do and see at Griffith Park, Los Angeles.

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