I spent a few hours yesterday wandering the downtown area of Van Nuys.
Dubbed the hub of the valley, Van Nuys is the suburban city center and civic infrastructure including the main valley courthouse, police and fire station, library and iconic little brother to Los Angeles city hall, municipal building.
Like most civic centers, the suburban downtown is a virtual ghost town when business is done for the week with only a smattering of locals out and about and very little else to attract out of area visitors.
What struck me most of all was (and has been) a lack of distinctively interesting destinations in the area which is, perhaps, the reason that the hub of the valley has remained an active 9-5 Monday through Friday civic center and not a cultural destination after the bureaucrats have gone home for the day.
Named after capitalist Isaac Newton Van Nuys, the city began as a holding property under the ownership of Van Nuys and his partner, and brother-in-law, Isaac Lankershim under the Los Angeles Farming and Milling company, an enterprise that consumed “most of the wheat raised in Southern California” in 1880.
As a city, Van Nuys began in the inauspicious disposition of land in 1910 when partners Van Nuys and Lankershim sold off the Lankershim Ranchos in 1910 to sub-dividers who parceled out properties and made country estates that were bordered by wide boulevards leading back over the hill into Los Angeles.
The sale, at the time, was “one of the largest transactions of the Southwest” involving an “expenditure in improvements estimated at $2,000,000.” By present day measures, that would be nearly 500 million dollars.
Yet, as the Wikipedia entry for Van Nuys reads, once the sale was completed, the only connection the city had to the capitalist was the name alone as Van Nuys retreated over the hill into Los Angeles divesting himself in all but name to the fledgling city.
Issac Van Nuys died in February of 1912 leaving an impressive concrete obelisk as his memorial in Evergreen Cemetery.
From the beginning, the city went from fields to buildings in a year’s time growing slowly in the decades to follow, all the while retaining the city center quality that you can still feel in its recesses.
Perhaps this becomes most clear when you look at the civic monuments that represent the foundations of the city and its growth on the public stage erecting temporal monuments in line with the growth of the country in particular, the Van Nuys Municipal Building.
This is especially clear in the Los Angeles Fire Station No. 39 which sits immediately across the street from the now obscured, municipal building.
Constructed in 1932, the Valley Municipal Building designed as a miniature of Los Angeles City Hall by architect Peter K. Schaborum. So iconic was the building, it was given recognition as a Historic-Cultural Monument in 1968. Since then, it has undergone several reconstructions and retrofits for seismic safety after the 71′ and 94′ earthquakes.
Landmark 202, Van Nuys City Hall, is well described in Floyd Bariscale’s Big Orange Landmarks blog which details the history and use of the eight story building through various iterations of hospital, police station and courthouse. One plan, in the 1950’s, had a wide and sweeping open space that at once planned to under use the space and create a vast open landscape of civic structures scattered about open park space.
Flash forward to modern-day, and on a sleepy Sunday morning, the civic center is nearly as quiet as it was in its beginning which brings me back to my realization of how little there is here, culturally, in the civic center to bring people out and explore its history, if indeed it has much history beyond its own growth into a city and then forgetting that it is the hub of the greater San Fernando Valley. One observation about the old city hall is how demure it looks today surrounded by the massive Van Nuys Courthouse and the many Federal Buildings which today represents the change of importance in our civic life.