Its promoters billed it as an exceptional housing tract—buried utility lines, curving concrete roads, and a hilltop site whose ocean views gave the subdivision its name: Monte Mar Vista. With country clubs bordering it on three sides, residents of the so-called "central jewel in a Tiffany setting" could easily play nine holes before breakfast. There was only one problem with the promoters' claims. Just as the first residents began moving into their English Tudor and Spanish Colonial homes in 1927, a steel oil derrick suddenly rose nearby, marring their views.
A wildcat well next to a Los Angeles-area housing development was nothing special; oil companies were drilling across the Southland to find new petroleum deposits. Most communities were powerless to fight back, even as forests of derricks crowded their homes. But the well-heeled residents of Monte Mar Vista—today part of L.A.'s Cheviot Hills neighborhood—had the political muscle to elbow out oil operations.
The derrick stood inside an otherwise picturesque ravine. Cattle still grazed on the land, a 320-acre tract leased by Standard Oil, but the steel structure compromised Monte Mar Vista's bucolic atmosphere and raised questions about noise and air pollution should the well strike black gold.
Before Standard Oil could turn its drill, Fred W. Forrester, a sales agent for Monte Mar Vista who also lived on one of the subdivision's choice lots, filed suit. Joined by other real estate interests and two neighboring country clubs, Forrester obtained a temporary injunction against Standard Oil. As the litigation unfolded, the city rescinded a zoning variance it had issued to allow drilling on the site. Standard Oil and the landowner, May Rindge's Marblehead Land Company, countered with a federal lawsuit that slowly worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. But by 1931 the housing developers had won. The derrick came down, and the residents' views were restored—until the ravine and hills became home to their own suburban housing tracts.
It was a relatively minor controversy, but a rich photographic record of the incident survives today in the Dick Whittington Photography Collection at the USC Libraries. In 1927, Whittington's studio photographed the derrick for Forrester—perhaps as evidence in his suit against Standard Oil. Though the nitrate negatives likely went unseen for decades, the USC Libraries recently digitized these images, along with some 30,000 others, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
All images courtesy of the USC Libraries – Dick Whittington Photography Collection.
Southland is made possible by a partnership among Gizmodo, the USC Libraries, and the member collections of L.A. as Subject. Written by Nathan Masters, the series explores the urban past of Los Angeles, including the lost landscapes and forgotten infrastructures that continue to influence the city we know today. A version of this post previously appeared on KCET.org.