Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

The Montrose Japanese Gardens

Mike Lawler is the former president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

The hype surrounding Montrose was pretty brazen in 1913 as lots were first going up for sale, and I’ve outlined several broken promises in my last two columns. Here’s another plan promoted by the developers at the beginning of Montrose: a beautiful Japanese garden was to be built.

A Los Angeles Times article from January 1913, a month before lots were to go on sale, reported that construction of the gardens would begin that week, and offered a detailed description of the project.

The gardens were to be six acres in size and would be built around the “water works plant.” (I have no idea what or where the water works plant would have been. I can only assume that it existed only in the imaginations of the developers.) The gardens were to be designed and overseen by a real Japanese landscape artist, and a great amount of money was to be spent on it. Shrines, stone lamps, bamboo furniture, fences and gates were being imported from Japan, along with many exotic plants. A brook, spanned by several Japanese bridges, would flow through the property, at the center of which would be a lake. The lake was to have several islands, each big enough to accommodate a bamboo tea house.

The grand entrance to the gardens was to be through a massive gate that was being donated by J. Frank Walters, one of the developers of Montrose. He had purchased this gate when traveling in the Orient two years previous. It was 12 feet high, 20 feet wide and four feet thick, constructed of Japanese bamboo and wood. Also written in the article was that Robert Walton, the other partner in the development of Montrose, was having his home constructed in Japanese style on a hill overlooking the gardens.

The Montrose sales brochure featured a diagram of the Japanese gardens. It showed half the gardens on a hillside with a wide flowing stream running down the hill. The other half is relatively flat, with a couple of small hills that would provide the stream the chance to form a small waterfall before dumping into the lake at the center of the property. Winding paths circled the gardens, with pagodas situated here and there. The trees on the site appeared to be some sort of redwood or spruce. It sounded really nice, but sadly, it never happened.

Here are a few more tidbits of promises for the future of Montrose that didn’t stick. These are the building restrictions for the new town laid out in the sales brochure: Builders are restricted to one house per lot, except for a few lots the developers have reserved for schools, churches and a high-class hotel. Temporary shacks or tents are a no-no. No fences on property lines. Absolutely no billboards or “For Sale” signs will be permitted. All the telephone and utility poles would be situated only in alleys and at the rear of properties – never on the street. In the business sections, the buildings will be stone, cement or brick, with all street-facing surfaces to be constructed of pressed brick (bricks with sharp edges and no imperfections). No saloons – this is a family community! And of course the ubiquitous “racial covenant” that was a standard feature of many communities of the era: “No part of Montrose shall be sold to, leased, assigned or occupied (excepting as a servant) by any person not of the white or Caucasian race.” Sounds pretty harsh! We can assume that applies to the Japanese landscape artist too.

Perhaps these half-truths and fabrications caught up to the developers in the end. I would have liked to have been there when prospective property owners viewing Montrose for the first time asked to see the Japanese gardens, the water works, the Montrose Country Club, or Aquadena Park. Despite a good turnout to the opening sales-day picnic on Feb. 22, 1913, only a handful of lots were sold and Montrose didn’t really “boom” until the early ’20s, when the developers – J. Frank Walters and Robert Walton – were long gone.

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