How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core

In 1912, Los Angeles considered an audacious plan to reshape its topography. A group calling itself the Bunker Hill Razing and Regrading Association proposed to pump water from the Pacific Ocean, pipe it 20 miles to the city center, and spray the seawater through high-pressure jets against a ridge of hills to the immediate northwest of downtown Los Angeles. In all, the project would sluice away some 20 million cubic yards of shale and sandstone that residents knew as Bunker and Fort Moore hills.

Ultimately dismissed as impractical, the association's plan was only the first of several schemes to erase the hills from the city's landscape. In the late 1920s, before the Great Depression intervened, the city came close to adopting another plan by C.C. Bigelow, a mining baron well-versed in the art of hydraulicking.

Among American cities, the proposals were not without precedent. Seattle had washed away 27 blocks of Denny Hill between 1908 and 1911. In 1912, Portland used some of the same machinery to flatten Goldsmith Hill.

In Los Angeles, the proposals targeted what business interests and civic leaders saw as an obstacle to the city's growth. Suburbs like Hollywood and Colegrove boomed on the plains to the city's northwest, but the hills made these new towns difficult to reach from downtown by streetcar. Because they could not scale the hills' steep eastern faces, the trolleys circled around the hills, creating bottlenecks on the few routes out of downtown.

At first, the city carved deep road cuts and bored tunnels into the hills to relieve congestion, but regrading offered a more comprehensive solution.

Traffic relief was not the only justification. Regrading offered the prospect of new, vacant real estate to a dense central business district that found itself cornered-in by the hills. Though the city's most fashionable neighborhood had once perched itself atop Bunker Hill, the fashionable people had moved on, and the structures they left behind took on an increasingly shabbier appearance. Regrading proposals promised to wipe the architectural slate clean. And in later years, as Bunker Hill's population became older, poorer, and more multi-ethnic, the proposals also promised to remove communities deemed undesirable by developers.

A more modest plan eventually accomplished those goals without razing the hill entirely. In the 1960s, L.A.'s Community Redevelopment Agency oversaw an urban renewal program that scraped some 30 feet of soil from the top of Bunker Hill and replaced the existing built environment with 27 virgin superblocks cleared for high-rise development.

But other hills—landmarks for more than a century—did recede from downtown L.A.'s landscape.

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core

Road cuts and hill regrading transformed several of downtown Los Angeles' tunnels, like the Hill Street Tunnels, shown here at 1st Street in 1955, into mere arches. [Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

Poundcake Hill (named for its resemblance to the round, plump dessert food) was once home to the city's most prominent public structures, including the Southland's first high school and later an imposing county courthouse clad in red sandstone. Between the courthouse's 1936 demolition and the later construction of a new criminal justice center, Poundcake Hill was flattened beyond recognition.

Along the northern edge of downtown, Fort Moore Hill survives today in reduced form. The promontory once towered over the city's historic plaza, and during the Mexican-American War, U.S. troops built defensive fortifications that gave the hill its name. Later it was home to a Protestant cemetery and then a fashionable residential neighborhood. But during the 1930s steam shovels tore away at the hill's slopes for road extension projects, and in 1949 they carved a deep canyon through the hill for the new Hollywood Freeway. Dump trucks carried away some one million cubic yards of Fort Moore Hill to nearby Elysian Park, where the loads of dirt formed a nameless, artificial mountain.

Top image: Excavation of Fort Moore Hill, 1949. [UCLA Library - Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive]

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core

A series of bald, treeless hills separated by gullies once dominated downtown Los Angeles' western horizon. Here, Los Angeles High School towers over its surroundings atop Poundcake Hill. [Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core

A county courthouse eventually replaced the high school atop Poundcake Hill. To clear the way, a contractor hoisted the schoolhouse onto stilts and, using a rollers, horses, and human labor, moved the building across Temple Street and over several blocks to its new home. [USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection]

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban CoreSeattle and Portland provided examples of successful regrading projects. [The American City]

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core

Before razing the entire hill became a possibility, the city first bored tunnels through Bunker Hill. Here, a steam shovel digs the Second Street Tunnel circa 1921. [Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core


Workers trimmed back Fort Moore Hill to extend Spring Street, shown here circa 1935, northward. [USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection]

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core

Construction of the Hollywood and Harbor freeways required crews to cut artificial canyons through Fort Moore and Bunker Hills. [Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core

Excavation work atop Fort Moore Hill revealed human remains, buried decades prior when the hill was home to a Protestant cemetery. [Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core

Workers carve a road cut for Fourth Street into Bunker Hill in 1954. [Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core

Two remnants of Bunker Hill, their surroundings completly transformed by regrading, prepare for relocation. [Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

How Los Angeles Erased Entire Hills From Its Urban Core

Modern towers rise from a flattened Bunker Hill in 1971. [Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]


Southland is made possible by a partnership between 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. This post previously appeared in a different version on KCET.org as "The Lost Hills of Downtown Los Angeles."