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Mulholland Highway and the Engineering Culture of Los Angeles in the 1920s
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Technology and Culture 40.3 (1999) 545-575


Mulholland Highway, a twisting 22-mile roadway along the ridgetops of the Hollywood Hills (fig. 1), meant different things to the real estate investors who first promoted it, to the engineers who designed it and supervised its construction, and to the property owners who encountered the environmental effects of its completion. "The property in the district is owned by a small group of capitalists who expect to be rewarded for their enterprise by the subdivision of the frontage on the highway into building sites," wrote the trade journal for the region's construction industry. But Mulholland Highway did not raise property values and development opportunities in the hills and the adjacent San Fernando Valley until a generation later than anticipated, when its original advocates were no longer in a position to benefit. The reasons are apparent in retrospect: the highway created a cul-de-sac rather than a connection with the principal roads of the growing city, and the threat of fire and landslide in the chaparral environment of the hills discouraged development and settlement. Despite the known fire threat and the city's established practice of integrating the construction of highways and underground utilities, the roadbuilding project did not incorporate [Begin Page 547] provision for water mains. The fire hazard only surfaced in the proceedings when the city engineering staff sought a pretext for accelerated administrative procedures, and it still did not cause modification of the design or construction.

The disjunction between the expectations of its promoters and what the engineers produced was so extreme that the promoters petitioned to close the road barely five years after raising a million dollars to complete it. This disparity cannot be explained away as unanticipated consequences because, for one thing, the engineers knew the consequences even as they conducted the work. For another, they pursued the project with uncommon fervor, even making successful requests for dispensation from standard administrative practices. What did the engineers want? If they were not simply compliant technicians leashed to the aims of business and political elites, how did they decide what to build? During the approval process and the construction itself, the city engineers left a record of their aspirations in testimony to the city council, in departmental reports, and in naming the highway after William Mulholland, the principal figure in the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the founder of municipal engineering practice in the city. As John A. Griffin, head of the city's engineering department, wrote: "It is named as a tribute and to be built as a monument to a great engineer, 'Our Bill,' Bill Mulholland, the builder of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the one man among all others who put our beloved City of Los Angeles on the map." They also left the record of the road itself, an expressive if not articulated statement by engineers who, for the most part, spoke with their shovels.

To the city engineering department, Mulholland Highway was a massive reordering of the natural environment that followed in several ways the pattern of the engineers' greatest triumph, the Los Angeles (or Owens Valley) Aqueduct, which opened in 1913 and carried water 233 miles to the city from the eastern Sierras. The highway accorded with the engineers' sense of beauty in the landscape, an aspect of engineering that historian David Nye has described as the "technological sublime." Its construction engineer, Dewitt Reaburn, described one aspect of this aesthetic when he extolled the vantage points that the road would afford: "In driving over the completed portion of the highway, one is charmed and amazed at the wonderful view of the surrounding country, which is continually changing as the vision sweeps from one side of the summit to the other. The Mulholland Highway is destined to be the heaviest traveled and one of the best known scenic roads in the United States." Creating vistas for scenic motoring was a conscious goal in much of the parkway construction throughout the nation in the 1920s and 1930s. As their name implied, however, parkways also were thorough, polished designs in their own right, with picturesque light fixtures and railings as well as...

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