Historic Preservation – History of Willowbrook
Willows and a slow, shallow brook distinguished this portion of the Los Angeles plain long before it was given the name "Willowbrook." A lone-standing streamside willow tree near the present intersection of 125th Street and Mona Boulevard was an original rancho boundary marker in the 1840s. Willowbrook was probably named after the willows that grew around the many springs that watered the area prior to extensive agricultural and suburban development, beginning in the late 1800s. In earlier years, the land that is now Willowbrook was part of the 4,500 acre Rancho Tajauta, granted to Anastacio Abila in 1843.
The first subdivisions in the Willowbrook area were filed in 1894 and 1895 and the first official use of the name Willowbrook came in 1903, when the Willowbrook Tract was recorded with the County Recorder. The deep lots in the Willowbrook subdivision enabled residents to grow fruits and vegetables, run hogs, and raise chickens behind their homes. This mixture of suburban and rural land uses continued in Willowbrook into the early 1980s. At that point, Willowbrook began to lose its rural character due to redevelopment that introduced an increasing number of new commercial and residential facilities into the area. As a result, present-day Willowbrook appears similar to other communities in the South Central section of Los Angeles.
Carver Manor: Paul Revere Williams
African American servicemen and World War II veterans used the Veterans Administration (VA) insured mortgage programs to finance homes in new housing developments in Los Angeles. Surveys of returning servicemen indicated a higher proportion of African American veterans planned to buy, build or rent. (Donald W. Wyatt. Social Forces, March 1950) Aided by government programs, minority home ownership in the U.S. increased from 20% (1940) to 36% (1960). The number of nonwhite households living in substandard housing declined by 50% from 1950-1960. With the government programs and new housing opportunities, racial residential patterns changed in the City of Los Angeles.
The Paul R. Williams' designed Carver Manor was a tract of 250 affordable single-family homes intended for African Americans in the Willowbrook area just south of Watts Parkside Manor. Velma Grant was the human dynamo behind this new residential development. Grant, an African American real estate agent, was convinced an untapped market existed for quality, newly-built, single-family, private homes available to middle-class African Americans. Though she had no previous experience in construction, in a three-year period Grant would start 640 houses in three subdivisions located in south Los Angeles for African American families. (American Builder, November 1949)
With a $2,290,000 loan from Bank of America, Grant bought 50-acres of undeveloped land in South Los Angeles. She named the subdivision Carver Manor, in honor of the recently deceased scientist, educator and inventor George Washington Carver. To design the master plan and a selection of floor plans for Carver Manor, Grant enlisted Paul Revere Williams. She knew the participation of this "in-demand" architect would add excitement and attract potential buyers. Velma Grant was confident that his small, modern and well-built homes would fulfill the aspirational dreams of her upwardly mobile clients.
Williams wanted his designs for homes in Carver Manor to include unique architectural features. This was unusual for most of the tract units built after W.W.II for either African American or white clients. To create homes that were not cookie cutter in appearance, the architect designed each house with an off-set and broken roof line. Williams and Grant stressed the importance of quality construction. The home exteriors were stucco construction and the interiors featured plaster walls, hardwood floors and double tile sinks. Acknowledging the importance of the car to an emerging middle-class, each home included an attached single garage. All front lawns were landscaped.
In 1946 the first group of single-family homes in Carver Manor went on the market for $11,400. Middle-class African American professionals from across the city lined-up on the first day to view the models. Over 110 units were immediately put under contract. Grant was shocked by the response and "pent-up" demand for housing. Her vision for the subdivision expanded to include a shopping center and 95 additional lots (Time July 25, 1949).
The Willowbrook Library
The landscape is not the only historic element of the area as Willowbrook is also the site of the first county library. According to Los Angeles County Urban Planner Jonathan P. Bell, the sprawling L.A. County Public Library system began its network of community branch libraries in Willowbrook. The library was born out of local empowerment as Willowbrook residents mobilized to establish the first ever library branch.
At the Willowbrook Library on Wilmington Avenue the community library manager Camille Ray tells of how the County Library system emerged because though there were libraries in individual cities, all of the rural areas and unincorporated districts of Los Angeles County did not have any libraries in those early years. The library was originally founded in a woman's home and opened officially in April 1913. The library was open for 2 days in April 1913 and circulated 18 books. It moved to a room in the post office in 1919 and remained there until 1950 when a library was built on El Segundo Boulevard. This branch was damaged by fire in the 1965 Watts Uprisings and was rebuilt in June 1966. The library was finally relocated to its present location in 1987.
Willowbrook's library was destroyed in the 1965 Watts uprising, but has since been replaced and currently experiencing major renovations. Photo courtesy of CalState Dominguez Hills Archives.
The latest good news is that a new state-of-the-art building for the library is set to be constructed across the street from the present site. Pastor Delores Glass from the Fellowship Baptist Church in Willowbrook has lived in the area over 50 years and she tells me, "I am excited about the new library and the senior housing which will also be housed on that site." She is especially excited because the community residents and other stakeholders came together to provide input on the design, amenities and services which will become a part of the Willowbrook Library and Senior Center.
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