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In 1913, Frank Vanderlip bought all 65 square kilometers of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, sight unseen. A brief meeting with the broker handling the transaction convinced him that turning the Peninsula’s undeveloped cattle ranches into homes would be an irresistible proposition. Vanderlip, president of the City National Bank of New York, quickly found fifty other New York investors to share the $1.8 million total price, around $42 million in 2012 dollars.
When Vanderlip finally visited Palos Verdes in 1916, the coastline reminded him of Italy. He envisioned it dotted with scenic villages, like the ones he had seen perched on hillsides along the Mediterranean coast during his vacations in Sorrento. He called on the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm, which had built his New York estate, to take charge of the development.
After World War I, Vanderlip sold the 13 square kilometers that would become Palos Verdes Estates to developer Edward G. Lewis. Lewis began a new “Palos Verdes Ranch Project,” under the direction of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Continuing the work his firm did for Vanderlip, Olmsted designed a group of exclusive gated subdivisions— some of the earliest American examples of “master-planned” developments— that offered seclusion from the congestion of Los Angeles. These communities were designed for the sort of people who enjoyed golf, polo, tennis, and country clubs, all of which were included in the plans.
Construction began in 1921. Malaga Cove (named for an actual cove) was the only community completed before the Depression of the 1930s put an end to the Palos Verdes Ranch Project. Palos Verdes Estates was incorporated in 1939 as the Peninsula’s first city.
Palos Verdes Estates still reflects Frank Vanderlip’s vision of Mediterranean villages, all carefully planned by Olmsted to harmonize with the landscape. Except for two pocket-sized business districts, the city is entirely residential. There are no supermarkets, no sidewalks, no street lights, and no traffic lights. (But visitors should be aware that Palos Verdes Estates does have its own police force. The other three cities on the Peninsula have contracts with the Los Angeles County Sheriff.)
Olmsted’s plan specified the deed restrictions that homes in Palos Verdes Estates still carry. The deeds impose numerous requirements, all enforced by the private non-profit Palos Verdes Homes Association. Building height, architectural style, and roofing material must be consistent with the surrounding neighborhood. Garage doors may not have windows, and animals other than dogs or cats are prohibited. Any changes or additions to a property— even paint color, which “shall be generally light in tone”— require approval of an aesthetic police department that Olmsted pretentiously named the “Palos Verdes Art Jury.” (The deeds also excluded “any person not of the white or Caucasian race,” until a 1948 Supreme Court ruling invalidated racial restrictions like these that existed throughout the United States.)
The Malaga Cove development included the Peninsula’s first school building. Designed in the appropriate Spanish Mediterranean architectural style, Malaga Cove School opened in 1926. After many years as an intermediate (junior high) school, it is now the headquarters of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District.
Malaga Cove Plaza, at the northern entrance to the subdivision, is now the civic center of Palos Verdes Estates. Its colonnaded buildings and iconic Neptune Fountain merit a separate page. Olmsted intended all the Palos Verdes Ranch Project communities to have similar plazas.
Beginning at the southern end of Malaga Cove Plaza, Palos Verdes Drive West is the city’s main scenic coastal road. It offers views of a series of cliffs and coves. On a clear day you can pause to look at the ocean and the mountains across Santa Monica Bay. (The Palos Verdes coast faces north about two kilometers south of Malaga Cove Plaza, before turning west.) In spring, red and yellow flowers line the hills on the inland side of the road.
Heading south from Malaga Cove, the next viewpoint along Palos Verdes Drive West is Bluff Cove, where favorable winds attract model glider and radio-controlled airplane pilots. A parking area off Palos Verdes Drive West provides access to another scenic view of Bluff Cove.
This is also where Paseo del Mar splits off from Palos Verdes Drive West. Paseo del Mar runs close to the cliffs, past many large and ostentatious houses, toward Lunada Bay. The cliff on the southern side of Lunada Bay is Resort Point; the cliff at the northern side is Rocky Point. (See Palos Verdes Travel Notes for directions.)
Trails, some quite steep and treacherous, lead down the cliffs to the rocky beaches of the coves. The coves are good places for surfing, but local surfers are reputedly unfriendly to anyone who intrudes on their turf. The sandy beaches stereotypical of Southern California begin north of Malaga Cove, at RAT Beach. (The name has nothing to do with rodents. It’s an acronym for either “Redondo and Torrance” or “Right After Torrance.”)
Palos Verdes Drive West continues south, into Rancho Palos Verdes and Point Vicente.
The plans for the Palos Verdes Ranch Project communities included gates to protect residents’ seclusion. Although the Ranch Project ended before any of the gates could be installed, one distinctive gatekeeper’s house was built in 1926. The Mirlo Gate Lodge Tower is at the eastern entrance to Palos Verdes Estates from the city of Torrance. The tower is on Via Valmonte, near the intersection with Hawthorne Boulevard, across from a large “Palos Verdes Estates” sign.
The two-story cylindrical stone tower is 4.6 meters across, with walls 46 centimeters thick. It belongs to the City of Palos Verdes Estates, which rents it to tenants who agree to live in and maintain the building. One tenant added a whimsical mailbox that’s a miniature version of the tower.
Mirlo is Spanish for “blackbird,” but the Mirlo Gate Lodge Tower has no actual avian connection. Via Valmonte was originally named Via Mirlo. (This Palos Verdes Estates “neighborhood” is called Valmonte, the name of the Palos Verdes Ranch Project subdivision the gate house was intended to guard.)
Many streets in Palos Verdes Estates (and throughout Southern California) have Spanish names, a tradition that began with the Spanish Colonial Revival fad that swept through California in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the names are strange and obscure, perhaps reflecting real estate developers’ desperation at coming up with enough of them for their housing tracts. A street near the tower is called Paseo de las Tortugas: “the Turtles’ Walkway.”