In spring, 1973 I went on a field trip with Mrs. Darlington's biology class; on the way there and back I sat with my new friend Mike McDaniel. (We had met at the beginning of the school year.) As we traveled back into Burbank through the Cahuenga Pass down Barham Blvd., past the famous Smoke House restaurant and the Warner Brothers Studios, Mike mentioned that a battlefield was situated somewhere nearby, and said that cannonballs were frequently dug up in the area. Being infatuated with the American Civil War at the time, and surprised that a real battle had actually been fought in my home town, I wondered about the details. It wasn't for another 28 years that I did some research and discovered that this battle was fought in 1845, and was known as the Second Battle of Cahuenga Pass, or the Battle of La Providencia. The first battle had been fought in the same place in 1831.
The Second Battle of Cahuenga Pass! The second of two battles! The very name resonates with military glory!
Well, maybe not. What follows are four accounts of the battle.
Excerpt from the 1976 Burbank City Calendar (with illustration!)
"An 1845 struggle for power between Mexican Governor Manuel Micheltorena and Pio Pico was resolved by a long range artillery duel that began at Cahuenga Pass and continued the next day at Rancho La Providencia. When the smoke cleared away, not a solider had been hurt, but Governor Micheltorena nontheless surrendered his command to Pio Pico's troops. Many years later, Burbnank residents occasionally unearthed old cannon balls in the area of Warner Brothers studios."
Excerpt from Burbank - An Illustrated History by E. Caswell Perry.
"In 1842 an unpopular governor, Manuel Micheltorena, was appointed by Mexico City. Supported by his army of 300 cholos, or convict soldiers, he was bitterly resented by the Californios. In November 1844 an active revolt against him was initiated by both Northern and Southern Californians, themselves rivals but united in their desire to oust Micheltorena. Micheltorena defeated the northern faction, led by Jose Castro, near San Jose. But coming south to Los Angeles, even after building up his army to about 400, he was met by about the same number of Californios led by Juan Bautista Alvarado. The two small armies met between February 19-20, 1845, in the so-called Battle of Cahuenga. This was just west of Cahuenga Pass, on the San Fernando Valley side, at Alamos near present-day Studio City. One side had two small cannon, the other had three, and they limited their combat to a long-range artillery duel. The casualties totaled one horse and one mule, and both sides soon ran out of ammunition. The action could only be continued by each side's recovering the cannon balls of the other. Even today, an occasional cannon ball turns up when excavations are made in the battlefield area.
Micheltorena withdrew, stopping the desultory conflict. Finally, on February 22, Micheltorena agreed to leave California, taking his army with him. For all practical purposes, Mexico's control of Alta California was a thing of the past. Pio Pico was made the civil governor at Los Angeles and Jose Castro set up a rival regime at Monterey."
NOTE: I think Perry is mistaken in locating this "battle" in Studio City, which is a few miles west of Burbank. Or perhaps he is referring to the Warner Brothers Studio complex as Studio City.
Excerpt from A History of Burbank, Burbank Unified School District, 1967.
"In 1845, the Battle of Providencia unseated the tyrannical Mexican governor, Manuel Micheltorena, and replaced him with Pio Pico. Micheltorena's Mexican forces had three cannons and the Californians under Pico had two. The two forces came within long cannon range of each other near Cahuenga Pass, February 20, 1845. They kept their cannons far enough apart to make sure no one would be injured. Heavy cannonading from these batteries continued throughout the afternoon, but as both armies kept in close shelter under the banks of the Los Angeles River, little damage was done. According to one account of the battle, "a Mexican horse's head was shot off and a California mule was injured by flying debris." The next day the battle resumed on the La Providencia Rancho. But still both armies were reluctant to fight. After two hours of cannonading from both sides without visible results, Governor Micheltorena raised the flag of surrender. Most of his men had deserted in favor of Pio Pico. For many years, Burbank residents in the vicinity of Warner Brothers Studio dug up cannon balls from time to time. La Providencia was a proud, slightly battle-scarred old rancho."
NOTE: In this account, mention is made of the Los Angeles River. It flows perpendicularly to the entrance to Cahuenga Pass - Barham Blvd. intersects it - near the Smoke House Restaurant. As a river, it is a distinct disappointment. In the series pilot of The Beverly Hillbillies, there is a memorable scene of Jed Clampett being shown the L.A. River. He shakes his head side to side and mutters, "Pitiful, just pitiful."
Excerpt from The Story of Burbank, The Publicity Department, Burbank Branch of Security Trust and Savings Bank, 1927.
"Directly south of Scott's portion of Rancho San Rafael was Rancho La Providencia, a Mexican land grant of some 4600 acres, which, when the Mexicans' enjoyment of independence from Spain was at its flood-tide, had been given to Commmandante J. Castro, Luis Arenas and Vincente de la Ossa. Upon its broad acres was fought the historic battle of La Providencia that was to end in the death of a horse and a mule but which nevertheless unseated Governor Emmanuel Micheltorena and placed Pio Pico in his place. As can well be imagined, the battle was fought at long range. Associated with Pico in the rebellion were Manuel Castro, Juan Batista Alvarado and Benjamin D. (Don Belino) Wilson heading a company of 22 Yankees. As Henry K. Norton says, Micheltorena managed to gather a force of nearly four hundred men and started south to crush the rebels. But the rebels did not wait to be crushed. They immediately retreated. In the pursuit, the governor was careful not to come within a hundred miles of them until the rebels picked up courage and returned from Los Angeles to meet him. The two forces mustered about an equal number of men. They came within long cannon range of each other at Cahuenga, the scene of a previous civil conflict. The Mexicans had three cannons and Californians two. Heavy cannonading from these batteries continued throughout the afternoon, but as both armies kept in close shelter under the banks of the Los Angeles River, little damage was done. A Mexican horse's head was shot off and a California mule was injured by the flying debris. During the night some flanking was attempted which brought the armies together again the next morning at La Providencia. For almost two hours the cannonading was again indulged in without visible result, when Micheltorena raised the white flag and proposed a capitulation. This was accepted by rebels and the erstwhile governor was unceremonially shipped out of the country. The real reason for his surrender was the desertion of a company of Yankees with him to the Yankees headed by Wilson on the other side.
To this day Burbank people dig up cannon balls from time to time in their gardens. One of them is pictured in this booklet. It was unearthed by Thomas Story, Burbank's first mayor."
NOTE: In this account, the publicity department invokes Civil War imagery of Yankees and Rebels, which doesn't seem to fit, given the piddling nature of the Second Battle of Cahuenga Pass.
From Jackson Mayers' Burbank History (1975): "Fifteen acres of land along 1,400 feet of Riverside Drive between Mariposa and Main Streets were bought for $25,000 by Desco Corporation in 1953. Part of the Battle of Providencia had occurred there."
I think you get the idea of what this "battle" involved, but if you wish to do further reading, two more accounts of this battle are here. I got a kick out of Keffer's text: "The display of daring horsemanship and the noise from the cannon and rifle fire must have been very impressive, for on the hillside, women and children with crosses in their hands were weeping and wailing, invoking the saints for the safety of their loved ones who were engaged in the battle. Most of the foreigners in both contingents, who had enlisted merely in the hope of securing grants of lands, early decided to get out of danger and, deserting their commands, fraternized among the spectators on the hillside."
Fast forward nearly a hundred years later, to the 1930s and 1940s. The terrible cannon fire in Burbank has ceased, and horses and mules may safely graze without concern of beheading or injury. But perhaps a racial memory of strife and war is retained by Burbank developers and builders, for a new type of structure is being built in the valley: the defensible stucco home. And therein are a class of residents I call The War Lords of Burbank.
I am referring to typical two-bedroom, one-bath homes built in the then-fashionable Spanish rancho style. Most of these had tiled roofs, and they frequently came with martial architectural details, such as crenellated rooflines. My father called these homes "old Spanish dogs," and when I was a kid there seemed to be a lot of them around Burbank. At the time I began to notice them, when I was about 15, I was deeply interested in Arthurian stories of knights and tournaments. Consequently, I thought these places were really cool and wanted in live in one some day. (Part of my interest was fueled by the 1965 Charleton Heston film The War Lord, which was occasionally shown on TV. The fact that the stone tower used in the film was still standing atop the Universal Studios lot for their early Seventies European Faire made the film all the more interesting to me.)
Stucco, for those of you unfamiliar with this material, is a rough, sandpapery sort of covering applied to the outside surfaces of Southern California homes. It is especially memorable to any kid who ever got into a tussle with some other kid, and had his back or arm scraped against the stuff. When I moved to Virginia I never again expected to see a stucco home. Imagine my astonishment when I first paid a visit to Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate: the building is covered in a coat of paint that has sand poured into it, a fashionable 18th century process the docents will tell you is called "rustification." By any other name it's stucco to me, and looking at it, the skin on my back and arms ached.
The ideal example is above, a house just north of Glenoaks Blvd., not far from Burbank High School. In August 1998, on a visit back to my hometown, I described the defensible stucco homes of my youth to Mike McDaniel, a Burbank historian and lifelong resident. He knew right away what I was looking for and drove me to this place. Note the crenellated turret above the front door, with the vents arranged in a diagonal, step-up fashion. Just the place to mount archers in case Pio Pico or a belligerent newsboy pays a visit.
The only other defensible home Mike could recall at the time was this place, clearly inspired by the Walt Disney Studios. You will note that there is a turret. However, I did not see any places where archers could be mounted, and so this property, while grand, must be relegated to the wanna-be defensible home category.
On another trip to Burbank in August 2000, Mike and I dedicated a few lunchtime hours to driving around, looking for suburban castles. Here's a defensible stucco home that may or may not have been renovated or redesigned to remove a crenellated roofline. You can see from the insert on the right, that crenellation exists above a side window, which I guess is a kitchen. It makes sense if you want to guard the garrison's vital food supply from marauders.
Now we're talking! Mike could barely contain his glee when he remembered this place. This lofty stronghold is so isolated and secure that we had a difficult time finding the street to drive up to it, so we settled for this distant shot. One can imagine the difficulty that invaders would encounter, making the exhausting march up the Verdugo hills only to be faced with swarms of arrows from defenders. That patio to the right looks like a good artillery platform, as well. The Burbank War Lord living here sleeps securely at night!
Here's a lordly place with two circular turrets, a weathervane and a two car garage. (Motor transport for cholos, perhaps.) Once again, note the stepped-up windows in the turrets; these have wrought iron bars, to impede access from wall-scaling attackers. I suspect that when this place was built, the circular rooflines were crenellated. Well, at least I'd like to think so. A staff with a banner flapping defiantly in the breeze would be a handsome feature, too.
Not all War Lord stucco homes are defensible, and not all of them are in beige or sand tones. Here's the pink residence of a Burbank resident who proudly displays the royal heraldric crest of Castile and Leon (seen just above the round shrub, and shown in inset). Perhaps he is known as El Cid, unaware of the fact that Manuel Micheltorena was overthrown by the cataclysmic events of the 20th of February, 1845, and pines for the old days when Spanish majesty controlled the San Fernando Valley with a firm, yet Catholic, rule.
Here's a War Lord home that is not really defensible, but could perhaps serve as the residence of a military governor, chief of staff or military attache. Note the bold iron galleon atop the low turret. No political correctness at this address! Once again, it could be that a crenellated roofline was originally a feature of the turret; this manor appears to have benefited from a freshening up sometime in its history, and it certainly appears well-maintained.
Mike and I gave out a whoop when we stumbled upon this place! Normally a War Lord home has only stylistic hints at defensibility - but this place goes whole hog. Note the drawbridge, which can be raised in time of strife, forcing attackers to, uh... scale that low wall on the front of the porch. (Not exactly an awful prospect.) Yes, this place does have a heraldric banner flying, shown in the inset photo. The same crest appears on the front door. Unfortunately, this property is in the flatlands of Burbank, and not up on the hill. Were it located high up on a crest it might seem a little more impressive than it is. Then again, maybe not.
The cannons are stilled and the face of war is not seen in the San Fernando Valley. Even the once great Soviet Union has disintegrated, leaving splinter republics in its wake, one of which is the Republic of Armenia. Sometime in the 1980s, Armenian immigrants began to arrive in neighboring Glendale, and took up residence there and in Burbank. As can be seen from this photo, they know or care not about the Battle of Cahuenga Pass, and began to buy the old Spanish Dogs to greatly enlarge and remodel. This home is representative of the emerging new look of Burbank. It certainly doesn't have the martial look of the homes of the War Lords; to me it seems suggestive of the Beverly Hillbillies mansion. Whatever it is you call this style, it certainly seems to be influenced more by ancient Greece and Rome than by the days of the Spanish ranchos.
...and so we leave the War Lords of Burbank. When I first thought of writing this article I looked forward to getting many photographs of the old Spanish Dogs to accompany it. It seems, however, that in Burbank they are now an endangered species - perhaps even nearly extinct. With prosperity and expectations for a higher standard of living becoming a feature of the 1980s, homes were remodeled and enlarged, oftentime removing the martial look of the original design. This, to me, is unfortunate. Living in Northern Virginia, where nearly every house looks like a variation of a Colonial center hall style, I appreciated the uniqueness of the defensible stucco homes found so often in my youth. Cramped and poky they may have been for the residents, but at least there was a place to put the trained archers.
In fairness to the City of Burbank I must also point out that there are middle-class castles in other states, too - perhaps in all of them. Where I currently live in Springfield, Virginia, there are a couple of castles and a Tudor mansion or two. Even amid the brush and scrub of arid Sandy, Utah, I stumbled upon a place that had medieval overtones, with the inscription, "This is the home of the knight" lettered on the front wall in marble in what looked like a medieval Icelandic text! (Once, when I drove by, Sir Utah was shirtlessly mowing his lawn.)
I guess the phrase "A man's home is his castle" is deeply embedded in the American psyche.
Mike McDaniel, Burbank's roaming photo-essayist, has sent me some additional photos.
I suppose it was inevitable that the Burbank corporate world would embrace the militant style. Shown above is the corporate headquarters of Electrosonic, which specializes in light, sound and images (one of the many media businesses located in Burbank). This building reminds me not of the Spanish days, but of that famous Babylonian citadel alongside I-5 on the way to Disneyland. It is strongly defensible, and invokes medieval images for the business term "hostile takeover" (perhaps to include siege engines and catapults).
UPDATE: Mike McDaniel, ever on the alert for Burbank castles, sent me this photo of a home fully typifying the style. While there are some differences between this consumer castle and the first one I describe on this page, it appears that the floorplans are similar, if not identical. I suppose that little circular enclosed space around the front door is where one would surrender his arms prior to entering the property. For me, however, the one thing that ruins the overall look is that crooked white mailbox, which is just not lordly enough for the rest of the property. The owner ought to replace it with something made out of dark wood and iron straps.
Tract castles in Burbank - affordable, defensible. What a concept!
Website describing Pilgrimage Bridge across the 101. The battle is mentioned in it.