Can You Imagine: The Burbank Bruins?
by Susie Hodgson
Have you ever noticed that the streets in the hills of Burbank all seem to have school names? Look around! You’ll find Cornell, Eton, Stanford, Amherst, Andover, Cambridge, Grinnell, Groton and more -- including the street “Uclan.” We know people who never realized where the name “Uclan” came from. Hint: Drop the “n” and when you do, it will offer you a big hint of what the hillside area’s founder wanted to build in our Burbank (Verdugo) hills.
The University of California (UC) was established in 1873 in a town called Berkeley. Its mascot and team were called the Bears, after California’s own state animal. In 1881, a small branch of the UC was permitted in Southern California. But it was a teachers’ college and sat where LACC sits today.
This southern branch of the UC soon outgrew the Vermont Street location and, in 1919, the Governor declared that the southern branch of the UC shall become a full-fledged university. By the 1920s, the southern branch of the UC began actively searching for a bigger, better location.
Enter Ben Marks, a real estate developer who happened to own a big patch of hillside land in Burbank (the former Stough property). Old maps tell us this hillside area was called Woodland Heights. Later, Ben Marks re-named the area after himself and it became BenMar Hills.
Ben Marks was a man with big ideas. He envisioned a grand development in the hills, featuring the university, designed to look practically palatial, like something out of Downton Abbey. But there was much more to the area than just a school. There would also be a new country club, hotels (plural!), a master auditorium, an open- air theater, a civic center, grade schools and a high school plus railroad depots. In Marks’ mind and drawings, these buildings were elegant, castle-like locations, with turrets, tall chimneys, domes and cupolas.
But while Ben Marks had imagination in droves, his lack of marketing skills and business acumen outweighed that vast imagination.
There were other businessmen vying for the second branch of the UC, such as the astute businessmen Edwin and Harold Janss. The Janss Brothers happened to own a large plot of West Los Angeles. What made them more savvy than our friend Ben Marks is that they basically donated their west L.A. land to the state, while Marks was trying to get the state to put up big bucks for BenMar hills. Shrewdly, the Janss brothers held onto what became commercial and residential Westwood, assuring that they would own all the businesses and homes that would undoubtedly pop up all around UCLA. Very shrewd indeed.
Ben Marks never thought of that.
And then the depression hit.
The Janss Brothers were prepared for it. They had already bought plenty of land and developed subdivisions in Boyle Heights, Yorba Linda, Van Nuys and Owensmouth (later renamed Canoga Park). They even ventured out of California to develop Sun Valley, Idaho, and came back to create Thousand Oaks. Both Janss brothers did very, very well for themselves.
Ben Marks, on the other hand, was found guilty of fraud due to defaulted bonds and confused property title claims, and went broke.
True, homes were built in BenMar Hills. Some of the largest were built during the 1920s while Marks begged for people to subsidize his vision of a beautiful, posh community in the hills. After the dream of UCLA crumbled, Marks wanted to put a school of International Relations in the hills. It would be a division of USC! That idea went bust, too.
After World War II, many more homes were built in the hill in a post-war boom. But few people who live in the hills today know that their homes were supposed to be a part of an elaborate European-looking site of UCLA. The street Ben Marks named Exeter became Walnut. A proposed park that Marks pictured at the top of Exeter is now DeBell Golf Club. BenMar Boulevard was replaced by Tufts, University and Uclan. Where Marks wanted to put the city’s Civic Center is now McCambridge Park.
Imagine. Ben Marks had a terrific imagination. What if his dreams had come true? If Ben Marks had had his way, it would be the Burbank Bruins feuding with the USC Trojans! Just picture the rivalry!
Right here in Burbank.
Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!
The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
OPEN SATURDAYS & SUNDAYS, 1 TO 4 pm - FREE Admission!
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site: www.burbankhistoricalsoc.org