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A Day In Culver City: Movieland To Outlooks
Culver City isn’t by any means considered one of Los Angeles County’s best known cities. Sitting on the Westside, almost completely surrounded by the city of LA, at first it can seem like it’s in-between a lot of other, much more interesting, places such as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Venice, Koreatown and even downtown. However, it has a fascinating history and quite a few attractions of its own, making it well worth a visit. No less than two entertainment/tech giants call the city home, it has a thriving foodie scene and some of the best viewpoints to take in the Los Angeles skyline.
On it’s founding, in 1917, it was explicitly promoted as a white-people-only town, but in 2022 the school district was rated one of the most diverse in California, showing how much has changed. It may not have the fame of some of it’s neighbors, but it’s well-worth a visit, so buckle up Dorothy and take a trip down the yellow brick road (or the Metro E Line) to Culver City.
6 Places to Go in Culver City
In this article I’ll make recommendations for things to do and historic sites to visit for a memorable day in Culver City, as well as listing some places to eat and drink there. Each of these locations tells the surprisingly interesting story of this Southern Californian city, and the whole route can be easily covered on foot. Or you can do it by car, but you definitely want to park to walk around downtown Culver City, before driving over to the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, the final location.
1. CULVER STUDIOS
Silent movie-making pioneer Thomas Ince opened the backlot here back in 1918. The first building to be constructed was ‘the mansion’: the picturesque, large, colonial style house at the front of the complex. It was modeled on George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon and was the location of Tara, in Gone with the Wind (which shocks many who see it, since they believed the plantation was actually located in Georgia). At the time it was owned by Metro Goldwyn Mayor (MGM), the studio behind the movie.
Another film being made in Culver – at the exact same time – was The Wizard of Oz, which seems remarkable when you consider that they’re almost certainly the two most financially successful movies ever made (adjusting for inflation etc).
Now the lot is occupied by Apple TV+, which is rapidly expanding its footprint on the site with new offices and sound stages, as a new era in the entertainment industry here in Los Angeles takes shape.
2. CULVER HOTEL
This flatiron shaped building dominates downtown Culver City and is a great spot to get lunch, or other refreshments, during your exploration of the neighborhood. Built by Harry Culver, property developer and founder of the city, it opened in 1924 as the Hotel Hunt.
Later on it passed into the possession of none other than Charles Chaplin, who – according to legend – lost it in a poker game to none other than John Wayne. Oh, to have been a good card player in those days!
Many of the stars of that era also stayed at the hotel, while shooting their pictures at the nearby movie studios, including Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Buster Keaton and more than one hundred munchkins from The Wizard of Oz.
Now it’s a boutique forty-six room four star hotel, with a great restaurant and jazz and live bands in the evenings.
3. DOWNTOWN CULVER CITY
In the 1990’s the city began a project to remake and revitalize this area, pedestrianizing some of the streets and renovating many of the buildings. Now there’s a thriving cafe, bar and restaurant scene here, making it a lively neighborhood in the evenings.
Be sure to take in the Kirk Douglas Theatre as you pass. Built in 1947 to a beautiful Streamline Moderne design, it’s now operated by Center Theatre Group, and often has award-winning productions playing to packed houses.
4. HOBBIT HOUSES
These houses would stand out anywhere (except in the Shire perhaps), but here in Los Angeles, they scream “look at me”. So go on – take a look. Designed and built by one time Disney illustrator Lawrence Joseph, who later worked for Lockheed Martin designing stealth fighter planes, the houses are a great example of what’s known as Storybook architecture.
They’re also a great example of the open-mindedness and imagination that LA so often inspires in people, the ability to reimagine the world into what they want it to be. These houses were a lifetime project for Jospeh, who lived here with his wife, Martha, being constructed by him between 1946 and 1970. They’re now protected under a historic preservation order.
Please be mindful that people live here, the houses are private property and therefore not open to the public.
5. SONY STUDIOS
This is a genuine old-time Hollywood heavyweight – right in the middle of Culver City. The backlot here has been used to make movies since Thomas Ince built the first studios on it in 1915, before relocating down the road to the Culver Studios a few years later, when he sold it to Samuel Goldwyn.
In the 1920’s the lot was incorporated into MGM and during the 1930’s it was arguably at the center of the Hollywood universe, with movies such as Ben Hur and Mutiny on the Bounty being filmed here.
At one point the studios encompassed 180 acres of land and no less than twenty-eight sound stages (including Stage 15, the second largest in the world). Many of MGM’s most famous movies were made here through the 1950’s including such hugely popular musicals as Singin’ in the Rain and Gigi.
The lot went through several hands before being acquired by Sony in 1990, when they bought Columbia Pictures. Its eighteen sound stages, over forty-five acres, are still used for Television and film production, including, as you would expect, many of Sony Pictures own products, such as the Spider Man movies.
You can take a tour of the studios and visit the new museum, it’s well worth the $50. Check here for details.
6. BALDWIN HILLS SCENIC OVERLOOK
Leave Sony Studios behind and head due to south, over the Ballona Creek, to the large hill in front of you. Baldwin Hills is named for Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, an important local land-owner and businessman in the nineteenth century. When he died in 1905, unbelievably the land here wasn’t considered valuable, until oil was discovered underneath it a decade later.
That very oil extraction later weakened a dam that was built in the hills, leading to catastrophic failure and the destruction of thousands of homes in 1963. The dam was subsequently removed and the land restored – but the carbon extraction continues!
However, the real reason to come up here is the truly exceptional view. From the outlook all of the Westside is below you and – depending on visibility, which lately has been good – you’ll be able to see Los Angeles, from downtown to the sea, with the added bonus of the Griffith Observatory and Hollywood Sign taking center stage.
There’s also a Visitor Center, with information on the area’s native plants and Culver history.
This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.
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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)