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Culver City: LA’s Hidden Westside Gem

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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, Koreatown, Venice, downtown and even Beverly Hills. However, it has a fascinating history and quite a few attractions within its five square miles, making it well worth a visit. No less than three entertainment giants call the city home, it has a thriving foodie scene and some of the best viewpoints to take in the Los Angeles skyline. In many respects it’s a hidden gem.

Background

Founded in 1917 with just 530 residents at the nexus of several streetcar lines that ran through what was then known as the Cahuenga Valley, it was explicitly promoted as a white-people-only town during its early years. This was made clear by its founder, when speaking as the president of the National Association of Realtors:

The Los Angeles Realty Board recommends that Realtors should not sell property to other than Caucasian in territories occupied by them. 

Harry Culver, 1927

How things change: in 2022 the school district was rated one of the most diverse in California, showing how far the city has come. The population of the city is now over 40,000 people, so it’s got a bit bigger too.

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.

Places to Go and Things to Do in Culver City

Below are some recommendations for fun things to do and historic sites to visit 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 LA Westside 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 home 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 that time the lot was owned by RKO, who leased it to Selznick International Pictures, the production company behind the movie.

Another film being made in Culver (over on the MGM lot) – 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 Culver Studios is occupied by Amazon Studios. Last year the tech giant bought MGM, which also owns United Artists (Chaplin’s old company), bringing the venerable old entertainment company onto the Culver lot. Since Amazon MGM moved into the studios in 2018 they’ve constructed several office buildings and sound stages, as a new era in the entertainment industry here in Los Angeles takes shape.

Fellow tech upstart turned entertainment giant Apple TV+ is based on a huge complex opposite Culver Studios, and Warner Bros occupy another enormous office building on the other side of the road (for their music division), so the city is still at the heart of ‘the industry’.

2. CULVER HOTEL

This flatiron shaped building dominates the downtown Culver City skyline and is a great spot to get lunch, or other refreshments, during your exploration of the neighborhood. Built by Harry Culver himself, it opened in 1924 as the Hotel Hunt and was the premier hotel in town (it still is).

Later on it passed into the possession of none other than Charles Chaplin, who – according to Hollywood lore – 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 known as the Culver Hotel, it’s a boutique forty-six room four star establishment, sporting a great restaurant and bar, with live jazz bands in the evenings. It’s a good location for staying at too, with downtown, Hollywood and the beaches easily accessible via public transport.

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. Although recently there has been a backlash and partial reversal on the pedestrian and bicycle improvements.

Be sure to take in the Kirk Douglas Theatre as you pass (if you can’t catch a show there). Built in 1947 to a beautiful Streamline Moderne design, it’s now operated by Center Theatre Group, and often presents award-winning productions playing to packed houses.

Another well-known, award-winning theatre in Culver is nearby too, the Actor’s Gang. Started by eight UCLA Theater students in 1981, the theater company is now headed by Tim Robbins, and is based at the Ivy Substation, near Culver City Station.

Other attractions in the immediate area of downtown Culver include the Ripped Bodice, the only dedicated romance novel bookstore in the northern hemisphere and Platform, a community shopping center in which tenants are required to provide experiences that are unique to it, making it a much more interesting mall than many in LA.

On the other side of station is the Helms Bakery District, a historic industrial bakery that’s been adapted for reuse, with award-winning restaurants and a unique collection of design and home furnishings stores in the building and surrounding area.

4. HOBBIT HOUSES

These three 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 homes 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.

Hobbit Houses, Culver City
Am I in Los Angeles or Middle Earth?

The houses were a lifetime project for Jospeh, who lived here with his wife, Martha, being constructed by him between 1946 and 1970. An expert carpenter and sailor, Joseph also created nautically themed interiors, featuring galley kitchens, vertical-grain boat plank flooring and built-in furniture that uses nautical hardware.

Joseph died in 1991, although his wife continued to maintain the property until her death.

Please be mindful that people live here, the houses are private property and therefore not open to the public. They’re now protected under a historic preservation order.

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 (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) 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 possessed 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 after that, before being acquired by Sony in 1990, when it bought Columbia Pictures. The studio’s eighteen sound stages, spread over forty-five acres, are of course 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 price of admission. Check here for details.

On the back side of the studio lot, next to Veterans Memorial Park, is the Wende Museum. It’s an art museum and historical archive devoted to the 1947-91 Cold War and is well worth a visit.

6. BALDWIN HILLS SCENIC OVERLOOK

Leaving Sony Studios behind and looking due south, over the Ballona Creek (a remnant of when the Los Angeles River flowed through the area), is a large hill. This hilly area is known as the Baldwin Hills, named after 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, but then oil was discovered underneath it a decade later.

That very oil extraction later weakened a dam that was built in the hills, leading to a 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. Although not for much longer, the oil wells here are due to be capped over the next few years.

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.

If you’re feeling hungry during your visit to Culver City check here for our recommendations on some great spots in the neighborhood to eat. Or here for the lowdown on the local bars.

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

If you have any feedback on Culver City: LA’s Hidden Westside Gem please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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