Lost Land of Oz

Sye Gutierrez, Administrative Clerk, Photo Collection

Working in the photo archive of the Los Angeles Public Library has allowed me some great moments of discovery, learning random and often forgotten details about the city I live in. When discussing potential upcoming blog post topics, my supervisor was the first to inform me about a playground that existed once in the San Fernando Valley, built to resemble the wonderful land of Oz. Having spent my teen years growing up in and around the valley I was shocked to discover that I had never heard of such a place, so I set off to research. Diving into our digital archive we are fortunate enough to have The Valley Times Collection, which is comprised of valley-centric stories from the newspaper that ran from 1946 to their closure in 1970.

David Cowdrey and Fred Raio (Valley Times Collection) view original

In the early 1960s, the Van Nuys Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Valley Children's Play Park Association came together to create a playground that would eventually sprawl over five acres and would feature play structures resembling places found in the stories of Oz. Some proposed features included Dorothy's farm in Kansas, a yellow brick road surrounding the playground, and a train ride. The whole project was slated to cost around $250,000 in 1964 (which would be over two million in 2018 dollars). Above we see David Cowdrey (left), president of the Valley Play Park Association, and Fred Raio, luncheon chairman, studying a model of the first two acres to be constructed. The hope in rolling out the park in phases was getting the public to see how amazing the park could be if fully built, thus spurring on further donations.

Jim McNary (Valley Times Collection) view original

In this photo we see Jim McNary, Los Angeles industrial designer, assembling a portion of his model of the Land of Oz. As the park was originally proposed it was to be completely paid for by the community through fundraising then be handed over to the city who would take responsibility for maintaining the property.

Sam Yorty and Ernani Bernardi (Valley Times Collection) view original

The groundbreaking ceremony took place late in November 1964, with then Los Angeles City Mayor Sam Yorty and Councilman Ernani Bernardi, dressed as the Tin Man, in attendance. The ceremony included a children’s costume parade, the scale models on display, guest speakers, and rides in a flatbed truck around the park. It was reported that the children stole the show, and as you can see in the pictures below it was understandable.

(Valley Times Collection) view original

After the groundbreaking ceremony was over, it took over decade to get any construction work done on the project. Also during that time the Valley Times newspaper went out of business, and so no further photos of the park are in our collection. Being disappointed that my research seemed to hit a wall, my supervisor reminded me that as a Los Angeles Public Library card holder it allowed me access to all our e-media resources including The Los Angeles Times archive. You can visit our e-media page to check out the added benefits your library card has to offers you.

(Valley Times Collection) view original

In the Los Angeles Times archive I found construction photos and news articles documenting the decline in the parks completion. With the mounting expense, the city declined time and again to spend the money requested by the playground association, and there was no further construction. The only structures completed were the Over the Rainbow Bridge, a picnic area with Tin Man hat inspired canopies and the soon to be infamous Munchkin Castle.

(Valley Times Collection) view original

Over the years the area around the park had changed, and with a rise in crime the unsecured playground started to decline. The Munchkin Castle was uniquely designed with lots of tight places that children could explore and practically be unreachable by adults. This feature eventually led to undesirable night time activity in the castle leaving the interior littered with drug paraphernalia and broken bottles, and smelling of a well-used bathroom. The one-of-a-kind design also needed costly maintenance to keep up its appearance and repairs were slow and infrequent. I asked a friend who spent his summers in the park during day camp what his experience was like and he confirmed what I had read. He mentioned that older kids loved hiding out in the castle to escape adult supervision and that the castle was indeed very dirty. By the mid 1980s, the city decided to end the project and tear down the castle, replacing it with standard playground equipment. The picnic area and rainbow bridge survived with minor alterations to remove any remaining hints of Oz theming from them.

While researching online there seems to be a real absence in photo documentation of this park. The most I could find of images of the playground were from some stills from the "Fame Is Where You Find It" episode of 90210. Having my friend confirm that he attended many a birthday party there, I am surprised to see so few images. My research reinforced how grateful I am to archives as they were the only resources I could turn to for information and how important it is to support the preservation of history for future generations.