There It Is, Revitalize It — Visiting the Silver Lake Reservoir

There It Is, Revitalize It

The other night (24 June), the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and outgoing (in both senses of the word) city council member Tom LaBonge arranged to have the gates of the Silver Lake Reservoir unlocked for a few hours and thus the South Dam was briefly opened to the public. Despite the complete absence of yarn-bombing, live music, or food trucks, the turnout was large and seemed to suggest that more than a few Silver Lakers have interest in claiming this now decommissioned reservoir as a future public space.

View of the Silver Lake Reservoir from the south dam
View of the Silver Lake Reservoir from the south dam

The Silver Lake Reservoirs are comprised two concrete-lined basins separated by a spillway, the small Ivanhoe Reservoir and the much larger Silver Lake Reservoir. The Silver Lake Reservoir has a roughly 3 million liter capacity and was used to store drinking water until it was replaced by the Headworks Reservoir in Griffith Park. Since its construction in the 1900s it has provided the surrounding community with its name and served as its focal point. Despite the hardscape and chainlink fence, it’s nonetheless a surprisingly lovely feature of the neighborhood.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of Silver Lake
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s map of Silver Lake

Though artificial, the location of the Silver Lake Reservoir was once a marsh fed by the Los Angeles River, which after descending from the San Fernando Valley was historically prone to major shifts in its course. In 1815, the Los Angeles River flowed through the area. In 1825, the mouth of the river moved all the way from the Ballona Wetlands — situated along the Santa Monica Bay — all the way over to its current terminus in the San Pedro Bay and the marshes of what’s now the reservoir became part of the Ballona Creek watershed, rather than the Los Angeles River. This nomadism wouldn’t do what with people trying to build a city here and considerable effort went into committing it to its present course, including most famously its channelization in 1938. 


According to local lore, a community known as Ivanhoe arose around the northern border between Los Angeles and Rancho Los Felis. As legend tells, the name came from none other than Scottish-born Mexican, Hugo Reid, who was so struck by the similarity between the Elysian Hills and the Scottish Highlands that he convinced his Mexican neighbors to name their settlment after a novel by Sir Walter Scott. If this smells fishy to you, you’re not alone.

Hugo Reid was born in the Scottish Lowlands and left for Mexico when still a boy. He may very well have never seen the Scottish Highlands — which could help explain why he supposedly thought that the scrub-covered, sun-baked, semi-arid hills Mideast Los Angeles look so much like the cloud-blanketed mountains in Europe‘s rainiest corner. But then, those scrub-covered, sun-baked, semi-arid Elysian Hills in what’s now Silver Lake look remarkably like the scrub-covered, sun-baked, semi-arid hills of Hermosillo, where Reid grew up. What’s more, they look remarkably like the most of the scrub-covered, sun-baked, semi-arid hills in the region — including those above Rancho Santa Anita, 25 kilometers east, where Reid and his lived.

The novel, Ivanhoe, was written by Sir Walter Scott. Like Reid, he was a Scotsman born in the Lowlands — in his case, the city of Edinburgh. The setting of novel, published in 1819, was the cities of York and Sheffield — in England, not Scotland. Naming an area after a literary work because the location reminds you of the author’s homeland is so convoluted it’s hard to even explain. It would be like naming a town Planet Mongo because it reminds you of New York — the state where Flash Gordon author Alex Raymond was born.

The novel Ivanhoe presumably made its way to Mexico sometime after it was first translated into Spanish, in 1826. Reid died in 1852. Therefore, it’s fairly safe to assume that if Reid did name the community “Ivanhoe” he did so in the last 25 or so years of his life, when the area was still part of Mexico. So we’re to believe that the good folks of this dusty Mexican hamlet were OK with calling their community “Ivanhoe, Mexico” because a Scottish-born guy who lived 25 kilometers away in Arcadia assured them that it looked less like Mexico than it did Scotland and because an author from Scotland had written a book about a fictional Englishman named Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Makes perfect sense.

What is certain is that Hugh Reid was a Scottish-Mexican who lived in an adobe on a distant Mexican rancho outside the Pueblo of Los Angeles for the final thirteen years of his life. In 1882, 30 years after his death, Welsh-born mining and real estate magnate Griffith J. Griffith, purchased about 4,000 acres of Rancho Los Felis for roughly $1 per acre. In 1887, he had the land surveyed and subdivided into 1,700 lots priced from $150 to $750. He called his subdivision the Ivanhoe Tract. Many of the street names came from Sir Walter Scott’s novel, including Avenel, Herkimer, Kenilworth, Locksley, Rowena, and Waverly. There are also a couple of streets named after Scottish locations, including Angus and Scotland streets.

What’s also fairly uncontroversial is the assertion that real estate developers like Griffith J. Griffith — then as now — love having some romantic history for their fancifully-named subdivisions, even if that history is made-up, and people love a bit of romance — hence bestowing suburbs with names like Athens on the Hill, Avalon, Edendale, Venice of America, Elysian Heights, Naples, Hawaiian Gardens, Mesmer City, New York Valley, Tarzana, &c. The long-planned reservoir went into service in 1906 and is still known as the Ivanhoe Reservoir — it’s a wonder they didn’t call it Loch Ness. Ivanhoe, like many tract names, was adopted for a time but vanished around the 1920s as the area gradually came to be known after the much larger reservoir, Silver Lake.

Construction of the reservoir in 1906
Construction of the reservoir in 1906

The Ivanhoe Reservoir is the older of the two reservoirs, built in Ivanhoe Canyon and put into service in May 1906. It was originally topped with a wooden cover.

Ivanhoe Reservoir in the 1930s (Department of Water and Power Photo Archive)
Ivanhoe Reservoir in the 1930s (Department of Water and Power Photo Archive)

To its south, the construction of the Silver Lake Reservoir began in November 1907 and it was completed in March 1908. It was named after former Water Board Commissioner Herman Silver and soon after the communities of Ivanhoe and part of Edendale to its east were more commonly referred to as Silver Lake, which was annexed by Los Angeles as part of the East Hollywood Addition in February 1910.

By 1911, there were plans create a public parkway following the Ivanhoe Canyon Arroyo from Silver Lake at one end and Westlake at the other. Toward that end, the Los Angeles Parks Commission planted more than 2,000 trees around the reservoir, including groves of stately Australian eucalyptus which are still often utilized by nesting Great Blue Herons. Silver died in 1913. The planned park died in 1918, due to lack of funds.

Aerial view Silver Lake Reservoir, vicinity - 1924 (LAPL - Security Pacific National Bank Collection)
Aerial view Silver Lake Reservoir, vicinity – 1924 (LAPL – Security Pacific National Bank Collection)
The Silver Lake Reservoir in 1927.
The Silver Lake Reservoir in 1927.

The reservoir was never just a source of drinking water. It was originally stocked with black bass, primarily to control potentially works-gumming minnow population but also for the enjoyment of fishermen.

Laetiporus (aka Chicken of the Woods) growing at the base of a eucalyptus
Laetiporus (aka Chicken of the Woods) growing at the base of a eucalyptus
Silver Lake Reservoir - 1932 (LAPL - Security Pacific National Bank Collection)
Silver Lake Reservoir – 1932 (LAPL – Security Pacific National Bank Collection)
The Silver Lake Reservoir c. 1935 (Image Source: LAPL)
The Silver Lake Reservoir c. 1935 (LAPL – Security Pacific National Bank Collection)

The reservoir was expanded and retrofitted in 1932. Cypress trees were planted along the south dam but unfortunately, a  chainlink fence was erected. Later, barbed wire was added, which really marked the beginning of the reservoir’s uglification and isolation from human contact. Chlorination came in 1947 which gave joggers around the reservoir an unpleasant lungful. The reservoir was drained and re-sloped in the 1950s and the edges were hardscaped to keep back vegetation.

“Don’t tell me I did something wrong, officer.” Ahna Capri arrested in Silver Lake

Although aesthetically diminished, the reservoir still had charm enough to feature prominently as a backdrop in the 1969 episode of Adam-12 titled, “Log 172: Boy, the Things You Do for the Job.” In it, officers Pete Malloy and Jim Reed serve a woman with a traffic ticket but then proceed for most of the show’s duration to drive in an endless loop around the edge reservoir. If you watch long enough you might also catch sight of Sylvie, the Silver Lake Sea Serpent (likely some sort of immortal, freshwater plesiosaurs like Nessie).

Sylvie breaking the surface
Sylvie breaking the surface at twilight (perhaps plesiosaurs are crepuscular)

In 1988 the LADWP proposed that all of the city’s small reservoirs be covered. In most cases, people living near them strongly resisted on aesthetic grounds. With most reservoirs, the drinking water is piped to a distant community (in the case of the Silver Lake Reservoir, South Los Angeles), so if it became contaminated that was someone else’s problem, right? In 1989, the Silver Lake Reservoirs were designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 422.

For decades, concrete barriers and fences protected the reservoir from people but all that separated people from careening cars was a line of white paint. In 1995, Diane Manahan and her husband Michael were walking around the reservoir when Jorge Rodriguez hit both of them, injuring Michael and killing Diane. When the driver sobered up and realized what he’d done, he committed suicide. The death motivated the city to approve the construction of a protected,3.5-kilometer jogging path in 1996 and a mere sixteen years later (during which time many veladoras were lit along Silver Lake Boulevard), the path was finally completed.

The Ivanhoe Reservoir filled with balls (Mast Egg)
The Ivanhoe Reservoir filled with balls (Mast Egg)

In 2007 the LADWP announced that the uncovered reservoirs were contaminated with high levels of cancer-causing bromate, formed by a combination of natural bromides, chlorine, and sunlight. Both reservoirs were drained and 400,000 black, shade balls (also known as “bird balls”) were added to the Ivanhoe Reservoir to prevent sunlight (rather than birds) from interacting with the water. The Silver Lake Reservoir, perhaps too large for such balls, was taken off-line completely.

In 2011, the City of Los Angeles opened a 1.2 hectare park called the Silver Lake Meadow. The area had originally been a shallow cove of the reservoir but had stagnated and was filled in in the 1950s. After that, it was a large, fenced off meadow primarily enjoyed by young coyotes. Their domain was diminished by the opening of the park but the sight of them frolicking on the other side of the fence is not uncommon, especially near the Silver Lake Meadow Native Garden and the solitary hill. The meadow is off limits to dogs and active sports (and baseball) are prohibited but on its best days, the meadow is blessed by the presence of the Silver Lake Croquet League.

The South Dam being enjoyed by the public
The South Dam being enjoyed by the public

Now the reservoir’s future is uncertain. Maybe it will be refilled and left alone so that in the case of fire, helicopters can suck water from it as they did during the 2007 Griffith Park fire. One camp have suggested turning it into a swimming hole called the Silver Lake Plunge, drawing the predictable complaints about gang members, taggers, and other “undesirables” enjoying it as well as the inevitable lack of parking spaces (to which I say sell your car and get a bike, walk, or take Metro‘s 201 or 92 line).

The Silver Lake South Outlet Chlorination Station
The Silver Lake South Outlet Chlorination Station
Silver Lake South Outlet Chlorination Station at night -- future Airbnb rental?
Silver Lake South Outlet Chlorination Station at night — future Airbnb rental?

In the interest of preventing a complete bourgie takeover of the neighborhood, I propose building a floating, 24 hour KTV/noraebang and jet ski rental. Barring that, how about transforming into a wetland that can be used to recharge the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek watersheds. Whatever happens, it should continue to serve as a sanctuary for migratory birds traveling the Pacific Flyway.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

4 thoughts on “There It Is, Revitalize It — Visiting the Silver Lake Reservoir

  1. In the article you state “Though artificial, the location of the Silver Lake Reservoir was once a marsh fed by the Los Angeles River, which after descending from the San Fernando Valley was historically prone to major shifts in its course.” Can you tell me what reference this is from? I’m interested in the historical ecology of the area.


    1. Hi! I can’t off the top of my head, sadly. L.A. Creek Freak made a pretty good map of waterways and watersheds in Los Angeles. I’ve also come across some older Spanish maps showing at least three routes for the Los Angeles River. I looked for them when I wrote this because I wanted to include it but couldn’t find them. Glen Creason, the map librarian at Central Library might have some copies. Finally, most of the Los Angeles Basin was dotted with marshes during and after the rainy seasons. All the canyons and valleys saw water flowing down them from the hillsides on account of their geography (and gravity). If I find any good sources, I’ll add them to this piece. If you find any, do let me know and I’ll consider adding them (in which case I’d give you credit).


    2. Hi Sheri,

      If you see this, I just came across something that may be of interest. From the 8 May 1927 edition of the Los Angeles Times, in an interview, Mulholland states, “Forty years ago I lived within a half-mile of what is now Silver Lake and used to picnic along the stream that flowed through the meadows. In 1903 I built the dam that made Silver Lake.”

      Hope that helps!


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