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Orcutt Ranch Horticultural Center Rancho Sombra del Roble

Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument # 31  
23600 Roscoe Blvd., West Hills, CA 91304
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(818) 346-7449

The Orcutt Ranch, formally called Rancho Sombra del Roble, was the vacation and retirement estate of William Warren Orcutt and his wife Mary Logan Orcutt. The adobe residence, as well as the estate’s garden, ranch structures, oak trees, and citrus orchard have historic significance because of the distinction of its owner W.W. Orcutt, pioneer of the oil production industry in California and discoverer of the prehistoric fossils at the LaBrea Tar Pits.

W.W. Orcutt, known as the “Dean of Petroleum Geologists,” was born in Dodge County, Minnesota on February 14, 1869, and, at the age of 12, came to California with his family, settling in Ventura County. William attended public school in Santa Paula, and, in 1891, entered Stanford University. He graduated with the Pioneer Class in 1895, receiving an A.B. degree in Geology and Engineering. After graduation, Orcutt returned to his hometown of Santa Paula and worked as a civil and hydraulic engineer and as United States Deputy Surveyor until May, 1899. He then became superintendent of the San Joaquin Valley Division of the Union Oil Company of California, a company with which he would continue until his retirement in 1939, serving on the Executive Board and attaining the position of Vice-President over several departments.

In 1901, Orcutt came to Los Angeles, and was made manager of the Geological, Land and Engineering Departments of the Union Oil Company. It was during this first year in Los Angeles that Orcutt discovered fossilized prehistoric animal bones preserved in pools of asphalt on the Hancock Ranch. These would be the first of many fossils excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits. In commemoration of Orcutt’s initial discovery, paleontologists named the La Brea Coyote in W.W. Orcutt’s honor, Canis Orcutti.

In the early years of the petroleum industry in California, geology was little utilized even by the larger oil companies. It was the work of William Orcutt in applying scientific, geologic, and engineering principles to solving the problems of oil development that made Geology a necessity for oil companies in the West, and inspired the Union Oil Company of California to be the first in the State to organize a Geological Department. W.W. Orcutt had made the first geological maps of the Coalinga, Kern River, Lompoc, and Santa Maria oils fields, and had also selected and purchased properties for the Union Oil Company in those districts. It was in appreciation of his service to the petroleum industry that the town of Orcutt in Santa Barbara County was named in his honor. The town of Orcutt, Colorado, also honors the man and his life’s work in the oil industry.

W.W. Orcutt owned several ranches in Southern California, and took personal interest their management. One of these ranches was Rancho Sombra del Roble, which translates from Spanish to mean “ranch in the shade of the oak,” approximately 210-acres of cattle ranch and citrus orchard located in the west San Fernando Valley. The original Orcutt Ranch comprised much of what is today’s Canoga Park.

Although residents of Los Angeles, with their primary home within today’s Mid-Wilshire/Koreatown district, W.W. Orcutt and his wife Mary enjoyed frequent visits to Rancho Sombra del Roble with its historic stand of oaks and nearby stream. By the late 1910s, they decided to build a permanent vacation home reminiscent of the ranchos of early California and the days of the Spanish missions. To make their dream a reality, the Orcutt’s hired L.G. Knipe, an established architect from Phoenix, Arizona, known for designing some of the original campus structures of Arizona State University in Tempe (two structures of which have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) During this same period, L.G. Knipe designed another exceptional “early California revival” adobe residence for a 500-acres citrus orchard in Woodland Hills owned by John Henry Show.

Completed about 1926, the Orcutt residence reflected both the owners’ and the architect’s interest in the architectural styles, crafts, and symbols of the American Southwest. Integral in the decorative program at the Orcutt Residence – as seen in the lintels above the windows and doors, on ventilation grills, and in courtyard patio – is the symbol of the Native American swastika. The swastika is one of the world’s oldest known graphic symbols, predating even the ancient Egyptian Ankh.

The English word swastika derives from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “well-being” and “good fortune.”The symbol of the swastika can be found on almost every continent, evidenced in the cultural objects and folk arts of almost every culture. This symbol, positioned at the entrances to the home and gardens, expressed wishes of good fortune to those who entered the home.

During the first part of the 20th Century, the swastika with its positive associations was a common symbol in American culture and could be found in advertisements and product packaging like cigar labels and bands, fruit wrappers and business emblems, and even on poker chips. During World War I, an orange swastika on a red field was the shoulder patch of the United States 45th Infantry Division. During this same period, the swastika was a common symbol used in hand-crafted blankets, jewelry and baskets sold by American Indian artisans at railroad stations or in Fred Harvey Houses along the route of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The inclusion of this symbol on the Orcutt Ranch is one of the many references to the folk arts and multi-cultures of the American Southwest. The symbol seen at the Orcutt Residence predates the adoption of the swastika by the National Socialist Workers (Nazi) Party during the 1920s, and its adoption as part of the national flag of Nazi Germany in 1935, which forged another meaning onto the ancient symbol – a reminder of human evil.

Other symbols used are the structure’s adobe walls and it’s design based around a central courtyard and fountain, the Spanish tile roof and the ceramic relief vignettes adorning the home’s exterior, the ornate ironwork and hand-carved woodwork, and the colorful glazed tile panels depicting domestic scenes of American Indian, Mexican, and Spanish cultures, and the variety of garden statuary – all incorporated to create a complete architectural work. This extensively designed residence recreated a period of early California for the home’s owners, their family, and their many guests. Notable visitors to the Orcutt Ranch included W.W. Orcutt’s good friend President Herbert Hoover.

The Orcutts were very active in the affairs of their community. Mr. Orcutt was a member of the National Guard from 1895-1897, a Reserve Engineer during the First World War, and he served on the local draft board from 1940 until his death in 1942. Throughout his adult life he served on many boards of geological and engineering interest, as well as on the Board of the Southern California Historical Society, and for many horticultural organizations. As a community leader herself, Mary Logan Orcutt served with numerous women’s clubs and charitable organizations. During the 1932 Olympics, Mrs. Orcutt was an official Olympic Hostess, organizing several receptions in the gardens of the Orcutt Ranch. In 1947, Mary Orcutt purchased two acres of peach orchard in the center of Canoga Park to build a community center for the local families working on her ranch and the neighboring farms. She felt these families needed a friendly place to socialize and to learn, and this facility, the Guadalupe Center, is still in operation today.

In January 22, 1965, the City of Los Angeles designated a 24-acre portion of the estate as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 31, which included the residence, ranch structures, garden, oaks, and citrus orchard. At that time, Mrs. Orcutt was still residing within the adobe residence. One year later, the City of Los Angeles, Department of Recreation and Parks, acquired the property, preserving the site, the Orcutt home and its gardens for future generations as a public historic monument and park.