W. W. Orcutt began his career as a petroleum geologist and was one of the first to use scientific principals in the discovery of oil. He also discovered the first fossils at the La Brea Tar Pits. Eventually he came to hold executive positions in the Union Oil Company. He and his wife, Mary, lived in Los Angeles, but also had citrus trees and cattle on property in what is now West Hills and Canoga Park. They owned 210 acres which they called Rancho Sombra del Roble (shade of the valley oak). They enjoyed the place so much that they decided to build a second home here. They hired Phoenix architect L.G. Knipe, who had also designed buildings at Arizona State University. The house was completed in 1926.
The house was built in the Spanish colonial revival style. It is a relatively large, one-story building that surrounds three and a half sides of a courtyard. There are numerous porches and patios, ornamental tile, and ironwork. On the walls surrounding the courtyard, there are Mexican folk scenes in tile and in the courtyard there is a Spanish style fountain.
One feature of the house is unsettling to modern eyes. The design in the plaster above each window includes a swastika. This it very ancient symbol from thousands of years ago. It has been found in various forms all over the world. It symbolized things such as good luck, fertility, tribal migrations, and the four directions. It was once a perfectly acceptable symbol in the United States and was used in advertising and graphic arts to symbolize good luck or to give a southwestern feel, not unlike how the horseshoe might be used today. Mary Orcutt chose the symbol because it is a traditional southwestern Native American symbol and she wanted the three historic cultures of the southwest - Native, Mexican, and Spanish - commemorated in the house.
Plants on the porch
Most of the original property has been divided and subdivided but 24 acres of the original ranch remain as a City of Los Angeles park. The park can be divided into five sections. (These are my own names and not official designations.)
- Community garden
- Formal gardens
- Informal gardens
- Citrus groves
The community garden is at the far eastern end of the park. It consists of 10 foot by 20 foot plots of ground that are available for rent. This area is not open to the general public.
The structures include the main house, barns and sheds, and the caretaker's house. The interiors of these buildings are not open to the public, but you may walk around them and look in the windows and sit on the benches. Much of the main house is empty but part of it contains park offices. The barns appear to be used as storage and work areas. Stay outside of the fence at the caretaker's house. Someone lives there.
The formal gardens are immediately adjacent to the east and south of the main house. The features include a patch of lawn, rose gardens, a gazebo, a pergola, a large sundial, and a grotto.
Gazebo and rose garden
The Three Graces
Brick and tile bench in Dayton Canyon
700-year-old coast live oak
The informal gardens are less manicured than the formal gardens. This area is to the south of the main house. It is a mixture of native trees such as valley oaks, coast live oaks, and sycamores and introduced plants like eucalyptus, bamboo, bunya bunya, and palms. One of the coast live oaks is estimated to be 700 years old. Scars remain were some of the lower branches were cut off 200 years ago. These were used to fire the limekiln used to make lime for plaster for Mission San Fernando. (Remains of the limekiln can be seen in the Chatsworth Reservoir property near Woolsey Canyon Road.) A paved path goes along Dayton Canyon Creek, which is dry much of the year.
There are two citrus groves. The grapefruit are to the west of the house and Valencia oranges are to the east of the house. Some of the trees appear to be pretty old. There are also valley oaks and coast live oaks throughout the groves.
The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. Admission is free. Usually one enters on Roscoe Boulevard, but if that entrance is closed, go around the block to the Justice Street entrance and park on the street. You are free to roam the grounds wherever you wish except for the community garden. The land is fairly flat except near Dayton Canyon Creek. Some paths are paved, some are not. There are benches all over the property. There is a restroom and drinking fountain.
The main house and adjacent garden may be reserved for private functions. When in use, the house area and formal gardens are not open to the general public. For information on reservations, see the website. Once a year, the citrus grove is open for fruit picking. Visitors are charged per bag of fruit gathered and fruit pickers can be rented. Call the park to find out the date.
This is not a botanic garden. You will not find the plants labeled. What you will find is a quiet, shady place to spend an hour or so.
Orcutt Ranch Horticultural Center
23600 Roscoe Boulevard
Canoga Park, CA 91304