History Of The Real Prince Of Bel Air : Alphonzo Bell Sr.
World-renowned Bel Air is known for fabulous wealth with former U.S. Presidents, movie stars and billionaires populate this neighborhood’s zip codes on the far west end of Los Angeles- 90077 and part of 90049.
However, many residents of this hillside region bounded by the famous Sunset Boulevard on the south, scenic Mulholland highway on the north, Beverly Glen Boulevard to the east and the Sepulveda Pass are unaware their neighborhood started as the brainchild of the son of an immigrant farmer-turned oil men named Alphonzo Bell.
Alphonzo Bel Edward Bell Sr. (September 29, 1875 – December 27, 1947) arrived in Los Angeles with his family, led by his father James George Bell in 1875. That same year. the Bell family purchased about 360 acres of property, south of modern downtown L.A. This particular acreage was originally part of the Spanish land grant known as Rancho San Antonio.
At this time George James Bell engaged in cattle raising and dry farming and developed water wells to providing irrigation to local vegetable farmers. His foresight helped the area develop into a small farming and cattle raising community. Obed,was the name of this California community. In 1898 the name was changed to Bell Station Ranch, in honor of James. This later was renamed the City of Bell in honor of James.
As a young man, Alphonzo found himself wanting to reach for ambitions beyond a farmer’s life and found himself enrolling for classes at San Enselmo Presbyterian College for two years. Bell later enrolled at Occidental College, which had been founded by his own father in 1887, and graduated at the top of his class as valedictorian in 1895.
Besides being a serious scholar, Alphonzo enjoyed athletic challenges. He won the Inter-Collegiate Tennis Championship as a senior and later won the Pacific Coast Tennis Championship. Alphonzo was such a good tennis player that at one time he earned national rankings of fifth in singles and eighth in tennis doubles. Known for his “net-rusher” style, Bell went on to win two medals in tennis at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis – a bronze in the men’s singles event, and a silver in the men’s doubles tournament, partnering with Robert LeRoy.
And here is where Bel Air’s history gets going. Alphonzo, was quite ambitious which led him to ride L.A.’s boom from sleepy little sister to San Francisco to the mega-city that it had become by the middle of the 20th Century. Quite interesting that during that era of L.A.’s wild and often lawless frontier development, Alphonzo Bell remained very sober-minded and reserved unlike many of his contemporaries.
After striking oil on the family ranch, Bell entered the oil business with his father in the early 1920s, establishing the Bell Petroleum Co., and developing what became one of the richest oil fields in California. Alphonzo used the profits from this venture to develop upscale real estate communities in West Los Angeles, including parts of Westwood, Beverly Hills, and Pacific Palisades.
It was this fearless and competitive spirit that led the young Alphonzo to jump full force into L.A.’s high-stakes development rush and found himself competing against some of the biggest titans of American business in the early 20th century. Not being easily intimidated and always willing to blaze his own trails, Alphonzo achieved success above and beyond anyone’s expectations.
It is here that Bell’s unique vision for the future of Los Angeles found expression in his development of a new project in the undeveloped tracts of hillside west of Beverly Hills that was just getting settled by old Hollywood’s elite such as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
Alphonzo correctly anticipated the growing importance of film production to L.A.’s future economy and he realized the influx of Hollywood elite and other wealthy residents would create a demand for upscale suburban estates in L.A.’s coastal hills. With this idea in mind, Alphonzo placed a huge bet in 1922, acquiring over 600 acres (2.4 km2) west of Beverly Hills that he called Bel Air Estates. Alphonzo envisioned this area as an exclusive and upscale neighborhood framed with lush vegetation, new roads, and utilities. Alphonzo had a direct hand in Bel-Air’s design and lay out and he also developed the Bel Air Country Club and the Bel Air Bay Club overlooking the Pacific. He also was a key player in the group that developed the Riviera Country Club.
It is important to note that this was during the height of Prohibition and many private clubs thrived on sales of bootleg liquor but Bell refused to allow the sale of illegal spirits in any of his clubs or establishments. This moral posture, very typical of Bell, ended up losing him some memberships. Notable publisher and multimillionaire William Randolph Hearst maintained a longstanding feud with Bell owing to Bell’s refusal to sell a homesite for the use of Hearst’s then silent-film-star mistress, Marion Davies.
In 1902 Alphonzo married Minnewa Shoemaker Bell, a native of Kansas. For themselves and their young extended family, Bell and his wife in 1921 built a showplace 42-room house on 1,760 acres in portions of the areas that are now Bel Air and Pacific Palisades which they called Capo Di Monte (Italian for “Top of the Hill”). Today nothing of the house remains, except for some of the terraced gardens and rock walls. Only their former horse riding stables survive to this day, which now constitute a portion of the Bel-Air Hotel – with what was once the Bell stable’s manure barn, now one of the favorite celebrity guest suites
Their marriage produced several children with notable histories of their own, including Bell’s son, Alphonzo E. Bell, Jr., who later served eight terms as a California Congressman. Bell’s daughter, Minnewa Bell Gray Burnside Ross, married Elliott Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1951.