Ever wonder how “Bel Air” came to be? Well the story is rather fascinating. It was named after and established by Alphonzo Bell, an LA native, whose family was deeply rooted in the area both financially and historically. Bell played a key role in the history and development of Southern California. He was the son of James George Bell, who established Bell Station Ranch (now the site of the City of Bell).
After striking oil on their ranch at Santa Fe Springs, 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. With the ensuing California oil boom, or “black-gold” rush, competition from various less scrupulous large oil companies was fierce—several of whom, along with William Randolph Hearst, tried to drive the more honest Bell’s smaller operation out of business—a saga documented in the fictionalized account by writer Upton Sinclair in a 1927 novel Oil!, also the basis for the 2007 movie, There Will Be Blood.
Bell, known for his almost puritanical morality and honesty, used portions of his initial profits to develop upscale real estate communities in West Los Angeles, including parts of Westwood, Beverly Hills, and Pacific Palisades. He became a visionary real estate developer, anticipating the influx of Hollywood elite and other wealthy residents who would be lured by the burgeoning film industry. In 1922, building on over 600 acres (2.4 km2) that he had acquired, Bell founded Bel Air Estates, an exclusive and upscale neighborhood now known as Bel-Air, enhancing the surrounding area with lush vegetation, new roads, and utilities; designed, laid out and developed the Bel Air Country Club and the Bel Air Bay Club; and was a key player in the group that developed the Riviera Country Club. While many such clubs thrived on sales of bootleg liquor during the years of Prohibition, Bell refused to allow the sale of illegal spirits in any of his clubs or establishments, which lost him some membership. William Randolph Hearst’s longstanding vendetta with Bell had started when Bell refused to sell a homesite to Hearst for a home to house his silent-film-star mistress, Marion Davies in the Bell’s Bel-Air Estates development.
Bell and his wife Minnewa 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, and their former horse riding stables, 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.