Once upon a time not so very long ago, Los Angeles was a city full of retired burghers and their wives from the central plains–hard-working, respectable people who were easily awed and expected no less in their retirement. In “Day of the Locust,” Nathanael West paints these drab souls with a sinister brush, and we do not doubt that they were boorish and hard to share a streetcar with. And yet.
Way down in Compton there survives, improbably, one of the architectural follies built to make these plain people gape. It still manages to boggle any mind that happens across it today. Angeles Abbey is a phantasmagoria of Indian, Moorish, Spanish, Byzantine and High Modernist concrete elements, plopped down in such a way that its delirious towers can be viewed from every home in the modest neighborhood that grew up around it. Squint, breathe the jasmine and orange-scented air, and it’s not Compton around you, it’s Hollywood’s dream of Arabia–in Technicolor.
The visionary builder was George Craig of the Long Beach (via Toledo) shipbuilding Craigs, who it is said sent his architects to sketch the dome of the Taj Mahal around the same time that Adolph Schleicher commissioned drawings of royal Assyrian walls in Berlin’s Pergamon museum for his Samson Tire Factory (now Citadel) and the firm of Meyer & Holler tweaked the loudest aspects of Cairo and Peking into Sid Grauman’s theaters. By 1931, the corporation was spending a purported $500,000 on a new, central mausoleum containing 4000 crypts, which when combined with the 6000 in the first building made Angeles Abbey one of the largest American structures of its kind. Angeles Abbey rose up on the gentle plains of Id, far from the bustle of Long Beach and Los Angeles. The exquisitely decorated halls, all marble and leaded stained glass, were pure palaces of the dead, and a source of pride to those burghers who reserved eternal homes within.
Aerial photograph taken 1928 by Spence Airplane Photos, collection of Los Angeles Public Library
Through the 1940s, the main mausoleum was opened to all on Easter Sunday, and an organist would play dolorous music into the evening as “courteous attendants” skipped about assisting visitors with the placing of flowers and other memorial acts. Elaborate Veterans Day ceremonies continued at least through the 1970s. And yet today the place is something of a ghost town, its decline reflecting the vast social changes that have impacted the central city.
But before the decline, there were golden years, and some peculiar happenings that attracted note. In March 1935, 52-year-old Lois Ludwick, who really, really loved her car, was interred at Angeles following an unusual funeral in which her automobile was draped with flowers and towed behind the hearse bearing her remains. Automotive culture would become a theme that year: race car driver H.W. “Stubby” Stubblefield, killed during a practice run for the 1935 Indianapolis 500 would be interred at Angeles alongside his mechanic Leo Whitikar, who perished with him when their steering failed.
In 1937, a strange lawsuit was dismissed, thus denying us the opportunity to know why the family of J. Allen McManis (later the author of the New Guinea travel narrative “Flesh of My Brother, or, Kia Kia [Flesh Eaters])” believed the corpse of 5-year-old J. Allen Junior had vanished from his crypt. And in 1938, Richard V. Brady, 16, was memorialized after a game of Russian Roulette among high school chums resulted in the inevitable. In 1969, Angeles Abbey welcomed Clinton “Cy” Chamberlin, 94, called the “last of the smoke-eaters” for his work training the front ends of the horse-drawn fire-trucks that were phased out circa 1921. He was in later life fire chief for MGM and Warner Brothers. The cemetery’s advertising slogan circa 1964 was “Lowest Cost – Finest Protection – And Beautifully Maintained “For Those Who Care” but the time would come when these phrases would ring as hollow as the rap of a heavy flashlight against an empty wall crypt. The 1965 Watts Riots played a role, as did the shifting demographics which would leave Angeles Abbey on the wrong side of a very long commute for those who still cared to visit their dead.
But the death knell for Angeles Abbey tolled decisively in August 1976, when headlines blared the grim tale of the murder of 76-year-old Martha Eddington of Rosemead, beaten and strangled as she visited the mezzanine-level crypts of her daughter Margaret Brown and son-in-law Ralph Pejsa. It was initially reported that she had been killed over the weekend, but not found until Monday afternoon, when an anonymous tip advised police to look behind a curtain. The autopsy, less widely publicized, showed that she had been killed a few hours before she was found, in a pool of blood, with a broken vase bearing the name of her dead daughter close by. Martha Eddington died very near to her own reserved crypt, and she was interred there as planned. What follows was a series of scandals and miserable incidents. In 1984, Angeles Abbey and the Neptune Society were jointly named in a civil suit filed by eight persons who believed the ashes of their loved ones had been improperly commingled with “persons or things unknown.” Jean Sanders, who managed the property in the 1980s and 1990s, gained some celebrity for her careful management of rival gangs during services for those killed in gang-related incidents, while lamenting the vandalism that neighborhood youth visited on the place. And in 2002, $5 million was awarded in a class action suit that alleged that hundreds of bodies had been secretly stowed six-deep beneath the cemetery’s main road, while the management conducted fraudulent burials in a pretty, grassy part of the grounds. Sod has since been laid over the graves in question, rendering the place exceptionally confusing to drive through. Now the dead rest as easily as they are able, beneath tightly-locked towers so beautiful that they hardly seem real.
For more photographs from Angeles Abbey, please visit the Flickr photo set.