Above: Nathan Marsak confirms that reports of the disappearance of the Adohr Milk Farms neon are premature
[Update, October 2, 2021: Today, the Adohr Milk Farms sign was put back up on the building, following its restoration by Paul Greenstein. You can sneak a peek at the new lighting pattern here, and learn more about the Howlin’ Ray’s adaptive reuse signage project from Paul and sign historian Dydia DeLyser on our on-demand webinar, Los Angeles is the City of Neon Light. Big thanks to Johnny Ray Zone and Howlin’ Rays for recognizing how very special this rediscovered sign is and keeping it a part of the community! We look forward to sharing the cool and nuanced story with our guests on future Pasadena tours.]
Los Angeles sign freaks have been all in a lather this week, as word spread like gas from a leaking neon tube about a previously unknown 1920s-era Adohr Milk Farms sign that had been uncovered during construction for the new Howlin’ Ray’s fried chicken restaurant at 800 South Arroyo Parkway. Neon historian Dydia DeLyser told us that it appears to be one of the oldest neon signs in the region, and is especially unusual since it advertises a rural, wholesome product. Nothing noir about milk, right?
Route 66 photographer Ian Bowen first spotted the newly revealed sign on his commute and broke the news on social media on August 20. Eric Lynxwiler from the Museum of Neon Art raced over, and we followed. Yesterday, Cranky Preservationist Nathan Marsak made an emergency visit when rumors spread on social media that the sign had been removed. What we all found is spectacularly beautiful, and all the more thrilling because it was obscured behind a generic facade for decades.
Offline, preservationists scrambled to advocate for the sign to be preserved in place, after a contractor on the site told one interested party that the owner wanted it to come down quick. But soon, the conversation about the sign took a dark turn, with some questioning if preserving the Adohr sign would be perpetuating white supremacy.
Huh?! It turns out a quick Google search for information about “Adohr Milk Farms,” the venerable San Fernando Valley dairy concern, took people to co-owner Rhoda Rindge Adamson’s Wikipedia page.
Until yesterday, when I updated it, the first paragraph of the entry read, “She was one the leading proponents of excluding African Americans and specifically Nat King Cole’s family from Hancock Park.” This terrible assertion was footnoted with two citations:
1) Hadley Meares’ 2018 blog post on Curbed L.A., in which she writes “According to the Los Angeles Sentinel, one of the leading residents in the fight against the Coles was Rhoda Rindge Adamson, owner of Malibu’s famed Adamson House and the daughter of the legendary May Rindge, who fought for decades to keep people out of Malibu.”
2) Meares’ source, a 1948 article in the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper. Due to the Proquest paywall, all that is easily accessible from Wikipedia is the lurid headline, HATEFUL SIGN PLASTERED ON ‘KING’ COLE’S $85,000 PALACE: WIFE OF ADOHR HEAD REPORTED OPPOSING COLE.
Anyone with a Los Angeles Public Library card can log in to Proquest and access the actual Sentinel article. I did so when it became clear that efforts to advocate for the preservation of the Adohr Milk Farms sign were being hampered by concerns about the alleged racist activity of Rhoda Rindge Adamson. I wanted to get the story straight.
Here’s what the article actually says, with misspellings intact. References to the Adamsons or Adohr are bolded.
HATEFUL SIGN PLASTERED ON ‘KING’ COLE’S $85,000 PALACE
Wife of Adohr Head Reported Opposing Cole
Nat “King” Cole and his wife “Princess” Marie were planning on moving into their new $85,000 palace on Muirfield Road this week, despite the open hostility of their neighbors, which has already taken an ugly turn.
These neighbors, apparently as ignorant as they are prejudiced, plastered a sign in front of the mansion reading “niger heaven.” The sign was removed by a youngster, the Sentinel was informed, and turned over to the “King.”
ADOHR HEAD INVOLVED
Meanwhile, persistent rumors reported to the Sentinel office assert that the wife of the presidet [sic] of Adohr Milk Farms is among the leading figures of those seek [sic] to prevent the Coles from enjoying their new home.
Sources which the Sentinel believes to be reliable state that Mrs. Merritt H. Adamson, wife of the head of the milk firm, is working closely with other Hancock Park property owners who are determined to keep the area lilywhite [sic].
Last week it was reported that a number of individual law suits [sic] were being instituted against the Coles to prevent their occupying the 401 Muirfield Road mansion. Attorney Andrew J. Copp is said to be giving legal advice to the group.
When finally contacted by the Sentinel and asked about these law suits [sic], the attorney replied briefly, “I’m not making statements of any kind.”
A spokesman for the Adohr firm gave it as his opinion that there was little basis for the report that Mrs. Adamson was among the protesting neighbors. Adamson himself was not at the office and reportedly was ill and not expected to return until September.
The Adamsons live at 355 Muirfield Road, while Attorney [sic] Copp lives at 414 Muirfield Road, both residences being in the immediate vicinity of the Cole home.
Col. Harry Gantz, who sold the property to Cole and who is reportedly headed for India, moved from the home last Saturday.
This is the source for the accusations that have tainted the enjoyment of one of the most significant neon sign discoveries in years: unattributed rumors denied by a spokesman, printed in a newspaper rife with misspellings.
A dozen years ago, we saw first hand how an accusation of vile behavior could hamper the preservation of a landmark. We were involved in the efforts to preserve the writer Charles Bukowski’s East Hollywood bungalow from demolition. As the matter was about to be considered by the Cultural Heritage Commission, the property owner’s attorney went to the press claiming that Bukowski was a well-known Nazi sympathizer. His source was a small press book by Bukowski associate Ben Pleasants in which Pleasants claims to have witnessed an inebriated Bukowski make antisemitic remarks in Canter’s Deli and in private conversations.
When Pleasants’ book was published in 2004, Bukowski’s widow Linda and his publisher John Martin talked about taking legal action to quash the accusations. They decided Pleasants wasn’t worth any more trouble than Linda telling him to go fuck himself. But the real trouble was just beginning. Three years later, looking for a wedge to undermine the landmarking efforts, opponents used the claim to great effect. Although 5124 DeLongpre Avenue was ultimately declared a protected city monument, thousands read headlines in newspapers around the world that Charles Bukowski was a Nazi.
It is certainly possible that Charles Bukowski said some offensive things during his life, but nothing that he said eclipses the body of creative work that the Cultural Heritage Commissioners cited when declaring his modest East Hollywood rental home a Los Angeles landmark.
And it is possible that Rhoda Rindge Adamson was shocked to see a Black family moving onto her block in the summer of 1948, and she may have talked about it with her neighbors. But the Sentinel article that describes her as a ringleader in a racist attack doesn’t make its case. Had she wanted to, Rhoda could have sued the paper for libel, or demanded a retraction. That she didn’t may have something to do with the business reversals that had Adohr selling off its Tarzana ranch lands that fall, or with her husband Merritt’s recent stroke and worsening depression, which culminated in his suicide in the family’s Malibu pool house the following January.
In summer 2020, we’re all suffering through a season as lousy as 1948/49 was for Rhoda Rindge Adamson. The unexpected emergence of the Adohr Milk Farms neon sign, hiding in plain sight on the Arroyo Parkway for decades, has served to brighten deflated spirits. It seems a shame to make this cool historic relic just another source of contention and strife. But already, the badly sourced Curbed L.A. post and Wikipedia page have stood in the way of a robust effort to preserve the sign in place as it was originally installed. Restaurateur Johnny Ray Zone, whose Howlin’ Ray’s fried chicken house will be the new tenant, shared a photo of the sign on Instagram yesterday, with the caption “Bout to drop a Nat King Cole mural on this. Some1 tell me why.”
Nat King Cole is the man, we love him and would be happy to see him celebrated in a mural anywhere in town. But maybe the Adohr Milk Farms neon doesn’t need to be a lesson about white supremacy, and can just be something very beautiful that miraculously survived from the Los Angeles that isn’t here anymore, to become an integral part of the hippest chicken joint in town.
However, there might be an argument for painting a mural of a cute little Cocker Spaniel puppy somewhere on the building, in memory of the pedigreed pup who was run over in his family’s Pasadena driveway on Christmas Day 1949 by an Adohr Farms milkman. When the dog’s owner, Dr. Linus Pauling wrote to the Pasadena office of Adohr asking for $75 in compensation, branch manager R.A. Wallace blew him off.
It’s still a hell of sign, though, and we’re thrilled it’s going to stick around.