A LAVA tour of Downtown L.A.’s Subway Terminal and Tunnel

Yesterday’s free (with RSVP) LAVA Sunday Salon and walking tour focused on the holy grail of Los Angeles mass transit history: the sealed-off streetcar station and tunnel located beneath the Subway Terminal Building.

How eager are Angelenos to see this storied space? The waiting list was a thousand names long! For those who couldn’t join us on this time travel trip, below you’ll find some photos to tell this complex and fascinating tale.

We began our LAVA Sunday Salon program in the basement of Grand Central Market where downtown historian Nathan Marsak (nice tie!) let us know what to look for in the Subway Terminal, and our own Richard Schave explained how the Bonaventure Hotel footings severed the tunnel in 1976. Plus, Bunker Hill native son Gordon Pattison previewed his July 30 Sunday Salon talk about his lost Victorian neighborhood and the short-lived Second Street Cable Car Rail Road.

Then, after strapping on headlamps and double-knotting boots, our well-prepared and somewhat giddy group made the short walk down Hill Street to the Subway Terminal Building for a rare tour of the historic passenger concourse, train platform, offices and yes, that remarkable decommissioned tunnel, complete with a growing collection of stalactites and stalactmites! We’re grateful to our gracious hosts at Metro 417 for welcoming us into the Los Angeles landmark beneath their apartment tower.

Will there be another Subway tunnel tour? Only time, and the LAVA newsletter, will tell.

A Map of the Presidents’ Heads (1789-2003)

In these trying hours, it’s helpful to remember that there once was a time when American politics was not the focus of every waking thought, and to console ourselves that one day it will once again be the boring sport of wonks.

To that end, we bring you this Map of the Presidents’ Heads, a piece of patriotic folk art that says “Eat my dust, Mount Rushmore: here’s every chief executive through 2003!” This astonishing work, by Korean-born artist Min H. Rhee, hangs in a private medical facility in the San Gabriel Valley.

Observe these leaders of the west, bewigged and balding, bold and pensive, crammed in willy-nilly from sea to shining sea. Remember that power is fleeting, art is democratizing and America is kind of old.

And ask yourself: “Is LBJ loaded?”

Answer: Yeah, he’s definitely loaded. And we’ll drink to that.

Searching for Millard Sheets’ genius and Masonic relics at the Marciano Art Foundation

For as long as we can remember, the mysterious, windowless lodge building has stood on its prominent Wilshire site, an hermetic, masculine balance to the social, feminine Ebell Club just across the boulevard.

scottish rite exteriorDesigned by Southern California symbolist extraordinaire Millard Sheets, he of the Home Savings mosaic murals that sold the regional lifestyle to passing motorists and prudent savers, the Scottish Rite Temple (1961) is Southern California’s last great Masonic hall, a Gesamtkunstwerk from its exterior mosaics, instructional texts, high relief figural sculptures and giant unlit braziers to the unknown mysteries within.
scottish rite brazierSadly, it is also a block-long grave marker for a once-thriving fraternal organization that failed to inspire new generations of free thinkers. Rites ceased in 1993, and litigious neighbors and insufficient parking made it unsuitable as a secular event space.

Enter the Marciano brothers, designer jeans moguls, contemporary art collectors, seekers of vast amounts of square footage in the heart of Los Angeles. They picked the white elephant up for $8 Million to become what was initially presented as a private museum.

Flash forward several years, and that private museum is now open to the public, with timed, free ticketed entry Thursday-Saturday.

Which is how we found ourselves at long last stepping into Millard Sheets’ most mysterious commission, intent on seeking out elements of the design that have survived architect Kulapat Yantrasast’s transformation of the Temple and its dedicated theater, dining room, library and myriad club rooms into spaces suited for showing big, new and site-specific artwork.

It was immediately obvious, gazing up at the west facade, that the building has been stripped of much of its Masonic context. The ghosts of a lost gold metal text on the theme of Faith, Hope and Charity were visible between symbols of the Mason’s craft. (Google streetview captured the lost text nicely in 2009.)

scottish rite lost textOne of the gracious attendants explained that Millard Sheets’ son Tony had come and removed the golden letters, as well as a number of interior mosaics, and that they were now held in the artist’s archive. But we could see one large Sheets mosaic inside and another on the eastern exterior wall.

That east facade is Sheets’ largest mosaic commission, a history of Masonry from the ancient world to gold rush Sacramento.

scottish rite history mosaic 1

scottish rite history mosaic 2

Here we go, then, on a preservation-minded photo tour of L.A.’s newest contemporary art space, featuring reclaimed Masonic theatrical backdrops, high art water fountains and a forest of hidden creatures. Behold!

Over the first gallery hover two huge celestial lamps, their symbolism obscure.

scottish rite mezzanine lamps

scottish rite lamp detail

Step to the right, behind a half wall, to see the handsome Wilshire Boulevard entry, decommissioned due to security concerns.

scottish rite wilshire entryStripes of pebbly gold tiles stand out against the gorgeous stone walls

Just past the lobby, a carpet of jewel-toned terrazzo flanks a bay of be-compassed elevators.  masonic rite elevator bay

scottish rite elevator doorPeel an eye for those artful water fountains, both gilded and tiled, but none of them working.
scottish rite gilded fountain
scottish rite tile fountainThe vast first floor once contained the 1800-seat theater, where 33rd Degree Freemasons gathered to watch their esoteric history represented through elaborate theatrical productions. As befit the grandest lodge in the world’s motion picture capitol, the Wilshire Boulevard Masons didn’t skimp on stagecraft, make up or costuming.

It’s an odd thing, but when the Masons sold the building, they didn’t deliver it vacant. The new owners discovered a great quantity of abandoned stuff, some of it even older than the building, all of it odd. These bits and pieces have been retained and some of them displayed, in various states of integrity.

The inaugural temporary exhibition in the now-gutted theater is a multimedia installation by Jim Shaw, who made his name as a curator of thrift store paintings. Here, he presents a number of enormous theatrical backdrops hung at angles, their already cryptic significance amped up with the addition of iconic cartoonish characters and a dramatic light display.

Enter the International House of Pain and to your left, on an enormous panel, damned souls writhe in a hell of their own making.

scottish rite house of pain

scottish rite hellscapeThis spectacular vintage piece is left unaltered, and if one stands in just the right spot, the viewer’s shadow appears like the Spectre of the Brocken to menace the writhing forms.

scottish rite brocken

In the center of the space, a super-colossal George Washington vacuums up flattened fellows through a vintage Hoover attachment emerging from his loins.

scottish rite georgeLook out for the scenic artists’ stamps and signatures.

Esoteric genealogists on the internet enjoy speculating that Barbara Bush might be the secret daughter of occultist Aleister Crowley, and these two colorful characters appear in an intimate shadow play behind an abandoned mini mall.
scottish rite bush and crowleyAt right, in a tidy glass storefront space, vintage Masonic character hairpieces are displayed alongside weird rugs imagined by the artist.

scottish rite wig museum

It’s up to you to figure out which are new and which Masonic. (Hint: look for the dust of decades.)
scottish rite wig museum explosionIt’s here that contemporary art makes its strongest comment on the historic space: through the museum window is a painting of a stylish mid-century couple pausing with their baby’s carriage in front of a jewelry store window. The invisible child is of the generation that abandoned Masonry and its philosophical pursuits, and civic dedication to building up Los Angeles, dooming the Scottish Rite Temple to irrelevance.

The scene changed as a spotlight came on somewhere behind, casting the ominous shadow of a shopping cart, eternal symbol of consumerism and of L.A.’s 40,000+ homeless souls, onto the scrying glass shop window. Fate is a mother.

scottish rite shopping cart

But the clock was ticking (visitors are only allowed two hours in the parking lot) and we knew there was one large-scale Millard Sheets mosaic somewhere in the building. We were determined to find it, and eventually we did. At the very back of the upstairs gallery, in a gutted white room filled with big paintings and sculptures, a false wall hides a forest scene set in a stunning expanse of black glass tesserae.

scottish rite sheets tesserae

Step behind the wall and crane your neck. In spite of the ill-placed track lighting and awkward space, this beautiful, rhythmic piece with its lively animals is well worth seeking out.

scottish rite richard looks at sheets

scottish rite sheets gold trees
sheets racoons detail

The historically minded will also want to seek out the small exhibition gallery on the mezzanine. Here are relics of this lodge, and artifacts of older Los Angeles lodges, with a focus on theatrics and publications. We suspect these are leftovers from the short-lived Masonic museum of the early ‘oughts. The collection would benefit from more informed interpretation: one of the scant labels incorrectly states that the original Masonic Hall on the Plaza downtown has been demolished.

Artifacts include a theatrical maquette which could benefit from a little attention from the restorer.
scottish rite maquetteA gilded mosaic globe post, obviously from the Sheets studio.

scottish rite globeA set of racially insensitive figural busts.

scottish rite bustsJust a few of those that originally offered inspiration for theatrical character transformations.
scottish rite backstageNovel head gear and character sheets.
scottish rite hats

scottish rite turbans Striking costumes.


A banner from the oldest Los Angeles temple (still standing, darn it!).
scottish rite plaza banner

And when the sun is just right, the stained glass surrounding the reversed, double-headed eagle, one of the original building’s few sources of exterior light, is just lovely.

scottish rite eagle window scottish rite eagle window detail
Less appealing to preservation-minded visitors is the multi-screen video installation “Ledge” by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can duck beneath a cramped awning to watch helium-voiced characters on a mock ghost hunt run amok inside the original building, before the historic spaces were gutted and the artifacts offered to artists who the Marcianos collect. While we wanted to see the lost space, we could only take a couple of minutes of the intentionally irritating show.

But that’s not all! An unexpected Millard Sheets discovery awaited us in the bookshop: an expressionistic forest mural, only partially obscured by stock displays. (It would be great if some kind of guard were installed here to protect the paint from abrasion.)

scottish rite bookstore mural scottish rite bookstore mural signature
Confident that we’d found all the relics and artifacts on view, we made our way out into the blinding Los Angeles sun, puzzling over the tough experience of finally getting inside a fascinating landmark, and finding nothing there.

Because the Scottish Rite Temple that Millard Sheets, a layman and a genius, created for the Freemasons of our city no longer exists. The walls still stand, with a few of the integrated artworks designed to illuminate the teachings of the masonic craft, but all context has been carved away.

The temple, small t, is now a shell that contains the experiences and aspirations of the new Los Angeles. It represents some positive things: the patronage by the wealthy of working artists and a social space whose usefulness is yet to be revealed.

But it is also a promise broken, as cryptic objects once the subject of deep study and revelation are openly displayed for the uninitiated. It is the masons (small m) who failed their temple. Now it’s up to the new Los Angeles to make something good of what’s still here.

Going back in time on Santa Cruz Island

Last week, we decided we had to get a break from the relentless 2017 news cycle. Which was convenient, because the unseasonably cool weather made it the perfect time to explore one of Southern California’s most inaccessible natural and historic attractions, Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park.


It’s best if it’s cool when visiting Santa Cruz Island, because the sheep and pigs who grazed the hills starting in the mid-19th century destroyed the native oaks. Since the island became a protected landscape—the western 76% controlled by The Nature Conservancy, the remaining 24% by the National Parks Service, following a byzantine series of estate battles and eminent domain seizures—these invasive creatures have nearly all been eradicated, small oaks are growing in gullies and the grasses are high.

But shade is rare, and day visitors must come when the sun is high and carry all the water they’ll need on the trail.

We booked passage with the Island Packers outfit (since 1968), arriving at Ventura Marina with minutes to spare before the 9:00am departure. The two-level vessel was full of schoolkids, solo hikers and customers of a kayak tour company. But with many passengers spending the 90-minute trip at the rail, the boat didn’t feel crowded.

The sky was gray and the sea glassy as we shot between the tall oil platforms off Ventura, a reminder of the devastating 1969 Santa Barbara spill which left birds and sea mammals dying on the shore. The sea around the oil rigs is nutrient rich, attracting fish, birds and large mammals. The captain steered off course to visit with a pod of common dolphins, who surfed our wake and performed spectacular jumps to the delight of the rail hangers.

This was a hoot at the time, and on the return voyage when the show was repeated. But we would feel the negative effects of this impromptu detour for much of the day, as we struggled to complete the 8-mile hike from Scorpion Ranch to Smuggler’s Cove and back in time for our 4pm departure. And to spare you, gentle reader, any sympathetic anxiety, we’ll confess we didn’t make it as far as the beach at Smuggler’s, but we also didn’t miss the boat.

But what a magnificent day’s hiking it was! We began in the sunny natural anchorage at Scorpion Ranch, dotted with rusting relics from the ranching days, and pretty old houses set back among flowers. An interpretive center and topographic map provide context for the island, and well-kept pit toilets a last pit stop before setting off into the wild.

The wide, well-maintained dirt road wound up to the crest, red sand glittering with broken bits of abalone shell. Flowering succulents climbed down the cliff walls, each of them a little unfamiliar from those we know on the mainland, like nearly every living thing on Santa Cruz.

Oyster salsify, before…

…and after.

Very soon, we reached the top of the island and began the long, mostly flat hike across this sunny, grassy peak in the middle of the blue sea. It’s an idyllic place that scratched our escapist itch divinely.

A fascinating bonus: the trail was full of colonies of mining bees, busily popping in and out of their individual tube homes to feed their young, and occasionally scrap with each other.

We finally stopped on the ridge overlooking Smuggler’s Cove, for a picnic among the little lizards and scrub oaks. Then back across the island making double time to descend the path to Scorpion Ranch just before the boat departed, where we stole a few moments with the island’s fearless native foxes, who are worth the trip all by themselves. We returned to the 21st century replenished, and recommend this excursion to anyone feeling the weight of modernity heavy on their neck. A little fox’ll do ya!

Recommended Reading: For the warts and all history of post-Chumash life, love, conservation and business battles in the Channel Islands, pick up Santa Cruz Island: A History of Conflict and Diversity by John Gherini, a member of one of the last families to own a piece of that contentious rock. If you’d like to hike in our footsteps, archeologist Don Morris’ guidebook to the park side of the island is a fine pocket companion.

Save Parker Center

Parker Center (Welton Becket & Associates and J. E. Stanton, 1955) in Downtown Los Angeles is a building that inspires strong feelings.

Architecture lovers admire its beautiful lines and integrated artwork and plantings. Crime historians marvel at the first modern police headquarters with its cutting-edge forensic science laboratory, built to the specifications of the legendary Ray Pinker. Film and television fans enjoy its stylish appearances from Dragnet to Inherent Vice.

But Parker Center also symbolizes the dark side of Los Angeles policing, and was a place where protesters came over many decades to challenge authority that harms their communities. And stakeholders in Little Tokyo regret the loss of a block of small businesses for Parker Center construction.

Despite the advocacy of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Cultural Heritage Commission and independent preservationists and community members, Parker Center is a cultural and architectural landmark that is in grave danger of being destroyed within the year.

Attempts to preserve Parker Center have been stymied by Los Angeles politicians’ ambitions to redevelop the property surrounding City Hall. These plans have made it impossible to get a fair landmarking hearing for the building, even as the Los Angeles Conservancy’s independent analysis of the project suggests that as much as $100 Million in public funds could be saved if the structure was adaptively reused.

We are very concerned that the process by which landmarks are dedicated is not being allowed to follow its natural course, and that a great building might be lost for what is now only a speculative real estate development. We are also worried about what will happen to the art that exists within and on Parker Center: Bernard J. Rosenthal’s “Family Group” sculpture and Joseph Young’s “Theme Mural of Los Angeles” mosaic, which will be very difficult and expensive to remove from the lobby.

We will continue to advocate for the preservation and adaptive reuse of Parker Center, and will update this page with news as it happens.

A timeline of recent events:

• September 2016 – After City Council’s PLUM committee, headed by Jose Huizar, fails to consider a landmarking application in a timely fashion and internal city proposals recommend demolition, the Cultural Heritage Commission makes a rare attempt to save the building itself.

• December 2016 – Cultural Heritage Commissioner Gail Kennard publishes an eloquent defense of Parker Center in an L.A. Times op-ed, explaining that the building is worth saving for all the reasons some want to see it demolished.

• February 2017 – On political, rather than the legally appropriate historic/aesthetic grounds, Los Angeles City Council denies the recommended landmark status for Parker Center, ignoring the educated determination of the Cultural Heritage Commission.

• March 2017 – At the LAVA Sunday Salon, architectural historians Nathan Marsak, Alan Hess and Richard Schave present an illustrated lecture and walking tour advocating for the preservation of Parker Center. Watch video of the event here.

• April 2017 – City Council promotes the demolition of Parker Center as stage one in the process of creating a clean slate around City Hall that can attract public-private investment partnerships.

Peek inside Frank Sinatra’s endangered motion picture bungalow

For the past few weeks, we’ve been offering support and advice to Doug Quill, the filmmaker who has been petitioning to keep a 1929 bungalow on The Lot (formerly Goldwyn Studios and United Artists) from being demolished for an expansion of LADWP’s electrical distribution system. Doug shares his story with us on the latest You Can’t Eat the Sunshine podcast.

Dozens of creative people have worked in the comfortable Spanish-style bungalow over the decades, but it’s most closely associated with Frank Sinatra. His Essex Productions was based at the Goldwyn Studios in the early 1960s, and the bungalow was his retreat during the recording of The Concert Sinatra (1963) at Sound Stage 7. It is recognized as a primary contributing resource to the studio’s historic fabric.

So it’s Frank Sinatra’s bungalow that’s teetering on the brink, and the reason, naturally, is a woman. After Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks divorced in 1936, she donated the southern portion of the then-United Artists studio backlot to the city, legend has it for a park. Somehow, the land instead passed into the control of LADWP, and it became an essential part of the city’s electrical power distribution infrastructure. A few buildings, the Sinatra bungalow among them, sat all or partly on LADWP land, but functioned as part of the studio for decades. Last month, ahead of a planned expansion, LADWP declined to extend these building’s leases, and the preservation crisis began.

Sound stage demolition in progress

Now it’s up to LADWP and studio owner CIM Group to find common ground with the Los Angeles Conservancy and Hollywood Heritage, two agile preservation organizations that have stepped in to support Doug’s campaign. What will happen to Frank Sinatra’s motion picture bungalow? It will either be moved (but where?) or demolished in the coming weeks. As a tangible link to the golden age of Hollywood and popular music, we think it’s a treasure worth keeping, even as the sound stages behind it are torn to pieces by heavy machinery.

Last week, we attended a site visit to explore the feasibility of moving the building; happily, it is a simple structure that will be easy to lift and transport in one piece. Take a behind-the-scenes peek at this endangered piece of Hollywood history, and please sign the petition to show your support and get updates as they happen.

If this medicine chest could talk…

Monument to L.A.’s Visionary City Planner Calvin Hamilton Missing From Bunker Hill

calvin-hamilton-plaque-gone-with-inset-january-25-2017

UPDATE: We have learned that someone did steal the plaque, but a Bunker Hill resident was able to retrieve it. That person plans to turn it over to the BID, which awaits city approval to reinstall it. Stay tuned for more details as we have them, and Long Live Cal Hamilton! – UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: As of February 2, the plaque is back! Thanks, Lisa Napoli, for the photo.

ORIGINAL POST: Writer Lisa Napoli alerts us to troubling news from the futuristic 1970s Bunker Hill Pedway system: the metal plaque placed to honor the city’s visionary Director of Planning, Calvin S. Hamilton (1964-1985), is gone!

Lisa noticed last week that Hamilton’s plaque in the center of the Pedway near Bunker Hill Towers was loose, and alerted the local Business Improvement District, but didn’t hear from them that they had come and taken it for safe-keeping.

Today, she saw that it was gone. We are very worried that metal thieves came back and finished the job, and intend to sell the plaque for scrap value.

When Calvin Hamilton came to Los Angeles from Indianapolis, he brought with him the concept of historic preservation as public policy. We owe our city’s strong and early preservation ordinance to Hamilton, and many of our oldest city landmarks are still standing due to his work. The Pedway system was named in his honor. It would be a tragedy if his monument were lost.

Be on the look out, preservation people, especially Downtown. If you see a big, flat metal disc with Calvin Hamilton’s face on it anywhere in your travels, grab it tight and let us know!

calvin-hamilton-plaque-long-view-photo-by-kim-cooper