The Hotel Californian neon is alive, alive!

It was 1995 when arson claimed the derelict Hotel Californian at the corner of 6th and Bonnie Brae in the Westlake District. But before the grand old H-shaped structure was demolished, the city removed its massive twin neon roof signs and placed them behind a chain link fence just east of the Mulholland Fountain on Riverside Drive.

The plan, if you can call it that, was to convince the developer who would eventually build on the site to fix them up and put them back.

And there they sat, lonesome, rusting and occasionally vandalized, for almost two decades. Folks would spy them from the road and pull over, astonished, full of questions and humming that Eagles song.

At some point, one of the signs vanished; the preservation grapevine buzzed that Diane Keaton had mysteriously acquired the least ruined of the pair and installed it on the patio of one of her many historic homes.* Then the second sign was gone, too, and nobody seemed to know where.

But then came a hot tip from our neon historian pal Dydia DeLyser, which is how we found ourselves at high noon on the corner of 6th and Bonnie Brae, hitching a ride in the freight elevator of The Paseo at Californian, the nearly-finished low income housing complex that has sprouted on the grassy vacant lot where the old Hotel Californian (1925-1995) lived and died.

Up on the red-tiled roof, we found vintage neon artisan Paul Greenstein putting the finishing touches on the glass tubes that will illuminate the second, newly restored Hotel Californian sign. The metal cans are smooth and clean now, and painted a brilliant California orange with cream that had been revealed as the original colors, visible in flakes beneath layers of rust and paint. (“Creamsicle!” Paul laughed.) As the neon crew posed for photos, then packed up from a job well done, the master’s doggy sidekick Harpo enjoyed the cool breeze off the lake in MacArthur Park.

After 21 years in the exile, the Hotel Californian sign again rises proudly above the city: behold! (She’s not yet lit, but watch this space, and we’ll let you know when you can see her glow.)

Update: Here’s video of the speakers at the relighting ceremony on March 9, 2017.


Hotel Californian


*Update: we got curious about the rumors of Diane Keaton’s absconding with one of the Californian rooftop signs after her vocal advocacy for the demolition of William Pereira’s 1965 LACMA campus, which is a weird thing for a Los Angeles Conservancy board member to do. A little sleuthing of listing photos for her recent property sales revealed that not only did she use the hotel’s sign for poolside decoration on a $7M flip in the Palisades, but she apparently scrambled the letters to spell CLARION.

Recent aerial photos show kids’ play equipment on this spot, and no rusty neon cans. Was the attractive nuisance taken to the dump after the house sold?

The location of the missing letters “HOTEL” and “IFAN” are also presently unknown. Let us know if you see them in a spa or garage conversion.

“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

East Saint Louis, post-industrial ghost town

Most Saturdays, we host a few dozen “gentle riders” on the Esotouric tour bus, revealing the lost lore of Los Angeles through visits to landmarks both notable and obscure. Because most of our passengers are Southland locals, we don’t offer tours during the busy Christmas season, which gives us the opportunity to play tourist ourselves. Mid-December found us on a breakneck architecture-rich road trip along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Join us, do, for a virtual journey (map) from St. Louis to Louisville ahead of the brutal December storms.

Our stop to explore the desolate husk of the Armour Meat Packing plant was an unplanned detour en route to the unfortunate city of East Saint Louis, IL.

The once-thriving metropolis has suffered a sixty year decline marked by departing industry (including Armour), divisive roadway construction, declining tax revenue, unchecked conflagrations, soaring crime rates, polluted land and other indignities large and small.

And yet there is some hope for a revival. In 2014, the downtown business district was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and it was this time capsule neighborhood that we’d come to see.

Have you ever wandered the backlot of a motion picture studio? That was our experience exploring the newly-landmarked section of East Saint Louis. The buildings were tall and handsome, but almost all locked up tight. We could stand out in the middle of the street taking pictures of the historically contributing structures, some with trees growing out of cracks in their facades.


It was eerie, and frankly a relief to pack up and hit the road.

Leaving town, we came across one of the strangest structures we’ve ever seen: a jazzy mid-century gas station and mini-mart, with a rustic stone beer garden attached. It, too, was long abandoned, but man, it looked like it had seen some wild times.

Just across the river from bustling Saint Louis, on a fine sunny winter day, East Saint Louis is still waiting for someone to take a chance. We hope the National Register designation will bring new ideas and new life to this sad place. It will have to happen soon: there are tax credits available, but they expire this year.

Isn’t it lovely, though?

For more of East Saint Louis, see Richard’s photos here.

Daffy 19th Century Los Angeles trademarks featured on new California State Archives website

Here’s something new under the sun: a searchable database of 19th century California trademarks, including some delightful Los Angeles oddities.

Whether your tastes run to sporting man’s club life or electrically-charged cordials, underpants full of flea powder or workwear that can withstand the tugging of elephants, the merchants of old L.A. were eager to oblige with oddball brand identities. (Of course our neighbors to the north were pretty weird, too.)

Clam broth, anyone?

A Virtual Tour of the Barclay Hotel: Grand Lobby to Hidden Tunnels

Richard Schave outside Barclay HotelOne of our favorite Los Angeles buildings is the Barclay Hotel (originally the Van Nuys), a Beaux Arts gem constructed in 1896 on the northwest corner of 4th and Main Streets by pioneering architects Morgan and Walls.

We love the hotel because it’s beautiful, but also because it holds so many layers of history, real and fictional. We visit the lobby on our Raymond Chandler tours, for it’s upstairs in room 332 that detective Philip Marlowe finds the man in the toupée with an icepick in his neck, a pivotal plot point in The Little Sister. We also stop on our Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tours, to share the true life tales of a deranged 19th century millionaire who turned mean drunk in the hotel bar, and of two serial killers who worked their evil in rooms above.

It is our great pleasure to share with a wider audience the Barclay Hotel’s magnificent double-height lobby through the virtual magic and Matterport technology of 3-D photographer Craig Sauer’s lens. You’ll marvel at the ornate plasterwork, the stained glass, the monumental clerk’s cage and the vast sea of tile that distinguish Historic-Cultural Monument #288.

Barclay Hotel basement stairsBut thanks to the generosity of Victor Vasquez—whose family has owned the hotel for decades and was responsible for its landmarking—we can also take you deeper, where we’ve never been able to take tour guests, down marble stairs into the labyrinthian basement, with its tiled passages, sliding wooden doors of the historic stables, lockers decorated by long-dead workers, spiral stairs to nowhere and handsome nooks and arches. It is a true Los Angeles time capsule, a functional environment that has barely changed in 120 years.

As you explore the basement level, you may find your way into that most rare and beguiling bit of lost Los Angeles: an unrestricted L-shaped section of the hidden service tunnels beneath the sidewalk that once criss-crossed Downtown. We can’t tell you if the Barclay’s tunnels were used during Prohibition to move illicit substances, but we did find whole walls covered in mysterious penciled numbers that suggest some informal commerce was practiced here. Sniff around and see if the Barclay’s secrets reveal themselves to you.

If you enjoy Craig’s scans of the Barclay, we also recommend our previous collaborations: The Dutch Chocolate Shop and JK’s Tunnel. What will be the next hidden Los Angeles landmark to get the 3-D treatment? Stay tuned!

Esotouric in St. Louis: A Perfect Day in an Empty City Museum

Most Saturdays, we host a few dozen “gentle riders” on the Esotouric tour bus, revealing the lost lore of Los Angeles through visits to landmarks both notable and obscure. Because most of our passengers are Southland locals, we don’t offer tours during the busy Christmas season, which gives us the opportunity to play tourist ourselves. Mid-December found us on a breakneck architecture-rich road trip along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Join us, do, for a virtual journey (map) from St. Louis to Louisville ahead of the brutal December storms.

The City Museum in St. Louis is our kind of place.

The vision of late artist/developer Bob Cassilly, a mad genius who once tackled a maniac who was attacking Michelangelo’s Pietà with a hammer, it’s housed in an enormous shoe factory that’s been repurposed as an exhibition space, folk art environment, playground, oddball retail mall, apartment building and catch-all for the accumulated collections of people who heed the call to preserve endangered buildings, or at least large sections of their facades.

Bob Cassilly memorial

Our visit was carefully scheduled to coincide with the museum’s lowest visitor count of the year, on a sleepy pre-Christmas Wednesday. It was perfect: there were more staff members in sight than customers. Occasionally, we’d hear somebody shrieking from around the bend, or run into a family creeping through the art caverns in the basement, but it was mostly like having a golden ticket to explore after hours.

We admired the world’s largest pencil, crafted by Ashrita Furman, who breaks records as his spiritual practice. The pencil is 76′ long, weighs 21,500 pounds, and if you rub up against the point, you’ll get graphite on your trousers.

giant pencil

One small wing called Art City is dedicated to hands-on crafts. Here we sat down with Marion Nichols, better known as the Snowflakey Lady, for a tutorial in the delicate art of kirigami paper cutting.

snowflakey lady by Richard Schave

We told Marion what type of patterns we’d like to cut–an owl for Richard, “something art nouveau” for me–and she swiftly pulled two tightly folded fans of paper from the array before her. Then we companionably cut and chatted, learning all about Marion’s creative enterprises, which now include a book so fans can make her snowflake designs at home.

But it wouldn’t be the same without the Snowflakey Lady on the other side of the table, ready to take over when, in my case, the wee inner swirls of the art nouveau plant forms became too difficult to cut cleanly, even with tiny scissors. Marion made it look easy, then sealed the snowflakes in plastic for the long trip back to California. (Richard insisted on taking a picture of us with “my” finished work, hence the abashed expression.)

Kim Cooper with Marion Nichols

Wandering around the lower floors, we admired facades from long-demolished buildings…

Avalon facade

A collection of decorative doorknobs glowing like precious jewels in the winter sun…

Doorknob room Glass doorknobs

A dragon gargoyle crouched to pounce…


 Shelf upon shelf of salvaged ornament…

varied ornament

Including this delightful lion, his deep cast eyes meant to be seen from far below…


And a gilded elevator cage, saved from some terrible scrapyard fate, but cursed to be forever stationary….

elevator cage

Much as we love architectural decoration, though, the accumulation of wonders started to make our eyes cross. It went on and on and on!

An array of ornament

We’d already taken a quick peek at the artificial caves under the factory floor, and we returned there to commune with the strange figures hidden in the rocks.


Above us, people screamed as they slid down ten stories on the old shoe conveyor slides, while the automatic pipe organ groaned out a maudlin tune.


And we posed for a rare joint photo among the dragons, crystal fissures, stalactites and crouching beasties.

Richard Schave and Kim Cooper, City Museum

The caverns eventually let us out onto a cat walk, and this led to the famous Puking Pig, a piece of scavenged metal art that has maimed at least one overeager City Museum patron.

Giddy and damp from our encounter with the Puking Pig, we went back to the architectural displays, where we admired the salvaged ornamentation from three WPA-funded elementary schools built in Hammond, Indiana in the mid-1930s.  Although all have been demolished, the school board ultimately recognized the importance of the terra cotta panels by Louis Sullivan’s chief designer George Grant Elmslie, and some were removed before the wrecking machines came. These delicate panels represent the last great gasp of the Prairie School, shot through with a topical Art Deco twist. It was a thrill to see them.

Elmslie running pattern Elmslie starburst

But that thrill was soon eclipsed when we stumbled onto an enormous display of decorative panels from Adler and Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange (built 1893-94, demolished 1972), laid out on a long wall just as they would have been on the building.

Chicago Stock Exchange

Yes, they’re beautiful–but for any serious preservationist, they’re also highly charged. For this was the condemned building that Richard Nickel, photographer, historic preservation activist and great champion of the then-neglected Sullivan, was salvaging alone when the floor collapsed beneath him and took his life. He wasn’t found for weeks.

The urge to protect important buildings, to document them in photographs, to fight the grim political and economic powers that contrive to destroy them, to sneak inside and take things that would otherwise be crushed–it’s all very familiar. These panels are monuments to the world-changing work done in the Sullivan office, to be sure–but they’re also a living shrine to Richard Nickel’s martyrdom. We were grateful to encounter them on a day when no other people were around, so we could breathe a silent prayer for his immortal soul.

There were whole floors of the City Museum that we hadn’t seen, including the rooftop and most of the outdoor sculpture garden. But the day was cold and the hour getting late, and our brains and hearts were full to bursting. Besides, we wanted to leave something to see on our next visit.

Farewell, wonderful place! You lived up to all the hype, and then some.

To learn more about Bob Cassilly, a complicated cat, click here. See Richard’s architectural ornament photos here. And do stay tuned for more of our midwest Esotouric adventures.

A Possible Solution to the Los Feliz Murder Mansion Mystery

2475 Glendower, after the crime (Los Angeles Times)

2475 Glendower, after the crime (L.A. Times)

In the early morning hours of December 6, 1959 in a handsome Spanish-style mansion in hilly Los Feliz, California, Dr. Harold Perelson took up a hammer and murdered his wife Lillian in her bed, then attempted to kill his sleeping daughter Judy.

But his aim was poor, and Judy was able to raise the alarm and to escape. The killer spoke calmly to his younger children, telling them it was only a nightmare and to go back to bed. Then he retreated to a bathroom, where he took a fatal overdose. He was found dead in bed, the bloody hammer in his hand and an open copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy at his side.

It’s a terrible story, and a strange one. In the legends that swirled around the house in later years, as it sat vacant and brooding with a living room filled with stored junk that credulous urban explorers convinced themselves represented “the Perelson’s Christmas tree and presents, exactly as they’d left them,” Harold’s brutal actions appear unexplainable, perhaps demonic. Sure, the family had money problems, but what family doesn’t?

Now, as the house on Glendower Place goes back on the market after 56 years, and a production company develops a film about the spooky murder mansion, the question still lingers: just what got into Harold Perelson?

The answer, we suspect, lies in the last substances he ingested, and in a very similar crime that would occur four months later, in an equally fine Pasadena mansion. It’s a story we tell on the Pasadena Confidential tour.

Here is a headline from the front page of the Pasadena Independent on December 8, 1959, after Harold Perelson’s attacks.

Pasadena Independent December 8 1959 perelson los feliz Nightmare of Murder headline

And this is a front page headline from the same paper, April 23, 1960.

Pasadena Independent april 23 1960 taft coma headline

Pasadenans Martha Ann and William Howard Taft had their problems, too. His jealousy, her anxiety, their failure to conceive. But when she left her bed on April 21, took up the heavy hammer and beat her sleeping mate’s brains in, so soundly that the handle broke, nobody was more surprised than she. When she realized what she’d done, she wrote a suicide note / confession, took an overdose of pills and slashed her wrists. Her sister found her alive the next morning, but William was beyond help.

When Martha had recovered enough to be held accountable, she opted to go before a Superior Court judge, no jury. H. Burton Noble ruled that while she had killed her husband, it was not a conscious act on her part. Influencing his decision was the report of UCLA toxicologist Dr. Thomas Haley, who stated that anyone who took as much of the powerful tranquilizer Miltown as Martha had could behave “like a maniac.” She was freed.

The Taft House, today

The Taft House, today (photo: Esotouric)

The unconscious mind is a force beyond our understanding. Almost asleep, deeply drugged, acting out past traumas with the nearest weapon at hand, Martha Ann Taft became a murderess. Perhaps the germ of the idea was formed over the morning newspaper that past December, as she read about another family’s nightmare.

The Los Feliz Murder Mansion case is fascinating because it makes so little sense. The family annihilator type of killer, a parent who goes after spouse and children, typically leaves no survivors, and doesn’t always commit suicide. When they do kill themselves, it’s decisively, not by taking pills in front of witnesses. It doesn’t add up, unless you factor in the pills as an unseen actor.

We know from his mode of death that Harold Perelson had a medicine chest full of powerful drugs. We know from his actions that fatal night that he could be easily distracted from the act of murder. He told the little children who he let get away that it was only a nightmare. Maybe, as he slipped away, he believed that, too.

Explore Ernest Batchelder’s Dutch Chocolate Shop in Lifelike 3-D

Craig Sauer adjusts his camera to capture the Dutch Chocolate Shop

Craig Sauer adjusts his camera to capture the Dutch Chocolate Shop

A couple of weeks ago, we trekked down into a trash filled drainage tunnel off the Los Angeles River with graffiti scholar Susan Phillips and 3-D photographer Craig Sauer to document a wordy folk art environment created by an obsessive 1940s-era hobo known only as JK.

Craig’s shoot turned out so well that we were eager for him to capture more of our favorite historic Los Angeles spaces in megapixels. And what better landmark to start with than the Dutch Chocolate Shop, Pasadena Arts & Crafts master Ernest Batchelder’s vaulted, tiled masterpiece?

Although we’ve hosted a number of tours and lectures in this fascinating space, it is currently closed to the public pending determination of its next use. But now, thanks to Matterport 3D Showcase technology, you can virtually explore the Dutch Chocolate Shop, and zoom in close to notice details in the tile murals that the naked eye might miss. We recommend listening to Brian Kaiser’s LAVA talk while you do.

What will be the next hidden Los Angeles landmark to get the 3-D treatment? Stay tuned!

An Esotouric Road Trip: Ruins of the Armour Meat Packing Plant (National City, Illinois)

Armour Meat Packing Plant

Most Saturdays, we host a few dozen “gentle riders” on the Esotouric tour bus, revealing the lost lore of Los Angeles through visits to landmarks both notable and obscure. Because most of our passengers are Southland locals, we don’t offer tours during the busy Christmas season, which gives us the opportunity to play tourist ourselves. Mid-December found us on a breakneck architecture-rich road trip along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Join us, do, for a virtual journey (map) from St. Louis to Louisville ahead of the brutal December storms.

We saw the chimneys from the highway, twin brick columns rising above the old Armour Meat Packing Plant, once the nation’s most efficient killing machine. We didn’t know then what it was, only that we wanted to get closer. The chimneys made it easy, as we left the interstate and wound down the quiet rural road leading to the ruin.

There were some men parked there, near the old factory. As one told Kim how sad he was that this fine old hulk would soon be demolished for a new road, another was instructing Richard on how to navigate the weedy paths and safely access the factory floor. “Stick to the first room,” he said, “There are hazards past the threshold.”

Later, we read that National City, Illinois was a company town, born in 1907 as a city of death. Here was erected a grand factory that turned the squealing creatures of the stockyards into bacon, leather, tallow and beef, these products ferried neatly away by rail. The factory was a source of wealth for the adjacent city of East Saint Louis and a morbid tourist attraction. But when the killing stopped, in 1959, it was East Saint Louis that died.

The empty factory, so soundly constructed, stood tall through cold winters and humid summers. Thieves took what they could carry and vandals broke windows, and the trees grew thick up to the walls. As of a few months ago, the old Armour Meat Packing Plant was still there, a proud and terrible relic of the hungry, inventive America that was.

Stepping into its cold hulk on that freezing day, we felt the weight of time and of inconceivable suffering. This cathedral of commerce demanded respect, even in its ruined state. It didn’t seem right that it shouldn’t stand as long as time and nature allowed. When we gazed up through the open ceiling at those towering chimneys, the sky was very blue, then black with crows, then blue again.

“Hang on a minute–I think that’s a real Von Dutch!”

We were nearly ready to head back to Los Angeles, after a full day exploring Helena Modjeska’s country house and other interesting Orange County canyon sites, when Richard suggested we pay a visit to historic Cook’s Corner.

There’s been a building on this site at the mouth of Trabuco Canyon since the boom days of the 1880s; it became a restaurant in 1926, and eased over the line to tavern when Prohibition ended. In the 1970s, the establishment was purchased by the chopper-crafting owners of Cheat’ah Engineering and became a social club for the motorcycling community.

When we stopped in on a weekday afternoon, we found a mix of bikers and families enjoying the sunny patio. Inside, one burly gent was intently watching Ellen on the big screen TV, as Bobbie Gentry crooned from the CD jukebox. Signed firefighters’ jerseys covered the ceiling, relics from the 2007 Santiago Fire, and a cement stage the width of the room looked like it had seen a lot of good use.

The bartender was friendly, and nobody gave us the fish eye. Richard said it had mellowed a lot since he’d stopped in a decade ago on his way to the Vedanta ashram down the road, so that his companion, a Hindu woman dressed in a bright sari, could use the ladies room.

On the way into the bar, across a wooden bridge, I’d taken note of a primitive Ed Roth-style painting of a surfing rat next to a script sign reading Bridge Rats. As Richard battened down the hatches and topped up our tea cups, I looked around for more art.

Well, if had teeth, it would have bit me. Because right there by the bar room door was an enormous freestanding ATM machine, a bit weatherworn and paint-spattered, but rather beautifully pin-striped with loops and swirls and one elegant, bloodshot flying eyeball. And as I leaned in to admire the crucifix in the iris, I saw the wee inscription, and gasped.


I’ll leave it to the gearheads and kustom kulture mavens to determine if this is really is a late work by Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard (1929-1992), the king of the pin-stripers, or a posthumous tribute by a skilled fan. But it sure was a kick to roll out of Trabuco Canyon buzzing with the possibility.

Have a look: what do you think? (For Richard’s photos inside the bar, click here.)

Wildflowers and Blooming Cactus in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The rumors are true: this year’s wildflower bloom is really something to see!

Come tag along with us as we leave Los Angeles at 4:30am to reach the canyons of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park while the shadows are still long on the land and the temperatures are temperate.

First we hiked up popular Borrego Palm Canyon, a sandy slot incline leading to a waterfall pool and oasis. The wildflowers along the way were stunning, and it was a treat to find the pools filled with pollywogs and a few sly frogs.

But by 10am the chattering crowds were already detracting from the quiet enjoyment of the space. So at the suggestion of a savvy volunteer at the visitor’s center, we lit out to a sleepier corner of the park to hike Cactus Loop Trail. Here we found no people at all, just birds and wind and a riot of color as every cactus on the hill erupted in flower. We could hear the leaves rustling on the tall stalks of the ocatillo shrubs and the scritch-scritch of lizards racing across the sand.

Spring is here, and it is glorious. We hope you get a chance to see the California wildflowers before they go to seed. Until then, enjoy some scenes from our adventure.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.