Esotouric Day Trip: Exploring L.A.’s domestic architecture

On a drizzly February day, your intrepid Esotouric / 1947project gang (Kim, Richard and Nathan) set out for a road trip in our own backyard, seeking out the most beguiling and delightful examples of domestic architecture from Pasadena to Silver Lake, the Hollywood Hills to the Palisades. Below you’ll see a few of the gems which we found. Check out the full photo set here.

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La Miniatura, glimpsed from a wee Arroyo, is Frank Lloyd Wright’s most convincing Mayan temple.

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Clinker brick is the junk that falls to the sides of the kiln. It took the clever folk of the Art & Crafts Movement to recognize how interesting and beautiful this industrial waste product could be.

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A set of windows wittily echo the staircase behind.

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What other weathervane for a hillside Storybook House than a witch on her broom?

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Please, CalTrans, don’t tear down the first Greene & Greene house (1897) to extend the 710 freeway.

The lesson from our day’s exploration: you don’t need to go very far off your regular path to be somewhere completely new and amazing. Go out and discover the magical things that are close to home… and bring a friend!

Remembering Clifton’s Cafeteria (1935-2011-?)

IMG_1203.jpg Gentle reader, There exist in this world those rare places where souls can linger, each one alone in their thoughts but feeling part of a lively community. Unlike so many contemporary spaces with their hard surfaces and excess of rules (read: Pershing Square), these spots are calibrated to welcome individuals. There are comfortable chairs, little corners of privacy, light for reading, reasonably priced and healthful food and drink available. In these places, lovers meet, tourists marvel, visions are nurtured and the old and lonesome can escape their rooms. Nobody will lean over you and clear their throat to suggest you've been sitting too long, and ought to be moving along in one of these magical places, for there, you are at home. This week, we say a fond farewell to one of these gems, Clifton's Cafeteria. Since 1935, Clifford Clinton's redwood-themed cafeteria has welcomed millions to its bosom in the heart of downtown. Clifton's was there when 7th & Broadway was among the busiest corners on earth, through the dark years of urban decline and into its renewal. Founded with a remarkable philosophy which fused solid business acumen with charitable works, Clifford Clinton's flagship restaurant was a lightning rod for right action that transformed this city. cliftons10Clinton fed the hungry, treated his employees like family, and led the brave campaign that brought down the corrupt Mayor Frank Shaw and the octopus of vice which inhabited the LAPD. For his efforts he was harassed, his home bombed (by a cop), his cafeterias subject to false reports of food poisoning, but he and his friends fought on, armed with a vision of a better Los Angeles in which every person was treated with dignity, and had a full belly, a safe place to sleep and real opportunities to better themselves. Mayor Shaw and his venal cronies laughed at the Cafeteria Kid, but they weren't laughing when the jail bars slammed. Last year, Clifton's was sold to a sympathetic new owner, and attempts were made to renovate the building while remaining open as a restaurant. This didn't work. So on Monday, after 76 years, Clifton's closed its doors. There are plans for a soft reopening as a bakery soon, with the full restaurant and two cocktail bars to follow in time. cliftons8We are working with the management to continue to lead tours through Clifton's, and to host our free LAVA Sunday Salon there (Sunday, closing day, marked the 19th month of this event). But today, the doors of Clifton's are closed, and the good people who felt so at home there are scattered to the winds. This edition of the newsletter goes out, with love, to all our friends from 648 South Broadway. We are thinking especially of the gracious associates, some of whom worked at Clifton's for upwards of thirty years.We're so pleased that Clifton's will live on, but it won't be the same without those friendly faces. We will leave you with Clifford Clinton's credo, which are words to live by: "We pray our humble service be measured not by gold, but by the golden rule."

Esotouric visits the Tom Waits In The Neighborhood video location

Once a year, the Los Angeles tour company Esotouric makes a very special excursion – CRAWLING DOWN CAHUENGA; TOM WAITS' L.A. In this brief clip from the 2011 tour, host David Smay shows off the unassuming Echo Park alley where legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler shot Waits' "In The Neighborhood" video, and talks about his favorite things about being an Esotouric tour guide for the day. More tour info here. Buy David Smay's "Swordfishtrombones" book here.

L.A.’s best independent tour guides unite to launch “7 Days In L.A.” website calendar

LINK: 7 Days in L.A. LOS ANGELES– America’s second largest city just got easier to navigate, with today’s launch of 7 Days in L.A., a one-stop website calendar featuring the city’s most interesting guided bus, car, bike and walking tours.

7daysinlalogosmallWhy 7 Days in L.A? Because this city is too big and too complicated to understand without a native guide, and because you’re smart enough to know that a one-size-fits-all experience is the wrong size for you.

7 Days in L.A. isn’t a tour operator, but a consortium of the region’s best independent tour operators. Whatever your interest—from architecture to true crime, film locations to graveyards, gay history to iconic L.A. literature—you’ll find the perfect excursion on the 7 Days in L.A. community calendar, and all the information needed to book a high quality tour to suit any budget.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter to receive coming event announcements and special offers, exclusively for 7 Days in L.A. subscribers. Like the website says, “Give us few hours, or your whole week, and we’ll change the way you think about Los Angeles forever.”

7 Days in L.A. is the brain child of Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, the husband and wife behind Esotouric bus adventures, the cultural tourism company known for eclectic offerings like “The Real Black Dahlia,” “Pasadena Confidential” and “Charles Bukowski’s L.A.” Because Esotouric only offers tours on weekends, Kim and Richard regularly recommend select L.A. tour companies to customers inquiring about weekday excursions or companies on a similar wavelength—and these folks often return the courtesy. 7 Days in L.A. is a real world extension of that spirit of cooperation and mutual support that makes L.A.‘s independent tour guide community so special.

Participating tour companies and solo guides include: Architecture Tours L.A., Crimebo the Clown’s Downtown Art Walk Gallery Tour, Dearly Departed Tours, The Dorothy Parker Society, Esotouric Bus Adventures, The Felix in Hollywood Tour Company, Hollywood Forever Cemetery Tour, Hollywood Movie Tours, L.A. Gang Tours, L.A. River Tours, Out & About – Hollywood’s 1st & Only Gay Bus Tour, Take My Mother*Please (*or any other VIP), Terry Bolo – The Hollywood Gal, Tizzle Bike Tours and Urban Photo Adventures.

Esotouric’s Kim Cooper says, “I’m thrilled to announce 7 Days in L.A. because L.A.‘s independent tour guides are not competitors, we’re peers and friends. Now when somebody asks me what to do in L.A. in the middle of the week, I can just point them to this website, where they’re sure to find several top quality tours to choose from.”

Jenny Price of L.A. River Tours says “This is such a tough city to understand—and it’s so MIS-understood—that I’m excited to assemble this cadre of folks who can show visitors and Angelenos alike the real Los Angeles.” “I think these bigger tour companies are like McDonald’s, but we’re like Musso and Frank,” notes Karie Bible of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Tour, “What we offer is something unique and specialized for the more discerning tourist.”

Jim Anzide of Out & About Tours agrees: “7 Days in L.A. is exactly what’s needed for the discerning traveler. It offers a rare collection of seldom heard and less frequently told stories that are truly the lifeblood of this city. Each specialty tour is a perfectly crafted hidden gem.” And Scott Michaels of Dearly Departed Tours points out that you don’t have to be a tourist to discover the real Los Angeles: “Locals who wish to become better acquainted with their own city don’t have to go any further to plan a month of Sundays.”

“In Sightseeing, like in Real Estate, ‘Location, Location, Location’ is important,” notes Philip Mershon of the Felix in Hollywood Tour Company. “What sets the 7 Days in L.A. group apart is that we are also firm believers in ‘Research, Research, Research’! It’s what makes the difference for a really satisfying experience.” And Anne Block of Take My Mother*Please (*or any other VIP) raves, “Finally, a unique mix of tour offerings for visitors to Los Angeles — and local devotees, too! — in an easy to access calendar format. Our merry coalition of expert guides represents many facets of the city we love, so rich in beauty, history, and oddity.”

And Scott Michaels of Dearly Departed Tours adds, “I think people will welcome these unique perspectives of Los Angeles – and each is truly unique. There’s no competition here. We are just people who love Los Angeles and are eager to share what we’ve learned from it.”

For more info, visit 7 Days in L.A.

Esotouric road trip, February 2011 – Angeles Abbey, Compton

Angeles Abbey, Compton

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.
Angeles Abbey, Compton

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.

Compton, Angeles Abbey at center, 1928

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.

Angeles Abbey Easter ad, 1941

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.
 

Stubby Stubblefield's Indianapolis 500 wreck

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.

Angeles Abbey, Compton

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.

Angeles Abbey, Compton

The Flâneur & The City: Olvera Street

olveraStreetBeforeSterlingUrban historian Richard Schave's site-specific discussion series "The Flâneur & The City" is an ongoing attempt to explore some of the more important issues revealed by the constantly changing heart of the metropolis. The core notion of the series is of culture and history as commodities that are packaged and sold to a target demographic; meanwhile, it's the ignored and seemingly worthless scraps of meaning found on the sidewalks and marketplaces where the true remnants of positive public space can be found. All interpretations and nuisances of the word flâneur are examined — from the modern-day aesthete dreaming of Baudelaire while carried along in the human tide past the stalls and shops of Broadway, to its more recent and perhaps relevant use, someone who is loitering. At its heart this series is a celebration of the simple act of getting out of your car and walking through a neighborhood and learning to see it with all your eyes. In this installment, held on July 25, 2010, we visited Olvera Street, the historic seed of Los Angeles and the first place where issues of urban preservation entered the city's consciousness. On this free 45-minute walking tour, we explored the site's history, from the founding of the city (1781) to the present day, with a focus on the "classic" era: Christine Sterling's nearly thirty years of preservation and reinterpretation, which resulted in the entire Plaza becoming a State park, now managed by the city of Los Angeles. The excerpt presented here is a brief discussion of Christine Sterling's conflicting motivations in preserving Olvera Street, and her alliances with business and publishing interests.

On this informative stroll through a provocative and multi-layered space, we explored such key questions as:

  • What core challenges, goals and strategies are shared by Christine Sterling at the Plaza in the early 20th century and the developers of downtown's Old Bank District (4th & Main) in the early 21st century?
  • Can arts and culture succeed as a tool for economic development for reinvigorating historic neighborhoods? Was Jane Jacobs right when she proclaimed that "new ideas need old buildings"?
  • Is there a point on the continuum where the creeping kitsch of a tourist attraction overwhelms the value of a vital community space? Can a positive public space be ruined by popularity and accessibility?

For more on free events held under the umbrella of LAVA – The Los Angeles Visionaries Association, visit http://www.lavatransforms.org

Esotouric Road Trip, May 2010 – Cambria Cemetery

Just before Memorial Day, your intrepid urban adventurers stepped outside of their asphalt-coated comfort zone for a lightning 40-hour road trip to explore some notable, rural Central Californian attractions. This is the third of several blog posts sharing scenes from the road.

While Nitt Witt Ridge is definitely the granddaddy of all folk art environments on the Central Coast, anyone interested in manifestations of amateur creativity and raw feeling should schedule a visit to Cambria's historic, eclectic, mountain cemetery.

Unlike tidy urban graveyards that frown on mourners placing their own messy memorials on loved ones' burial sites — it makes it so hard to mow, after all — Cambria Cemetery welcomes all manner of personal expressions of grief, from elaborate sculptures showing the deceased in life…

 

…to collections of shiny treasures reflecting their former passions.

Exploring the shaded woodland paths populated with expansive expressions of love and loss, one gets the sense that this is a community that's learned how to say goodbye in a way that encourages healing and personal growth. While all of the deceased were strangers to us, as is typically the case when visiting an historic graveyard, we left Cambria Cemetery feeling as though we had spent an hour with hundreds of distinct individuals. While serene and lovely, it's the farthest thing from sad as a cemetery could be.

For more photos from Cambria Cemetery, click this link.

Esotouric Road Trip, May 2010 – Nitt Witt Ridge

Just before Memorial Day, your intrepid urban adventurers stepped outside of their asphalt-coated comfort zone for a lightning 40-hour road trip to explore some notable, rural Central Californian attractions. This is the second of several blog posts sharing scenes from the road.

After shaking off the eerie quiet of La Purisima Mission, we took the slow route up the central valley, hitting a few thrift shops in Santa Maria and enjoying an al fresco Mexican lunch in weedy Nipomo. Late afternoon found us rolling into drizzly, seaside Cambria, where Michael O'Malley was waiting for us at Nitt Witt Ridge, the uninhabited home and folk art environment for which he and wife Stacy serve as caretakers.

Michael came bounding down the steps when he heard our car pull up, and threw open the gates with a big welcoming grin. With a warning to walk carefully, and be prepared to duck under low beams, he led us up the abalone shell-risered steps, holding tight to metal stair rails that once doubled as Nitt Witt Ridge's water pipes — some of them with electrical light fixtures frighteningly entwined.

But there is no longer any flowing water at Nitt Witt Ridge. The water meter, a valuable commodity in a community that actively limits growth, was sold off to a developer years ago, and the old jerry-rigged electric system has been (wisely) switched off. Today, Nitt Witt Ridge exists outside of the modern era, best visited by daylight, and if you want a glass of water or (its builder's favorite tipple) cheap American beer, you'd better bring your own.

During our hour-long exploration of the property that Art Beal designed, built and decorated over the course of 50+ years, Michael shared myths and facts about the eccentric builder, known variously as Der Tinkerpaw or Captain Nitt Witt. Although Michael never met the old curmudgeon, he's made it his business to gather stories (and a rather mean-spirited vintage "Real People" TV clip) to enliven the experience of visiting a place that was once synonymous with its maker.

 

When Michael bought the place a few years after Art's death, many rooms were stuffed high with junk, and looters had made off with whatever valuables remained. Left behind were Art's real treasures, little bits of junk he accumulated in his decades as Cambria's garbage man and occasional hauler for William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon castle. Bits of salvaged paper, cloth, ceramic and metal are stacked in every cubby, and open dresser drawers reveal Art's personal archives, news clippings and photos fading under dust. Inside the kitchen cupboards repurposed from radio cabinets destined for Cambria's dump, murky canned foods float in jars. Art's clothes still hang in the closet. Dust is everywhere. You feel Art, and art, all around. It's wonderful.

Out in the garden, stacks of cemented metal car wheel rims made for sturdy columns, and an open air puttering workshop was bedecked with climbing nasturtium. A little prodding of the seemingly solid earth at the top of the property has revealed Der Tinkerpaw's ingenious methods: instead of driving out to the dump with the community's garbage, as his contract dictated, plenty of junk ended up in the gully above Art's main house, followed by loads of dirt, until a comfortable garden area with exceptional views was constructed on what was once thin air. A recycled fountain of couple of old sinks spilling into a bath made for an open air washtub.

 

At the top of the property a visitor reaches a ramshackle fence with a conventional wooden shack ruin behind it. This is the old house, where it was said Art once lived with a woman named Gloria. One day she ran off with the contents of his bank account, and he let the place rot. There may be something to this sad legend: Michael has crept inside and found a lady's shoe and other evidence of habitation.

Art Beal lived a long life, but despite his best intentions, did not die in the home he built. The narrative is muddy, but it seems a small loan obtained for medical services in the 1970s went unpaid, and the lender sought to take Art's land. Some do-gooders formed a foundation to save Nitt Witt Ridge, but Captain Nitt Witt didn't cotton to interfering kids or their newfangled ideas. Art became senile, and often ran around naked and hollered at passersby. Complaints were made about self-neglect, social workers started sniffing around, and eventually Art was forced to go into a nursing home. He died there in 1992, and a few years later Michael and Stacy came along and were compelled to take up the mantle of maintaining the strange house on the hill.

Although Nitt Witt Ridge is a California Historical Landmark, the city of Cambria hasn't made it easy for Michael and Stacy to make a go of their tourist attraction. Some community members disliked Der Tinkerpaw during his lifetime, and that animosity has continued after his death. Large houses have sprung up all around the structure, and while Art's was there first, some seem to have built their homes with the expectation that Nitt Witt Ridge would be absorbed by the elements or demolished. While neither has happened, thanks to Michael and Stacy's devotion, small indignities are trotted out to discourage them.

 

So this landmark example of California vernacular architecture cannot be visited by tour buses, a modest fee cannot officially be charged for Michael's delightful tour (though you are welcome to tip), and we were denied the opportunity to purchase a commemorative Nitt Witt Ridge t-shirt or tea cosy. To which we say phooey on Cambria. Art Beal's spirit, and his incredible home, will outlive such petty prejudices. We highly recommend a visit to Nitt Witt Ridge if you're visiting the Central Coast. Call Michael at 805-927-2690 to book a private tour, and tell him Esotouric sent you.

Video links:
See Art Beal and his kitties
Watch Michael lead a tour

For more photos from Nitt Witt Ridge, click this link. Up next: Cambria's unique community cemetery.

Fêting John Fante, part 2

On April 8, 2010, the City of Los Angeles officially designated the corner of Fifth and Grand at the foot of Bunker Hill as John Fante Square. To watch a film of that ceremony, featuring speakers Councilwoman Jan Perry, Fante Square nominator Richard Schave of Esotouric, John Fante’s children Vickie Fante Cohen, Jim Fante and Dan Fante, his biographer Stephen Cooper, resident of Historic Bunker Hill Gordon Pattison, Tom Hyry from UCLA Special Collection and Louise Steinman of the L.A. Public Library’s Aloud program, click below.