Esotouric’s Los Angeles Historic Preservation “25 for 2014” report

Gentle reader…

As we slam the door on 2014, it’s time for that annual Esotouric tradition: our very opinionated list of the past year’s Top Los Angeles Historic Preservation Stories. Because preservation is never as simple as buildings being lost forever or rescued from the brink, the list is split into three sections: the Gains, the Losses, and those Bittersweet moments that hover somewhere in the middle, and keep us up nights. We hope you find the list by turns thought-provoking, infuriating and inspiring, and that 2015 will see a much bigger Gains section than 2014’s meager showing.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Gains of 2014:

G1. Tower Records finds a Simpatico Tenant: When Sacramento-based independent retail chain Tower Records filed for bankruptcy in 2006, it spelled the end for the beloved Sunset Strip record store, a Mecca for several generations of L.A. music fiends. An attempt to landmark the otherwise nondescript structure failed, as did a campaign to turn it into a music history museum, and it seemed inevitable that the low-rise structure would be demolished for yet another WeHo hotel development. So what a cool surprise to hear that guitar company Gibson had signed on to lease the site, with plans to turn it into a musical showcase venue celebrating the history and culture of the Strip.

G2. Don’t Dunk Our Donut: After international chain Dunkin Donuts announced its plans to compete in the Long Beach market with a takeover of the independent Daily Grind coffee shop on PCH, locals lamented the loss of the enormous pink glazed donut that had towered above the little stand since the 1950s. But thanks to vocal community activists from nearby Retro Row and a lively social media campaign, the big guy blinked, not just retaining the beloved giant donut, but giving it a chocolate and sprinkle-dipped makeover.

G3. Kenton Nelson’s Lost Mural Found: We’re big fans of Pasadena painter and muralist Kenton Nelson’s WPA-noir work, and make a point of seeking out his public projects. But one especially interesting commission had long eluded us: the politically-charged “City Hell,” in Roger “Waldo” Kislingbury’s former Rite Spot restaurant on Colorado Boulevard. Kislingbury is a colorful Pasadena character (and author) whose precise recreations of vintage drinking and dining spaces are unforgettable to anyone lucky enough to experience them. “City Hell,” with its pointed digs at local government, was too “hot” for new tenant Louise’s Trattoria, and the barely-dry work was painted over in 1994. But time cools all tempers, and when the 800 Degree pizzeria moved in, they made the restoration of Nelson’s mural part of the plan. Happily, the artist still lives in that dirty old town, and did the work himself.

G4. Time Enough at Last: Kudos to Los Angeles city councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who introduced the newly-adopted (and, we think, long overdue) city ordinance 13-1104, requiring public notification whenever a demolition permit is pulled for a structure more than 45 years old. It’s not an outright ban on the destruction of historic properties, but this advance notice will provide a little time for preservationists and neighbors to raise a ruckus the next time something wonderful is at risk.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Losses of 2014:

L1. Lights Out in Pico Rivera: One usually doesn’t worry that a thriving vintage steakhouse might be on the verge of a preservation loss, but that’s exactly what happened when the second-generation owners of the Dal Rae in Pico Rivera unexpectedly ripped out their historic 1950s neon signage and replaced it with backlit plastic replicas. Contrary to what the LED lobby would have you believe, it’s really not cheaper to ditch old neon, though it certainly is less charming.

L2. An Architectural Snuff Film:  When a structure is named an official Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, as Koreatown’s San Marino Villa (Banfield & Welch, 1923) was in 2006 (PDF link), it’s meant to be afforded some protection from insensitive renovations and, it’s usually safe to presume, from demolition. But there’s not a lot that can be done when some jerk shows up with a backhoe and goes Godzilla on the building, without any city permits and while the electricity is still flowing. The new owners of the property, which suffered a mysterious fire in 2013, will be disappointed to learn that the city takes a dim view of anyone who willfully destroys a declared landmark: nothing can be built on the site for five years. That probably was not part of their calculations when they bought the vacant building a month prior to their illegal demo for $2,400,0000, but their loss doesn’t bring the San Marino Villa back. If you can stomach the sight, a neighbor filmed the whole ghastly incident. Next time, buddy, call the cops!

L3. Flipper Flattens Favorite: And speaking of illegal demolitions, developer Gil Charash wasn’t dissuaded when architect Cliff May’s Miller House was placed on the agenda (PDF link) of the Cultural Heritage Commission for consideration as a city landmark, nor when the Office of Building and Safety posted a stop work order outside the property. His workmen knocked the gorgeous gem down over a weekend, to the horror of the neighbors who had proposed the property be landmarked. The Miller House was doomed not just because Gil Charash has no respect for the law or beauty, but because it sat on a large, flat lot in a desirable neighborhood. With the insane profits to be made from teardowns, we can expect to lose more important mid-century houses, unless the penalties for illegal demolition become severe enough to make even a property flipper blink.

L4. No Way To Treat Your Mother: In spring 2014, the developer Forest City, at the direction of Councilman Gil Cedillo, arranged for a 40-foot section of the 19th Century Zanja Madre (Mother Ditch) aqueduct in Chinatown to be cut free from the whole and removed from the construction pit by a heavy equipment moving company without archeological supervision. The historic artifact was offered to Lauren Bon’s private foundation Metabolic Studios for use in an art project, and Bon financed the rushed and secretive removal. During this process, construction workers were photographed walking on top of fragile historical material, including glass bottles removed from inside the Zanja. Much of the artifact-filled dirt was sucked into trucks and sent to the landfill. Then, as soon as the large section of the Zanja was lowered to the ground, the unsupported brick tube collapsed and broke into four large pieces. It was a heartbreaking sight to anyone who cares about Los Angeles history, yet somehow a fitting finale to such opaque and arrogant behavior by an elected official.

L5. Nothing Gold Can Stay: When the construction tarps came down at the commercial structure at 735 Broadway in March, we couldn’t wait to see the handsome Art Deco marble and gold leaf facade shining bright, after being cleaned for the first time in decades. But instead, we saw that the developer had chosen to smear the building’s lovely face with ugly beige stucco. The Department of Building and Safety is now investigating the non-permitted alteration, but that’s small comfort for such an aesthetic loss in the National Register Broadway Theater District.

L6. Pay Attention, People: When Mole-Richardson, a venerable Hollywood motion picture lighting manufacturer, shut down its shop on La Brea, nobody took much notice. Nor did the erection of construction fencing around the gorgeous Art Deco structure (Morgan, Walls and Clements, 1930) raise alarm bells within the preservation community, despite tens of thousands of people driving by every day of the week. Demolition permits were filed and granted, without comment. It was only when the bulldozers arrived and began ripping the building to bits that complaints were heard. But then, of course, it was too late. It will, naturally, become a mixed use development.

L7. Diner No More: Did you ever belly up to the counter and enjoy a plate of eggs and stuff at that cute little ’50s-style diner at the Police Academy in Elysian Park, surrounded by cops and law enforcement collectables? No? Well, it’s too late now: someone in authority thought the charming spot was out of fashion, and it vanished with nary a whimper.

L8. Too Late for Tears: Confidential memo to modernist architect William Krisel: if it’s important that your greatest residential project be preserved, you’re supposed to landmark it while you still own it, and not take the word of a prospective buyer that they love it so much you should sell at a discount so they can restore. Yeah, you can imagine how that worked out.

L9. El Dorado Gold is Mud: For years, there have been uncomfortable whispers in the preservation community that something had gone terribly wrong with the conversion of Downtown’s grand old El Dorado residency hotel into high-end condos. The marketing language touted the lobby’s priceless Ernest Batchelder tiles, but the whitewashed columns inside didn’t look like any other Batchelders in town. Curbed National reporter Liz Arnold dug deep into the L.A. tile underground to reveal the true and terrible story of how Spectra, one of most active historic restoration firms in the Southland, destroyed the exquisite tiles, and what happened after. Distressing reading, but necessary.

L10. Hydra-headed Development Monster: A.C. Martin is a storied Los Angeles architect, best known for his work on large scale civic and commercial projects, including City Hall. So when a charming arts and crafts cottage from early in his career popped up on the landmarking agenda of the Cultural Heritage Commission, it suggested a more whimsical, personal side to his work. Unaccountably, the CHC board voted the structure unworthy of preservation, amid troubling claims that politics were playing a role in the decision. A second round of voting meant to address claims of Brown Act violations also came up snake eyes, and a local news crew was on the scene to witness the inevitable demolition. Sadly, we can expect more such losses as developers snap up old houses on large lots. Nobody who wants to live in an old house can compete in the bidding process with a developer who stands to profit handsomely by knocking it down and erecting a half dozen little houses on the site, under L.A.’s Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance.

L11. Cathedral of Commerce RIP: 2014 was the year that the old Robinson’s department store in Beverly Hills, a masterpiece of mid-century glamour designed by William Peirera and Charles Luckman, with interiors by streamline moderne mastermind Raymond Loewy, came unceremoniously down. It will be replaced, naturally, by a mixed-use development.

Los Angeles Bittersweet Historic Preservation Moments of 2014:

B1. Oddball Bow Redux: Southern California is the birthplace of the programmatic restaurant–those daffy structures shaped, often, like what they serve (among them our beloved, and endangered, East L.A. Tamale). But many of them, typically small and erected quickly from cheap materials, haven’t survived into the 21st century. The Idle Hour, shaped like a beer barrel and formerly a flamenco joint and private residence, was in pretty poor condition when bar owners 1933 Group snatched the city landmark up at auction. Restoration is nearly complete, and when the Idle Hour re-opens, it will be with a companion structure: the small-scale replica of Downtown L.A.’s lost Bulldog Cafe, built as part of the Petersen Automotive Museum’s incredibly cool, and recently destroyed, first floor exhibition celebrating Southern California automotive culture. It seems the Petersen has decided to reinvent itself, with Californiana no longer part of the program. We’re disappointed, but plenty pleased that the little pup will live on.

B2. Slipped Through The Cracks: The twin Rosslyn Hotels at 5th and Main Streets are distinguished by their heart-shaped neon roof signs, pointing east to the old train terminals, and symbolizing the original owners, the Hart Brothers. The Annex, the southernmost structure, has recently emerged from scaffolding showing off a handsome restoration, signaling the fresh start SRO Housing Corporation offers to their formerly-homeless tenants. While the building and repainted blade and roof signs look great, we’re heartbroken to report that in the construction flurry a wee surviving gem of old Main Street appears to vanished. We sure do miss seeing the historic Sunlan menswear neon sign when cruising up Main Street on our bus tours.

B3. Private Property, Keep Out: For nearly a century, the Ruskin Art Club provided a space for Angelenos—ladies at first, later a mixed crowd–to gather for the discussion of fine art, poetry, music and literature. But after decades of deferred maintenance on its Spanish Colonial Revival clubhouse, the club’s officers found a way to ensure the landmark structure got the care it needed. Unfortunately, they did so by selling the property to someone who restored it, then put it back on the market as a $2.4 Million private residence. The privatization of any community space pains us, all the more so since no effort was made to fund the restoration of this unique gem before choosing to sell it off.

B4. The Charnock Block is Dead, Long Live The Charnock Block: A rare and delightful remnant of Victorian Los Angeles, Main Street’s bay-windowed Charnock Block, home to the notorious 1920s freak show attraction The World Museum, is no more. The ancient interior, a warren of halls and stairways, has been gutted, the walls propped up with girders, and a new building erected inside the old one, to serve as low income housing and social services. And while the marvelous facade survives, the finished project has been painted a jarring brownish-purple, which is neither historically accurate, nor what was promised in the architectural renderings. It’s a huge disappointment, but nothing a couple of coats of paint can’t fix. Please!!

B5. Wings Still Folded: Although not threatened with demolition, the continued lack of an operating permit makes Angels Flight Railway, Downtown’s beloved on-and-off-again funicular, little more than a nostalgic photo op. While the non-profit that runs Angels Flight has invested in a new electronic brake system and addressed the problems that resulted in a non-injury derailment, the California Public Utilities Commission and NTSB are demanding expensive and historically inaccurate changes to the tracks and cars before Angels Flight can roll again.  Here’s hoping the new year, with a new commissioner heading the PUC, sees a break in the conflict that has stalled Olivet and Sinai since 2013.

B6. To Cool To Lose: Welton Becket’s Parker Center (1955) is more than just a very jazzy modernist civic building. It’s the rock-solid symbol of Chief William Parker’s mid-century LAPD reforms, and a large piece of the puzzle when seeking to make sense of our city’s history. Presently, it stands vacant, awaiting the verdict: adaptively reuse or demolish? Many folks, including us, would to see it saved. Chime in if you agree.

B7. Preservationists Unite, You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Losses: West Hollywood, with its pro-development City Council and weak historic preservation policies, has seen more than its share of architectural loss. Now, a committed cadre of social media savvy preservationists have emerged, fighting to protect endangered landmarks like Plummer Park’s WPA-era Long Hall and Wurdeman & Becket’s 1938 streamline moderne pet hospital. The wrecking balls ain’t swinging… yet. Get involved and let’s keep it that way.

B8. No Cocoa Today: Wither Ernest Batchelder’s whimsical Dutch Chocolate Shop, a tiled and vaulted century-old fantasia that’s been only infrequently accessible as lease-holder Charles Aslan struggled to find a way to make the wee landmark profitable as an old-timey hot cocoa emporium? With year’s end comes the unexpected news that Charles is no longer involved with the space. We await news of future stewards, and their plans, with baited breath. (For our video tour of this astonishing landmark, click here.)

B9. Bringing Back Broadway?: Last year, we reported that we were thrilled to see signs of new life come to downtown’s grand old boulevard, the re-lit (if crooked) Rialto marquee advertising Urban Outfitters, the high fashion and jewelry lines, the reactivated United Artists Theater, even Ross Dress for Less. But while additional investment has been slow to appear, mom and pop businesses are losing their leases as long-derelict buildings are flipped.  Meanwhile, a provisional Streetscape Master Plan sets the stage for a half-baked one-way streetcar loop that may never be built, but which could still result in permanent changes to our beautiful National Register Broadway Theater District. It all seems too fast and too speculative. Visit our free walking tour series page to learn more about what’s there, and how to preserve it.

B10. Waiting for Clifton’s Cafeteria: In February 2012, the 1960s-era metal grate covering Clifton’s Cafeteria was removed (video), revealing the heavily damaged 1935 facade; it was promptly tagged by vandals. But 39 months after the beloved forest-themed cafeteria and community landmark closed, and 34 months after the grate came down, the historic restaurant remains shuttered, with no reopening date in sight. Clifton’s, we love you. Please come back!

And that’s our report on the state of Los Angeles preservation for 2014. To see the 2013 list, click here. And to stay informed all year round, like our preservation page on Facebook, and visit the Los Angeles Historic Preservation Hotspots map, where you can find nearby trouble spots, and add your own.

Bahooka 2014: Where’s Rufus?

When the Bahooka tiki restaurant in Rosemead closed in March 2013, there was one burning question on longtime patrons' minds: what would happen to Rufus, the enormous, elderly, carrot-eating Pacu fish who welcomed guests from his tank beside the cash register? 

Rufus' fate has been subject of a Column One Los Angeles Times article, an online "let's move Rufus" campaign and much chatter in the Tiki community. Earlier this year, the property's current owner, Alan Zhu, declared his intention to keep Rufus in the new Chinese restaurant and to move him to a larger tank. 

But a visit on May 5, 2014 revealed an empty, gutted Bahooka with no sign of Rufus or any fish tanks. 

Contentious recent discussions on the Tiki Central message board include the claim, supposedly made by a former Bahooka kitchen staff member, that Rufus has been released into a koi pond in Long Beach. 

We do not know if this is true. We sincerely hope it is not, as such a transition would certainly prove fatal to Rufus, a warm-water fish.  

Our question to Alan Zhu, owner of the Bahooka property and Rufus: Where's Rufus? Unless you provide Proof of Life — a photograph of Rufus with today's newspaper — we can only assume the worst.

* UPDATE: 5/6/14: L.A. Times reporter Frank Shyong tweets: "Alan tells me that Rufus is in a pond at his house, and indeed, alive. What evidence is there that Alan is lying…". We replied pointing out that Pacu fish require tropical temperatures, and asking him to see Rufus and confirm his condition. There was no response to this request.


Stay informed about the search for Rufus on the Tiki Central message board.

Please use these hashtags in social media to help raise awareness that Rufus is MIA: #saverufus #wheresrufus #rufusProofOfLife


UPDATE 2/2/15: Things have been pretty quiet around the old Bahooka restaurant since last May, when we shot video of the gutted interior.

Without any facts to chew on, speculation about the fate of dear Rufus the Pacu Fish eventually settled down to a simmer, followed by some gallows humor, and grumbling that funds donated for his safe transfer to Damon's in Glendale were never refunded. 

Today, we drove by Bahooka and noticed the doors were open. Taped to the ubiquitous realtor's sign was a newly-posted application to sell liquor on the premises, on behalf of an entity called Moonlight Bar, Inc.

This is a new corporation formed in November, and the agent of record is Chao Ye. And indeed, inside the cavernous space with its newly-framed walls and overhangs, a couple of guys on painters' stilts were touching up the ceiling. A new restaurant certainly looks to be coming soon. You can see photos from our visit here.

Does this mean that Alan Zhu–the restaurateur who clung fast to Rufus once he realized the fish was famous, removed him from the premises under mysterious circumstances and has refused to provide proof that this delicate, elderly creature survived this move–is no longer in the picture? If so, will we ever know what happened to Rufus?

Last May, L.A. Times reporter Frank Shyong spoke to Alan Zhu and was assured that Rufus was in a pond at his house. If you would like Frank to follow up and ask again: "Where's Rufus?" you can tweet at him @frankshyong or email him here

Please share this link and use these hashtags in social media to help raise awareness that Rufus is still MIA: #saverufus #wheresrufus #rufusProofOfLife



Happy 31st, dear Union Station… oops, make that 75th!

On the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the opening of L.A.'s grand Union Station, we bring you a psychedelic flashback from the building's 31st year, when the editors of The Los Angeles Times' "Home" section sent a trio of Boho-fabulous models (and a puppy) to the Station for a holiday pictorial entitled  

And by all accounts, these pretty youngsters do. Languid in double-knit, tweed and suede, they lounge against the cool, sound-baffling wall panels (made, they say, of corn) and in the broad brown armchairs, and caper trackside on a luggage cart. 

Union Station 1

Union Station 2

Dresses by Alvin Duskin from Bullock's Wilshire. Menswear from Joseph Magnin. Photos: Jean Pagliuso. Copy by Alan Cartnal, whose California Crazy didn't "play" in New York, but what does New York know of the West? Listen:

"Give an elegant lady a train station and she knows what to do with it. Anna Karenina knew. Carole Lombard knew. Eva Marie Saint knew. And in more recent times, Barbra Streisand knew. Train stations have class. And thanks to the return to popularity of all aspects of the American panorama, the young have rediscovered the style of Union Station. It's not just a "Brief Encounter"–but the current craze for old movies with ultra-romantic themes leads us back to where the romance started–in a train station. We may be living in a city on four wheels, and in an era when a trip to the airport can end up an international incident, but at the Union Station you encounter a world away from protest. Architectural students aside, the eclectic mixture of styles in the station, the laziness of the Mission architecture, the luxury of the lavishly upholstered chairs, the musical comedy "big number" proportions of the monumental hallways, the graphics of a streamlined "pardon me boys" type of world, recall a time that has been replaced by Autopia. And the people of Union Station. The red caps. The ticket agents. The women who still remember it all and who sit elegantly, their elbows propped "just so" on the warm wood of the arms of their chairs, heads tilted back, cigarettes lighted, the smoke drifting to the art deco ceilings. It all seems like something out of the stylized illustrations in Harper's Bazaar and Vogue of the '30s–it is. And with every designer heralding a return to that style, Union Station seems more fashionably romantic and ready for a renaissance than ever. You'll love it because it seems to have been done out of love. Out of times when presidential candidates toured the country and paused at every "whistle stop." When peroxided blonde movie stars crossed the country, inviting reporters to a special news conference about the 20th Century Limited. Of the boys returning from World War II meeting families and sweethearts at the Union Station. Strangely enough, in a city which is supposed not to have history, Union Station has history. And it makes it as warm as its almost-Rembrandt lighting, with the sun sifting through its rococo windows playing games that just don't happen with utilitarian design. It's a pre-buttoned-down Los Angeles. And to those who want a taste of history–the young–a meeting place with times gone by. A mood that is just right for fashion tastes that remember what Richard Avedon did for Audrey Hepburn with just a little steam from an El Capitan. People on the screen who have had anything to do with trains have enjoyed themselves. They didn't need a message, because they had a medium. The Union Station is the ultimate ambience for a fashion age of "anything goes"–the heralding of a neo-romantic feeling for a return to the style of the '30s."  

What's so marvelous about this pictorial is that it could have been shot last week. Timeless then, as now, as on the day it was dedicated, it is the last of the great American train stations, and the best part of Los Angeles. Happy anniversary, baby. Please don't ever change.


Scroll down for bonus holiday gift ads from this Christmas 1970 edition.  

Union Station 3

Union Station 4

Union Station 5

An Esotouric Road Trip: Santa Maria to Guadalupe

Over the Labor Day weekend, the Esotouric gang set off to explore some gems off California's beaten paths, bound for neon signage, petrographs (so much more delicate than their cousins, the -glyphs), peculiar Victorian mansions, thrift shops, mid-century time capsules and a lesser-known residence from the office of the great Mayan Revival architect Robert Stacy-Judd.

This is the second of several blog posts in which we'll share our discoveries. Check out our road trip photo sets here and here.

Departing the vast Carizzo Plain and the ruined, yet still lovely, Painted Rock, we cut towards the vast agricultural lands of the Central Coast, and the agricultural city of Santa Maria. Our interest was not in barbecue or winery tours, but in staying the night at the only grand old hotel in this part of the world: the Santa Maria Inn.

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Since its founding in 1917, the Inn has served as home base for many Hollywood film crews, stretching back to the silent era, when the nearby Guadalupe dunes stood in for Egypt, Arabia and other exotic lands.

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While the Inn has been expanded in recent years, with a modern facade and tower, a long beamed parlor remains just off the main desk, decorated with historic photographs, Anglophile murals and notable pages from the Inn's guest register.

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Why yes, that is William Randolph Hearst's John Hancock. Even a fella with a castle spends the occasional night on the road.

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We liked our cozy second story room above the quiet courtyard in the historic section and the sincere graciousness of the staff. If you should find yourself in the middle of the state, we certainly recommend the Santa Maria Inn as a pleasant place to linger.

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We got an early start the next morning, bound for the handsome Spanish Colonial Revival City Hall complex.

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The offices were shut, but there was much to admire in the exterior ornamentation.

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Then we rambled around in one of our favorite thrift shops.

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And admired the magnificent old Haslam block, which at the time of our visit was seeking new tenants.

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For lunch, we stopped in Guadalupe, a charming little early 20th century downtown that's suffering mightily due to civic dysfunction and the state's earthquake retrofitting requirements.

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We've blogged about Guadalupe before. A hike along the boardwalk through the dunes, a visit to the little museum and leisurely chats with local shopkeepers are among our favorite ways to spend a few hours off the grid.

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On previous visits, we'd have gravitated towards the Far Western Tavern at meal time, but after 54 years, the family pulled up stakes and built a new restaurant in upscale (comparatively) Orcutt.

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Happily, El Tapatio was open for business, grilling up perfect fluffy chiles rellenos with a side of fresh corn tortillas. When we raved to our waitress about the fare, she blushed and agreed her grandparents are geniuses. 

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We've photographed the dune walk on past visits, so left our gear stowed on this one. The sands don't change much from year to year, and if the zipping swallows above our heads were the grandchildren of birds we met previously, it didn't show.

This is how we remember it, anyway.

Walkway leading out to the estuary and dunes Photo Jun 26, 1 38 48 PM

Next stop: Oceano, where we've booked a room in one of the strangest private homes on the Central Coast.

An Esotouric Road Trip: From Taft to Painted Rock

Over the Labor Day weekend, the Esotouric gang set off to explore some gems off California's beaten paths, bound for neon signage, petrographs (so much more delicate than their cousins, the -glyphs), peculiar Victorian mansions, thrift shops, mid-century time capsules and a lesser-known residence from the office of the great Mayan Revival architect Robert Stacy-Judd. 


This is the first of several blog posts in which we'll share our discoveries. Check out our road trip photo sets here and here.

Due to the heat wave, we set the alarm and left Los Angeles before dawn. Our first destination was Painted Rock, a little-known Native American site in the midst of the dusty, alkaline Carizzo Plain, and we hoped to arrive before the area became completely inhospitable.  

The morning light was beautiful as we pulled into the handsome downtown of the booming Kern County oil town of Taft. We had a quick breakfast of eggs, home fries, biscuits and honey at Jo's Family Restaurant, where the petroleum-themed decor was enhanced by the lively conversations from tough old oil men and women clustered around nearby tables. Jo's, by the way, is a bullying-free zone.

We'd been admiring the back side of the old Fox Theater through the diner window, so after breakfast we stretched our legs with a stroll along Center Street. 

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The Fox is a beauty, with fine neon scrollwork and a generous exterior lobby. There has been a theater on this site for about a century.   



Naturally, we were concerned to see the marquee sporting a message urging that we HELP SAVE THE FOX.

There was nobody on the street to ask why the Fox needed saving, but fliers in nearby shop windows expanded on the message: if they keep taking their movie-going business to Bakersfield, Tafties risk losing their hometown screen.

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The Fox has had some challenges in recent years, semi-dodging a foreclosure bullet in 2010.

Happily, just this week the theater completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to finance an upgrade to a digital projector, which will allow them to book new releases. One hopes this will cut down on the need to travel to Bakersfield on date night. Why not drop in for a show some night and help keep the Fox alive?

Next, we took advantage of a uniquely Taft photo op…


And admired the local color in a shop window…


Then we rolled out of town, making a couple of stops to admire the scenery before the land opened up all around us, with nothing as far as we could see.


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The Carizzo Plain is a sprawling expanse of Nationally protected land, east of Taft, nestled between the Temblor and Caliente mountain ranges. To visit Painted Rock, you need to obtain a BLM pass code, which opens the mechanical gate on the far side of Soda Lake. 

In case we didn't realize how wild things are inside the gate, a lone pronghorn antelope saw us coming, paused for a moment, then bounded across the road and into the sands beyond, all proud horns and powerful legs. His silhouette was familiar from many petroglyphs we've seen. The visitation was quick, so all we have to show for it is some blurry cell phone video, from which this screen grab comes.   

pronghorn sceen cap

We drove on, towards the massive rock formation rising up from the plain. The landmark called Painted Rock is a remnant from the floor of an ancient sea, and once teemed with fish and animal life.


The walk out to Painted Rock isn't a long one, but the sun was already beating down, and we were glad for our hats and water bottles.


The broad path was dotted with animal scat of various sizes. 


We didn't see any burrowing owls, but found fluffy evidence of their presence. 


Finally, we arrived at the u-shaped opening into the ritual space, then stepped into the sheltering shade. It seemed the perfect place to rest, light a fire or pray to ancient gods. 




Unfortunately, Painted Rock is not a pristine example of the art work of pre-conquest Californians. Around the turn of the last century, Anglo visitors carved their names–some quite artfully– into the soft stone…



…and at least one heartless pilgrim emptied his shotgun into the wall.  



Still, some striking figures remain visible. The form below reminded us of the powerful spirit on the cave at Tomo-Khani, though without a guide, its significance remained elusive.


Deep in the shelter of the rock, a delicate spirit object hung from a bit of hand-wrapped twine. Made of feathers, shells and hand-carved wooden beads, it swung as a mute reminder that this place is still alive in the heart of native people, and used for rituals that retain their power in this strange new world. 


But it was getting hotter, and the road beckoned. A pair of crows wheeled off the top of the rock and shrieked at us. It was time to go.


So we headed back down the path, with the broad Carizzo Plain before us, and a millennium of traveler's memories at our back. 


Next stop: Santa Maria, and one of the oldest hostelries remaining in the Central Valley.

Photos by Chinta Cooper and Kim Cooper.

Sister Aimee’s Castle

At the end of May, the Esotouric crew had a rare opportunity to tour a Southern California landmark which has long obsessed us: Sister Aimee Semple McPherson's 1929 Moorish-style castle, perched high above Lake Elsinore.


The property has been in private hands for decades, including several years when it was inhabited by squatters. It has only recently returned to the possession of a Foursquare Gospel congregation, which has begun the process of restoring the property and intends to open it up for occasional tours. (Sign up for the Esotouric newsletter if you'd like to stay informed about tours of the house.)

Sister Aimee's Castle is a truly fascinating place, and our visit did nothing to dispell our obsession. Although located in remote Riverside County, it is a house born of Hollywood. In the late 1920s, the famed radio evangelist was in desperate need of a private retreat away from her Echo Park church and neighboring parsonage, where she could relax with her family and avoid the prying eyes of reporters. When, as a marketing ploy, the Clevelin Realty Corporation offered her several plum plots at the tippy top of the newly formed Country Club Heights District, Aimee gratefully accepted.

The developers knew that Aimee would build something spectacular, but her collaboration with the little-known architect Edwin Bickman took spectacle to a new level.

Recently returned from a trip to the Holy Land, Aimee chose to build a sprawling residence inspired by the Moorish architecture that had thrilled her soul–but carefully calibrated to serve as a machine for living for her very unusual Southern California family. To tour the Castle today is to feel as though you were being guided through the property by Aimee herself. 


Aimee's Castle is intended to be "read" from bottom to top. The narrative begins on the road into Lake Elsinore, where flashes of white walls, blue tiled domes and golden spires draw the eye, and the heart, towards the peak. 

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Once she reached the hill, the whole valley was spread out beneath her, allowing an easy scan of the bare hillsides for any reporter who might be lurking.

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But should a stranger be seen, there was nothing to fear. The enclosed garage would simply swallow up Aimee and her big car. Once inside, she was safe within the cocoon of her own making, and the story of the house began to unfold.


Remember: bottom to top. From the garage, she mounted steep steps to enter an astonishing fantasia: a rough-hewn concrete ascending tunnel, inspired by the Via Dolorosa, the path of Christ's journey through ancient Jerusalem. 


But instead of climbing to Golgotha to be crucified, Aimee rose up to the top of the mountain, where she was perfectly safe. The next private space is a tiled and vaulted exercise room, where the wee evangelist could strengthen her body for the spiritual trials which lay ahead of her.  


Then upward again, into the house itself. Through cool hallways, into ornate doorways…  

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…until finally the heart of the house is revealed. A great room, open onto the sky and the lake below, its vault painted with intricate, gem-like Islamic figures, the walls fresco'd with illusionary folds of patterned cloth.


A later owner painted over these fantastic wall treatments, but we suspect they're still hidding under the whitewash, until the glorious day when careful hands and gentle solvents can bring them back into the light again.


At one end of the great room is a neat little atrium, with a deep central fountain, tiled all around. (The murals are new, restorations suggestive of what was there before.)

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On opposite sides, shuttered windows lead into two bedrooms: Sister Aimee's room on the lake side, and her childrens' room on the hill side. This ingenious structure allowed mother and child to call to each other across the open air, while each retaining their privacy.


Central to the atrium is one extraordinary large tile panel of a friendly little griffin with irridescent wings.


Tile is everywhere in Aimee's Castle, much of it in the geometric Moorish style. The tile was so remarkable that we returned a few weeks later with our friend Brian Kaiser, Southern California's tile expert, to ask his opinion on what we had seen and how the current owners can best maintain and preserve what they have. 

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Brian knew from the moment he arrived that the trip was worth his time. For at the very front of the house, nestled above a boat-shaped pond, is an astonishingly rare Rufus Keeler dolphin waterspout for Calco, one of only four known to survive. This masterpiece of the terra cotta arts was cast in a single piece (the cracked fins were caused by the wall settling), hand-glazed, and repeatedly fired at low temperature over many days. There is no one alive who has the skill to replicate this delightful object–even if there were, the cost of production would be so great as to be beyond the means of any but the richest patrons. Brian is an expert on Keeler's work for Calco and Malibu, and lives in the potter's home in South Gate.   


Back inside, here is Aimee's glorious green sink.


And her deep bathtub…


…with its delightful little sea creature spout.


The little fishy gazes across the tub and up to a witty crescent moon window.


At the other end of the great room, down a few steps, is the square jewel box dining room, with its soaring, mirrored ceiling and mock-fabric wall treatments.


Look up!


But the story of bottom to top doesn't end with the beautiful, but really rather modest living quarters. For Sister Aimee had a private space, at the very top of the Castle, where she could be alone with her faith. And upon reaching it, we realized that the entire Castle had been built to create this spiritual space at its highest point.  

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Up on the roof, between the domes and the minarets, is a little tower room, painted with flames. Inside, only a kneeling chair and the sky. Here, Sister Aimee prayed and planned for her holy work in Los Angeles late into the night. She never needed much sleep. And there was so much work to do.

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Lake Elsinore didn't become the exclusive retreat the developers had hoped for. The stock market crashed, and the depression came, and then the lake itself dried up for a time.

After a few years, Sister Aimee sold her Castle and used the proceeds to feed the people of Los Angeles. A reclusive lady lived there for many years, and when she died, the squatters moved in. But somehow, they seemed to sense that the Castle needed to be cared for, and they were gentle with the house and with the furnishings and art within. Perhaps they sensed the genius of the house, who died in Oakland not long after she left this place behind. We certainly sensed her all around us as we moved through the palace of her dreams.  

Let us leave her there, with late night thoughts of the great work to be done. 

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See all of Chinta Cooper's photos of Sister's Castle here, Kim Cooper's photos here, and Richard Schave's tile details here

An Esotouric Road Trip: In Search of the Site of the Babalon Working

In late May, the Esotouric gang embarked on a California desert journey more demanding than many border crossings. It proved more rewarding, too. 

Our destination was Little Petroglyph Canyon, a National Historic Landmark located deep inside the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake. 

We were hoping not just to view the largest accumulation of Native American rock art on the planet but also to find some evidence to support a theory that has grown out of our Pasadena Confidential tour research into rocket scientist Jack Parsons and his metaphysical activities of the mid-1940s.


The core story is well known: in early 1946, Parsons was living communally on Pasadena's Millionaire's Row, and with L. Ron Hubbard as his frequent partner, engaging in magical experiments derived from the work of Aleister Crowley. 

Somewhere out in the Mojave Desert, Parsons and Hubbard enacted the Bablon Working, a sex magic ritual which, Parsons was convinced, resulted in the manifestation of the woman who would become his widow, Marjorie Cameron.

Nobody knows where in the 25,000 square miles of the Mojave this ritual took place. But as we dug deeper into the history of aerospace in Southern California, we became aware of a site which seemed to throb with unusual possibility. 


Although not himself an academic, Jack Parsons did much of his rocketry research at CalTech and with the CalTech-associated firms of JPL and Aerojet. As the race to develop bigger and faster rockets was run, the scientists abandoned the suburban arroyos of Pasadena and decamped for the secure and forgiving expanses of China Lake.

It seemed highly probable that Parsons, with his deep interest in psychic phenomenon, magic and spirituality, would be drawn to the remarkable rock carvings left behind by the Coso People. These images are located just a short flight from the headquarters of the Naval Station. 

And this was enough to compel us to book one of the occasional guided tours provided by volunteer historians, to pack up our proof of US citizenship (passport or voter registration card will do) and stay the night in a quiet Ridgecrest hotel. Just past dawn, we gathered at the Maturango Museum for orientation, then presented ourselves at the Naval base gate for a search of our car and a humorless lecture on what would happen should we break a limb or a rule. Then our convoy was waved on towards the ancient world beyond.

As we were forbidden to take photographs on the ride out to the heritage site, we cannot show you the wide expanse of dry lake bed, the dense Suessian forest of thousands of Joshua Trees or the skinny wild horses who greeted us with flared nostrils as we climbed. Nor can we share the seemingly abandoned military equipment, or the distant bunkers which shimmered, ghostlike, in the sun. 


But we can show you the petroglyphs. And signs of Jack Parsons or not, the Little Petroglyph Canyon is one of the most extraordinary places we have ever laid eyes on. This ancient river bed, dry and sandy now and dotted with massive smooth stones that tell of centuries' wild flow, is surrounded by high rock walls, deep brown and ochre and slashed with fissures in which small plants and lichens grow. The shadows move fast inside the canyon, changing the walls as they pass. 


And on those walls, some bright as if they were carved this morning, others only visible through the yellow cast of our polarized sunglasses, are thousands of carvings left behind by the people of the place over untold generations. 


There are fields of numberless dots, counting something significant but long forgotten. Broad swaths like patterned blankets. Capering sheep with long curving horns. Men shooting at the sheep with primitive rock throwing sticks, and then with bows and arrows. Wriggling snakes. Tight nesting coils. Fish traps. Rows of walking men, disappearing around a bend in the rock. Tall shamanic figures, their heads alive with light. 


The walk isn't easy. 


Soft sand over smooth basalt tires the ankles, and demands close attention even as the stories in the stone do the same. 


We shimmy down a double height, narrow gully in the rock, taking care not to land in stagnant puddles in which bits of dead things float. Someone has propped a skull on a boulder. 


A helicopter bobs above, taking a break in its murderous search for wild horses, annoying the ravens who nest on high. 

And at the end: the void. The river used to terminate in a massive waterfall that poured life-giving fluids onto the fossil-rich lakebed below. We stopped a few feet back, awed by the view and conscious of all the forward rushing energy of aeons past, before turning back and returning to the trailhead as the sun crested the center of the canyon and the way back seemed suddenly long and rough indeed.


There aren't many spots in Southern California where you can have an experience this close to time travel. We won't soon forget the power and beauty of the place. 

Okay, but what about Jack Parsons? Did we abandon our search for 20th Century remnants as we boggled at carvings believed to be as much as 10,000 years old?

We did not. For smack in the middle of the path, high on a huge boulder, we found unmistakeable evidence of Parsons' scientific peers. 

The nuclear equation E=MChas been beaten into the rock–not with the smooth lines of the ancient petroglyphs, but in jagged pointillism, a sharp metal tool point driven into the surface again and again and again. 


Later research confirmed that it's believed that someone aware of the Manhattan Project entered the canyon some time before the Nagasaki blast and left this message for future generations. 

We found a few other recent markings on the stones. Not many–the isolation and secure nature of the site has protected it from desecration. But at one spot we found the dates 1934 above 1946. 

1934 1946 carving

We also found two initials, low on a rock in a side passage at the mouth of the canyon. They were almost the first thing we saw upon beginning our trek. 

JP. The letters beaten into the stone with the same bold technique as the famed equation further along the wash. 

JP 2 close up

Jack Parsons? We'll never know for certain. But of all the moderns who came to this place, only one took the time to inscribe their personal mark for future dwellers to see. That person shared the initials of the man whose shadow we sought. 


We knelt in the sand and ran our fingers over the markings, then rose and continued on into the canyon where time telescopes. 


See all of Chinta Cooper's (and a few of Richard Schave's) photos from our trip here

And if you'd like to tour the Coso Petroglyphs, click here.


Villa Aurora: Kim and Richard Hear A Ghost

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In early June, the Esotouric gang set off on a tour of Villa Aurora, the sprawling Spanish-Colonial Revival estate in Pacific Palisades that was for decades the home of the German emigrés Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger–he a journalist and novelist, she an athlete.

Lion's pointed criticism of Hitler's rise had landed the couple in concentration camps, and it was only through the efforts of powerful friends that they escaped with their lives. They entered the U.S. through Mexico, due to the vile immigration quota system which blocked the escape of thousands of less connected Jews.

Villa Aurora was built as an L.A. Times-sponsored showcase house in 1928, by a developer who soon went bankrupt. When the Feuchtwangers purchased it in 1941, it was a dilapidated, out-of-fashion pile half swallowed by underbrush.

Although the Feuchtwangers' architectural tastes ran to modernism, a mock-Spanish castle better suited Lion's need for wall space to house the tens of thousands of books that informed his historical novels. And the stunning views out over the Pacific were some solace. They made a home of it, and never left. 2013-06-06 13.16.11

L.A.'s German and Jewish colony — Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Arnold Schonberg, Franz Werfel, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein and others — gathered frequently in the grand salon with its built-in pipe organ and broad terrace. Mann called it "truly a castle by the sea."

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Lion and Marta lived together in the Villa Aurora until his death in 1958, and she stayed on. Marta had already donated Lion's books and papers to USC, and on her 1987 passing left the house as well, intending that the school maintain it as a tribute to her husband's work.

USC countered that it would just as soon sell the house and move the books downtown.

It looked as though the lights would soon flicker out at Villa Aurora.

But Marta had many friends, and had kept her husband's rebel spirit alive. A cultural preservation campaign was launched, a rare collaboration between book-loving Angelenos and the German government and intelligentsia. With Mayor Tom Bradley's support, City Councilman Marvin Braude successfully sought to have the house declared an Historic-Cultural Monument. This bought time against any demolition attempt. In Germany, millions were raised.

The result was the establishment of Villa Aurora e.V., a non-profit organization that maintains the property, hosts visiting German artists, and stages cultural events. USC owns Feuchtwanger's books, but many of the less delicate and valuable volumes from his working library still line the walls, between sculptural busts of Marta at all ages, and the bits of driftwood she collected on her shore walks. 2013-06-06 13.38.05

Villa Aurora is home to one of the largest collections of intact tile from Harry C. Hicks' mid-range Hispano-Moresque line, and the primary reason for our visit was to view this installation in the company of our favorite Southern California tile expert, Brian Kaiser.

It truly is an extraordinary display, although the years, and perhaps mineral seepage from the hillside, have not been kind to massive murals in the front courtyard.

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But most of the tile has held up beautifully, as it was meant to do, and the house itself is rare time capsule, an astonishingly lovely place with a story that cannot fail to touch a visitor's heart. 2013-06-06 12.51.35

After climbing the winding hillside road, which the Los Angeles Times installed for the many thousands of visitors who toured their Demonstration House in the spring of 1928, we gathered in the secluded entry courtyard with our tour guide Mona, and a small group of German visitors, who fortunately did not object to the tour being given in English.

After introducing us to the history of the Demonstration House and the Feuchtwangers' life in exile, our guide opened the door to Marta's sitting room, and ushered us inside. We remarked upon the handsome red tile floor, the busts of Marta, the stunning wood- and ironwork and the moist, chilly air.

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And then the odd thing happened.

"Meow! Meow!" called an insistent cat, from the hall leading into the grand salon.

Richard and I are cat people. Brian is, too. The tour was suddenly even more interesting. We were eager to meet the Villa Aurora's resident pussycat.

"Where's the cat?" interrupted Richard.

"There is no cat," said Mona.

"But we heard the cat," I insisted.

"There's a small dog here, but no cat." said Mona, a little confused and perhaps unnerved. We let the matter drop. But later, we heard the cat mew again, in the kitchen. We never saw or heard the little dog, who was far away upstairs in the visiting artists' living quarters. And as it turned out, nobody else had heard the cat, not even Brian.

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The cat's call came from around this spot.

Later, we found a photograph of Lion Feuchtwanger holding a handsome black pussycat. Perhaps this was the spectral spirit who called out to us as we entered the Villa Aurora.

The house is packed with charming, thoughtful details.

Hand-painted ceilings.

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Cast-iron door knobs.

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Regal gargoyles who take rainwater in through their bottoms and spray it out their mouths. 2013-06-06 13.14.54

A stylized, inverted swastika tucked beneath one of the bookshelves. 2013-06-06 13.21.33

Bathrooms to die for.

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Roof tiles hand-shaped on site, on the broad thighs of the workmen. 2013-06-06 14.41.13

And a delightful photo of a grinning Lion with his beloved tortoises, who had the Villa Aurora phone number written on their shells, in case they should wander off into the canyon. 2013-06-06 13.47.30

Villa Aurora is open for private tours by appointment, and hosts regular screenings and events. To learn more, click here.

And to see all of the photos from our visit, click here.

An Esotouric Road Trip: The Trona Pinnacles

In late May, the Esotouric gang set off on a desert road trip, with our compass set to points unusual and mysterious.


You won’t find many stranger, or more awe-inspiring, attractions in Southern California than the Trona Pinnacles, the towering remnants of hydro-chemical activity on an ancient lakebed.

100,000 years ago, the interior of California was dotted with a network of interconnected inland seas. The ancient seas are gone, but the mineral excrescences that formed over tens of thousands of years still stand sentinel in a vast and windy landscape, far from human habitation.


In 1968, these tufa formations, the result of calcium-rich ground water meeting the alkaline sea, were designated by the Department of the Interior as a National Natural Landmark.

To visit the Trona Pinnacles, one leaves the sleepy military town of Ridgecrest and heads east, passing through a dramatic, wind-formed landscape that suggests cathedrals in the rock.


The BLM road to the Pinnacles is gravel, dust and ruts, and slow going with a conventional vehicle. Visitors must be conscious of heat, wind, rain and the precise moment that the sun will set, and should allow at least an hour round-trip once leaving the paved highway.

Still, there is something extraordinary in slowing to a crawl to approach these ancient monuments, which loom ever larger on the sandy plain, throwing off wild shadows as their details come into focus. For this is how the Pinnacles appeared to those approaching on horseback a century ago, or to walkers earlier still.


Worried our car might not be happy climbing up again, we parked on the ridge overlooking the plain to hike down to the dry lake bed. Richard noticed the dust of another car approaching, and stayed on the ridge until he could make eye contact with the newcomers. (Oddly, they never got out of their car, and soon turned and left.)


These would be the only other people we would see for our entire visit, save the solitary young man in the 4WD truck who arrived as we were hiking back, then disappeared onto the darkening dry lake bed bound for points unknown.


The Pinnacles are spread out over a rise in the flat landscape, with soft-packed sandy paths that lead up to the peaks and astonishing views out across the desert. The wind out here is like a living creature, whistling in our ears and shaping the ancient mineral towers. How many more centuries will they stand, before nature finishes breaking down what she has created?


We wandered around for some time, marveling at the strange forms that are designated as Towers (tall and slender, up to 40′ high), Tombstones (fat and wide, up to 30′ high), Ridges (like mountain ranges, up to 140′ high) and Cones (little mounds, up to 10′ high).


Then the sun moved, and the shadows shifted, and we knew it would soon be dark and cold on the ancient plain.


Trudging back through the dust, we spied a gangly lizard that took off running, so fast and frantic that it seemed to be flying on the ground.

And a little armored beetle, its shell a beautiful ridged black, like a Japanese warrior girded for battle.


Dusty and awed, we crawled back along the gravel road to rejoin the flow on the highway and the modern world.


The Trona Pinnacles are standing now, as they have for thousands of years, each day a little smaller, a little different. They were standing when the Caesars ruled, and will be standing when the Caesars have been forgotten. And you should see them if you can.

See all of Chinta Cooper’s photos from our trip here.  

And if you’d like to tour the Trona Pinnacles, visitor information is  here.