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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.   

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

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And her deep bathtub…

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…with its delightful little sea creature spout.

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

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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.

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Look up!

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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. 
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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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The walk isn't easy. 

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

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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. 

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

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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?

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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).

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

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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.

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

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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.  

An Esotouric Road Trip: Tomo-Kahni State Historic Park

In mid-May, the Esotouric gang set off to hike in one of the most sacred and seldom-visited of California’s 49 State Historic Parks: Tomo-Kahni. IMG_9598

Located at the end of a steep dirt road on a ridge of the Tehachapi Mountains, Tomo-Kahni was for centuries the winter settlement of the Kawaiisu people, a tribe of hunter-gatherers famed for their basketry skills and high protein trade goods, including chia seeds and pine nuts. IMG_9601

Despite the coming of the Spanish and later the Americans, the tribe maintained their ancient seasonal traditions through the early 1900s, living in simple juniper bough huts, some of which which still survive in the form of stone circle footprints. IMG_9583

But Los Angeles’ insatiable thirst for water brought industry to the little town of Tehachapi, and the younger Kawaiisu began to migrate down to take high-paying jobs in the Monolith Portland Cement Company plant. The Owens Valley aqueduct was built from good Tehachapi limestone, and by the time it was finished, so was the old life up in the mountains.

Kawaiisu still live in the region, but have adopted modern ways. It was the tribal elders who worked with anthropologists and the State Parks Department to ensure that Tomo-Kahni was preserved as an interpretive site for future generations to explore.

Tomo-Kahni isn’t like other State Parks. You don’t pull up to a paved parking lot dotted with interpretive signs and rattlesnake warnings, and you won’t meet other hikers, their dogs or loud children on the trail. The only access to this sheltered spot is on the occasional tours hosted by trained guides who can interpret the fascinating artifacts that dot the hillsides leading up to the grand spirit cave at the mountain top.

We left Los Angeles early to join our group at the Tehachapi Museum, located just off the charming main drag in Kern County’s decommissioned Depression-era library. After a brief orientation and gear check, drivers were provided with directions to the semi-secret site, and our caravan took off down the highway. We passed the hulking Monolith plant, then swung up into Sand Canyon, with its hand-painted protest signs opposing wind farming. And soon, we were bouncing up a rough sandy road to the trailhead gate. IMG_9596

Our little group set out along the park’s unusual powdery red sand path, which in the wet season expands to many times its volume and releases old artifacts hidden deep within.

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The treeless, scrubby hills had once been heavily forested with pine and oak, but the massive 7.7 earthquake of 1952 altered the water table, and Tomo-Kahni lost its life-giving open stream. While plants still grow, including some stands of reeds clearly sapping up the subterranean remnants of the old flow, the landscape is today much changed from that which sheltered the Kawaiisu. IMG_9607

Soon we came to a colorful lichen-dotted flat rock ledge, which our guides informed us had been the communal grinding station. Hundreds of deep bowls worn into the sandstone rock face provided a surface against which to mash nuts and acorns for cooking and storage, as well as a social space for the tribal women. The past was powerful as we peered into the natural bowls scraped from long use by the original Californians.

But our destination was higher, and the day was getting hot. We shouldered our packs and trudged up the shadeless paths, bound for Medicine Cave at the top of the mountain ridge. IMG_9611

The Kawaiisu believe that a powerful spirit called Grizzly Bear ushered all of the spirits of the animals out of the underworld through a narrow gap in the rocks high atop Tomo-Kahni. As each spirit emerged, it chose an animal to inhabit–although some became locked within stone forms, which explains the rabbit and turtle-shaped boulders near the Medicine Cave. IMG_9637

Approaching Medicine Cave is an intimidating experience. High in the rocks sits a massive raven’s nest, its tender residents guarded by fierce black parents. As the path switches back, a visitor feels exposed upon the open hill, knowing that the holy place is just around the bend and out of sight. Gnarled, wind-hewn boulders suggest monstrous faces and hulking forms. IMG_9638

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And then we arrive. Medicine Cave is a broad, shaded opening in the ancient stone, with deep overhangs giving way to the mystic fissure from which the Kawaiisu say all life emerged. It was cool in the shelter of the rock, and strange. On the walls are ageless pictographs: spirals, handprints, prey animals stalked by hunters and a strange splayed figure that might represent a pelt or sea mammal or the formless spirits waiting in the rock.

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Medicine Cave is a living temple. Although access is limited for the general public, members of the Kawaiisu tribe still visit this ancient place to pray and leave offerings. IMG_9655

The sight of a thread-wrapped medicine bundle reminded us of the great power this sacred place still possesses for the people of the mountain. After a short break to rest, eat and chat with our fellow travelers, we quietly gathering our things, and started off back down the path. IMG_9683

There was one last site to see on the path back. Nettle Spring is a deep split between two rocks, lined with the spiky nettle bushes that were used for fiber and medicine. Tribal elders say this was a place where women retreated for ritual purposes. The rock here is heavily scored with vertical lines covered over with red pigment, but the meaning of these marks remains elusive. IMG_9682

It felt strange to climb into our car and drive back into the 21st Century–even so sleepy a 21st Century as is found in the village of Tehachapi. IMG_9694

We stopped in at Kohnen’s German bakery for hearty sandwiches, beer and old world pastry, to ease ourselves back into the now as gently as possible. Then it was off on another adventure… but that story will have to wait for another day.

See all of Chinta Cooper’s photos from our visit to Tomo-Khani and Tehachapi here.

And if you’d like to reserve a spot on one of these very special excursions into ancient California, more info is here.

Our Beloved Whittier Boulevard Tamale in Peril (Updated)

UPDATE – October 2018 – present

Along with a Los Angeles County official, in October 2018 we met the Tamale’s new, preservation-minded owner and discussed his ideas for reactivating it, as well as options for economic benefits possible if the building is made an official landmark. While The Tamale remains vacant, we are relieved that it’s in good hands. Stay tuned for the next chapter of this delightful Los Angeles building.

UPDATE – June 15, 2017

Seven months after we observed that the Tamale’s longtime retail tenants were gone and the interior had been remodeled, the building has just been listed for sale for $465,000, which includes the small house in back. What would YOU pay to make the world’s largest tamale your own?

UPDATE – November 12, 2016

Several times each year, we visit The Tamale as part of our Eastside Babylon crime bus tour. On today’s visit, we noticed that the building, which has been avocado green since our preservation campaign began, had been hastily repainted a creamy white. (Note the paint spray on the red tile.)

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A closer look revealed that both long-time tenants, Charley’s Hair Salon and Solution Dental Lab, are gone. Inside: new paint, doors, lighting fixtures and floor tile. The Tamale is not presently listed as being for sale, nor are the shops being advertised for rent, but it’s obvious that things are changing.

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We’re concerned about what’s next for this important landmark of roadside Americana, and encourage folks who are in East Los Angeles to keep an eye on her. The street address again is 6421 Whittier Boulevard, just west of the Montebello border. If you see anything new, please let us know.


ORIGINAL POST AND UPDATES BELOW

The Tamale (LAPL collection)

The Tamale, 6421 Whittier Boulevard, circa 1920s (photo: LAPL Collection)

Once upon a time, Southern California was dotted with the daffiest buildings ever slapped up in a frantic, entrepreneurial weekend: shaped like dirigibles and oranges, ice cream tubs and puppies, flower pots and hot dogs, tipis, old shoes, oil cans, owls, chili bowls, coffee pots, bowler hats, whales and donuts, they beckoned to passing motorists with a powerful whimsy.

Most of L.A.’s great programmatic architectural landmarks are long gone, and those that remain exist in various states of decay, alteration and uncertainty. Like the Tail O’ the Pup, which tucked its meat between its buns and wandered off one day, or the unfortunate Wilshire Boulevard Brown Derby, now nothing but a weird swoop on a mini-mall roof.

Tamale-shaped building in East Los Angeles. Love!

<pThe Tamale, 6421 Whittier Boulevard, today (photo: Kim Cooper)

And then there’s the Tamale. The last of what was once a mini Oddball Row of programmatic structures along Whittier Boulevard between Montebello and East Los Angeles (an oil can-shaped diner and crashed airplane called The Dugout vanished decades ago), the Tamale’s twisted ends twitch tight against the newer buildings on either side, and instead of tamales, today it serves up perms and trims.

Although it’s among the last of an indigenous California architectural form, unfortunately there is no structure in place for protecting or preserving the Tamale. Located in unincorporated Los Angeles County, it is not subject to the city’s historic preservation guidelines. State and National monument status is dependent on the whim of the property owner. And so she sits, caked in plaster, under the blazing east side sun, waiting for something to happen.

Yesterday, something happened: the lot on which the Tamale sits, comprised of this small storefront and a tiny two-bedroom, one-bath house behind, was placed on the market with an asking price of $459,000. The rental income is $2,060 a month. And that’s what you call a teardown, folks.

So what can be done to protect the Tamale–assuming the property is sold and the new owners want to make more efficient use of the small lot? Although there are no binding historic preservation options available, there is still some hope.
Inspired by her commitment to protecting the murals on the facade of the First Street Store, we’re reaching out to Supervisor Gloria Molina and asking for her support in ensuring that the Tamale is preserved, even if that requires moving the structure from its current location. If you agree that the Tamale is an important L.A. landmark worth preserving, you can share your thoughts with Sup. Molina’s office via email HERE.

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UPDATE – May 1, 2013

Encouraging news just received via email from Supervisor Gloria Molina:

“Thank you for sharing your views regarding the “tamal” building located at 6421 Whittier Boulevard. I, too, fondly remember it and other iconic structures that lined Whittier Boulevard, and I agree that the structure is worthy of historic designation.

I am pleased to share with you that in the near future, I intend to establish a Los Angeles County ordinance to provide certain benefits for buildings designated as historic; please know that the property owner’s consent will be required. My staff is engaging the building’s owner to determine if there is interest, and if needed we will work with future property owners. If enacted, this ordinance will preserve this noteworthy edifice for future generations to enjoy, and the property owner will receive tax credits to be utilized for the structure’s maintenance. For further information about the proposed ordinance, please contact Phillip Estes with the County Department of Regional Planning at (213) 974-6425. I also encourage you to share your thoughts with the building’s owners, Sky Realty Investments, which is located at 5191 Fox Hills Avenue, Buena Park, 90621.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me about this essential issue.”

Sincerely, GLORIA MOLINA, Supervisor, First District

UPDATE – September 18, 2013

On May 30, 2013, two days after the Board of Supervisors passed Mills Act tax breaks, the asking price of the Tamale was lowered to $435,000. On August 13, 2013, the price was further lowered to $399,900. On August 28, 2013, the property was removed from the market.

UPDATE – April 29, 2014

Esotouric Visits The Tamale from Kim Cooper on Vimeo.

Press clips

How not to remove graffiti from in front of Clifton’s Cafeteria

Clifton's Cafeteria Terrazzo Tagged February 24 and March 8 2013 We complained about graffiti on the terrazzo in front of Clifton's Cafeteria in late February. The City's 3-1-1 service responded immediately:
"On behalf of the City of Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and your City Council, thank you for contacting 3-1-1 to report graffiti in your neighborhood.

According to the contractor servicing the area, the graffiti removal (1800679) you requested on Feb 27, 2013 at 648 S BROADWAY was removed on Feb 28, 2013."

Today we stopped by and saw that the graffiti was not removed at all. Lightened, perhaps, but still very visible. The contractor falsely told the City that it had removed the offending marks–and charged the taxpayers for the work. Meanwhile, the most beautiful sidewalk in Los Angeles is still smeared with black scrawls. It makes us very sad.

The Strange Similarities Between Elisa Lam and Beth Short, aka The Black Dahlia

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It's been a peculiar, and a sad few days.  

On Tuesday, a missing Canadian traveler, Elisa Lam, was discovered inside the rooftop water tank of the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. 

That hotel happens to be one of the stops on Esotouric's tour Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice, and if you go looking for information about the place, you'll be sent our way. So this week we've given a number of interviews to reporters from Canada, New York and here in Los Angeles, clarifying the history of the hotel, its changing demographics, litany of suicides, and the peculiar bit of trivia that two serial killers stayed there during their sprees.

LINKS: CNN previews Cecil Hotel death lore from our Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour. Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour creator Kim Cooper talks about the Cecil Hotel’s grim history on CBC Canada (link), on CNN (link), on NBC4 (link), on KNX (link), in The Sun (link) and in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (link).

hotel-cecil-ad for web

Debunking L.A. myths before they form is sort of a hobby of ours, so when two different reporters asked "And is it true that this is one of the last places that the Black Dahlia was seen?" we quickly set them straight. And yet…

Although Beth Short, the victim in the notorious and still-unsolved Black Dahlia murder, has no known association with the Cecil Hotel, there are a number of startling similarities between her story — the subject of our most popular crime bus tour — and Elisa Lam's.  

• Both have names derived from Elizabeth. 

• Both were women in their early 20s, traveling alone, frequenting public transportation. 

• Both of them had loose travel plans that were known only to themselves. 

• They were both petite, attractive brunettes, with personalities described as charismatic and outgoing. Both also suffered from depression.

• Each one traveled from San Diego to Downtown Los Angeles in January.

• Each was last seen in a Downtown hotel.

• Neither woman's disappearance was immediately reported. Both were missing for a number of days before being discovered, dead, in a shocking location.   

• And the deaths of both of these unfortunate young women has inspired enormous media attention and speculation.

So we wait, for answers to the newest mystery to unfold in this mystery-drenched neighborhood.

With no results from Elisa Lam's autopsy and toxicology results still weeks away, the question lingers: was she murdered, or was this just some bizarre and perhaps unexplainable accident? And if it was murder, will the similarities continue to pile up? 

For the sake of all who loved her, may the answer to this question be a resounding no. 

RIP.

An Esotouric Road Trip: Tinkertown

In October, the Esotouric gang set off to enjoy four days of adventuring in northern New Mexico, in search of Mission-era adobe churches, dilapidated neon signage, hot springs, horned toads, piñon coffee, funky graveyards, folk art environments and chiles relleño. (We found everything except the horned toads, much to said lizards' relief.) This is the second of two blog posts in which we'll share some of the gems we found on our travels. Peruse our first New Mexico blog post here.

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Heading back into Albuquerque after our northerly rambles, we made a small detour into the Sandia mountains to visit the Tinkertown folk art environment, and gosh, are we glad we did. It's simply one of the most delightful and captivating places we have ever visited, so of course we took lots of photos, and even a little video, so we could share the magic with YOU!

Ross J. Ward, the genius of Tinkertown, was a South Dakota kid whose imagination was kickstarted by an early visit to the still-funky Southern California roadside attraction Knott's Berry Farm. Fascinated by its small-scale recreation of the American West, he went home and built one even smaller, with fruit box storefronts inhabited by toy Indians and settlers, some store-bought, others hand-made.

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Ross Ward grew up to become a fine traveling carnival sign painter and a passionate fan of the independent spirit of Route 66 hucksters who sold tourists a peek at something novel, cold drinks and that certain undefinable quality of magic that even the humblest roadside attraction boasts.

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He'd never stopped tinkering with tiny people and buildings to put them in, and after setting down roots in Sandia Park, his miniature constructions spread out over what would become a sprawling roadside attraction of his own creation: Tinkertown.

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In partnership with his second wife Carla, he crafted elaborate bottle walls inspired by Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley, slotted restored vintage automata between his own cleverly moving creations, assembled oddball collections ranging from different varieties of barbed wire strands to a complete sailing vessel, and curated a magical maze of densely packed rooms of wonder that can keep you gasping and laughing for hours.

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Visiting Tinkertown is like falling head first into into a swirling dream landscape of 19th and early 20th century America. A hillbilly band hangs out on its front porch playing tunes for an audience of vultures, moonshiners whittle while grandma chops wood, an intricately detailed and densely-packed Western town pokes fun at every cliché of the genre, while all throughout hand-painted psychedelic wall signs dispense bits of homespun philosophy–and then the circus comes to town.

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Ross Ward was a carney by trade, a collector of old sideshow banners, a lover of show people and somebody who, through his work, knew intimately the myriad details that make up a traveling show. And they're all there in his delightful tabletop circus, from the cotton candy stand to the furry Monkey Girl, from dancing dogs to marching bands, aerialists, jugglers, tiger tamers, clowns, wagons, tents, swamis and snake handlers, each one packed with personality and just where they belong. The circus is at the center of Tinkertown's warren of glass-fronted exhibition halls, and a wonderful reward for making it to the heart of the place.

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Sadly, Ross Ward developed Alzheimer's disease in his late 50s, and died in 2002. But unlike so many folk art environments that fall into disrepair with the passing of their creator, Carla Ward keeps Tinkertown open and humming, as a tribute to her sweetheart and to the decades of creativity they shared.

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We were fortunate at the end of our tour to be able to talk with Carla about her experiences running Tinkertown and helping Ross bring his dreams to life. She even showed us through the private rooms that had been their home, still packed with Ross' surprisingly sophisticated paintings and illustrations, his reference books and drawing studio. It felt like he'd just stepped out to get a smoke, and full now with the spirit of the man and his imaginary worlds, we soon followed.

See all of Chinta Cooper's photos from our visit to Tinkertown here

And if you're ever in New Mexico, pay a visit–and tell Carla we sent you. 

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