The Heather Apartments: A Long Goodbye

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Charles C. Rittenhouse built the Heather Apartments (1910) in the then-popular Mission Revival style. She was an unusually attractive building, with keyhole arches spanning the porch, rusticated stone and symmetrical towers.

Miss Elizabeth Stewart, Scottish stage star, thought she was just swell in 1911.

We have a theory that it’s bad luck to rename a public park after a war hero. Central Park started its long slide when it became Pershing Square, and the once-desirable residential neighborhood around Westlake Park lost its luster as MacArthur.

But a strong, handsome building like The Heather has always been a good investment, easy to rent, not needing too much upkeep. She last was sold in 1993 for $720,000, and seems to have operated without incident for more than a decade after. Then, just before the real estate bubble burst, the property owner must have gotten ideas.

The Heather cannot speak, so her story can only be pieced together from notes on the Department of Building and Safety website. In 2005, somebody filed a complaint about an Abandoned or Vacant Building Left Open to the Public.

A couple of years later, an inspector came, found illegal work taking place and wrote up the code violations: Electrical permit required for the new electrical installation. Maintenance and repair of existing building; construction work is being performed without the required permits. Plumbing permit is required for the installation of the new plumbing work. Stop all work.

Apparently, the extensive, illegal construction had left The Heather uninhabitable. Maybe the property owner couldn’t afford to do the work properly. No legal permits were pulled. For year after year, The Heather remained vacant, taking 26 rent-stabilized apartment units off the rental rolls as the city faced a growing housing crisis. Squatters pried open doors and windows and rested within The Heather’s walls.

The old girl stood tall and waited.

Architecture lovers noticed The Heather, neglected and unloved, but still beautiful. Many people hoped she might be preserved, might be full of people again. But nobody did the hard work of submitting a landmarking nomination, and the city failed to include her in SurveyLA as a significant structure deserving of protection. She was vulnerable and without friends.

April 2017, LAFD photo

Last spring, a fire broke out in The Heather, leaving the building open to the sky. The firemen from the station down the block fought hard to save their neighbor. She was still strong and beautiful. We went over with our friend Nathan Marsak, The Cranky Preservationist, and made a video about this great building and our worries about her future. (And yes, dear reader, he humped her.)

You’d think in a situation like this, where much-needed affordable housing stock was kept offline by an absentee landlord, the property creating a public hazard, that the city would insist on improvements. Not in Los Angeles. For more than a decade, this attractive nuisance rotted away, and nobody was held accountable.

After the fire, the squatters returned. It was only a matter of time.

Then last week, on the hottest day anyone could remember, The Heather burned again. It took firefighters almost an hour to extinguish the blaze, and when they were done, the proud old building looked ready to give up. Sadly, we returned to document the damage and wonder if we would ever see The Heather again.

We noticed that there was a demolition permit taped to the fence out front, and marveled at how quickly the city had moved to condemn after the fire. But no, the permit was filed in June, weeks before. Perhaps one of the squatters was angry and set the blaze.

At the time of the 2017 fire, the owner of record was Louis C. Gonzalez of 204 1/2 South Marengo, Alhambra. The Heather can’t tell us her story, and Mr. Gonzalez probably has a sad tale of his own to tell. Very few landlords set out to create blight, go without rent for years, or to see their buildings burn.

When the history of 21st Century historic preservation is written, there will be a special black-edged chapter about the crooked bankers who wrote crazy loans to people who could never pay them back, financing tens of thousands of flipped properties, their pretty old fixtures ripped out for Home Depot junk, and grand buildings like The Heather brought to a premature end.

RIP, old girl. So beautiful, and potentially so useful, even now.

 

For our 12th (linen) wedding anniversary, we delivered the Bradbury Building basement hoard to the Huntington Library

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Twelve years ago this week, Alicia Bay Laurel married us in the garden of the Velaslavasay Panorama with psychic cats, a cool jazz trio, eats by Papa Cristo’s, Ernst Haeckel sheet cakes, Scholium Project wine (thanks, Abe), and all our friends. It’s been a wild, sweet ride so far!

Being married to someone who shares your passions is a lot of fun, and our greatest shared passion is uncovering and preserving the history, culture and built environment of Los Angeles.

Anniversary gifts aren’t compulsory in our home, but over the years we’ve given each other a neat collection of L.A.-centric books, photos and artifacts. This 12th year (traditional: linen), the gift was more conceptual, and maybe the best one yet, because we get to share it with future generations, and with you.

A few years ago, we got to know the McKelvey family, the owners of the Bradbury Building from the 1940s through 1989. Their loving stewardship helped preserve this 19th century landmark against serious threats to its survival. It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time not very long ago that the Bradbury Building was considered too vulnerable to fire or earthquake to keep its occupancy permit. Through faith and hard work, minds were changed and the building saved. Every L.A. architecture lover should breathe a sigh of gratitude to the McKelveys.

While working in the Bradbury basement one day in 1986, Paul McKelvey stumbled across a collection of very old architectural renderings and blueprints. They were delicate and interesting, so he tucked them in a rainbow colored ski bag for safe-keeping, and ended up carting that bag from place to place for the past three decades. Could we see them, we asked? Sure!

And from a high shelf, covered in the dust of decades and tumbling out all over Paul’s work table, came a stunning collection of early Los Angeles landmarks: Doheny Mansion, Good Samaritan Hospital, the Old Soldier’s Home in Westwood, Bullocks Wilshire. And such storied names: John Parkinson, John C. Austin, A.C. Martin, Theo Eisen, Sumner Hunt.

We carefully unrolled a few of these time capsule documents of landmarks lost and still standing, marveling at the tiny, precise penmanship, the backstage details, the penciled additions suggesting a quick conference with the client.

Among the rolls was a single sheet we gasped to see: the Third Street facade of the Bradbury Building itself, a blueprint bearing the early construction date of 12/25/1891 and the name of that remarkable architectural neophyte whose design for the demanding silver magnate Bradbury continues to astonish. George Wyman built me, says the blueprint. (The newspapers of the time said the same, but a stubborn conspiracy theory claims the real architect was Sumner Hunt, and that Wyman was elevated in a mid-century prank by the science fiction crowd on architectural historian Esther McCoy. It’s nice to have more evidence to put that claim to rest the next time our pal Nathan Marsak, The Cranky Preservationist, taunts us with it.)

Naturally, we wondered what Paul planned to do with the collection. He didn’t really know. He’d removed the documents from the basement to protect them, had looked after them for 32 years, and felt the weight of the responsibility. He was open to handing these artifacts off, if the right home could be found. So we introduced him to Erin Chase, assistant curator of architecture and photography at the Huntington Library, and after expressing great interest in the collection—and observing that the Bradbury blueprint is the only known 19th century rendering of this beloved landmark—she explained how the Huntington would preserve the delicate plans, digitize them, contextualize them in a massive collection of related material and make them available for researchers, should he chose to make a gift.

After discussing the proposal with his family, Paul decided the Huntington was the right home for the Bradbury Building basement hoard. And that is how we found ourselves celebrating our anniversary by driving down to Laguna Beach to pick up the famous rainbow colored ski bag and its contents, and delivering the lot to Erin Chase at the Huntington the next morning.

We’re so pleased that we could play a part in ensuring these fascinating documents are preserved, and concluding their journey in the climate controlled aisles of the Huntington archive. If you’re a researcher who would like to consult them, keep an eye out for the finding aid once the collection has been fully accessioned.

But maybe there will be a chance to see part of the collection as soon as this fall, when the Huntington will host Erin Chase’s timely exhibition, Architects of a Golden Age: Highlights from The Huntington’s Southern California Architecture Collection. Will something from the ski bag make the cut? After the sheets are stabilized and given a deep cleaning, we sure hope so. You’ll just have to see the show to find out.

For now, we hope you enjoy this small selection of images from Paul McKelvey’s generous gift, a glimpse into a thrilling time in Los Angeles, when the town was small but filled with ambitious architects and businessmen yearning to make a mark, and some terrific buildings got made.

Whither the Peabody-Werden House?

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Earlier this month, concerned by social media chatter about trespassers and trash around the Peabody-Werden House in Boyle Heights, we renewed our attempts to get someone at ELACC, the low-income housing developer that moved the house two years ago, to update us on their plans for the property.

It turns out there’s been a lot of turnover on ELACC’s staff, and our past inquiries slipped through the cracks. A meeting with ELACC was arranged outside the house on a misty, warm morning, also attended by local historian-activists Shmuel Gonzalez and Dapper Dyke Vivian Escalante.

Across 1st Street, a victim of the flames

Across the street, a cute little bungalow that had been the big house’s neighbor for a century was open to the sky, having recently caught fire. But over on the Metro lot, the Peabody-Werden house was sealed up tight, with concentric rings of chain link fencing, plywood over the windows and a motion detector sniffing for trouble. On the porch above, a mummified cat stood silent guard.

What’s the plan, we asked? It’s slowly coming together, they told us. Restoration and activation of the historic house is tied to a new housing development on the west side of Soto Street, and that project is several years from completion. The general plan is for the old house to remain on the Metro lot, where it can serve as a community arts center, though it could also be non-profit offices or serve some other public use.

We’re encouraged by the increased security around the house and by ELACC’s interest in preserving it. Now that communication lines are open again, we’ll keep the conversation going, and post updates as we have them. Until then, please keep a watchful eye on the big blue Victorian at the corner of 1st and Soto Streets. She’s got a lot of life left in her, and it’s up to all of us who care to help keep her standing strong until the plywood come off and she becomes a part of Boyle Heights’ living history once more.

 

The King Edward Hotel: Empty No More

Michael Weinstein describes what’s next for the King Edward Hotel

Yesterday, we attended an event at the stately King Edward Hotel (John Parkinson, 1906) in the heart of historic Skid Row, where Michael Weinstein of AIDS Healthcare Foundation introduced the new Healthy Housing Foundation model of housing L.A.’s homeless and chronically ill population quickly in historic hotels and motels.

The previous owners of the King Edward were keeping about 110 of the 150 rooms vacant, as we learned when a longtime tenant posted a disturbing video last summer. The HHF plan is to fix the empty rooms up and have the building fully inhabited by summer. The cost per unit at the King Edward is about $70,000 for the purchase of the building and simple upgrades, as opposed to the Measure HHH budget of $434,000/unit for brand new construction.

Weinstein asked why the County isn’t housing people in County General Hospital, and why the City of LA plans to demolish Parker Center rather than using it as desperately needed housing. These are good questions.

It was an interesting and inspiring press conference, in one of the most beautiful, though neglected, landmarks of old Skid Row. We’re looking forward to the King Edward’s new life as a place people call home, and to some much needed preservation of the historic features. (But sorry, Presidential history buffs, Teddy Roosevelt didn’t really sleep here!)

We hope you enjoy this photo tour, including the grand lobby with its faux marble columns and Grecian mosaic floor, and a trip upstairs to see one of the newly renovated rooms (simple but dignified, with terrific views), the long, haunting hallways with their shared baths, and some doors still showing the bright blue seal of the Coroner’s Office. How sad and stupid to think that a person died, and their room was left empty, while tens of thousands sleep in the streets of Los Angeles.

Old buildings need new ideas, and we’re glad to see the great King Edward is where they’re being hatched.

Update: we returned a week later, and found an entire empty wing on the second floor being readied for residents.

“DREAMERS in Long Beach,” a DACA-inspired mural collaboration — in 3-D!

Welcome to the eighth in a series of 3-D explorable tours of off-the-beaten-path Los Angeles spaces, created by Craig Sauer using cutting-edge Matterport technology.

Today we’ve ventured south to the terminus of the 710 Freeway, where Street Artist in Residence and the City of Long Beach have transformed a pedestrian underpass into an open-air gallery in support of the 800,000 Dreamers whose futures are uncertain due to the Trump administration’s attempts to dismantle the DACA program.

It’s a weird, semi-subterranean space, concrete on all sides, windy and dusty, with mossy streams of fluid oozing from mysterious sources and cars racing just overhead. The river and city are both close, but out of sight. Here at the bend in the road, sunlight and shadow activate the powerful images of hope, anxiety, uplift and uncertainty. Infrastructure is humanized.

We invite you to take a virtual tour, explore the many creative responses to this moment in time, and think about what might be coming for this country just around the bend. Because history doesn’t just happen: people make history.

Dream on.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde, 1892

Exploring George Johnson’s Wonderful Wartime Negro Business Directories

Before his death in 2006, George Johnson held the distinction of being California’s oldest citizen at 112 (and change).

Friends, caretakers and family members would often drop in on his Richmond home to hear stories of a colorful life, from a prankish Pennsylvania boyhood to stateside service in the Great War, encounters with Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller, and of course the abiding rumors that his father was the love-child of President Andrew Johnson.

An undated snapshot of George and Ida Johnson at a party at their Richmond Annex home. The couple loved to entertain, and though they didn’t smoke or drink themselves, they were happy to accommodate their guests. (Collection: Chris Treadway)

And sometimes, they’d look at his books. A man can collect a lot of books in 112 years. Among the most interesting was a rare and fragile volume that had belonged to his wife, Ida. She was an advertising executive who in the early 1940s had solicited listings for The Official California Negro Directory and Classified Buyers Guide, a sort of West Coast Yellow Pages for black-owned and affiliated businesses.

After George died, Melinda McCrary at the Richmond Museum of History reached out to the Internet Archive and asked if the Guide, which was falling to pieces, could be made accessible to a wider audience. After a painstaking scanning process, this fascinating time capsule can be virtually enjoyed without the risk of further damage. Skip ahead to page 80 for the Los Angeles buyer’s guide section.

And there’s even more in store for lovers of Los Angeles lore in the form of a second rarity from George Johnson’s collection, The Official Central Avenue District Directory: A Business and Professional Directory (1939). This L.A.-centric volume too has been digitized, and it’s packed with lively ads for BBQ joints, beauticians, decorators, druggists, entertainers, haulers, plumbers, pool halls, psychics and the natty Dunbar Liquors motorcycle delivery crew.

Glad as we are that these directories survive, there’s an undeniable sadness to them. In other parts of Los Angeles, a mid-century listing of nearly every business would include some we’d heard of, even some that had survived into the present. But after decades of economic hardship and the riots and fires of 1965 and 1992, there’s very little that has lasted into the 21st century in South Central Los Angeles. These fragile business directories reveal a world almost entirely lost. Thanks, George!

 

 

A Last and Lasting Visit To Caravan Book Store – in 3-D!

Welcome to the seventh in a series of 3-D explorable tours of historic Los Angeles spaces, created by Craig Sauer using cutting-edge Matterport technology.

For the first time in the series, we’ve documented a space that is freely open and accessible to the public. But soon the Caravan Book Store will only exist in memory and in this captured moment in time. Because after almost 64 years in the shadow of the Los Angeles Public Library, the last survivor of Downtown L.A.’s Booksellers Row is about to become the Row’s final retail closure. If you want to visit, February 24 is Caravan’s last day.

We are grateful to Craig for rushing downtown to capture Caravan before the stock was depleted and fixtures removed (ahem, we bought a lovely little glass-faced bookshelf on our way out the door) and to Leonard Bernstein and daughter Leilah for letting us disrupt their first busy day in the shop after the news broke.

Oh Caravan! The tugboat of Downtown. How we’ll miss your dusty air and beautiful things and the calm, wry, wise presence of the great Angeleno at your heart.

In 1954, Leonard Bernstein’s parents Morris and Lillian opened Caravan at 605 South Grand Avenue so that they could spend their days together. The store evolved with the changing city, honing antiquarian specialties that interested the Bernsteins and their customers. Californiana, presidential biographies, travel, rail history, cookbooks, old newspapers, fine bindings, ephemera, and the unexpected treasures that came in by the box load whenever an old Southern California estate collection was purchased.

In 1970, L.A. Times columnist Jack Smith stepped in, and wrote:

“I found myself back in the 1930s. In that era, when you might think nobody had any money to spend on books, 6th St. in that neighborhood was Booksellers Row.

There were perhaps a dozen of them, all much like this one: narrow and deep, smelling of dust and old buckram and leather. Each shop would be tended by one man, usually a lean one, with a hungry look, who could be found at a desk at the back bent over a rolltop desk. On cold days a gas heater would be burning.

There would be a tin coffeepot on a burner and sometimes a loaf of bread and some cheese and canned milk. Most of the men had wives who helped them out, wearing sweaters to keep warm, and there were always cats.

There might be three or four customers in the shop or none, depending on the hour and the weather, though I rarely saw anyone buy anything, and I hung around a lot, not buying anything myself.

The bookman didn’t seem to mind. He talked with them, if they wanted to talk, sometimes going up to a loft to find a book or shoving his ladder along a wall and climbing it for a book out of reach. He knew where every book in the shop was because he had put it there, and once he had put it there, it rarely moved. Cronies spent the day, sitting at the back by the heater, making the coffee and talking about T.S. Eliot or Jurgen or Aimee Semple MacPherson… Now they are gone.”

But Caravan, a late arrival to the Row, found its even keel and pushed on, as Downtown Los Angeles declined and was revived more times that its current boosters would like you to know.

Photo: Ann Summa (Los Angeles Times)

By 1980, when a bank took over all the retail storefronts in Caravan’s building, the little kid who had grown up helping out in the store was a full grown bookman. Leonard helped move the store’s stock across Grand Avenue to its comfortable new digs in the Pacific Mutual Building, formerly the offices of Air Panama, and posed with his dad in the sterile space which will all too soon be so again.

Caravan is not closing because business is bad, the landlord is greedy, or because you took photos of rare items on the shelves and bought them cheap online (but if you did, shame on you). Caravan is closing because the next generation of Bernsteins have their own full lives, and because after a lifetime in business on the wild and woolly streets of Downtown Los Angeles, Leonard is ready to sleep late, have some new adventures, and see what else the world has in store for him.

The business will continue, but without drop-in hours. So make some time this shortest month to pay a visit to the last of a great Los Angeles literary tradition. And for heaven’s sake, buy something! For to quote Morris Bernstein, at the time of the last move, “The thought of moving all those books makes me wish I’d gone into the stamp business!”

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Caravan Book Store
550 S. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90071

Monday through Saturday: 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Sunday: Closed

There will be a Store Closing Sale from February 3 through 24, with markdowns on merchandise throughout the shop. Sale hours will also be flexible and by appointment.

Contact Info
Email: caravanbookstore@yahoo.com
Phone: 213-626-9944
Instagram: @caravan_book_store
New mailing address (as of March 1): Caravan Book Store P.O. Box 550 7162 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90036

Store closing announcement