A Virtual 3-D Tour of Mitchell Caverns, Southern California’s Only Show Cave

Welcome to the tenth in a series of 3-D explorable tours of off-the-beaten-path Southern California spaces, created by Craig Sauer of Reality Capture Experts using cutting-edge Matterport technology.

We’re passionate about all of these virtual tours, but this one is pretty special: seven months in the making, comprising the largest, most ancient, most collaborative and most geographically remote scan in the series. (It also comes sprinkled with a smattering of mystical fairy dust.)

There we were, celebrating Kim’s birthday with a private guided tour of the newly-reopened Mitchell Caverns show cave, high in the Providence Mountains near the Arizona border.

Dedicated State Parks ranger/interpreter Andy Fitzpatrick unlocked the gates and took us on a trip back and forward in time, from the limestone cave’s violent geological prehistory, its fossil deposits, ritual use by the native Shoshone people, reinvention as a Route 66 roadside attraction, vandalism by Oliver Stone’s The Doors crew and amateur jackasses, then down into the dust by the side of the pathway to dig the miniature current inhabitants (Niptus beetles and pseudoscorpions).

He even turned out all the newly installed LED spotlights, allowing us a moment in the complete darkness at the center of the earth, then switched on a black light to reveal delicate streams of bat urine on the cave walls. It’s quite the “gross… but cool!” show stopper that nicely echoes the showmanship of the roadside attraction era.

There’s nothing we enjoy more than exploring a completely unique environment with someone who knows and loves it intimately, and you can hear Andy talk about these amazing caverns in episode 126 of our podcast, You Can’t Eat The Sunshine.

And to learn more about the wacky, bush wacking roadside attraction days, check out the posthumously published Keepers of the Caves: A True Account of Twenty Years of Modern Pioneering by Jack Mitchell, a weird and wonderful tale of an iconoclast and his incredibly tolerant wife in Depression-era Southern California.

Like all good roadside attractions, the Mitchell place had a novelty building, a nifty stone hut meant to suggest an igloo, and traditionally offered to honeymooning guests.

The sonic qualities of the curved interior are said to be… amusing. Take a virtual tour of the space here.

That evening at the caverns, as the sun slipped behind the mountain and the wide desert plain and historic stone houses purpled, Richard had an idea. “Hey, Andy–do you think our friend Craig could do a 3-D scan of the cave?” And as is Richard’s way, he was already phoning Craig before Andy had a chance to reply. And this is where the fairy dust sparkled.

As Craig tells it, “The morning before Richard called me (from the Caverns!) I had been taking with my barber about the especially cool places I’ve scanned, including JK’s Tunnel and Jergins Tunnel. When I got home, I sat down at my computer and Googled ‘Southern California caves’ and up popped Mitchell Caverns, which I had not heard about before. I learned that they had recently been reopened and thought how amazing it would be to get access to them. But then I saw how far away it was and how unlikely it would be for me to convince someone there to let me scan it. Not one hour later, I got the call from you and Richard, standing there with Andy!”

Apparently, whatever happy spirits inhabit Mitchell Caverns are eager to spread the word.

It took a little fiddling to get approval from the state and coordinate a block of scanning time, but soon the project was a go. Craig’s colleague Michael Asgian joined him in creating the digital file, each starting from one end of the caverns. In addition to the speedy Matterport camera, they used the new Leica BLK 360 camera, which records 3D data with a laser scanner, and better captures the vast open spaces in the caves, as well as the sunny entrances.

While the public can once again book a tour of Mitchell Caverns, the remoteness of the site and limited capacity makes it a difficult place to explore. But thanks to new 3-D scanning technology and a lucky collision of interested people, you can virtually visit at your convenience.

Just click the cave entrance below and prepare to be humbled by the awesome power of water, wind and time. Along the way, you’ll find some pop-up windows, offering information about some of the curious creatures who have been captured by the trail cameras, notable mineral formations and stories from the caverns’ history.

The results are truly astonishing, and we’re thrilled to be able to share Mitchell Caverns with you.

 

How Canadian Developer Onni Group “Preserved” the Art Deco Seattle Times Building

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Stop us if you’ve heard this one before:

A venerable local newspaper, fallen on hard times in the aftermath of the financial crisis, sells its architecturally-significant, centrally-located Art Deco headquarters and two attached buildings, comprising an entire city block, to a multi-national development company. The developer expresses affection for the site’s history, and makes preservation of the main newspaper building the centerpiece of a proposed project. The twin-tower mixed-use residential, retail and public plaza project is vastly out of scale and requires zoning changes. When preservationists express concern about protection of the historic resources, they’re assured that the developer is a good steward with the best intentions. Besides, we’re in a housing crisis, so build, baby, build!

Sound familiar? If you’re a Californian, you might recognize the beats of the recent history of the Los Angeles Times, with the paper’s real estate split off under Tribune’s ownership and its historic headquarters sold to Vancouver-based Onni Group.

But the story you just read is actually about the landmarked Seattle Times ( Robert C. Reamer, 1931), which Onni Group purchased in 2013 and neglected so profoundly that the normal rules for protected buildings were waived: in February 2016, Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections approved (archive link) immediate demolition of the landmark for reasons of public safety.

November 2015: “Squatters leave the old Seattle Times building at 1120 John St., after waking up during Thursday’s fire” (Steve Ringman / Seattle Times)

During the first three years of Onni’s ownership, the Seattle Times became a squatter’s den (archive link), home to hundreds of homeless people, their pets and their troubles. Metal thieves operated openly, stripping the landmark of its historic artifacts and plumbing. The squatters were rousted, but immediately returned, prying off the thin plywood panels Onni Group installed to keep them out. When the police ordered the landlord to properly secure the building, Onni Group missed the deadline. Taxpayers covered the costs of constant police and paramedic calls. There were fires, overdoses, gas leaks and suffering that can’t be quantified.

Then came the wrecking ball and bulldozers, spelling the end of the Seattle Times and a clearing a nearly clean slate for a massive development, recently changed from housing to office towers, in the shadow of the Amazon.com headquarters.

February 2017: An old press that once printed the Sunday color comics section is partially exposed. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

(But before the walls came down, the newspaper building told one last story. Up on the roof, a hand-made banner went up the flagpole. The Times printed a photo and reported on the common ¢ents activists who were calling for Seattle’s hundreds of vacant buildings to be made available to serve the city’s homeless population. That’s a conversation Los Angeles should be having, too.)

Demolition began in October 2016. Today, just a couple of sad walls from the landmark Seattle Times building survive, and Onni Group is busily building upward.

The Art Deco Los Angeles Times Building is not a protected city landmark like the Seattle Times Building was. We believe it should be a landmark, which is why we’ve filed an Historic-Cultural Monument application, which is now under consideration, with a hearing on July 19 (Update: the second hearing is Thursday, September 20 and we still need your comments and emails!). At the direction of the Office of Historic Resources, our application includes all three entwined historic structures on the site: Gordon B. Kaufmann’s 1935 Times Building (including the Globe Lobby and its fixtures), Rowland H. Crawford’s 1948 Mirror tower and William L. Pereira’s 1973 corporate headquarters. These three buildings together tell the story of the Los Angeles Times and Southern California.

Some people believe that it’s only Pereira’s building that is threatened by Onni Group’s plans. But the Pereira can’t be demolished without tearing a giant hole in the Art Deco Kaufmann building’s west facade. And the Pereira is a good, if unfashionable, building that deserves to be considered on its architectural merits, which are largely invisible from street level, but reveal themselves when you step inside.

As Harry Chandler told the Los Angeles Times, “Developers are wont to change their minds based on market conditions, not preservation needs. [Onni] is not an L.A. company and they don’t have credentials for caring for historic buildings in our city. We shouldn’t leave that to chance.”

He’s right.

Onni Group might prove to be a better steward of our great newspaper’s home than they were in Seattle. It would be hard to be a worse one.

But let’s not just take their word for it. Please join us at the Cultural Heritage Commission on Thursday, July 19 and speak for the stone, the neon, the glass and the Globe. (Update: the second hearing is Thursday, September 20 and we still need your comments and emails!) These buildings shaped the Southern California we love, and they deserve to be preserved.

Workmanship of such poor quality is not acceptable.