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

On The Road with William and Grace McCarthy

Over on the California State Archives website there’s a terrific new collection of amateur travel photography by William and Grace McCarthy, San Franciscans who traveled widely, camera at the ready, between 1905 and 1938.

We’re still digging through their photo albums, but in the Los Angeles section gems are thick on the ground. It’s the most fun we’ve had gawking since Anton Wagner’s photos went online.

What will you find there? How about a rare 1916 view of D.W. Griffith’s Gates of Babylon set from Intolerance, with electric poles and small bungalows reminding us that the film was shot in the middle of Los Feliz, about where the Vista Theater stands today.

Note the smoke stains at the center of the flat at left, suggesting that the flames coming out of Griffith’s rolling siege towers, seen in the screen grab below, were real. It’s a wonder the cast of thousands survived.

Hollywood’s stately Cheateau-esque Rollin B. Lane residence appears comical with the Bernheimer Brothers’ Japanese pavilion looming above, a Disneyfied juxtaposition decades before Walt staked his claim on California fantasy architecture. The Lane mansion, much expanded, entered from the side and always by automobile, is the famed Magic Castle Club today, and the Bernheimer is Yamashiro Restaurant.

The intent with this shot was to capture the statue of Senator Stephen M. White, but we’ve never seen a better image of the filigree details at the entrance of the great Red Sandstone Courthouse (1891, demolished 1936), our favorite lost Downtown landmark. Much of that stone survives in City Terrace Park.

Thanks to Mike McPhate’s California Sun newsletter for the tip about the newly digitized collection, and to Audrey Fullerton-Samora, William and Grace McCarthy’s great niece, for her generous donation. Too often these kinds of archives are broken up for resale, their context lost.

William and Grace seem like fun people, and we’re awfully glad for the chance to see the world through their eyes. Cuddle up!

Esotouric’s Los Angeles Historic Preservation 2017 year-end list

Gentle reader…

As we slam the door on 2017, 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 2018 will see some of the Bittersweets tip over onto the Gains side of the fence.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Gains of 2017:

G1. Angels Sing: After several years of non-operation, during which time the lovely little landmark suffered grave humiliation, Angels Flight Railway returned to daily service, thanks to a private partnership cemented by the Mayor’s Office, in direct response to the pleas of civic petitioners like you.

G2. Such A Lovely Place: After Westlake’s Hotel Californian burned in 1995, only the most optimistic preservationist—is there such an animal?—dared dream its massive, rusting twin neon roof signs would ever glow again. But dreams can come true when people care enough to do the work. And while a recent transformer issue has temporarily shut off the lights, soon you’ll again be able to marvel at that sweet script in the sky.

G3. In Sacred Memory: Angelenos who fell in the Great War have no better friend than Courtland Jindra, the modest preservation powerhouse who sleuths out the locations and histories of local war memorials, and has recently added restoration to his resume. Victory Memorial Grove was a forgotten ruin on the edge of Elysian Park, but thanks to Courtland and his crew, it is once again a beautiful place of remembrance, with new tree plantings to come.

G4. Dream Factory: Against the backdrop of Hollywood’s hyper-development excess, one project stands out for its audacious attempt to redesign Sunset Boulevard itself. Named for the exquisite National Register landmark at its eastern edge, Crossroads of the World seeks to demolish dozens of 1930s apartment units and the historic art deco HQ of The Hollywood Reporter. But not so fast, bulldozers: thanks to the passionate advocacy of local preservationists and historians, our company town landmark now has some civic protection. Special thanks to the Art Deco Society, with its new focus on writing landmark nominations.

G5. Final Exit: The Hotel Cecil was just another of Downtown L.A.’s 1920s-era low-income residency hotels, and occasional stop on our true crime tours, when a pitch-perfect internet-era mystery captured the world’s attention. While Vancouver tourist Elisa Lam’s sad death inside the rooftop water tower was ruled accidental, public fascination with the Cecil’s supposed curse has only intensified. But despite the lobby’s unfortunate recent faux finishes, the old girl has great bones, and new management that’s sought and received historic landmark designation. Restoration coming soon.

G6. Rock On: If you love music history, Hollywood history, civil rights history and great architecture, then Musicians’ Union Local 47 matters to you. Founded in 1897, its members have shaped motion picture soundtracks since the dawn of the talkies, and uncountable hit records. The handsome Vine Street union hall, master architect Gordon Kaufmann’s last commission, became one of the first integrated performance guilds in America in 1953. The union recently sold the building and moved to Burbank, but the future of the old union hall is a little less uncertain now that it’s passed the first hurdle on the road to becoming an Historic Cultural Monument. Cheers to John Girodo of Hollywood Heritage for writing a terrific nomination.

G7. Home Is Worth Fighting For: Hurrah for Lena Kouyoumdjian, who successfully nominated her lovely rental, in one of Echo Park’s rare surviving bungalow courts, as a landmark. These distinctly Southern California compounds are rich with history, and provide a rare sense of community in the heart of the city. But Wurfl Court faced that growing threat: demolition of historic rent-stabilized housing stock for a newly-permitted “small lot development” of high-priced tiny houses. Of note: landmarking is contagious, and successful nominations inspire future fights.

G8. Sugar Pill: The Cranky Preservationist went down to Sugar Hill, West Adams to gripe about the hipster murals that had defaced a fine old house (inside and out), but it turns out 2200 Harvard has been sold, and is finally getting some respect.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Losses of 2017:

L1. Joe Friday Wept: The Cultural Heritage Commission tried, but couldn’t overcome City Council’s plan to clear a large plot by City Hall for development. In the cross hairs: Welton Becket’s masterful mid-century Parker Center (“not one of [his] best works” – Councilman Jose Huizar, justifying a travesty), the world’s first modern police administration building and the finest International Style structure in L.A.’s portfolio. Demolition appears inevitable, but first the city must document the building, and ensure the removal and re-installation of integrated art pieces by Joseph Young and Tony Rosenthal. Preservationists and even one of the architects lament the city’s short-sightedness.

L2. Hot Stuff: Since 1910, the magnificent Mission Revival-style Heather Apartments have occupied the slightly sinister address of 666 South Bonnie Brae, but it’s years since anyone has lived inside. In April, the Santa Ana winds picked up an arsonist’s spark and tuned this derelict gem into kindling wood. The fire department’s photos are astonishing, and the Cranky Preservationist aghast.

L3. His Horrid Hobby: Imagine, if you will, spending years painstakingly restoring a magnificent 1902 mansion by Griffith Observatory architect John C. Austin, seeing it declared a landmark, then selling for a pretty penny. A happy ending, yes? Not when the buyer is serial home wrecker Xorin Balbes (not his real name), who felt that all that gorgeous dark wood had to go. Just a few months later, the “protected” Higgins-Verbeck-Hirsch Mansion is languishing on the market, the best illustration we know for how desperately Los Angeles needs an interior landmarking ordinance.

L4. His Excellency Regrets: Sometimes we only learn of a landmark when informed of its pending loss. Such was the case with a fine Koreatown mansion which, we discovered when researching the address, had been the home-in-exile of Mexican Revolutionary General Maytorena. Illegal demolition stymied any attempt at saving the home or its stunning stained glass.

L5. Park It: It’s no secret that we’re in love with John Parkinson’s 1910 design for Pershing Square, and yearn to see it return. But that doesn’t mean we’re enjoying the city’s slow destruction of the extant Ricardo Legorreta + Laurie Olin Brutalist park plan and its integrated artwork. Meanwhile, an unfunded redesign scheme now proposes to block the classic Biltmore view with LED lights. Is it so hard to just do the sensible thing and restore?

L6. No Room To Grow: It’s ironic, as LACMA scrounges around for a billion dollars to finance demolition of its iconic 1965 William Pereira campus for a slightly smaller Wilshire-spanning mausoleum, that it leased A.C. Martin’s & S.A. Marx’ streamline moderne May Company department store to the Academy for a museum of the movies. That project has hit some potholes, but none deep enough to stop the removal of the back half of the building.

L7. Storm The Bastille: When hillside Silver Lake bar-restaurant El Cid demolished half of its sidewalk-facing wall, it broke our hearts. Although altered somewhat since 1925, that windowless facade, with a wide door at the center, was built as a daffy roadside attraction, the Jail Cafe, featuring waiters in prisoner stripes serving swells chicken dinners, with no silverware, inside mock jail cells. The world is a little less weird for loss of that wall.

L8. Lights Out: A concerned fan sounded the alarm that Vermonica, artist Sheila Klein’s beloved 1993 installation of historic L.A. streetlights had mysteriously vanished from its East Hollywood parking lot home. Turns out, street lighting staff had reclaimed the poles, but failed inform the artist. Something that is Not Vermonica currently shines on a nearby city building, but Klein and the Mayor’s office are now in talks to bring the real deal back to the city that loves it.

L9. Brookfield Broke It: When the Community Redevelopment Agency demolished every building on Bunker Hill, Los Angeles was promised something new and useful in return for the lost Victorian neighborhood. High-rise developers received huge subsidies to provide public art and amenities, in return for agreeing to maintain these civic handouts. Flash forward to last week, when Brookfield Properties, recent buyer of Wells Fargo Tower, illegally demolished landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s Crocker Court (1983), an oasis of running water, mature plants and world-class sculpture.  The timing couldn’t have been more shocking: a touring Halprin exhibition was at the A+D Museum, and the Los Angeles Conservancy had just toured the site. The Cranky Preservationist explains where the buck stops, here.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Bittersweet Moments of 2017:

B1. Bad News: It’s been a long, slow slide for the Los Angeles Times since the Chandler family sold the paper. The Chicago owners continue to bleed its assets, recently selling the landmark (but not actually landmarked) newspaper buildings to Canadian developer Onni Group. Onni is marketing the compound as a hip work space, with Times staff likely evicted by summer. If the newspaper leaves, what of the magnificent Globe Lobby? It would be a civic and aesthetic crime to take it apart, even assuming the newspaper still owns its artifacts, which is uncertain.  As for William Pereira’s masterful, if misunderstood, 1973 addition: Onni wants to demolish it for twin glass towers. There’s a reason no local developer bought the Times compound: if respect for a Los Angeles institution was included in the equation, the financials just didn’t pencil out. That’s not an issue for foreign investors. So if any local billionaires are reading this, it’s your last chance to buy paper and preserve its historic home.

B2. Covina on The Nile: Covina Bowl (Powers, Daly, and DeRosa, 1956) closed last March, leaving fans and preservationists concerned about the fate of the wildest Egyptian-Googie bowling center in the world. Eligible for the National Register, the exotic white elephant patiently waits for a visionary to save it, or a villain to knock it down.

B3. Frank Slept Here: Doug Quill is a filmmaker with an office on the old United Artist’s / Goldwyn Studios lot. When he learned that Frank Sinatra’s personal bungalow was threatened by demolition to make room for a DWP infrastructure project, he petitioned to save it. It seemed the least he could do, since his grandfather had played in Sinatra’s band! After Doug asked for help from the DWP Commissioners, the bungalow got a stay of execution while possible solutions are explored. It’s not saved, but still standing, so there’s hope.

B4. Rhymes With Kitten: We’re big fans of architect Kurt Meyer, who was the firm hand at the CRA that ensured that Central Library was preserved and restored. Now one of his own finest buildings, the marvelous mid-century Lytton Savings, is threatened. Although recently designated as a landmark, starchitect Frank Gehry refuses to adapt his project to spare Meyer’s work. It will be up to the courts, City Council and the continued dedication of Lytton lovers Steven Luftman and Keith Nakata, to keep this art-drenched Sunset Strip gem intact.

B5. Attractive Nuisance: Victorian Los Angeles provided a safe place for its indigent and ill, a vast farm and industrial complex called Rancho Los Amigos, aka The Downey Poor Farm. Today, its decaying buildings are fenced and shuttered, which only sometimes keeps out the urban explorers who have defaced the buildings with graffiti and set a series of major fires. But after decades of indecision, the County is taking a serious look at how best to redevelop the site, and we’re encouraged to hear that preservation of existing structures is on the table.  Hopefully, affordable housing will be on the table, too.

B6. Elegant Decay: Also in Downey, are things finally looking up for the columned Rives Mansion, a National Register landmark badly neglected by its “owners” (owners in quotes, because they stopped paying their mortgage years ago)? Finally, after a fence collapsed from the weight of accumulated garbage, the bank and city took notice. The mansion sold in December, hopefully to a preservation-minded buyer.

B7. Adobe Don’t: One of the oldest houses in Los Angeles County, home to a California Governor, molders away in the middle of a Bell Gardens trailer park, desperately in need of roof and electrical work and informed interpretation. A recent L.A. Magazine feature looks at the Gage Mansion preservation problem, but fails to cover all the drama of our years-long public access battle. For that story, join us on the South L.A. Road Trip!

B8. A Dog-Gone Shame: In 1938, veterinarian to the stars Eugene C. Jones commissioned architects Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket, in a rare collaboration, to design a Streamline Moderne animal hospital. Decades later, the neglected structure was hidden behind overgrown trees, and its provenance deliberately obscured by development-happy politicos. West Hollywood Heritage Project discovered the subterfuge, and have tirelessly campaigned to save this endangered landmark. We were encouraged when the Los Angeles Conservancy joined the cause and sued West Hollywood to compel preservation, then horrified when the back side of the “vacant” building caught fire, with a homeless man, known to the owners to be living inside, killed by smoke inhalation. Arson and murder investigations are ongoing. But a judge has ruled against  preservation, which leaves us hoping developer inertia leaves the door open for the still gorgeous building to be moved. If it falls, it won’t be without notice.

B9. Too Cool Too Lose: After initial discussions about demolishing not just the buildings, but perhaps even the prominent hill on which they sit, serious architectural and landscape guns were brought in to redevelop William Pereira’s neglected Metropolitan Water District HQ, a prime focus of our Pereira in Peril campaign. We’re watching this project with cautious optimism.

B10. Star Power: Another day, another Pereira in Peril (there’s LACMA, too, see L6 above). CBS Television City, the world’s first and most glamorous purpose-built TV production studio, is on the market. Concerned that inflated land values make demolition likely, the Los Angeles Conservancy has stepped in with a landmarking nomination, their first such attempt to preserve an endangered Pereira compound.  In a Times Op-Ed, ironic since their own Pereira building is endangered, Zev Yaroslavsky highlights the need to preserve an architectural and cultural treasure that supports high paying professional jobs.

B11. Pulling Strings: The landmark Bob Baker Marionette Theater will be be demolished, but Baker’s magical puppet shows going to return to a new theater inside the development project slated for the site.

B12. Men Behaving Badly: For film fans, the sudden shuttering of the Cinefamily non-profit was a cultural loss. For emotionally abused employees and volunteers, it was a validation and relief. But preservationists and Hollywood historians lament the closure of the Silent Movie Theatre in its 75th year of operation, and hope this isn’t its final curtain.

B13. Tails We Lose: For all the owners’ big talk about bringing the beloved Tail O’ The Pup stand out of storage and restoring it for a new generation of photo ops and quick meals, nobody did the actual work required to launch a restaurant. The end of the line for the promised roadside revival is a static museum display. And the original wasn’t even in the valley! Meanwhile, to the east, the world’s biggest tamale is also in mothballs.

B14. Daffy Deco Gone Dark: Among our most-missed tour stops is Monrovia’s incredible Aztec Hotel (1924), actually Mayan-inspired and designed by eccentric English architect Robert Stacy-Judd, who held court there in ancient Central American ritual garb. The National Register landmark has had hard times since the start, with repeated foreclosures and some downright peculiar “restoration” work. The hotel reverted to the bank in 2011, and was purchased by a Chinese investor. Although the storefronts remain active, and the restaurant recently reopened, the hotel remains inaccessible, undergoing agonizingly slow renovations. We’re hoping for a grand reopening in 2018.

B15. Band-Aid Solution: New chain-link fencing ruins the beauty of Pasadena’s National Register Colorado Street Bridge. It’s not that we’re insensitive to how important it is to help people thinking of self-harm, but the bridge already has integrated suicide prevention fencing that was installed when it was restored in 1992, which blended in with the design of the span. This new fencing is very ugly, and blocks off the alcove benches that give pedestrians a place to rest and look at the view. The bridge deserves better, and we’re glad to hear the city will be exploring alternative designs.

B16. Stone Drag: Charles Fletcher Lummis saved the California Missions, and did much to preserve the history of Native Americans and Mexican California. If only that great Western booster was around to advocate for the preservation and reactivation of his own historic home El Alisal, city owned, minimally managed by Rec and Parks, and brimming with potential. Every year that goes by without regular cultural programming at Lummis House is a heartbreaking civic failure.

B17. Just Because You Can: Everyone loves the Bradbury Building, California’s greatest surviving Victorian commercial space. Well, everyone except the uninspired folks behind the insensitive LED lighting scheme which makes the exterior remarkably ugly after dark.

B18. Doesn’t Mean You Should: When William Kesling’s streamline moderne Wallace Beery House (1936) was recently on the market, the listing highlighted its remarkable condition and unique machine-age charms. The realized price reflected the home’s condition and rarity. What an unpleasant year-end surprise, then, to learn it had been purchased by a developer eager to demolish the house for a dense cluster of condos. Preservationists have kicked into high gear, hoping to protect this gem.

B19. Vegas on Vine: Remember Onni Group, the Canadians eager to evict the newspaper from the Los Angeles Times building? They’re busy in Hollywood, too, with an outrageous proposal to erect a landlocked cruise ship looming over the lovely Afton Square District, which is designed on the California State Register. The project seeks a 35% density bonus, and proposes to move a collection of historic bungalows around like pawns on a chessboard and demolish a fine 1930 Art Deco market. Although presented as 429-unit apartment complex (hey, L.A. needs housing!), we suspect it will be another unpermitted hotel, a destructive model Onni got in trouble over at home in Vancouver before importing to L.A.

B20. Spinning Wheel: On a hot summer’s day in sleepy Arcadia, where the last Googie-style Van De Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakery restaurant (1967) stands proudly on Huntington Boulevard, Denny’s executives were on hand to throw the switch on the restored, spinning windmill sign, a beloved local landmark brought back to life through the Quixotic efforts of former mayor George Fasching. Last week, after just 18 months of service, the restored Van De Kamp’s windmill blade fell off the tower. A few days earlier, we saw no sign of trouble. Locals are shocked and eager for assurance that Denny’s will re-restore, but as yet there’s been no official word on what went wrong or on plans for the sign’s future.

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And that’s our report on the state of Los Angeles preservation for 2017. To see past years’ lists, click here: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012. And to stay informed all year round, see our Los Angeles History Happenings group on Facebook, subscribe to our newsletter and visit the Los Angeles Historic Preservation Hotspots map, where you can find nearby trouble spots.

Our guided bus tours return with The Real Black Dahlia on January 6, on the crest of the 71st anniversary of Beth Short’s disappearance and an especially haunting date to walk in the footsteps of this fascinating and mysterious lady. This tour is nearly full, so reserve soon if you’d like to ride, then stay tuned as we kick off our 11th Anniversary Year of loving, preserving and telling the stories of Los Angeles. See you on (or off) the bus!

yrs,
Kim and Richard
Esotouric

Henny Backus’ futuristic 1933 Greta Garbo bust comes to auction

Brooklynite Henrietta Kaye lived an incredible American life, from Cooper Union sculpture study to half-draped Broadway showgirl, comic foil to Orson Welles in the Surrealist theatrical sensation Horse Eats Hat to noted Hollywood hostess with second husband Jim Backus. Oh, and Thurston Howell the Third’s ridiculous speech patterns were based on Harvard boys she’d dated (“like he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and they forgot to take it out”).

Henny Backus left this plane in 2004, but the Backus family estate is just coming to auction tomorrow at Kimballs in Massachusetts. Included among the baubles and beads and Polaroids of George Burns holding court at cocktail soirees is one of Henny’s astonishing 1930s celebrity portrait busts, a sinuous, pouting likeness of the young Greta Garbo.

Sadly nowhere in the auction is her rumored caricature of Orson Welles, rendered in a special stone the exact color of aged Virginia ham!

Lloyd Wright’s Sowden House, 1920s Hollywood Landmark & Black Dahlia Suspect’s Lair

Welcome to the sixth in a series of 3-D explorable tours of historic Los Angeles spaces, created by Craig Sauer using cutting-edge Matterport technology. This one is special, as for the first time in our partnership, Craig got us inside a building we’ve been longing to explore!

A decade ago we launched Esotouric with our flagship tour, The Real Black Dahlia. And on nearly every Dahlia tour, someone asks us about the murder suspect George Hodel and his sinister-looking house on Franklin Avenue. Although we don’t subscribe to his son Steve’s theory that George Hodel killed Beth Short in the basement, the house itself is fascinating.

Constructed in 1926 by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son and collaborator Lloyd Wright, using techniques similar to the elder architect’s “textile block” concrete forms, Sowden House is a classic Spanish Rancho-era California home filtered through a Mayan Art Deco sieve and updated for the jazz age theatrical set who lived to entertain. Presenting a blank white wall to the world outside, the house opens up to a magnificent sun-dappled courtyard, ringed all around with public and private spaces.

While we’d never been inside, the house could be understood by consulting a lovely set of 1971 Marvin Rand photographs and plans for the Historic America Building Survey (HABS), viewable on the Library of Congress website and above.

In 2001 Sowden House was purchased from its seventh owners by crystal-loving designer Xorin Balbes, who in the course of “restoring” the National Register and Los Angeles landmark, added many garish contemporary touches. He also apparently demolished the site-specific sculptural tiled bath. In recent years, the house has been used as a filming location and hosted George Hodel’s son Steve poking around the basement with a “cadaver dog” named Buster, seeking evidence of a seventy-year-old slaying.

But you can’t keep a misguided preservationist down, and Mr. Balbes has moved on to ruin other significant Los Angeles buildings, like the Hiram Higgins, or Willard house, a strong candidate to top our annual list of historic preservation nightmares. Sowden House was sold in 2013.

And just this summer, its tenth stewards took possession of Lloyd Wright’s bold building. Among their first acts was to ask Craig Sauer to document the property with an immersive 3-D scan—but only after the thick jungle of yucca, palm, bird of paradise and banana that has obscured the facade for years was removed. And like a handsome man who finally shaved off his awful beard, all we can do is wonder what took him so long.

As you click to enter the newly stark facade through Craig’s Matterport scan, then ascend the spartan staircase—ignore the contemporary rustic risers, which were originally bare concrete tile tread—you’ll find a house that is happily regaining its architectural integrity. Gone are the climbing vines and thorny succulents that clogged the edges of the courtyard, which Mr. Balbes had already rendered semi-usable with poorly-proportioned small pools instead of replicating the lost 32’ pool with its upright block structure supporting a water organ. The textured walls and columns change subtly as the sun moves across the sky and night falls.

The new owners are philanthropists dedicating to helping animals, promoting art and artists, and supporting social activism. They founded Canna-Pet and its non-profit organization, Pet Conscious, and plan on sharing the Sowden House as an event space to connect with other foundations and nonprofits in the L.A. community and help with fundraising. Perhaps an evening at Sowden House is in your future? But for now, we urge you to explore this Los Angeles treasure at your leisure.

But one part of the structure doesn’t appear in Craig’s scan, so don’t bother looking. Although every armchair Dahlia-ologist is curious about the basement in which George Hodel did or didn’t do something terrible to Beth Short in 1947, Craig felt that it just wasn’t architecturally “interesting” enough to merit the effort of scanning. So here, for your ghoulish pleasure, is a view of the dirt-floored basement and its primitive raised storage platform. We couldn’t visit the house without seeing it.

Now when we offer our Real Black Dahlia tour, as we will again on October 7, we’ll be able to direct interested parties to virtually explore the house where George Hodel danced a delicate duet with the cops he knew were bugging him. Maybe they’ll spot a clue, or one of the pussycats who are getting settled in to their new home. Certainly, they’ll be ensorcelled by this marvelous place!

An Esotouric Kentucky Road Trip to experience the 2017 American Eclipse Totality

The total solar eclipse that slashed across the continental US on August 21 provided a great excuse to take our favorite kind of road trip: a few semi-scheduled days roaming the blue highways, seeking out historic Main Streets, graveyards, roadside attractions, diners, storefronts and nice folks who are willing to stop what they’re doing and show us around old buildings.

Since a big part of the pleasure is bringing back photos to share. won’t you join us for a virtual excursion, from Nashville to Bowling Green, Mammoth Cave to Cave City, #EclipsevilleUSA to the shadow of the Kentucky State Penitentiary to the cosmos and beyond?

We touched down Friday afternoon in humid Nashville, picked a Ford from the rental fleet and bee-lined to Mount Olivet Cemetery (1856), home to the tallest of the many Confederate memorials we’d see on this trip. Try as we might, we couldn’t escape the politicization of these times: lurking in the shade nearby, a couple of tough looking fellows sat in a camouflage SUV, just kind of… watching. Not wishing to rile them, and meaning the monument no harm, we ambled off to admire mossy crypts in the Egyptian, Moorish and Southern Gothic styles. The possible presence of these lurking “Monument Guards” is something history lovers should be aware of when visiting southern graveyards, or other places where the Confederacy has left its mark.

After a congenial supper at Monell’s Germantown’s communal table of all-we-could-eat catfish, greens, slaw and ‘nilla wafer specked banana pudding, we took our table mates’ advice and strolled through the Italian Lights festival on Bicentennial Mall. Diet tip: chasing fireflies across the lawn is a swell way to work off a heavy meal.

Next stop: Bowling Green, KY. It was Saturday and BGSU’s special collections library was shut, so we couldn’t call up select novelties from their famed pop culture holdings. But the sleepy town proved plenty novel.

In a tiny and apparently nameless Civil War cemetery opposite Lisa’s 5th Street Diner (great twice-fried potato discs!), we felt the weight of time and marveled at the alien beauty of a newborn cicada, its pale wings still expanding for first flight, perched on its own shed skin at the base of a grave. These weird creatures spend long years in the ground, then ascend to the trees to suck sap and make riotous noise with the bass drum in their tummies, and their cacophonous rhythm was the soundtrack for our trip.

Bowling Green is a park-rich town, and Circus Square Park features a cool architectural feature: Standard Filling Station No. 1, restored in 2008 to its original 1920s exterior appearance. The interior has been cleverly altered to serve as a public restroom.

No eclipse road trip would be complete without a flying saucer sighting, and Bowling Green delivered, in the form of Western Kentucky University’s exuberant Hardin Planetarium (1967).

Just down the hill stood a faded classical temple with a vivid blue dome, weeds growing between its ramshackle steps.

An open door lured us to call out, and inside we found Vilson Qehaja, who purchased the former Westminster Presbyterian Church (1912) two years ago at auction and is converting the National Register landmark into a restaurant (Anna’s) and wedding venue (Century Palace).

He graciously took some time away from his work to give us a tour of the project, which has been rich in the surprises (both happy and heart-stopping) to be expected from a century-old building. We were thrilled to have a chance to preview this lovely space as it steers towards its second century, and glad we could thank Vilson personally for making the considerable effort to restore and open it up to the public. Blessed are the entrepreneurial preservationists! And dig that fabulous glass!

Although we saw nothing that would be called a crowd in Los Angeles, eclipse tourists had reserved all of the ticketed Mammoth Cave tours weeks before. But there was no ticket required to hike down into the primordial forest at Cedar Sink, a beautifully engineered staircase path from the highway that wound down and around and finally into a wet cave system whose ceiling collapsed long ago. Along the way, we saw iridescent blue butterflies, strange wildflowers, tree limbs draped in the filmy sacks of wiggling bagworms and two very weird caterpillars.

On the outskirts of the National Park is Cave City, a highway-facing tourist trap of a town that’s been miraculously spared recent development. Of course, the architectural historian’s miracle is the business owner’s lament, and it didn’t take long for a storekeeper to let us know that Cave City was no longer booze-free (!!), and investment would soon follow. This made us gladder still to have stopped by to see the sights while they were still a mid-century time capsule.

Come October, thrill seekers will presumably be able to scream themselves hoarse inside Raven’s Cross Haunted Village, but on this hot August afternoon, the parking lot was deserted. We couldn’t resist peering into the spooky attraction’s open doors, which seemed unsettling even in bright sunlight. Was that electric sawing sound coming around the bend a technician constructing a scary display, or a serial killer chopping up the previous nosy tourists? We didn’t hang around to find out!

One of the reasons we travel is to interact with people who are very different from us.

At Mammoth Cave Knife Works, we found ourselves in a spacious shop that seemed to function like the extended living room of the colorful family proprietors. Gleefully politically incorrect, they were also gracious and funny, and ran an admirably tight ship. Richard picked up a nice little bone-handled fruit knife and some insights into life on the Cave City main line.

Across the highway, Redneck Golf was closed for the season or maybe forever, its dusty Astroturf greens guarded by a sun-faded concrete hippo.

Our next stop was Onyx Cave, one of the smaller, privately-run subterranean attractions that surprisingly had space available on the next tour—although we’d soon learn this was because the operator was taking advantage of increased demand to oversell. But our tour group was friendly and didn’t mind pressing close together as Gabrielle, our enthusiastic guide who had only been on the job for a couple of months, did a great job of telling the story of the beautiful cave’s accidental discovery, unique characteristics, conservation concerns and weird bugs. About halfway through the narrow cave, we outed ourselves as professional tour guides and offered to help with crowd control, and Gabby outed herself as a former Southern Californian, and together we brought the group safely through sheets of dripping wet “cave bacon” and back to the gift shop entrance.

We couldn’t leave Cave City without stopping to admire the celebrated Wig Wam Village #2, America’s oldest surviving ring-of-teepees motel complex. There, inside the towering teepee office, we phoned Kumar Patel, who runs Wig Wam Village #7 in Rialto and let him say howdy to his cross-country innkeeping compatriot, Mir.

Years ago, the basement of the big teepee held a circular souvenir shop. It’s just used for storage now, but we got a big kick out of exploring this unique space and seeing all the cool artifacts down there. Maybe one day it will be a shop again.

As dusk fell, we found ourselves in Russellville, KY, the self-styled “oldest town in Southern Kentucky,” admiring its National Register town square, first with pleasure, then with mounting horror, as we realized that two of the most prominent historic corner buildings are slated for demolition, to be replaced with “boutique hotels.”

It was painfully obvious that the historic downtown is dead, with no stores open and the only restaurant owned by Deborah Hirsch, the person who seeks to knock the landmarks down. Russellville needs help. But destroying history isn’t going to magically bring people to spend money. We don’t understand how the demolition of major contributors to a National Register commercial district can be permitted except in the case of building collapse, and very much hope the town’s leaders will think twice about taking the word of the property developer’s architects that these historic buildings are too far gone to be adaptively reused. They looked solid and beautiful as the sun set, and we hope one day we will see them again.

But the universe in benevolent, and wouldn’t let us leave Russellville in a preservation funk. As Richard gassed up the car, Kim heard a volley of squeaks and looked up to see dozens of bats taking flight from inside an old chimney. What a thrill! Nice creatures, the bats, congenial. Maybe they can take over some of these derelict old buildings and make something out of them.

On Sunday, we swung through Hopkinsville, KY, the small town that had cleverly branded itself as #EclipsevilleUSA due to its prime position within the totality, still more 24 hours away. The carnival atmosphere was building as we admired the historic storefronts reverberating with an amplified open-air church service, and searched in vain for somewhere to get a cup of tea and a muffin to go.

We mistook a storefront rescue mission for a cafe, and longtime mayor Wally Bryant stepped out to offer a preview of his cosmic testimony and invite us to visit his landmark home afterwards. If the moon’s shadow wasn’t racing ever nearer towards its union with the sun, we’d have taken him up on it. But the road called, and we needed to be on it.

But first, peckish Richard presented himself at the only midway food concession tent that looked like it might be open for business. “Sure—we can deep fry anything!” the cook boasted. Richard opted for an order of Oreo cookies and managed to eat three of the gloopy horrors.

Next stop: Princeton, KY, another small town with more than its share of intact 19th century storefronts. Strolling down the main drag after a hearty grade school lunch of grilled American cheese sandwiches and vegetable soup, we were immediately swept up by native daughter Debbie, who was giving visiting Oklahoma friends a town tour and wanted to know who we were, why we’d come and what we thought of Princeton.

Well, we thought Princeton was just beautiful. It’s unusual among smaller towns because it has an Art Deco WPA courthouse, a handsome jewel box distinguished by a row of three-dimensional busts, among them FDR’s. The old Masonic Hall across the street is pretty special, too.

When we mentioned our plan to drive out to see the old state penitentiary, “The Castle on the Cumberland” on Lake Barklay, Debbie suggested we caravan out to Eddyville together.

But first, we had to see the limestone river cave that was at the old town’s heart (spooky and cool).

And we had to visit Debbie’s pal Nancy, the ham lady.

We somehow had no idea that Princeton, KY is a legendary foodie destination, and that people come from all over the world to taste Newsom’s Country Hams, produced in the 18th century fashion over nearly two years of tending by third-generation smoker Nancy Newsom Mahaffey.

But when we stepped inside her Old Mill Store, it was obvious that we were in the presence of a genius, a place where traditional foodways and public service are twined into a lover’s knot.

We didn’t “discover” Nancy Newsom Mahaffey—that honor belongs to James Beard, in the mid-1970s, and you should click that link and read all about it—but we did enjoy the rare pleasure of stumbling onto Newsom’s Old Mill Store completely unaware. Some of the carnivorous wonder was lost on us as pescatarians, but we still come away with some of the finest treats anyone ever ate out of a jar, including a luscious blackberry cobbler and some unbelievably delicious pickled beet salad. You can order these things, with or without a ham, by mail order from Nancy the ham lady, herself.

A little dazed and drunk on the scent of smoked pig, we followed Debbie on to the lakeside hamlet of Eddyville, site of the historic prison. Unfortunately, the state prison system had eclipse fever, too, and a humorless deputy got out of his van to let us know that the lake frontage road with its views of the 19th century prison complex would remain closed until after the solar event. With the trouble in the yard earlier this summer, the warden wasn’t taking any chances on so-called “architectural historians” casing the joint for a bust out.

Well, we’d just have to admire the state penitentiary from the water. Because here comes the main event!

Thanks to the hospitality of our pal Greg Tlapek, seen above plotting our course at his family’s cabin, we took in the eclipse on a pontoon boat off the coast of Lake Barkley, KY, at a spot that boasted about 2.5 long minutes of totality.

After a hearty country breakfast, it took us an hour to motor to the spot, over flooded towns and fields seized by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1960s. We stopped close to shore when a heron landed and let us know he believed this was the place.

And then the eclipse began. The long slide into darkness was preceded by waters roiling with big, confused fish jumping for fat bugs and by eagles swooping in to take the fish. It wasn’t dark, but the light wasn’t right. Time seemed off-kilter, too.

And then the shadow came and stopped up the sun, like a kid’s thumb over the lip of a bottle. It was disorienting and wonderful, and in the midst of it we somehow managed to capture a cell phone image of the hole in the sky with the light show exploding all around it.

Then the brightest light that ever was poured out of the hole’s right side and it was summertime again. It was a good 15 minutes until the birds or cicadas made another sound, and before they did, we were talking about traveling however far it took to see another total solar eclipse.

Man, what a show! Space and time contract into a single point and the brain can hardly take it in. Well worth any trouble to experience something so uncanny.

Before flying home from St. Louis, we had one final pilgrimage to make. Richard Nickel is one of our historic preservation heroes. As a young photographer in the 1960s, he documented and single-handedly salvaged some of Chicago’s greatest doomed buildings, with a special focus on the exquisite decorative forms of Frank Lloyd Wright’s teacher, Louis Sullivan.

 

Overwhelmed by the volume of salvaged material he was collecting ahead of the bulldozer, Nickel partnered with the new Southern Illinois State University at Edwardsville, which purchased much of his collection with the promise to display it. A few years later Nickel was under contract for the university, salvaging elements of the Chicago Stock Exchange, when the floor collapsed and he was killed.

We admire his devotion and singular vision, and mourn his lonesome death. It was very moving to see his astonishing collection, which is installed in and around the university library, in the stairwells and in a quiet double-height gallery near the stacks.

Imagine a time when such exquisite, architecturally significant objects were viewed as garbage by most people! It wasn’t all that long ago. As preservation activists, who often come up against such dismissive attitudes surrounding the places we seek to save, this visit—especially in the charged aftermath of the cosmic event—filled our psychic batteries to the brim. We set off for the airport in a state of humming excitement, eager to return to the preservation work that awaited us at home in Los Angeles.

Some friends who we’ve told about our eclipse trip have expressed surprise that didn’t just go to Oregon with all the other Californians. But especially now, with the country so divided, we think it’s important for coastal dwellers to visit red states, to talk to the people and admire their folkways and landmarks. We’re all of us Americans, and not really so different when we come face to face–at least, as long as there isn’t a statue of Robert E. Lee between us. And damn, Kentucky is beautiful. Much too beautiful to write off for political reasons.

Thanks for joining us on this Esotouric road trip, and stay tuned for further adventures at home and in the field.