A Rare Interior Tour of the Endangered Los Angeles Times Compound

When the Chandler family relinquished ownership of the Los Angeles Times in 2000, it sounded a discordant note all across the southland.

For while the Chandlers and ancestor Col. Otis before them were imperfect stewards, they were undeniably devoted to the growth and dignity of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Times, that city’s newspaper. Chicago-based Tribune’s tenure has been closer to Animal House than Pulitzer territory, as the once great paper has hemorrhaged staff while failing miserably to comprehend the challenges and opportunities of the digital era.

Which brings us to this week’s announcement that Tribune Tronc is close to selling the “landmark” Times-Mirror compound at 1st and Spring Streets, landmark in quotes because not one part of this magnificent compound is a protected Historic-Cultural Monument. Not Gordon B. Kaufmann’s broad-shouldered 1935 Art Deco jewel box with its glowing neon clock, not Rowland Crawford’s boldly vertical 1948 Times Mirror addition, not William Peirera’s elegant, and widely misunderstood, 1973 black glass corporate headquarters.

Although the lobbies of the Kaufmann and Crawford buildings are accessible, much of the compound remains a mystery to the public and sadly, in recent years to newspaper staff as well.

With a sale possible and no civic protection for these important buildings, as a public service we share these interior photos, shot last fall while scouting locations for an Angels Flight Railway benefit. In the end, we held it at the Million Dollar Theater. But we sure did enjoy our spin around the old Times HQ, and think you will, too. Long may she stand.

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Post updated to include a link to our colleague Nathan Marsak’s appearance on “Press Play with Madeleine Brand” talking about the preservation concerns surrounding the proposed sale. 

While Los Angeles Waits: A Virtual 3-D Tour of Angels Flight Railway

Angels Flight in mid track IMG_20160605_180348

To go directly to the 3-D Angels Flight tour, click here

It has been 1005 days since Angels Flight Railway, the beloved funicular that is, with the exception of a stone retaining wall, the last remnant of the lost Victorian neighborhood of Bunker Hill, suffered a minor derailing incident and was taken offline by its regulator, the California PUC.

Last July, horrified to see a car defaced with greasy graffiti, we formed the Angels Flight Friends & Neighbors Society (FANS) and petitioned Mayor Garcetti for help in cutting the regulatory red tape. He responded quickly, instructing Metro to prepare a report. But nothing else happened, at least not in the public eye. And here it is, almost summer again, and there’s still no good answer to that burning question we hear so often on our historic tours: “When can we ride Angels Flight?”

We believe that everyone should have the chance to enjoy this unique time capsule of old Los Angeles. And it occurred to us that if Angels Flight can’t legally take paying customers, there’s nothing to stop virtual visitors from climbing aboard. Unfortunately, there’s also little to stop bad actors from climbing aboard, as we discovered yesterday evening, on arrival at Angels Flight.

While Craig Sauer prepared his 3-D Matterport camera rig to capture the funicular’s photogenic nooks and crannies, Angels Flight FANS Richard Schave and Gordon Pattison got busy scrubbing off the childish graffiti tags that covered Olivet’s windows, undercarriage, seats and beams.  This vandalism, funicular operator John Welborne said, was no more than five days old. Thanks, a lot, “Saucy.”

But how are people getting into the Angels Flight cars, normally parked in the center of the 298 foot track, high above the ground? We didn’t have to ask, for an intense young man suddenly appeared just below the station house, having marched boldly up the tracks from Hill Street. When John Welborne inquired what he thought he was doing, the trespasser cooed, “Are you a Scientologist?” and blithely skipped away.

So far, vandals have only scrawled on the cars, scratched their names into the glass and left trash behind. It is our great fear that one of these illegal visitors will cause more lasting damage that cannot be erased with elbow grease and Goo-Gone. So long as Angels Flight remains out of commission, it falls to all of us, from public agencies to private citizens, to keep our eyes on Olivet and Sinai, and to call for help if we see anything suspicious.

But enough fretting and fussing: strap on your wings and get ready to soar!

Craig Sauer at Angels Flight station houseCraig’s 3-D scan replicates the experience of boarding Olivet at Angels Flight’s upper station house on Bunker Hill. The car is empty, so you can sit anywhere you like.

ride on Angels Flight lasts less than a minute, but there’s no need to hurry. Poke around and explore, admiring the narrow slatted ceiling, bare incandescent bulbs and metal handrails worn from innumerable rising riders. Although moved half a block south from its original location and no longer hemmed in by Victorian apartment hotels, Angels Flight is essentially unchanged from the conveyance than carried generations of Angelenos from the heights down into the city. Once you’ve had your fill, simply head down the hill inside the car and you’ll arrive at the lower station house, just across from Grand Central Market, open late all summer long and the new home of our free LAVA Sunday Salons and Broadway on My Mind walking tours.

V on Angels Flight IMG_20160605_184149It was a pleasure to spend a little time with our beloved Angels Flight and bring back a special view to share. The best part was seeing the faces of Craig’s children light up as they experienced their very first ride on L.A.’s wonderful funicular. Let’s hope it won’t be much longer before they, their classmates and YOU can ride it any day of the year.

If you care about Angels Flight and want to see it running again, please sign and share our petition, and we’ll keep you informed about the preservation campaign.

If you enjoy Craig’s Angels Flight tour, we also recommend our previous collaborations: The Dutch Chocolate Shop, Barclay Hotel and a folk art tunnel along the Los Angeles River. What will be the next hidden Los Angeles landmark to get the 3-D treatment? Stay tuned!

Save the Smell & Save the Victory Cafe!

245 to 249 s main street demolitions photo by the smellEarlier today the Smell, the legendary all-ages club in Los Angeles’ historic Skid Row, shared a photograph of a demolition permit application notice posted on their building. Even at the start of a holiday weekend, the response from incensed patrons was deafening.

We love the Smell, too, and agree that Los Angeles would be much diminished by its loss, should the permit be approved.

But the threatened structures at 245-249 South Main Street are so much more than just their familiar 2016 businesses: the Downtown Independent Theater, the Smell and the New Jalisco bar. They are the last physical remnants of a lost early 20th century Main Street, a zone of deliciously low culture entertainment that encompassed the burlesque arts, tattooing, freak shows, shooting galleries, wax museums, nickelodeon theaters, taxi dance halls and bars catering to all manner of men, an honorable tradition continued by the New Jalisco.

It is a world as lost to us as the Aztec and the Maya, but one that continues to fascinate and to inspire, and that we attempt to visit four times a year on our crime bus tour Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice.

These are not the kind of buildings that inspire book-length studies, appear in pristine archival photographs or are featured on the walking tours of the Los Angeles Conservancy. To find their stories, one must browse through cinema enthusiast websites and the back pages of old newspapers, source rare bits of b-movie footage, keep both ears to the ground.

Here, in a rare bit of color Main Street film shot by the Union Rescue Mission in 1949, we see the threatened structures (The Civic Theater/Downtown Independent, The Victory Cafe/The Smell and Palace Cafe Chop Suey/New Jalisco Bar), set between the lost storefronts to the south and north.

So as 21st century Angelenos rally to Save The Smell, let’s remember that succeeding will also Save The Victory Cafe, and the last stray remnants of Main Street’s astonishing, vanishing entertainment zone. We think it’s worth preserving.

Did we say these are not the kind of buildings featured on Conservancy walking tours? Happily, our friends have no such compunctions. Here’s architectural historian Nathan Marsak, LAVA’s Visionary of the Year for 2015, celebrating these modest storefronts on the Union Rescue Mission Walking Tour: 121 Years on Skid Row. (If you dig these clips, please consider making a donation to the good folks at the URM.)


The Hotel Californian neon is alive, alive!

It was 1995 when arson claimed the derelict Hotel Californian at the corner of 6th and Bonnie Brae in the Westlake District. But before the grand old H-shaped structure was demolished, the city removed its massive twin neon roof signs and placed them behind a chain link fence just east of the Mulholland Fountain on Riverside Drive.

The plan, if you can call it that, was to convince the developer who would eventually build on the site to fix them up and put them back.

And there they sat, lonesome, rusting and occasionally vandalized, for almost two decades. Folks would spy them from the road and pull over, astonished, full of questions and humming that Eagles song.

At some point, one of the signs vanished; the preservation grapevine buzzed that Diane Keaton had mysteriously acquired the least ruined of the pair and installed it on the patio of one of her many historic homes. Then the second sign was gone, too, and nobody seemed to know where.

But then came a hot tip from our neon historian pal Dydia DeLyser, which is how we found ourselves at high noon on the corner of 6th and Bonnie Brae, hitching a ride in the freight elevator of The Paseo at Californian, the nearly-finished low income housing complex that has sprouted on the grassy vacant lot where the old Hotel Californian (1925-1995) lived and died.

Up on the red-tiled roof, we found vintage neon artisan Paul Greenstein putting the finishing touches on the glass tubes that will illuminate the second, newly restored Hotel Californian sign. The metal cans are smooth and clean now, and painted a brilliant California orange with cream that had been revealed as the original colors, visible in flakes beneath layers of rust and paint. (“Creamsicle!” Paul laughed.) As the neon crew posed for photos, then packed up from a job well done, the master’s doggy sidekick Harpo enjoyed the cool breeze off the lake in MacArthur Park.

After 21 years in the exile, the Hotel Californian sign again rises proudly above the city: behold! (She’s not yet lit, but watch this space, and we’ll let you know when you can see her glow.)

Update: Here’s video of the speakers at the relighting ceremony on March 9, 2017.

Hotel Californian


East Saint Louis, post-industrial ghost town

Most Saturdays, we host a few dozen “gentle riders” on the Esotouric tour bus, revealing the lost lore of Los Angeles through visits to landmarks both notable and obscure. Because most of our passengers are Southland locals, we don’t offer tours during the busy Christmas season, which gives us the opportunity to play tourist ourselves. Mid-December found us on a breakneck architecture-rich road trip along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Join us, do, for a virtual journey (map) from St. Louis to Louisville ahead of the brutal December storms.

Our stop to explore the desolate husk of the Armour Meat Packing plant was an unplanned detour en route to the unfortunate city of East Saint Louis, IL.

The once-thriving metropolis has suffered a sixty year decline marked by departing industry (including Armour), divisive roadway construction, declining tax revenue, unchecked conflagrations, soaring crime rates, polluted land and other indignities large and small.

And yet there is some hope for a revival. In 2014, the downtown business district was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and it was this time capsule neighborhood that we’d come to see.

Have you ever wandered the backlot of a motion picture studio? That was our experience exploring the newly-landmarked section of East Saint Louis. The buildings were tall and handsome, but almost all locked up tight. We could stand out in the middle of the street taking pictures of the historically contributing structures, some with trees growing out of cracks in their facades.


It was eerie, and frankly a relief to pack up and hit the road.

Leaving town, we came across one of the strangest structures we’ve ever seen: a jazzy mid-century gas station and mini-mart, with a rustic stone beer garden attached. It, too, was long abandoned, but man, it looked like it had seen some wild times.

Just across the river from bustling Saint Louis, on a fine sunny winter day, East Saint Louis is still waiting for someone to take a chance. We hope the National Register designation will bring new ideas and new life to this sad place. It will have to happen soon: there are tax credits available, but they expire this year.

Isn’t it lovely, though?

For more of East Saint Louis, see Richard’s photos here.

“Hang on a minute–I think that’s a real Von Dutch!”

We were nearly ready to head back to Los Angeles, after a full day exploring Helena Modjeska’s country house and other interesting Orange County canyon sites, when Richard suggested we pay a visit to historic Cook’s Corner.

There’s been a building on this site at the mouth of Trabuco Canyon since the boom days of the 1880s; it became a restaurant in 1926, and eased over the line to tavern when Prohibition ended. In the 1970s, the establishment was purchased by the chopper-crafting owners of Cheat’ah Engineering and became a social club for the motorcycling community.

When we stopped in on a weekday afternoon, we found a mix of bikers and families enjoying the sunny patio. Inside, one burly gent was intently watching Ellen on the big screen TV, as Bobbie Gentry crooned from the CD jukebox. Signed firefighters’ jerseys covered the ceiling, relics from the 2007 Santiago Fire, and a cement stage the width of the room looked like it had seen a lot of good use.

The bartender was friendly, and nobody gave us the fish eye. Richard said it had mellowed a lot since he’d stopped in a decade ago on his way to the Vedanta ashram down the road, so that his companion, a Hindu woman dressed in a bright sari, could use the ladies room.

On the way into the bar, across a wooden bridge, I’d taken note of a primitive Ed Roth-style painting of a surfing rat next to a script sign reading Bridge Rats. As Richard battened down the hatches and topped up our tea cups, I looked around for more art.

Well, if had teeth, it would have bit me. Because right there by the bar room door was an enormous freestanding ATM machine, a bit weatherworn and paint-spattered, but rather beautifully pin-striped with loops and swirls and one elegant, bloodshot flying eyeball. And as I leaned in to admire the crucifix in the iris, I saw the wee inscription, and gasped.


I’ll leave it to the gearheads and kustom kulture mavens to determine if this is really is a late work by Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard (1929-1992), the king of the pin-stripers, or a posthumous tribute by a skilled fan. But it sure was a kick to roll out of Trabuco Canyon buzzing with the possibility.

Have a look: what do you think? (For Richard’s photos inside the bar, click here.)

JK’s Tunnel: An Unknown Hobo Folk Art Environment on the L.A. River

When our friend Susan Phillips–the graffiti scholar who recently took us to the Confluence of the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco to see century-old hobo inscriptions–told us about a riverside tunnel that had been elaborately carved by one anonymous artist around 1940, we were eager to see it.

JK's Tunnel entrance

Today, we were able to satisfy our curiosity about the obscure site that Susan calls “JK’s Tunnel” while helping to document this extraordinary and hard-to-reach place.

Joining us was Craig Sauer, a photographer who uses Matterport 3D Showcase technology to create virtual tours of physical spaces. Most of his work is commercial (real estate), but he has a passion for offbeat historical spaces and reached out asking if we could help him gain access to someplace special. As it happened, we had just the site in mind.

Craig Sauer prepares to scan JK's Tunnel

Craig Sauer gives the thumbs up

After we determined that the level of light inside JK’s Tunnel would be low enough for details to be captured, we made the date. And this morning found our eager crew tramping through the high grass and down a little wash to explore the womb-like space where the mysterious JK carved his intriguing explosions of word salad.

JK's Tunnel 4 Leaf Klover

Probably using a railroad spike as a chisel, the artist painstakingly carved important words and phrases into the smooth concrete vault of the tunnel. He lists American cities and years and the names of guns. He writes LANA TURNER and STAY OUT OF JAIL. He writes MEXICO AND REBEL LAND.


JK's Tunnel: WW2 Word Salad

Whoosh–can’t you just see it rushing by JK’s safe little tunnel home?

Who was this artist? On these walls, he calls himself John Kristian, Johnny K, Johnson Kraft, Johnny Kake, Journeyman Kavalier, John Kook and plain old JK. We don’t know his real name or when he was born or died, and maybe we never will.

We just know that sometime around 1940, he came to this quiet place by the river and took all the time he needed to capture the voices in his head on the smooth tunnel walls. And standing there inside JK’s Tunnel, with the trains and the river passing by, despite all the years and layers of paint from graffiti artists who came after, he spoke to us. Now through Craig’s wonderful 3-D rendering, he can speak to you, too.


The Death of the Old Long Beach Courthouse (1960-2016)

Today we bid farewell to the old Long Beach Courthouse, designed by Kenneth S. Wing and Francis J. Heusel, 1960, demolished March 2016. Demolition of Old Long Beach Courthouse, March 2016 photo by Louise Ivers P1010896

These photos taken earlier this week are by architectural historian Dr. Louise Ivers of Long Beach Heritage, a great voice in the campaign to save and adaptively reuse the building. The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Docomomo SoCal (pdf link) and the Los Angeles Conservancy were also on the case.

Demolition of Old Long Beach Courthouse, March 2016 photo by Louise Ivers  P1010900

Demolition of Old Long Beach Courthouse, March 2016 photo by Louise Ivers P1010906

Long Beach Press-Telegram article from 2013 includes many of the reasons the city gave for wanting to knock down all the buildings in its neglected mid-century Civic Center.

Why has Long Beach been in such a rush to demolish everything and not consider adaptive reuse options? Perhaps because the city is dead set on handing a clean slate of cleared public land over to a private developer.

Thank you, Dr. Ivers, for bearing witness to this week’s ugly end to a good building. This is the hardest part of a preservationist’s work. May the pain of loss give strength for your next battle. Onward!

In Search Of… 1914 Hobo Inscriptions in the LA River

If you read our most recent newsletter, you know how excited we are to have learned that some 102-year-old hobo graffiti survives on the undersides of bridges in the L.A. River.

Today, we descended into the concrete channel with historian Susan Phillips to see some of her favorite pieces and seek out new discoveries of our own. (And yes–we actually found something–but you’ll just have to get on the next Eastside Babylon crime but tour to hear about it!)

Won’t you tag along on our journey into the strange, peaceful and historic riverbed?

Oak Grove Cemetery Mausoleum, St. Louis

Oak Grove is a private cemetery opened in 1922, and owned and managed by Marilyn Stanza, who married into the founding family. Cemeteries without large perpetual care endowments can become difficult to maintain with time, and in recent years there have been complaints surrounding the condition of the park grounds and Mausoleum. There has been water damage to the structure, and metal items, including rain gutters and sculptures, have been stolen for scrap value.

Mrs. Stanza has recently initiated a major restoration of the lion-flanked Byzantine Mausoleum (Tom P. Barnett and Sidney Lovell, 1928 with later additions), beginning with the gilded dome, which was inspired by the Pantheon in Paris. She was kind enough to permit us to visit this exquisite structure, and to share stories of the cemetery and St. Louis community.

Our tour of Oak Grove Mausoleum reminds us of the enormous challenges that face small organizations and individuals entrusted with the care of aging landmark properties. We hope that the good restoration work begun by Mrs. Stanza will continue and that Oak Grove will once again become famous for its beauty and restful charm.

See photos from our visit to Bellefontaine Cemetery here.

See more scenes from our anniversary trip through Missouri and Illinois here.