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.

IMG_20151216_145205

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.

VON DUTCH.

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.

And up on the ceiling he carves an urgent litany evoking wartime mass movement: TRUCKS AUTOS MAIL SHIPS PAINTINGS AIRPLANES ARMNENTS MUNITIONS FACTORIES JOBS POSTAGE MILLS BOTTLES KLOTHING SHELTER.

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.