The Baltimore Hotel, Empty No More

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The Baltimore Hotel opened in 1910 with all good intentions, a first-class reinforced concrete, fireproof structure just across Fifth Street from John Parkinson’s handsome 1906 King Edward Hotel.

The owner-builder was T. Ashton Fry, and the architect Arthur Roland Kelly, whose later commissions include the William S. Hart estate and the Arthur Letts, Jr. estate (better known as the Playboy Mansion).

There were 215 rooms and apartments, and the style was said to be Spanish Colonial (we don’t see it). Today there are 202 rooms, but only 76 residents, which is a troubling statistic for a building that is legally bound to operate as low-income housing for decades to come. But as at the King Edward, tenancy declined precipitously since it was purchased out of bankruptcy in 2012. Neighborhood reporter JD Kelly (Universal Network News) documented the hotel’s habitability crisis, but the city just let it slide.

But that was then.

The Baltimore, like its neighbor King Edward and Charles Bukowski’s beloved Madison deeper East in Skid Row, has now been purchased by the Healthy Housing Foundation of AIDS Healthcare, and will soon be filled with formerly homeless and chronically ill Angelenos in need of a place to call home. In addition to housing people, and restoring decaying historic elements of these landmark buildings, HHF is trying to make a point: adaptive reuse of SRO hotel facilities is much cheaper and faster than building new ground up housing, and should be part of L.A. city’s and county’s policy for dealing with the homeless crisis. As preservationists who care about our homeless neighbors and fiscal responsibility, we think it’s an idea worth talking about.

To celebrate the purchase, The Baltimore will be open for tours today from 10:30am-12:30pm.

Here’s just a taste of her fascinating 108-year history:

When she opened, Angelenos called her the “New” Baltimore, to distinguish from the hotel’s original location at 7th & Olive. That was such a prime piece of downtown real estate that in 1907, the Los Angeles Athletic Club bought the turreted 1896 hotel for $450,000 with the intention of demolishing it; its new, million dollar clubhouse was erected on the site in 1912, and still stands.

The New Baltimore, a more modest establishment than the original, was completed by fall 1910. Among the first guests to check in was a union fellow from back east, just stopping briefly in Los Angeles to place a dynamite bomb against a wall of General Otis’ open shop Los Angeles Times. 21 people died. (Yes, we have a bus tour about it.)

And the Baltimore, which in its old digs had regularly featured in the society pages as a site for banquets and social shindigs, seems to have adopted a deliberately low profile, perhaps reasoning no press was better than “visit the New Baltimore, favorite stop of terrorist bombers.”

Civil War Musicians in a Memorial Day parade, Los Angeles Street, between 5th & 6th Streets, looking north, Los Angeles, ca.1915 (USC, California Historical Society Collection)

Upon completion, T. Ashton Fry had leased the hotel out to operators C.W. and E.E. Hatch. This arrangement immediately went south. In May 1911, Fry sued the Hatches in superior court for $8587 in unpaid rent, and $5000 in damages. In addition to stiffing Fry on rent, the Hatches had permitted contractor J.H. Proper (aka The Human Mole) to illegally excavate a west-leading tunnel beneath Werdin Alley, through which sewer, hot water and steam pipes were run between the Baltimore and the Conda and Renne hotels on South Main Street. Proper’s network of Downtown service tunnels, all dug in violation of city law, came to light when one connecting the Alexandria Hotel and Chester Williams Building caused a cave-in of Fifth Street.

 

Later managers avoided such controversy. But the world was changing fast, and the solid Beaux Arts travelers lodgings of 1910, with modest lobbies and simple accommodations, couldn’t compete for the travelers’ dollar with air conditioned, modern hotels, with their cocktail lounges, swimming pools and marketing budgets.

The hotel’s ads, when they bothered to run them, spotlighted the good food in the trendy, cafeteria-style dining room. Patrons liked visually confirming that their meals would be agreeable, and saving money on tips; these show-me lunchrooms became so popular that one wag nicknamed Los Angeles “Sunny Cafeteria.” But a good cafeteria wasn’t enough to bring in the tourist trade.

Downtown’s energies migrated westward. Fifth Street had once been the way into town for visitors arriving at the various train depots near the river, and grand East-facing rooftop and wall signs welcomed them. But when arrivals were consolidated at Union Station, The Nickel lost its luster.

In time, The Baltimore became a residency hotel, offering rooms by the week, weeks turning into years. And when the Rolling Stones made Los Angeles their base for portions of their 1970 American tour, Robert Frank brought them down to pre-redevelopment Skid Row to shoot some promotional film for the Exile on Main Street project (yes, it’s L.A.’s Main Street!) in which the Baltimore’s awning has a brief cameo above Charlie Watts’ shoulder.

Over on Main Street itself, a little logo inspiration was found at a dirty picture house.

But back to Baltimore and its 108 years at the center of the action. A spin through the newspaper archives reveals a house of sorrows and occasional flashes of mirth.

Christmas week, 1911: as oil driller Frank Miller attempts to slash the throat of his common law wife Josephine Swift on the sidewalk in front of the Baltimore—her teenage daughter wrestled the razor away—Marie Pinson, aged 18, is discovered semi-conscious and despondent in a 3rd floor restroom. She tells manager E. H. Hess that she’d run away from her home in Los Angeles intending to join a motion picture company, but had lost her $100 stake and couldn’t find work. Happily, Miss Pinson was only drunk and not poisoned.

July 1914: the hotel is the site of a weird, locked door mystery. Elwood Beaver, a Philadelphia railroad man on a cross-country tourist jaunt, checked in on a Sunday afternoon. He went to his room and was not seen again. The chambermaid knocked daily, but got no response. On Tuesday afternoon, concerned hotel staff broke his door down and discovered Beaver gasping on the floor, near death. The room was spattered with blood, and Beaver’s skull and arm were fractured. It would be reasonable to presume the visitor had been attacked, but nobody had heard a fight, and the room still contained Beaver’s cash, watch and other effects. After the dying man was carried away, detectives examined the scene and determined that Beaver had suffered a violent attack of tuberculosis, spraying blood and injuring himself while trying, in vain, to call for help.

September 1916: suffering from depression relating to the impact of the Great War on his numerous international investments, Canadian real estate and mine owner J. Anson Wheeler, 54, slipped away from his bride Isabelle in their apartment in the Bryson overlooking Westlake Park and spent nine days brooding in a room at the Baltimore. Then he checked out, for good. Detectives hired by Mrs. Wheeler conveyed the grim news that when Wheeler had shot himself in his hotel room, he had in his hand her newspaper photograph announcing their recent wedding, on which he had written “Darling wife, please forgive me.” He was buried at Monrovia, with the first Mrs. Wheeler.

July 1916: Miss Christine Buist, until recently Mrs. Dr. Horace Pierce of Santa Barbara, doggedly worked the Baltimore’s serpentine telephone exchange. She was the daughter of a millionaire, and her former husband’s people were rich, too. But her pride was such that she needed to earn her fare back home to New Jersey, and so had refused alimony from her estranged spouse and would not ask her family for help. The lady’s public complaints must have been particularly humiliating for the Pierce family; having failed to secure $100,000 in an alienation of affection suit against them, perhaps that was payment enough.

August 1922: When she checked in under a pseudonym to rest up from an exhausting day, she was a nobody. But soon Clara Phillips was the notorious Tiger Woman, on the lam after crushing the skull of her husband’s mistress with a hammer. That no-account husband parked Clara “Jackson” at the Baltimore while scheming how to get her out of town, and his hair. When asked later about her stay, Clara claimed to have suffered absolute amnesia from the moment of the murder—which she blamed on her pal Peggy Caffee—to when she woke up in her room. There’s another marketing line never used: “The Baltimore Hotel: You’ll Sleep Like A Baby, No Matter What You’ve Done.”

Let’s leave the Baltimore’s back pages with a sweeter sort of tale. In 1971 and again in 1972, the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith wrote about his friends Bill and Maggi Bender, the hotel’s managers who lived on the 6th floor with their pet iguana, Heathcliff. The Benders “prefer an iguana to a dog because an iguana requires more imagination, which is why they prefer old radio to contemporary television.” The couple, young actors who loved their colorful neighborhood, were hardcore collectors of old time radio air check tapes, and welcomed friends like Smith to sit for hours in the heart of Skid Row, eyes closed and listening to golden age recordings of Jack Benny, The Green Hornet, Lum n’ Aber, Fred Allen and scores more.

The Benders were special people, as Smith observed. Where business interests saw a slum worth wrecking filled with dirty, useless people, the Benders saw a great place to call home, packed with interesting architecture and colorful characters, like Porno Bill who ran the bookstore and Frank the hallelujah man. And Dodger Stadium and the Music Center were each only 12 minutes away (“we saw ‘Man of La Mancha four times!'”).

Time has a way of flickering in and out of focus at the corner of Fifth and Los Angeles Streets, and bringing interesting people into port. Why not come by some time and see what the Baltimore has in store for you? Here are some of the gems you might see.

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.

Whither the Peabody-Werden House?

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

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

Across 1st Street, a victim of the flames

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

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

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

 

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.

*      *      *

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

Will an illuminated Marciano Art Foundation sign be allowed on Millard Sheets’ Masonic Temple?

File under: when a “landmark” isn’t actually landmarked, property owners can make some pretty big changes.

Last month, we blogged about the newly opened Marciano Art Foundation, which has radically transformed the interior of Millard Sheets’ Scottish Rite Temple on Wilshire Boulevard.

Because the building was never made a protected Historic-Cultural Monument, there were essentially no restrictions on the changes that could be made to the building. But with the exception of some regrettably removed decorative lettering on the west facade, the magnificent exterior is largely as Sheets intended it.

Maybe not for long, though. This morning, our pal Joseph Hilliard spotted a notice of public hearing taped to the base of one of the huge braziers on the Wilshire side: the Marcianos are seeking approval to install a 16 square foot illuminated sign on Wilshire, as well as a 1.5 square foot unlit sign on Lucerne.

According to the posted notice, the matter was discussed yesterday afternoon at a meeting of the Los Angeles Planning Department, and it’s unclear if any decisions were made there. If you’re interested in the architectural integrity of Millard Sheets’ great temple, keep an eye on DIR-2017-2270-DRB in the city’s workflow. And if you’ve been meaning to photograph the grand old pile, get cracking.

A LAVA tour of Downtown L.A.’s Subway Terminal and Tunnel

 

 

Subway Terminal tunnel on LAVA tour June 2017 by Kemal Cilengir

                                                                                                                                       photo by Kemal Cilengir

Yesterday’s free (with RSVP) LAVA Sunday Salon and walking tour focused on the holy grail of Los Angeles mass transit history: the sealed-off streetcar station and tunnel located beneath the Subway Terminal Building.

How eager are Angelenos to see this storied space? The waiting list was a thousand names long! For those who couldn’t join us on this time travel trip, below you’ll find some photos to tell this complex and fascinating tale.

We began our LAVA Sunday Salon program in the basement of Grand Central Market where downtown historian Nathan Marsak (nice tie!) let us know what to look for in the Subway Terminal, and our own Richard Schave explained how the Bonaventure Hotel footings severed the tunnel in 1976. Plus, Bunker Hill native son Gordon Pattison previewed his July 30 Sunday Salon talk about his lost Victorian neighborhood and the short-lived Second Street Cable Car Rail Road.

Then, after strapping on headlamps and double-knotting boots, our well-prepared and somewhat giddy group made the short walk down Hill Street to the Subway Terminal Building for a rare tour of the historic passenger concourse, train platform, offices and yes, that remarkable decommissioned tunnel, complete with a growing collection of stalactites and stalagmites! We’re grateful to our gracious hosts at Metro 417 for welcoming us into the Los Angeles landmark beneath their apartment tower.

Will there be another Subway tunnel tour? Only time, and the LAVA newsletter, will tell.

Happy, dusty explorers emerge into the light – Photo: J. Scott Smith – see more

Searching for Millard Sheets’ genius and Masonic relics at the Marciano Art Foundation

For as long as we can remember, the mysterious, windowless lodge building has stood on its prominent Wilshire site, an hermetic, masculine balance to the social, feminine Ebell Club just across the boulevard.

scottish rite exteriorDesigned by Southern California symbolist extraordinaire Millard Sheets, he of the Home Savings mosaic murals that sold the regional lifestyle to passing motorists and prudent savers, the Scottish Rite Temple (1961) is Southern California’s last great Masonic hall, a Gesamtkunstwerk from its exterior mosaics, instructional texts, high relief figural sculptures and giant unlit braziers to the unknown mysteries within.
scottish rite brazierSadly, it is also a block-long grave marker for a once-thriving fraternal organization that failed to inspire new generations of free thinkers. Rites ceased in 1993, and litigious neighbors and insufficient parking made it unsuitable as a secular event space.

Enter the Marciano brothers, designer jeans moguls, contemporary art collectors, seekers of vast amounts of square footage in the heart of Los Angeles. They picked the white elephant up for $8 Million to become what was initially presented as a private museum.

Flash forward several years, and that private museum is now open to the public, with timed, free ticketed entry Thursday-Saturday.

Which is how we found ourselves at long last stepping into Millard Sheets’ most mysterious commission, intent on seeking out elements of the design that have survived architect Kulapat Yantrasast’s transformation of the Temple and its dedicated theater, dining room, library and myriad club rooms into spaces suited for showing big, new and site-specific artwork.

It was immediately obvious, gazing up at the west facade, that the building has been stripped of much of its Masonic context. The ghosts of a lost gold metal text on the theme of Faith, Hope and Charity were visible between symbols of the Mason’s craft. (Google streetview captured the lost text nicely in 2009.)

scottish rite lost textOne of the gracious attendants explained that Millard Sheets’ son Tony had come and removed the golden letters, as well as a number of interior mosaics, and that they were now held in the artist’s archive. But we could see one large Sheets mosaic inside and another on the eastern exterior wall.

That east facade is Sheets’ largest mosaic commission, a history of Masonry from the ancient world to gold rush Sacramento.

scottish rite history mosaic 1

scottish rite history mosaic 2

Here we go, then, on a preservation-minded photo tour of L.A.’s newest contemporary art space, featuring reclaimed Masonic theatrical backdrops, high art water fountains and a forest of hidden creatures. Behold!

Over the first gallery hover two huge celestial lamps, their symbolism obscure.

scottish rite mezzanine lamps

scottish rite lamp detail

Step to the right, behind a half wall, to see the handsome Wilshire Boulevard entry, decommissioned due to security concerns.

scottish rite wilshire entryStripes of pebbly gold tiles stand out against the gorgeous stone walls

Just past the lobby, a carpet of jewel-toned terrazzo flanks a bay of be-compassed elevators.  masonic rite elevator bay

scottish rite elevator doorPeel an eye for those artful water fountains, both gilded and tiled, but none of them working.
scottish rite gilded fountain
scottish rite tile fountainThe vast first floor once contained the 1800-seat theater, where 33rd Degree Freemasons gathered to watch their esoteric history represented through elaborate theatrical productions. As befit the grandest lodge in the world’s motion picture capitol, the Wilshire Boulevard Masons didn’t skimp on stagecraft, make up or costuming.

It’s an odd thing, but when the Masons sold the building, they didn’t deliver it vacant. The new owners discovered a great quantity of abandoned stuff, some of it even older than the building, all of it odd. These bits and pieces have been retained and some of them displayed, in various states of integrity.

The inaugural temporary exhibition in the now-gutted theater is a multimedia installation by Jim Shaw, who made his name as a curator of thrift store paintings. Here, he presents a number of enormous theatrical backdrops hung at angles, their already cryptic significance amped up with the addition of iconic cartoonish characters and a dramatic light display.

Enter the International House of Pain and to your left, on an enormous panel, damned souls writhe in a hell of their own making.

scottish rite house of pain

scottish rite hellscapeThis spectacular vintage piece is left unaltered, and if one stands in just the right spot, the viewer’s shadow appears like the Spectre of the Brocken to menace the writhing forms.

scottish rite brocken

In the center of the space, a super-colossal George Washington vacuums up flattened fellows through a vintage Hoover attachment emerging from his loins.

scottish rite georgeLook out for the scenic artists’ stamps and signatures.

Esoteric genealogists on the internet enjoy speculating that Barbara Bush might be the secret daughter of occultist Aleister Crowley, and these two colorful characters appear in an intimate shadow play behind an abandoned mini mall.
scottish rite bush and crowleyAt right, in a tidy glass storefront space, vintage Masonic character hairpieces are displayed alongside weird rugs imagined by the artist.

scottish rite wig museum

It’s up to you to figure out which are new and which Masonic. (Hint: look for the dust of decades.)
scottish rite wig museum explosionIt’s here that contemporary art makes its strongest comment on the historic space: through the museum window is a painting of a stylish mid-century couple pausing with their baby’s carriage in front of a jewelry store window. The invisible child is of the generation that abandoned Masonry and its philosophical pursuits, and civic dedication to building up Los Angeles, dooming the Scottish Rite Temple to irrelevance.

The scene changed as a spotlight came on somewhere behind, casting the ominous shadow of a shopping cart, eternal symbol of consumerism and of L.A.’s 40,000+ homeless souls, onto the scrying glass shop window. Fate is a mother.

scottish rite shopping cart

But the clock was ticking (visitors are only allowed two hours in the parking lot) and we knew there was one large-scale Millard Sheets mosaic somewhere in the building. We were determined to find it, and eventually we did. At the very back of the upstairs gallery, in a gutted white room filled with big paintings and sculptures, a false wall hides a forest scene set in a stunning expanse of black glass tesserae.

scottish rite sheets tesserae

Step behind the wall and crane your neck. In spite of the ill-placed track lighting and awkward space, this beautiful, rhythmic piece with its lively animals is well worth seeking out.

scottish rite richard looks at sheets

scottish rite sheets gold trees
sheets racoons detail

The historically minded will also want to seek out the small exhibition gallery on the mezzanine. Here are relics of this lodge, and artifacts of older Los Angeles lodges, with a focus on theatrics and publications. We suspect these are leftovers from the short-lived Masonic museum of the early ‘oughts. The collection would benefit from more informed interpretation: one of the scant labels incorrectly states that the original Masonic Hall on the Plaza downtown has been demolished.

Artifacts include a theatrical maquette which could benefit from a little attention from the restorer.
scottish rite maquetteA gilded mosaic globe post, obviously from the Sheets studio.

scottish rite globeA set of racially insensitive figural busts.

scottish rite bustsJust a few of those that originally offered inspiration for theatrical character transformations.
scottish rite backstageNovel head gear and character sheets.
scottish rite hats

scottish rite turbans Striking costumes.


A banner from the oldest Los Angeles temple (still standing, darn it!).
scottish rite plaza banner

And when the sun is just right, the stained glass surrounding the reversed, double-headed eagle, one of the original building’s few sources of exterior light, is just lovely.

scottish rite eagle window scottish rite eagle window detail
Less appealing to preservation-minded visitors is the multi-screen video installation “Ledge” by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can duck beneath a cramped awning to watch helium-voiced characters on a mock ghost hunt run amok inside the original building, before the historic spaces were gutted and the artifacts offered to artists who the Marcianos collect. While we wanted to see the lost space, we could only take a couple of minutes of the intentionally irritating show.

But that’s not all! An unexpected Millard Sheets discovery awaited us in the bookshop: an expressionistic forest mural, only partially obscured by stock displays. (It would be great if some kind of guard were installed here to protect the paint from abrasion.)

scottish rite bookstore mural scottish rite bookstore mural signature
Confident that we’d found all the relics and artifacts on view, we made our way out into the blinding Los Angeles sun, puzzling over the tough experience of finally getting inside a fascinating landmark, and finding nothing there.

Because the Scottish Rite Temple that Millard Sheets, a layman and a genius, created for the Freemasons of our city no longer exists. The walls still stand, with a few of the integrated artworks designed to illuminate the teachings of the masonic craft, but all context has been carved away.

The temple, small t, is now a shell that contains the experiences and aspirations of the new Los Angeles. It represents some positive things: the patronage by the wealthy of working artists and a social space whose usefulness is yet to be revealed.

But it is also a promise broken, as cryptic objects once the subject of deep study and revelation are openly displayed for the uninitiated. It is the masons (small m) who failed their temple. Now it’s up to the new Los Angeles to make something good of what’s still here.