Twelve years ago this week, Alicia Bay Laurel married us in the garden of the Velaslavasay Panorama with psychic cats, a cool jazz trio, eats by Papa Cristo’s, Ernst Haeckel sheet cakes, Scholium Project wine (thanks, Abe), and all our friends. It’s been a wild, sweet ride so far!
Being married to someone who shares your passions is a lot of fun, and our greatest shared passion is uncovering and preserving the history, culture and built environment of Los Angeles.
Anniversary gifts aren’t compulsory in our home, but over the years we’ve given each other a neat collection of L.A.-centric books, photos and artifacts. This 12th year (traditional: linen), the gift was more conceptual, and maybe the best one yet, because we get to share it with future generations, and with you.
A few years ago, we got to know the McKelvey family, the owners of the Bradbury Building from the 1940s through 1989. Their loving stewardship helped preserve this 19th century landmark against serious threats to its survival. It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time not very long ago that the Bradbury Building was considered too vulnerable to fire or earthquake to keep its occupancy permit. Through faith and hard work, minds were changed and the building saved. Every L.A. architecture lover should breathe a sigh of gratitude to the McKelveys.
While working in the Bradbury basement one day in 1986, Paul McKelvey stumbled across a collection of very old architectural renderings and blueprints. They were delicate and interesting, so he tucked them in a rainbow colored ski bag for safe-keeping, and ended up carting that bag from place to place for the past three decades. Could we see them, we asked? Sure!
And from a high shelf, covered in the dust of decades and tumbling out all over Paul’s work table, came a stunning collection of early Los Angeles landmarks: Doheny Mansion, Good Samaritan Hospital, the Old Soldier’s Home in Westwood, Bullocks Wilshire. And such storied names: John Parkinson, John C. Austin, A.C. Martin, Theo Eisen, Sumner Hunt.
We carefully unrolled a few of these time capsule documents of landmarks lost and still standing, marveling at the tiny, precise penmanship, the backstage details, the penciled additions suggesting a quick conference with the client.
Among the rolls was a single sheet we gasped to see: the Third Street facade of the Bradbury Building itself, a blueprint bearing the early construction date of 12/25/1891 and the name of that remarkable architectural neophyte whose design for the demanding silver magnate Bradbury continues to astonish. George Wyman built me, says the blueprint. (The newspapers of the time said the same, but a stubborn conspiracy theory claims the real architect was Sumner Hunt, and that Wyman was elevated in a mid-century prank by the science fiction crowd on architectural historian Esther McCoy. It’s nice to have more evidence to put that claim to rest the next time our pal Nathan Marsak, The Cranky Preservationist, taunts us with it.)
Naturally, we wondered what Paul planned to do with the collection. He didn’t really know. He’d removed the documents from the basement to protect them, had looked after them for 32 years, and felt the weight of the responsibility. He was open to handing these artifacts off, if the right home could be found. So we introduced him to Erin Chase, assistant curator of architecture and photography at the Huntington Library, and after expressing great interest in the collection—and observing that the Bradbury blueprint is the only known 19th century rendering of this beloved landmark—she explained how the Huntington would preserve the delicate plans, digitize them, contextualize them in a massive collection of related material and make them available for researchers, should he chose to make a gift.
After discussing the proposal with his family, Paul decided the Huntington was the right home for the Bradbury Building basement hoard. And that is how we found ourselves celebrating our anniversary by driving down to Laguna Beach to pick up the famous rainbow colored ski bag and its contents, and delivering the lot to Erin Chase at the Huntington the next morning.
We’re so pleased that we could play a part in ensuring these fascinating documents are preserved, and concluding their journey in the climate controlled aisles of the Huntington archive. If you’re a researcher who would like to consult them, keep an eye out for the finding aid once the collection has been fully accessioned.
But maybe there will be a chance to see part of the collection as soon as this fall, when the Huntington will host Erin Chase’s timely exhibition, Architects of a Golden Age: Highlights from The Huntington’s Southern California Architecture Collection. Will something from the ski bag make the cut? After the sheets are stabilized and given a deep cleaning, we sure hope so. You’ll just have to see the show to find out.
For now, we hope you enjoy this small selection of images from Paul McKelvey’s generous gift, a glimpse into a thrilling time in Los Angeles, when the town was small but filled with ambitious architects and businessmen yearning to make a mark, and some terrific buildings got made.