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.

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

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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.

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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.

A little bit of the Dutch Chocolate Shop goes on tour at Pasadena Museum of History’s “Batchelder: Tilemaker” exhibition

These are heady times for lovers of the Arts & Crafts movement, as the Pasadena Museum of History celebrates the gift of Dr. Bob Winter’s incomparable Ernest Batchelder collection with a fascinating and eclectic show on his influential Arroyo pottery. Batchelder: Tilemaker is on view through February 12, when we’ll be hosting a special bus tour of the master’s Downtown Los Angeles tile installations.

Included in the exhibition are magnificent fireplaces and miniature salesmen’s samples, bookplates and business cards, corbels and plaster casts (from a horde used to shore up a Los Feliz hillside for decades, then miraculously recognized and preserved), even a virtual reality headset which lets you explore donor “Bungalow Bob’s” Pasadena home and garden, formerly Batchelder’s.

Dutch Chocolate Shop mural

But the piece we’re most excited about is the one we had a little part in bringing to the museum: one of the “lost” tile murals from Downtown’s landmark Dutch Chocolate Shop, removed in the mid-1980s when a door was opened between the DCS and the contiguous Spring Arcade building. Geographically, we understand that it made sense to take this mural down. But with its prominent back wall placement, Batchelder ensured  it contained one of the most commission’s most charming scenes: a young couple in Dutch garb walking a handsome hound. Hidden from view for decades, the unrestored panel has a proud central spot in the new exhibition, and we hope you have a chance to see it.

When you visit, leave a time for the amusing show across the hall, Cast & Fired: Pasadena’s Mid-Century Ceramics Industry. If you’ve spent much time in antique malls or thrift shops, you’ll recognize the kitschy novelties that emerged by the thousands from Pasadena kilns: scrawny hillbillies, cartoony woodland creatures, exotic Asian figurines and stylized owls. It’s a small revelation to see the work of specific designers clustered together, along with select sketches and color studies. Look especially for the wee set of ceramic fascist figurines by Twin Winton and the Roselane flat cat.

An Esotouric Road Trip: Cupples House, Saint Louis

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.

We flew into Saint Louis, picked up a rental car and headed straight to the Samuel Cupples House on the campus of Saint Louis University, a magnificent red sandstone Richardsonian Romanesque merchant’s castle laden with leaded glass, carved wood and quirky antiques.

Cupples House facade

Now on the National Register, in the early 1970s the mansion’s interior was in rough shape from decades of heavy use as a student center and the exterior stonework stained black from soot. Demolition was planned when “Father Mac,” a natural preservationist who wouldn’t take no for an answer, announced his intention to save, restore and repurpose the place as an historical museum. And boy, did he ever!

 

The student docent at the front desk gave us a thick booklet explaining the decorative symbolism in each of the 42 rooms, then set us free to wander until the daylight faded. From a cosy red-flocked library with generous window seat…

Cupples Library fisheye

to elegant dining rooms, every surface polished to a high sheen…

Cupples House dining room

to charming fireplace surrounds, each one different than the one before…

Fireplace, Cupples House

to charming rafter rooms, pressed into service as wee art galleries….

Cupples House round arch

and briefly outside again, to admire the generous porch and its softening sandstone details ahead of the dusk…

Cupples House porch

And finally up to the highest point of the house, to gaze out over the ugly modern city through a charming metal frame. Could architect Thomas B. Annan have conceived of such a world when he constructed Mr. Cupples’ castle? Maybe only in his nightmares.

Cupples House view

Although the old world has great appeal, it was getting late, and we knew there were adventures to be had out there in the new. So we said goodbye to the house that Father Mac brought back from the brink of demoliton, and went out to find them.

See more photos from our exploration of the Cupples House here and here. And stay tuned for further adventures on the road.

The Garfield Building, a seldom-seen Art Deco treasure

los angeles elevator nudes

Detail, Garfield elevator clock

For many years, the only way to see any part of the interior of Claud Beelman’s magnificent Art Deco Garfield Building (1928-30), a National Register and Los Angeles landmark, was through a grubby glass door behind a metal grate.

Despite a million dollar restoration in the 1970s, the Garfield has long been locked up tight, only accessible to vandals and pigeons. But the revival of interest in Downtown architecture has finally stirred the landlords to place the property on the market. Over the summer, the ugly plastic panels come down off the upper first story, and we noticed some intriguing activity inside the lobby.

And when we saw that this door to paradise was open, we couldn’t resist taking a peek. Behold! All this can be yours! (And soon, we fervently hope, more freely accessible to the beauty seeking citizens of the world.)

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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.

George Ehling Mosaic House tour

High in the Hollywood Hills, the 1927 Spanish castle that top cinematographer Oliver Marsh built was in pretty shabby shape by 1967, when wrestler/actor/carpenter George Ehling picked it up. Instead of restoring, he transformed the place into something brand new. Over the years, and continuing to this day, George has coated almost every inch of the property with a mix of traditional and original mosaic patterns crafted from salvaged tiles he found in dumpsters — and a few prime specimens purchased on his world travels. These photos offer just a hint of the surprise and wonder of the Mosaic House.

Thanks to mosaic historian Lillian Sizemore for organizing this tour, and to George and Ivenia Ehling for welcoming us into their only-in-Hollywood home. Stay tuned on news about this wonderful folk art environment on its Facebook page George Ehling Mosaic House, and look for Lillian Sizemore’s article on the house in the next issue of Raw Vision Magazine.