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.

A Virtual Tour of the Barclay Hotel: Grand Lobby to Hidden Tunnels

Richard Schave outside Barclay HotelOne of our favorite Los Angeles buildings is the Barclay Hotel (originally the Van Nuys), a Beaux Arts gem constructed in 1896 on the northwest corner of 4th and Main Streets by pioneering architects Morgan and Walls.

We love the hotel because it’s beautiful, but also because it holds so many layers of history, real and fictional. We visit the lobby on our Raymond Chandler tours, for it’s upstairs in room 332 that detective Philip Marlowe finds the man in the toupée with an icepick in his neck, a pivotal plot point in The Little Sister. We also stop on our Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tours, to share the true life tales of a deranged 19th century millionaire who turned mean drunk in the hotel bar, and of two serial killers who worked their evil in rooms above.

It is our great pleasure to share with a wider audience the Barclay Hotel’s magnificent double-height lobby through the virtual magic and Matterport technology of 3-D photographer Craig Sauer’s lens. You’ll marvel at the ornate plasterwork, the stained glass, the monumental clerk’s cage and the vast sea of tile that distinguish Historic-Cultural Monument #288.

Barclay Hotel basement stairsBut thanks to the generosity of Victor Vasquez—whose family has owned the hotel for decades and was responsible for its landmarking—we can also take you deeper, where we’ve never been able to take tour guests, down marble stairs into the labyrinthian basement, with its tiled passages, sliding wooden doors of the historic stables, lockers decorated by long-dead workers, spiral stairs to nowhere and handsome nooks and arches. It is a true Los Angeles time capsule, a functional environment that has barely changed in 120 years.

As you explore the basement level, you may find your way into that most rare and beguiling bit of lost Los Angeles: an unrestricted L-shaped section of the hidden service tunnels beneath the sidewalk that once criss-crossed Downtown. We can’t tell you if the Barclay’s tunnels were used during Prohibition to move illicit substances, but we did find whole walls covered in mysterious penciled numbers that suggest some informal commerce was practiced here. Sniff around and see if the Barclay’s secrets reveal themselves to you.

If you enjoy Craig’s scans of the Barclay, we also recommend our previous collaborations: The Dutch Chocolate Shop and JK’s Tunnel. What will be the next hidden Los Angeles landmark to get the 3-D treatment? Stay tuned!

An Esotouric Road Trip: Ruins of the Armour Meat Packing Plant (National City, Illinois)

Armour Meat Packing Plant

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 saw the chimneys from the highway, twin brick columns rising above the old Armour Meat Packing Plant, once the nation’s most efficient killing machine. We didn’t know then what it was, only that we wanted to get closer. The chimneys made it easy, as we left the interstate and wound down the quiet rural road leading to the ruin.

There were some men parked there, near the old factory. As one told Kim how sad he was that this fine old hulk would soon be demolished for a new road, another was instructing Richard on how to navigate the weedy paths and safely access the factory floor. “Stick to the first room,” he said, “There are hazards past the threshold.”

Later, we read that National City, Illinois was a company town, born in 1907 as a city of death. Here was erected a grand factory that turned the squealing creatures of the stockyards into bacon, leather, tallow and beef, these products ferried neatly away by rail. The factory was a source of wealth for the adjacent city of East Saint Louis and a morbid tourist attraction. But when the killing stopped, in 1959, it was East Saint Louis that died.

The empty factory, so soundly constructed, stood tall through cold winters and humid summers. Thieves took what they could carry and vandals broke windows, and the trees grew thick up to the walls. As of a few months ago, the old Armour Meat Packing Plant was still there, a proud and terrible relic of the hungry, inventive America that was.

Stepping into its cold hulk on that freezing day, we felt the weight of time and of inconceivable suffering. This cathedral of commerce demanded respect, even in its ruined state. It didn’t seem right that it shouldn’t stand as long as time and nature allowed. When we gazed up through the open ceiling at those towering chimneys, the sky was very blue, then black with crows, then blue again.

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.


An Esotouric Day Trip to Helena Modjeska’s Canyon Retreat

On a cool, spring day we left Los Angeles early, bound for the Orange County canyon home of Helena Modjeska, the great 19th century Polish actress who learned English in mid-life and tirelessly toured America, bringing culture and emotional honesty to the people.

Our journey felt a bit like time travel, as the busy freeway traffic thinned and gave way to rolling hills covered with grass. Then up a narrow canyon, past olive groves and giggling turkeys running free, we found Arden, the house and garden where Modjeska went to recharge her soul after giving everything to her audiences. Today it is a National Register landmark with a devoted interpretive docent staff. We were the only people on the tour, and our guide Jan graciously shared the secrets of the house and indulged our many questions.

We hope you enjoy Kim’s photos from Mme. Modjeska’s wonderful house, a rare example of Stanford White’s architecture in California. You can see Richard’s photos of the grounds here. To plan your own visit, visit the OC Parks website. Recommended reading: Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America.

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!

Help Save The Bob Baker Marionette Theater

bob baker clown save me

The Bob Baker Marionette Theater needs your help! Click here to send an email of support.

THE STORY: A developer wants to build a big apartment building on the site of this historic landmark. We believe that there can be apartments, but also a working puppet theater on this site.

Please! Share this blog post and show your support for this gem of mid-century Los Angeles by visiting the Bob Baker website and sending an email to the Planning Department, asking that the theater be included in the approved redevelopment plan.

Here’s our Kim Cooper’s email to the Planning Department, with some points you may wish to echo:

Dear Planning Department,

I write to express my strong opinion that any redevelopment of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater site should include a functioning puppet theater.

It was only six years ago that City Council declared the theater an Historic-Cultural Monument (#958), an honor that is richly deserved for the decades of entertainment that Bob Baker and his crew have given to the families of Los Angeles.

It is my understanding that Bob Baker lost control of this property through a series of deceptive, if not outright fraudulent, transactions, and that the theater was sold at below market value. A reasonable profit can be made with a redevelopment project that allocates space for the puppet theater as a paying tenant, in addition to many residential units.

The retention of the puppet theater tenant will also serve the community by ensuring that this site retains its lively street life, instead of becoming a walled, residential garden, and through the continued training of puppeteers, many of them local youths.

You can do the citizens of Los Angeles a great service by insisting that the developer make room for a functioning Bob Baker Marionette Theater in the development that seeks to demolish this world renowned landmark.

Thank you for your consideration.

best regards,
Kim Cooper, Historian
Los Angeles

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.

Exploring Rancho Camulos, the Home of Ramona

Long on our list of iconic Southern California sites to see was Rancho Camulos, the Spanish land grant rancho in the Santa Clara River Valley near Piru that inspired Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel of old Californio life, Ramona (1884).

On Sunday, we had a chance to explore the grounds and structures of this National Register landmark, now both a museum and a working citrus ranch still dealing with the ravages of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. It is a most picturesque place, containing many layers of California history, artifice and mystery.

We hope you enjoy our photos from this captivating place. Kim’s are in the slideshow below, and Richard’s can be found on Flickr. If planning a visit, see the museum website. Recommended reading: Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California.

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