Pickle Works Locked Up and Condemned to Die by Carlton Davis

This is a guest post by Carlton Davis, who was the proprietor of The Art Dock drive-in gallery in the historic Pickle Works building in Downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District in the 1980s. We interviewed Carlton about this extraordinary, endangered landmark in 2013 for Episode #18 of our podcast You Can’t Eat The Sunshine: Peeling Back The Layers of The Arts District. (Update: two weeks later, the Pickle Works burned in an arson fire. Carlton calls out the City and Metro for failing to secure the structure from trespassers whose presence was well known.)

What a tragedy that the City of Los Angeles is actively erasing the history and culture of the Arts District, a neighborhood that no longer supports working artists, while capitalizing on their reputation. God save the Pickle Works! The final decision on its fate will be made at the Regular Metro Board of Directors Meeting on Thursday, October 25.

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Art Dock and Doorways, Citizens Warehouse aka Pickle Works, Los Angeles, CA, August, 2018

Steel bars, angles, and heavy mesh imprison the Art Dock, all the ground floor openings, and doorways of the Citizens Warehouse. No trespassing signs declare violators will be prosecuted for parking on the street. The once vibrant artist residences and studios are vacant and have been since the city of Los Angeles purchased the building in 2000 for construction of the Gold Line light rail extension into East LA. A 60-foot section of the old warehouse next to the First Street Bridge was demolished for construction staging. The destruction was needless. In October 2018, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) eagerly awaits planning permission to demolish what remains of this 1880s brick warehouse with its hand-hewn redwood columns and beams, oak plank floors, and pickle vats in the basement. The Division 20 Environmental Impact Study (DEIR) declared it necessary. This is after MTA’s promises to preserve the building; after passionate historic preservationists’ and art community leaders’ requests that the Citizens Warehouse be saved.

The MTA lied for almost 18 years about its intentions. It made promises to save the building. Community pressure caused LA City’s engineering department to “restore” the south end of the building, which they had left as a plywood-covered eyesore, as a supposedly good faith effort to save the historic structure, which is one of the few, if not the only remaining, brick warehouses dating from the 19th Century, and a significant remnant of the flourishing art community in downtown Los Angeles from the late 1970s to 2000. The Potemkin Village reality that hid the true intentions of the city’s transportation planners is obvious from what was ultimately created on the south end of the structure. The wall was given a plaster veneer, and bolted to the wall were sheet metal images of windows with shutters flanking and flower boxes below included part of the imagery. The phony windows became curled and bent from the sun because of the shoddy method of their installation. The few bolts attaching the painted sheet metal resulted in a strange tableau of twisted metal like crushed pieces of chewing gum slapped to the façade. It is comical, but revealing.

The proclivity of Los Angeles development is to disregard the past as impeding process to the future. While mass transit is desperately needed in a city choked with traffic, it too often comes with the price of bulldozing the city’s existing context. This is nothing new. The fate of the Citizens Warehouse follows the honored stance of development over everything else. Now locked up inside steel bars the empty building seems haunted by the ghosts of wild spirits it once held. The warehouse/pickle works is condemned to death for being too full of creative energy. Once an important element of a burgeoning art community, the lost lofts become a metaphor for the lose of the art community in the Los Angeles Arts District. A neighborhood of rambunctious energy turns into a tame zone of cell phone-preoccupied and latte-sipping crowds of wannabes.

Designated the Arts District by the city, the area east of Alameda celebrated and declared Los Angeles’ rise to be a world class center of multi-faceted culture. More than just a cinema capital, LA matures into an art Mecca rivaling New York, London, and Paris. The Arts District, however, is no longer a realization of art’s importance in LA; it is a very profitable real estate venture. The district has become a developer’s dream. Cheaper land close to the government and business centers of the metropolis invited capital investment in new apartment buildings replacing the low density lofts. A few lofts remain, but the square foot cost rose from 12 cents paid in 1980 to an estimated 2 dollars or more currently. Artists can no longer afford to live in the Arts District. Many of the loft warehouses have morphed into restaurants and chic shops. Others warehouses have been demolished or soon will be. This is the fate of the Citizens Warehouse. The change is inevitable.

In New York City, what was once a viable loft scene, affordable live/work spaces have become the habitats of the rich. Soho has galleries and fancy restaurants, but not many working artists. Galleries pander to the acquisitive desires of the well-off who can afford the rents. Artists have dispersed into other boroughs and cities. In Los Angeles, artists scattered to other neighborhoods. The Arts District became attractive. Where there once few restaurants, the area has some pretty expensive eateries. Internationally renowned gallery Hauser & Wirth established itself on Third Street in the heart of the Arts District. It is the punctuation mark on the change that is and will become the icon of another reality about art zones. It’s all about money and who gets it. Except for a few, most artists don’t get the money, but many artists attract the money to where they were. Culture evolves from creativity to financial gain.

The Art Dock installations in the 1980s. Karen Kristin’s Wolf at the Door (above) and Drew Lesso’s and Neal Taylor’s Pile of Leaves in the dock and coal in the street (below)

Esotouric’s Los Angeles Historic Preservation 2016 year-end list

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Gentle reader…

As we slam the door on 2016, 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 2017 will see some of the Bittersweets tip over onto the Gains side of the fence.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Gains of 2016:

G1. Spinning Wheel: On a hot 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.

G2. Ciao, Bella: One of Downtown L.A.’s most pathetic landmarks, the long-deteriorating Bank of Italy headquarters (1923) at 7th & Olive Streets, has finally changed hands and is currently undergoing a complete restoration as a boutique hotel. And not a moment too soon: the colossal metal entry doors were dissolving from uric acid.

G3: High Lights: For years, sign geeks have looked with longing at the rusting cans of the twin Hotel Californian rooftop neons, tucked away behind the Mulholland fountain in Los Feliz. Then in May, one of the signs appeared atop a brand new low-income apartment house on the site of the old Californian. Beautifully restored by Paul Greenstein, it awaits a last piece of permitting before it can once again illuminate the sky over MacArthur Park.

G4: Overnight Sensation: When we learned that an especially handsome 19th century Boyle Heights duplex was threatened with demolition, we asked the internet to speak on its behalf. Within hours, a preservation promise was made to save the Peabody Werden house, and in July we got to see the old gal moved to a nearby safe haven.

G5: Native Sun: Just as it seemed certain that the modernist home that exiled Nobel laureate Thomas Mann built for himself in Pacific Palisades would be replaced by a bland McMansion, the German government emerged as its new owner, with plans for a literary cultural center in the spirit of Villa Aurora.

G6. Googie Redux: In an age when classic diners are an endangered species, what a neat surprise to hear that The Penguin of Santa Monica is being converted back from a boring dental office to a jazzy all-night restaurant.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Losses of 2016:

L1. Iconic Absence: The Sixth Street Viaduct was the largest, last and loveliest of our city’s glittering necklace of landmark downtown bridges. Suffering from concrete rot, it needed to be replaced. Our friend Shmuel Gonzalez has documented the span’s sad last days, from grassroots gatherings to tumbling lamps. While common sense and the preservation community called for a full restoration, political forces chose instead an overwrought post-modern replacement. One day, years late and at tens of millions over budget, we’ll see it.

L2. Location, Location, Location: Usually it’s good news when an endangered piece of signage is carefully removed and placed in the care of an institution like the Museum of Neon Artbut not when that sign is as essential a piece of the urban fabric as the Sun-Lake Drugs facade. Preservation is place is better, and Silver Lake much less beautiful for its removal.

L3. Bad Taste: Under the guise of free “restoration” work, the city’s Rec and Parks Department encouraged interior decorators to run amok inside Wattles, Hollywood’s last grand mansion. The new look might appeal to the wedding planners who market the space, but historically, it’s a disaster.

L4. Hole In One: Who would have dreamed that that gang violence could take out an historic structure? RIP to the pretty little house on Pleasant Avenue (1901-2016).

L5. Lurid No Longer: When Charles Bukowski lived in the neighborhood, East Hollywood was the nearest thing to an L.A. red light district. Buk lamented “when you clean up a city, you kill it,” and a last bit of local color died hard this year when the owner of the Tiki Xymposium invested in a dull new sign.

L6. Eclipsed: Meanwhile, on Culver City’s vintage motel row, some lunatic tossed the lovely Half Moon neon in the dumpster.

L7. Tears Shed: Because developers saw no use for the Pacific Electric Trolley Shed in their new project, a cool relic of lost mass transit history went down. (The rail car that used to live there is mostly gone, too.)

L8. Adios: The quirky Casa de Petrol was kid sister to Sherman Oaks’ Casa de Cadillac dealership, and nearly unchanged from when James Dean was photographed filling up on the day he died. So naturally, developers smashed it to bits.

L9. Hamburgled: Downey folks treasure their original Stanley Meston-designed McDonald’s with its iconic golden arches. But in L.A., the arches were ripped out to make way for a smoky grill, and not much later, the whole building came down. Born 1957, died 2016.

L10. 99 and a Half Won’t Do: South Figueroa was L.A.’s original Auto Row, a zone of creative commerce where some of the world’s most exquisite vehicles were crafted and marketed. But you wouldn’t know that from the way the 99-year-old Hartwell Motor Company building was destroyed with zero public notice.

Los Angeles Historic Preservation Bittersweet Moments of 2016:

B1. Stringing Along: Generations of kids have had their minds blown at Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater. Though a city landmark, development threatens the vintage attraction. We think there’s room for puppets and people on the site.

B2. Where’s The Beef: Hyperactive PR buzz touted the return of La Cienega’s beloved Tail O’ The Pup stand, but it turns out the new owners didn’t actually restore the vintage programmatic building. That landmark is still sitting in storage somewhere while a food truck turns out fancy franks. Meanwhile, to the east, the world’s biggest tamale is also in mothballs. We’d like to see them both brought back into photogenic service.

B3. Pershing Problems: Everyone agrees that downtown’s Pershing Square needs work. While thousands of Angelenos would like to see John Parkinson’s 1910 park plan restored, a design competition left restoration off the table; the jury picked the only entry that ignored the past. The proposed redesign is unfunded, and the fate of the park’s historic monuments remains uncertain. And now Rec and Parks has embarked on a bizarre series of modifications to Ricardo Legorreta’s 1992 plan. Amidst all this chaos, a moment of peace: Parkinson’s great-great-grandson crafted a digital version of the lost landmark.

B4. Research Wrecked: The Port of Los Angeles Archives, recently celebrated in a book and granted a dedicated reference library, have been mysteriously removed to an open dockside warehouse. Despite public outcry, the officials charged with protecting these unique documents remain silent as to why they’ve been placed in harm’s way and research access halted.

B5. World’s End: Paramount Pictures is eager to redevelop its studio lot upwards, and despite intense negotiations with preservation groups and the city, refuses to guarantee the iconic RKO Globe sign will be saved.

B6. Main Drag: The last stretch of modest, independent businesses along Main Street’s historic Skid Row face an uncertain future, their historic buildings threatened with demolition by the parking lot company that owns the land.

B7. Pereira in Peril: City planner, Time Magazine cover boy, Hollywood’s idea of an architect, William Pereira never got his due from the critics. Now, a campaign seeks to raise consciousness about his work just as several important local projects are threatened and things get hot at the Cultural Heritage Commission meetings. Can LACMA, the L.A. Times and Metropolitan Water District be saved?

B8. Hot Spot: There’s just something charged about the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights. Wild times at the Garden of Allah, teens rioting over curfew restrictions, and now a politicized preservation battle pitting citizen activists and the Los Angeles Conservancy against developers and their pals on City Council. Lawsuits and accusations are flying as the battle to save Lytton (rhymes with kitten) Savings ramps up.

B9. Half Empty: Welton Becket’s Parker Center is an elegant modernist office tower, one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the city’s portfolio. In a rare move, the Cultural Heritage Commission itself is opposing civic bean counters by advocating for its adaptive reuse.

B10. Deco Inferno: 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, and the preservation fight continues on appeal. Despite recent tagging, the building is still gorgeous, and worth saving.

B11. Fallen Angels: One especially romantic scene in the new film La La Land pours salt in the civic wound that is the stalled Angels Flight funicular railway, rubbed in when a local rag called the regulators for a quote that killed the non-profit’s major source of funding. In the 1211 days since the public was permitted to ride, the lovely little landmark has suffered grave humiliation, yet it remains fully functional and eager to serve. If only the Mayor would help!

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And that’s our report on the state of Los Angeles preservation for 2016. To see past years’ lists, click here: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012. And to stay informed all year round, see our preservation page 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 in the new year with The Real Black Dahlia on January 7, on the crest of the 70th 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 for a 10th Anniversary Year packed with special events and surprises.

yrs,
Kim and Richard
Esotouric

JK’s Tunnel: An Unknown Hobo Folk Art Environment on the L.A. River

When our friend Susan Phillips–the graffiti scholar who recently took us to the Confluence of the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco to see century-old hobo inscriptions–told us about a riverside tunnel that had been elaborately carved by one anonymous artist around 1940, we were eager to see it.

JK's Tunnel entrance

Today, we were able to satisfy our curiosity about the obscure site that Susan calls “JK’s Tunnel” while helping to document this extraordinary and hard-to-reach place.

Joining us was Craig Sauer, a photographer who uses Matterport 3D Showcase technology to create virtual tours of physical spaces. Most of his work is commercial (real estate), but he has a passion for offbeat historical spaces and reached out asking if we could help him gain access to someplace special. As it happened, we had just the site in mind.

Craig Sauer prepares to scan JK's Tunnel

Craig Sauer gives the thumbs up

After we determined that the level of light inside JK’s Tunnel would be low enough for details to be captured, we made the date. And this morning found our eager crew tramping through the high grass and down a little wash to explore the womb-like space where the mysterious JK carved his intriguing explosions of word salad.

JK's Tunnel 4 Leaf Klover

Probably using a railroad spike as a chisel, the artist painstakingly carved important words and phrases into the smooth concrete vault of the tunnel. He lists American cities and years and the names of guns. He writes LANA TURNER and STAY OUT OF JAIL. He writes MEXICO AND REBEL LAND.

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

JK's Tunnel: WW2 Word Salad

Whoosh–can’t you just see it rushing by JK’s safe little tunnel home?

Who was this artist? On these walls, he calls himself John Kristian, Johnny K, Johnson Kraft, Johnny Kake, Journeyman Kavalier, John Kook and plain old JK. We don’t know his real name or when he was born or died, and maybe we never will.

We just know that sometime around 1940, he came to this quiet place by the river and took all the time he needed to capture the voices in his head on the smooth tunnel walls. And standing there inside JK’s Tunnel, with the trains and the river passing by, despite all the years and layers of paint from graffiti artists who came after, he spoke to us. Now through Craig’s wonderful 3-D rendering, he can speak to you, too.

 

In Search Of… 1914 Hobo Inscriptions in the LA River

If you read our most recent newsletter, you know how excited we are to have learned that some 102-year-old hobo graffiti survives on the undersides of bridges in the L.A. River.

Today, we descended into the concrete channel with historian Susan Phillips to see some of her favorite pieces and seek out new discoveries of our own. (And yes–we actually found something–but you’ll just have to get on the next Eastside Babylon crime but tour to hear about it!)

Won’t you tag along on our journey into the strange, peaceful and historic riverbed?

Sixth Street Bridge – RIP

This weekend* is your last chance to take a stroll across the iconic Sixth Street Bridge, that grand Art Deco passage between Boyle Heights and the Arts District. We were there tonight in the golden hour, along with dozens of bridge lovers armed with cameras, skateboards, lowrider cars (these under the bridge, in the river bed) and memories of a beautiful piece of the city that will soon be demolished. It really is a special place. Make the time to say goodbye if you can.

*update: apparently the bridge will remain open through January 25th, demolition starting February 5.