Monday, August 29, 2016

Photo Essay: A Roadside Cactus Ranch in Reseda

The first thing you notice when you drive by the Cactus Ranch—also known as "California Nursery Specialties"— is the roadside dinosaurs.


Photo: California Nursery Specialties

Now, those aren't an unusual site out in the desert or even the Inland Empire, but you may not expect to see them on a residential street in Los Angeles.



Of course, this one and a half-acre site isn't in a part of LA that most people know.



This is Reseda, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley famously name-checked in the Tom Petty song, "Free Fallin'" and in the movie The Karate Kid.



Even though it's considered the first suburb in the Valley, Reseda was known in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s for its agricultural endeavors—particularly lettuce, lima beans, and walnuts.



You can still find a few signs of Reseda's agricultural past, if you know where to look.



The California Cactus Ranch isn't the only nursery in Reseda, but it's probably the wildest.



And that's largely in thanks to "Bob's Town," a mini ghost town created by landscape designer Bob Swearingen, a friend of the nursery's owner, David Bernstein.



According to a sign posted at the entrance of Bob's Town and written by Bob's son Geoff, David had been looking for ways to draw more customers to his cactus nursery. So, together, he and David began assembling some building materials they had lying around from old structures up north.



Apparently, Bob was inspired by the set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, a TV show that was at its peak at the time of his project, around 1995-6. The result includes a saloon, mercantile, a U.S. Marshal's office, and the "Kactus Kitchen" restaurant—all fictional, as far as I can tell.



Bob passed away the following year, making this his last project—and he ended on a high note, because as the sign says, it's a "rousing success."



You might say that it's a little bit of God's country smack dab in the middle of LA, but it's weirder than that.



And its owner, David, has had plenty of time to diversify and exoticize his collection—having started 40 years ago when he was in high school.



In fact, there are over 100,000 plants at the nursery—some bearing edible fruit and paddles, and some sprouting beautiful flowers.



Some of the spinier and spikier cacti are sought-after as plantings that will provide protection around the perimeter of a property.



And still others have healing powers.



The ranch is full of oddities and exotic plants—so much so that production designers come here looking to dress their sets for films taking place in South America, Mexico, or Africa.



Many of the desert plants here actually come from countries around the world, like Peru or South Africa.



While the proprietor encourages you to come with a camera and stay for an hour or more, this is a store...



...and nearly everything is for sale.



You could drop a couple of bucks on a tiny cutting for a houseplant...



...or you could invest a couple of grand on a really big cactus to scare off intruders...



...or on an entirely new garden devoted to succulents and cactus flowers.



They've got cacti that look like everything from brains to the jaws of an animal and the toes of a baby.



In their greenhouse "gallery," they've got jade and other ornamental garden plants...



...some hybrids, and some having grown from seed (but never dug up from their native roadside ecosystems).



And after you've worked up a thirst surrounded by all of those water-hoarding blooms, you can grab a Cactus Cooler soda to sip on (or a Pepsi).



They say that you can visit the Cactus Ranch any time of the year, and you'll see something different.



Too bad it's only open to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays, and only 'til 5 or 6 p.m.—because surely that's too early to catch a whiff of the fragrant Night-Blooming Cereus, also known as "Queen of the Night."



For more photos, especially of the "ghost town," click here. You can also check out the Photo Gallery on the official site of the Cactus Ranch.

For my "5 Great Ways to Get Your Succulent On" for KCET, click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Moorten Botanical Garden, Palm Springs
Photo Essay: A Treasure Trove of Roadside Dinosaurs
Photo Essay: A Metal Menagerie of Wild Animals
Photo Essay: A Walk Among the Orchids (and Chrysanthemums and Daisies)
Window Shopping

Friday, August 26, 2016

Photo Essay: On the Preservation of a Monument to LA's Water

It takes a while to truly understand LA. I'm not sure that I ever will.

But I know that it's only just now that I'm starting to understand some of the histories of LA that I first encountered years ago.

It takes a while to piece everything together.


Circa 1978 - Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Back in 2014, I didn't know much about the Metropolitan Water District—not to mention about its former headquarters in Echo Park, designed by modernist architect William Pereira (of LAX, JPL, and Geisel Library fame).


Circa 2014

And when I took a tour of its former office tower—now an eight-story condo residence known as "The Elysian"—I didn't know that I was standing in an area known as "Victor Heights," on the former site of Beaudry Park, which the Sisters of Charity bought in 1883 to build a hospital upon.


circa 2014

And when I snapped a photo of the lower building adjacent to the tower, I didn't understand why I'd heard someone refer to it as a church.


circa 2014

I only knew that someone had asked why the former Metropolitan Water District campus had been split into two, and the response regarding the portion below—the church, as they called it—was that "they didn't want it."



I didn't know that just two years later, that same section would be imperiled—threatened with demolition.



Gazing up at the hilltop site from Sunset Boulevard, it actually still looks like a cohesive campus...



...until you shift your gaze east to the corner of Sunset and Beaudry Avenue.



Oh, there's the church—the Holy Hill Community Church, which had occupied the site since 1996 but filed for bankruptcy in 2014 and sold off to a Beverly Hills developer.



Their 5.3 acres is prime in terms of property value, but they didn't do the historic structure any good by building a sanctuary on top of it.



Those that have argued in favor of the demolition claim that the campus has been modified to the point of no return.



And seeing it in its current condition...



...which is shaggy, at best...



...I can kind of understand why.



When you're looking at the fa├žade now, with a cross hung above the entrance, it is hard to envision the former grandeur that was captured so well in black and white by Julius Shulman.



Colorful mosaic tiles disrupt the clean modernism...



...with ecclesiastical imagery.



The demolition permit might've been a "done deal," had it not been for a building that's attached to a tower of the same campus by the same architect with the same structural columns and concrete beams that had fallen into even worse disrepair—and had been beautifully restored.



Looking at the two sections next to each other—the 1960s low-rise and the 1971 high-rise—is practically like looking at renderings for a "before and after" restoration.



Clearly, it can be done. The pools of water can be refilled.



But someone has to care enough to want to do it.



And then there's that pesky chapel to deal with.



But at least they didn't completely destroy the room they were originally using as a sanctuary.



And at least they didn't tear out the escalators.



Everything else seems relatively easy to clean up. There's a broken window here or there, some dead grass and general neglect, but nothing seems hopeless.



Certainly nothing seems to warrant demolition of a building that's critical to our city's water history—and therefore our city's history—by an architect who was on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1963, the same year that it was built.



But how do you convince the powers-that-be of that?

And how do you save it from demolition, even if it does become landmarked? People tend to do whatever they want and just pay the fines.

In a case like this, someone powerful has to care. Or, at least someone with a really big mouth and a set of squeaky wheels.

For some great historic photos as well as more photos of the interior, click here

For a virtual tour of the exterior and interior—as well as a cameo made by yours truly during the public comment, watch the video below:



Related Posts:
A Reinvention Worth Waiting For
Downtown LA's Upwards Build into the Open Air
Photo Essay: Geisel Library, UCSD Campus
Photo Essay: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena