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:

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Photo Essay: Hats Off to the Museum of Neon Art

After waiting years for the Museum of Neon Art to reopen, now I feel a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of their exhibits changing every four months.

As it is, I missed at least one show—maybe two?—since I first went to their soft opening last Christmastime.

There's a lot more neon in LA than you think. And even more of it has been rescued, restored, and put into storage.

I suppose I'd be even more overwhelmed if I tried to take in the whole collection all at once.

"Hats off to Hollywood," the current show, kicked off with the relighting of the historic 1930 rooftop sign for the long-gone Hollywood location of The Brown Derby, part of MONA's permanent collection.

Here follows, without comment, are the rest of the lights and sights from the evening's festivities, on view now, for the next four (ish?) months.

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Photo Essay: Behold, the Museum of Neon Art
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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Photo Essay: Come Gather Round All Ye Islanders at the Catalina Casino

One of the most iconic images of Catalina Island and its harbor in the town of Avalon is of "the Casino building."

You can see it from high up in the wild interior...

...and from the sea, as you arrive via boat.

No matter where you are on or near the island, you're aware of it.

And that's by design. While the island is full of many ornamentations (like Catalina Tile), monuments, recreations, and attractions to lure tourists from the mainland, there's no other gathering place quite like this one.

Contrary to our modern interpretation of its name, the Catalina Casino wasn't dedicated as a gambling hall (though gambling has occurred in the past on the island and in its harbor).

People instead flocked to this circular building (like many other rotundas throughout history) to socialize amidst music and movies.

And if it looks a bit like a baseball stadium, that's by design, too—because it was built at the behest of William Wrigley, Jr., former owner of the Chicago Cubs and founder of Wrigley Field. (The Cubs actually flew all the way from Chicago to train on Catalina.)

But as soon as you get to the forecourt, its ornate box office window, and its resident mermaid, you realize you're there for anything but an afternoon ballgame.

Designed by Walter Webber and Sumner A. Spaulding, the Art Deco casino building was completed in 1929, built to replace the "Sugarloaf Casino" dance pavilion named for the Sugarloaf rock formation that was eventually blasted away to improve the view.

Construction was managed by David M. Renton, Wrigley's partner in many aspects of building up Catalina (and also the builder behind the 60-Inch telescope building at Mt. Wilson Observatory).

As the Casino is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on three sides, while facing inland you can gaze upon ornate designs that are inspired by the sea...

...a design motif that continues into the interior—especially in its movie theatre.

The Avalon Theatre is credited as being the first theatre built with acoustics specifically designed for the projection of "talkie" movies.

That drew famous filmmakers of the time like Cecil B. Demille to the island to not only see their movies, but also to hear them.

Photo: David Prasad (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Apparently the acoustics are so good—and the auditorium is so sound-proof—that a full band could be playing for a room full of dancers upstairs, and it would never interrupt the sound of the movie being projected below.

The domed auditorium is lovely, especially with its Art Deco wall murals...

...painted by famed Hollywood production designer / art director / set designer John Gabriel Beckman, who also directed the design of the undersea fantasy in the forecourt.

Beckman had just completed work on Sid Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and also painted murals (which are now sadly faded into near oblivion) in the Fox Theatre Fullerton.

Because of the highly accelerated construction schedule for the casino...

...Beckman managed to complete his depictions of early California history and his version of The Birth of Venus in just three months.

Amazingly, the Avalon Theatre still shows first-run movies every night of the week...

...preceded by a performance of its Page Organ Company pipe organ, which is original to the theatre.

Although it was built for film, the Avalon Theatre also has the capacity to put on various live entertainment stage productions...

...with a vintage fly system...

...and original lighting board and other controls.

In the projection room... can find antique projection machinery like a Simplex Model E-7, a 1927 Brenkert Model F3 (with combined effects, slide, and floodlight projector)...

...and a Brenkert Enarc carbon-arc projector—a rare artifact that only gets used once or twice a year and can only be found in one or two theaters in the entire country.

In the circular ballroom on the upper level (the equivalent of about 12 stories up)...

...the dance floor, 180 feet in diameter, is the world's largest and reportedly can accommodate up to 3000 dancers at any given time.

If it gets a bit too crowded inside, you can exit through one of the many French doors that encircle the ballroom and take a stroll out on the balcony, nicknamed the "Romance Promenade."

From there, you can stare out onto the sailboats and yachts and ferries and other sea-worthy vessels...

...and wonder who out there—or up in the wild bison territory—is gazing out or down upon you.

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