Sunday, April 5, 2020

Photo Essay: Is It Auf Wiedersehen For Alpine Village, Our Little Slice of Bavaria in LA's South Bay?

Postcard: James H. Osborne Photograph Collection, The Gerth Archives and Special Collection at the CSUDH University Library

Alpine Village in the South Bay may promote itself as the "Home of Oktoberfest Since 1968"—but this "little slice of Bavaria" is so much more than that.

Replete with a German restaurant, market, shops and even a chapel, it’s also been ground zero for German-American Day LA and where you can catch televised soccer games played by the Deutscher Fußball-Bund and pick up some German trinkets for your tannenbaum all year long.

Although it has condensed its operations over the years, it’s still the premier destination in the Southland for German celebrations, German music (ranging from rock bands to the accordion-laced oompah sounds of Volkstümliche Musik), German bier, and, of course, Krampus.

Unfortunately, the 14-acre property is in the crosshairs for demolition—because of a development project that would repurpose the site for truck storage and cargo container storage.

Alpine Village was founded more than half a century ago by two German immigrants—Josef Bischof, who came here in 1952, and and Johann “Hans” Rotter, who arrived in 1955.

While Bischof dreamed of sharing his German heritage and homeland with the Southland—inspired by the Danish-themed town of Solvang, California— Rotter was a soccer player who wanted to create his own soccer field on the former Gardena Valley No. 4 landfill property.

Fortunately, there was room to spare along Torrance Boulevard to develop an Alpine-style European village of their own—now located a few blocks east of Torrance in a section of unincorporated Los Angeles County (which some call "West Carson").

Never mind that it's at sea level. All they needed to create "The Little City from the Alps" was to employ a Swiss chalet architectural style—that "Old Building Look"—four different architects, all using a common Bavarian Alpine design motif.

The result—seven buildings completed between 1969 and 1974—is excellent example of the "Themed Shopping Court" property type.

And it's a dying breed in Southern California, where people prefer the sparkling new themed environments of "Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge" at Disneyland to anything that reminds them of the "olde world." (Though how the Renaissance Faire survives is beyond my comprehension.)

For instance, architect Joe Sing contributed a 400-square-foot chapel (whose façade once bore letters spelling out "Wedding"), which was completed in 1971 and now serves as the village's centerpiece.

Sing was inspired by the design of the Klausenkirche (Klaus Church) in Engfurt, Germany, near Rotter's birthplace—and mimicked it, right down to the onion-shaped spire covered in wooden shakes.

It still hosts weddings with up to 30 guests...

...with plenty of extra room in the landscaped courtyards...

...and by the fountain for more guests.

All the while you'd be surrounded by stucco-clad exteriors with windows and doors embellished by painted frames...

...gables with scalloped bargeboards...

...vertical wood boards in the gable ends...

...and decorative shutters, some with a tulip design.

Much of those touches were the work of Yugoslavian architect Bruno Bernauer, who immigrated to LA in 1956. He drafted the designs for the first two buildings at Alpine Village—and then moved on to other local projects.

Joe Sing, the architect of the chapel, took that aesthetic and ran with it with the design of the newer buildings to retain as immersive an experience as possible.

Today, there's a German cultural museum (LA Turners) and shops that sell traditional German garments, cosmetics, toys, shoes, and other gifts—as well as businesses offering travel services, dentistry, clock repair, and more.

Among the other areas available for rent is the Klub Haus, now a banquet room for up to 250 guests located in Building 1. It was the first building to be added in 1968, by Bernauer—and was a movie theater until 1980.

Look for the bronze bust of Beethoven, and around the corner you'll find the recently (and permanently) shuttered Alpine Inn Restaurant.

The restaurant has hosted festivities since Alpine Village first opened in 1968—though it was in Building 2 at the time and in 1984 moved to Building 7 (originally added in 1974 as a clubhouse or "Heimet House"/"Heimathaus" for the German American League, designed by architect W.A. Altmann of Stuttgart, Germany).

Structural engineer Peter Erdelyi led the 1980s renovation of the new restaurant building, which added a 8,170-square-foot two-story addition to the existing space—which had been the last building completed at Alpine Village.

Now a tavern or "steinhaus," much of what's inside dates back to the 1980s expansion and aren't original...

...though once again, yet another designer took the German theme and played it up to the hilt with carved wood decorations, both at the base of the wooden bar...

...and mounted on the interior stone-tiled columns.

You couldn't ignore Alpine Village even if you were to try—thanks to its Chalet-shaped signage mounted on a 70-foot-tall pylon, visible from where the 405 meets the 110. Designed by Arthur L. Bergey, it features a sheet metal fringe "roof" and neon illumination (made by Chief Neon of Gardena, California) for night visibility. It's original to the opening in 1968 and virtually unchanged since.

Although the restaurant has closed for good, the Alpine Market (in Building 6, erected 1973) is still open for business to satisfy Village regulars' yen for German specialties—even during our current pandemic lockdown.

The 21,000-square-foot market (also designed by Sing, with a second story of offices added in 1988) offers fresh German meats and baked goods... well as jarred staples like sauerkraut and red cabbage...

...and plenty of fig vodka, Glühwein, and different types of herbal digestif drinks (Kräuterlikör).

So what of this impending threat of demolition?

Well, by no means is it a done deal. And Alpine Village has struggled before and come out the other side.

It's already been downsized from the full-fledged German theme park it had expanded into in the 1970s—losing not only its soccer field and batting cages, but also its carnival rides, Fairytaleland, and Children’s Animal Farm.

And a group of preservationists believe it's important—not just because it's a themed shopping court, but a rare example of a Bavarian one, at that. Especially in LA County.

(Alpine Village's co-founder Josef Bischof later brought the Bavarian style to Orange County—with Old World in Huntington Beach, which his family still runs.)

But then there's also the association with commercial development and the automobile—that is, roadside architecture and especially roadside markets.

And finally, there's the importance of Alpine Village as the center of European-American social and cultural activity—not just German, but also Austrian, Polish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Croatian, and more (as evidenced by the offerings for sale in the market). 

Update from Los Angeles Conservancy
On January 24, the Los Angeles County Historical Landmarks and Records Commission voted 5-0 to recommend that the County Board of Supervisors designate Alpine Village as a County Landmark. This follows the Commission’s nomination of Alpine Village for landmark consideration at their meeting on October 25, 2019.
This would make Alpine Village the fourth designated landmark for LA County since the year 2000—the first being the Hollywood Bowl.

But as we've seen in the past, landmark designation doesn't always save a historic property.

For an in-depth history of Alpine Village, click here

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Friday, April 3, 2020

San Diego's Abandoned 'Cathedral of the Motion Picture'... On Its 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams'

The California Theatre in Downtown San Diego is on death row.

Demolition permits were granted in April 2017. Construction on a new development that would take over the historic site was supposed to start last month and be completed by 2023.

And yet there it stands, a ghost-in-waiting—not in purgatory or limbo, and not even on life support.

It's been hanging on by its own volition since it closed for business all the way back in 1990—thanks only in part to it being added to San Diego's Register of Designated Historical Resources that same year.

But somehow, its designation as a local landmark hasn't been enough to get it a stay of execution.

Even though the required environmental impact report (EIR) of razing the structure failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

That only bought preservationists some time. But they haven't been able to get clemency granted for the historic structure.

Maybe it's because it occupies prime real estate in Downtown San Diego—almost half a block of it—right across from city hall in the C Street corridor. It's a section that's been called San Diego’s "Boulevard of Broken Dreams"—and calls for the buildings demolition insist that removing the so-called "blight" will help upgrade the street from a "C" to an "A." [insert groan here]

An online petition called the area "frightening to tourists and residents," with frequent mentions of dangerous, drug-carrying "vagrants" and "transients" who use the sidewalk as a bathroom and break all sorts of other laws. It claims that the California Theatre is the crux of the problem—and "the only answer to this blighted sight" (emphasis mine) is this new development.

But who and what let the California Theatre get this way? And who let the neighborhood devolve into such dangerous territory that you supposedly can't walk through it? After all, it opened in 1927 as San Diego's premier movie palace—a Spanish Colonial Revival style single-screen theatre that the San Diego Union newspaper reported to be "more imaginative and dreamlike than anybody's Spanish castle."

Designed by architect John Paxton Perrine for Fox-West Coast Theatres, and built by Edwards, Wildey and Dixon Building Contractors of LA at a cost of $340,000, the 9-story office building boasted a women’s apparel store (Bernard’s Inc.) on its second floor as well as the largest vaudeville (discontinued in 1937) and movie palace in San Diego at the time, with the capacity to seat 2200. Obviously, the neighborhood was once able to draw quite a crowd.

Although it opened as the "New California Theatre" (because the other California Theatre in San Diego didn't change its name to The Aztec until 1930), it's unmistakably been The California Theatre for San Diegans—starting with its grand opening of the silent, black-and-white film The Venus of Venice, accompanied by a huge Wurlitzer theatre organ (relocated and now long gone).

The last operator was Mann Theatres, which ceased its movie screenings in 1976. After a stint as a shabby concert venue and a renovation in 1988, it finally shuttered for good in 1990. That seemed like the death knell for the California Theatre, which everybody expected to be demolished any day after that.

But by 2006, the owners had foreclosed, and investors Sloan Capital Partners of Beverly Hills took over the lease. The 2008 recession put the kibosh on any plans for new development—and in the meantime, leaving the site exposed to squatters, rodents, pigeons, and weather resulted in devastating  water damage. It was a stunning example of demolition by neglect—conveniently making restoration costs an estimated $40 million and therefore better economical sense to start from scratch and build anew.

So now, it appears that the California Theatre will have to make way for the largest-ever Downtown San Diego condominium tower—a 40-story, 474-foot high-rise with 444 residential units, plus retail space at street level.

It was supposed to be called "The Overture"—developed by Caydon Property Group from Australia—but its social media presence (including hashtags) has stalled.

By all available reports, though, it appears as though the new development will preserve some of the building’s exterior and lobby—but how much is debatable. Will it be a "façadectomy," as with the ghost wing of the Alexandria Hotel in Downtown LA? Or will it be a "faithful" reconstruction?

Maybe some combination of both—as reports state that it will reconstruct the lobby in its entirety and rebuild much of the exterior to look exactly like it was, based on laser scans.

There's one thing that's for sure—the interior and new tower will be modern, and there will be no theater.

Even if the developers mount a new glittering marquee and blade sign—as is the plan—the building will be an imposter.

The California Theatre won't be reincarnated—and neither will the Barbary Coast, San Diego's "in spot" a.k.a. topless go-go bar at the corner of 4th and C from 1968(?) to 1976 or so.

And even the ghost sign for Agua Caliente thoroughbred horse racing in Tijuana (a.k.a. "Old Mexico") on the west-facing exterior wall of the fly loft won't survive the reconstruction—despite having become a beloved piece of public art inextricably linked to the neighborhood and San Diego's history as a border town. (The greyhound dog racing ghost sign on the fly loft's south wall won't be preserved, either.)

They say the developer will attempt to recreate it on a new wall. But I kind of wonder what the point is.

When I visited the exterior with some friends early last month (I've never been inside, and its pretty well boarded up now), I just kept saying how sad it was.

"It's really sad," I said, again and again.

"It is," my friend said.

To read a relatively scathing architectural appraisal, click here

For contemporary interior photos, click here and here.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Photo Essay: San Diego Civic Theatre, Upon Its 55th Anniversary

Believe it or not, reaching the 55-year mark is a big deal. Some places don't make it 50 years—or 10, 20, 30, or 40 years.

Fifty years is the bar that's been set for so-called "historic significance"—and if a building is younger than 50 years old, it's darn near impossible to get it landmarked.

But the San Diego Civic Theatre has hit 55 years, having opened on the night of January 12, 1965 with a performance by the San Diego Symphony. Since then, such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Bob Hope, Jerry Seinfeld, Diana Ross, and Maya Angelou have graced its stage—while organizations such as Broadway San Diego, California Ballet, San Diego Opera, and La Jolla Music Society also call it home.

Maybe the four-story, semi-circular performing arts center—with more than a few Brutalist tendencies—is easy to dismiss, compared to the movie palaces that were built decades before. But the Civic Theatre is important—if only for its role in helping to catalyze the development of Downtown San Diego with the creation of the San Diego Concourse complex (a.k.a. Charles C. Dail Concourse, in honor of former Mayor Charles C. Dail, who served from 1955 to 1963).

The Concourse development also included a new City Hall, a convention center, and a parking garage—and the Civic Theatre was the last of the cluster of buildings to open and provide a a stage for civic gatherings.

The Civic Theatre does benefit from its association with the Bow Wave Fountain by Malcolm Leland— added to the Concourse in 1972 in conjunction with the Security Pacific Bank tower (which is technically outside the concourse boundaries). Constructed with a steel frame clad in layered sheets of copper, the sculpture evokes the bow of a ship cutting through the sea (even when the fountain's water feature isn't spraying properly).

Like the fountain, the Civic Theatre is owned by the City of San Diego—which has leased it to San Diego Theatres, a non-profit organization that manages it along with the Balboa Theatre (photo essay coming soon), through the year 2063.

But part of the leasing terms is that  $30 million worth of renovations have to break ground by the year 2023—and that's not going to come from ticket sales, especially when the rest of the 2020 season has been canceled, postponed, or otherwise rescheduled in light of the coronavirus pandemic. In 1966, the Civic Theatre raised $36,000+ to install a Bavarian crystal chandelier in the Grand Salon through contributions from community donors. What could they raise today?

It's unclear what those renovations might be—and whether they'll take place on the exterior plaza or will address the interior, which, like the exterior, was designed by the architectural trifecta of Ruocco, Kennedy and Rosser.

Lloyd Ruocco FAIA, widely considered the "Father of San Diego's Post-War Modern Architecture" (the "war," in this case, being WWII), collaborated with Selden B. Kennedy, Jr. and William Frederick Rosser to create the city-owned performing arts theatre at a cost of $4.1 million.

Architectural critics say that Ruocco "broke apart the box" with his curvilinear performance space and its oval façade.

Inside, the continental seating arrangement—with no center aisle—makes a big impression, especially when all 2967 seats (less so when the orchestra pit is being used) are full.

The appearance from afar is seamless—but a closer look at the armrests reveals where the rows have been stitched together.

On my tour, it struck me how huge—or, rather, deep— the stage is‚ from the proscenium line/apron to the upstage (back) wall.

Of course, it has to be in order to accommodate the Broadway touring companies and other stage productions that arrive ready to put on a show.

Backstage, there are also 64 sets of counter-weighted lines on steel guides and three sets on wire rope guides—installed by R.L. Grosh and Sons Scenic Studios, founded in 1932 on Sunset Boulevard in LA by scenic artist Robert Louis Grosh.

Grosh and Sons worked with all the Hollywood studios—MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, United Artists, Universal, 20th Century Fox, RKO, and Columbia, especially for movie musicals. They even worked with Disneyland and the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel.

Today, 88 years later, Grosh—now in its fourth generation, operated by R.L.'s great-granddaughter— is still known for its scenic backdrops and stage draperies

So the Civic Theatre may be lacking the obvious cosmetic grandeur of the great movie palaces of Old Hollywood—but it's not without its ties.

Then again, in 1965, some of those theatres weren't yet 50 years old and had fallen out of favor as garish or even tacky.

Early Modernism was essentially a backlash against that over-the-top aesthetic. And now, 55 years later, we're still trying to figure out how to appreciate both—and how both can coexist, without being replaced by the next new thing.

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