Monday, May 21, 2018

Getting To Know What I've Got Before It's Gone (Or, How Lotusland Survived Fire and Flood)

It took two natural disasters to push me to finally tour Lotusland, widely considered one of the 10 best gardens in the world.

Just 90 miles up the coast from Beverly Hills, it feels like a world away when you consider rush hour traffic and round-the-clock freeway congestion.

But then a few months ago, a one-two punch of the December 2017 Thomas Fire and the January 2018 mudslides hit the town where Lotusland is nestled in the foothills of Los Padres National Forest (not far from Rattlesnake Canyon and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden)—both of which threatened everything in their path.

And that included pretty much the entirety of Montecito.

By providence or just dumb luck, Montecito Fire Department Station Number 2 is located literally kitty-corner from Lotusland—which means that when the fire reached the garden and actually ignited a palm tree, firefighters quickly extinguished it and made sure that nothing was lost.

Still, Lotusland staffers were under mandatory evacuation for nearly two weeks, having taken archives, personal collections, and even rare plants along with them to be sure that at least something would be saved.

And then, just as they were able to return and make a fresh start out of the new year, the rains came. With no vegetation to hold the earth in place, the mud slid... and slid... and slid.

Miraculously, Lotusland was spared—once again—though it did suffer some flooding. But its escape from the mud was narrow, at best, which becomes obvious when driving around the neighborhood and seeing the structures that have been decimated or consumed, like mastadons in tar.

And this all happened just as Lotusland was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, having opened as a public garden in 1993.

Of course, European influence on the property itself dates back 136 years, when the parcel was named "Tanglewood" and became a nursery for palms and lemon trees. After that, the Gavit family took it over as "Cuesta Linda" (the "beautiful hill") and began erecting structures, including the 1919 main residence by architect Reginald Davis Johnson.

But the next owner, 55-year-old Polish opera singer Madame Ganna Walska, is the one who transformed the 27-acre estate into the "botanical nirvana" it is today—all thanks to a personal taste that was so unconventional, she declared herself the "enemy of the average." Experts discouraged her from adorning the front entrance of her main residence with cacti and euphorbias, but when they saw the final result, they praised her for her ingenuity.

In 1941, Madame originally purchased the estate as a refuge for Tibetan spiritual masters and briefly called it "Tibetland"—that is, until she and her yoga instructor husband, a.k.a. "The White Lama," divorced in 1946.

Her itch for landscape design and gardening—something she'd learned and experimented with while living in Paris—had already begun to take over at that point, making the switch to "Lotusland" a natural progression of her true passions.

So, using the extant structures that had already been built by Reginald Davis Johnson and later (circa the 1920s) George Washington Smith (sometimes credited as the "father" of Spanish Colonial Revival style), Madame began building her gardens.

And truly, Lotusland isn't just one garden, but a collective of multiple gardens, each with their own microenvironments and microclimates.

As you meander from one to another, you follow lines of slag glass, glowing like gemstones. Ganna was fascinated by these industrial byproducts and collected piles of them from a local factory to string along her garden pathways as though adorning them with the same type of jewelry she so adored collecting and wearing.

As a result of the "mass planting" that occurred under Madame Walska's direction, each garden is thick with vegetation—which creates plenty of ground cover and, in the case of the Dracaena Circle (which is full of dragon trees a.k.a. Dracaena draco), a shadowy canopy. "More is better," she'd say.

She even sold her jewelry in 1977 to fund her Cycad Garden—which, when it was completed two years later, contained over 200 species of some of the rarest and oldest plants on earth.

The cycads turned out to be Madame's "last waltz," as it were—her final project before she died at age 97 in 1984. And it was only then that her 43 years of work on Lotusland ceased.

Fortunately, the posthumous upkeep of Madame's gardens is pristine—including the ornamental gardenscapes that go way beyond perennial blooms.

As the self-proclaimed "master gardener" of Lotusland, Ganna Walska's plan—inspired by historical and cultural influences from around the world—included not only plants but also tile, water features, and statuary.

She installed pebble mosaics perhaps as a reference to those in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

And like the civic monuments so famously found in the piazzas of Rome, Florence, Bologna, and beyond, Madame just had to have her own Neptune Fountain right in Montecito.

Inspired by Commedia dell'arte, the theatrical style that was so popular in Europe throughout the 1500s to the 1700s, Madame brought stone "grotesques" to her Theatre Garden.

And elsewhere at Lotusland, there are plenty of Moorish influences to go alongside Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial architecture—all preserved (and saved from wildfire, mudslide, and flooding).

These varied traditions come together in one of the most recognizable landmarks of Lotusland—the Horticultural Clock designed by landscaper Ralph Stevens (of Franceschi Park and Casa del Herrero fame), which has been lovingly restored.

Between the sculptures and the fountains and the plantings, it's hard to know when and where you've been transported to—certainly not the Santa Barbara area in the 21st century! And I bet that was by design.

Rather than conquering the landscape as so many developers and landowners have been known to do, Madame Walska allowed the landscape to dominate the development.

After all, anyone could have a traditional, rectangular swimming pool—as did Ganna Walska's predecessors at the estate in the 1920s. But since the concept of a "Water Garden" was much more exciting to Madame, now the lily pads are the only thing that's swimming in those waters.

During my visit, it was too early in the season for the namesake Asian lotus flowers to make an appearance, but it was just the right time for the water lilies to steal the show—like a Monet painting that's jumped off the canvas and out if its frame.

Lotusland's "exotic aquatics" include the Nymphaea lilies (a reference to the nymphs in Greek mythology) as well as Euryale, Nuphar, and Victoria (named after Queen Victoria).

And lucky for me, despite the fact that roses typically peak in June, Lotusland's Rose Garden was in full bloom this year in May.

Also blooming in May were some cacti—a rare treat to see in person, since a cactus flower generally doesn't last for more than one day.

Whether prickly pear (Opuntia) from Mexico or the Galapagos...

...or one of the many species of Cleistocactus from South America...

...a blooming cactus is a startling and colorful example of the impermanence of this world.

You've got to see it while you can, because it can all go away in an instant.

There can be too much water, or not enough. The earth can open up and swallow us whole.

And when it comes down to it, I'd rather know what I've got to lose rather than try to figure out what I might've missed out on.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Estate and Gardens of the First Lady of Beverly Hills
Photo Essay: Taking a Break at the Ranch of Repose

Monday, May 14, 2018

Photo Essay: A Leap of Faith Despite Depression

When I started spending some real quality time in Balboa Park two years ago, it became clear that for all I'd seen, I'd still only scratched the surface.

Because while I learned a lot about the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-17, the park actually hosted two expositions in two decades' time—and that meant I'd have to head on down to the southern section of Balboa Park's central mesa, a plateau known as The Palisades, to investigate what remains of the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935-36.

And you can't really talk about either expo independently, without mention of the other, as their histories are inextricably tied to one another.

Let me set the scene a bit: In 1933, Prohibition had been repealed, but the end of the Great Depression wouldn't come until 1939. In 1934, it had been 20 years since the last expo, and the temporary structures that had been built for it were slated to be torn down. But in a stunning about-face, those buildings were not only saved but restored and reused for yet another expo.

Given the economic conditions at the time, mounting such a large-scale ordeal was, perhaps, a foolish endeavor. But after the fact, once it proved successful, exposition president G. Aubrey Davidson called it an "achievement of faith, courage, and enthusiasm unparalleled in the history of similar enterprises."

Thankfully, seven million people attended. And the year this second expo opened coincided with the creation of the Works Progress Administration, part of FDR's economic recovery plan under the auspice of the New Deal (1933-1937).

Of course, work didn't really start coming out of the U.S. government's "Work Relief" divisions until the California Pacific International Exposition was wrapping up—which makes the creation of the "Plaza de America" even more of an achievement.

And fortunately, although some of it has been lost or modified beyond recognition, there's still enough left there in the Palisades to give an inkling as to what this team of hopeless optimists managed to accomplish despite all odds, 80 years ago.

The layout of the Plaza de America was to show architectural progression from prehistoric to modern times...

...and so, the Palace of Electricity and Varied Industries became "a modern development of prehistoric American architecture," with a nod to the great civilizations of the Mayas and Aztecs.

Richard S. Requa, the master architect for the expo, considered the architecture of Mesoamerica the only style that was truly American.

Of course, that message has been lost as the palace is now used as a municipal gymnasium, interior gutted, exterior mural removed, vines no longer hanging.

The former Federal Building—a structure that had been built to be permanent, with concrete walls and steel roof trusses—is said to be pre-Columbian in design, even if that's not obvious when looking at its facade. The San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum occupied it until last year, when it exited to make way for the forthcoming Comic-Con museum (opening date TBD).

The former California State Building is now the San Diego Automotive Museum, and its former entrance plaza—once adorned by elaborate water features that were lit up at night—is now a parking lot. Perhaps its most distinctive feature, however, were the murals above the front entry that depicted the principal industries of the state (i.e. transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and scenic beauty). Since the structures for this expo were thrown together in such a hurry, the construction crews and designer had to get a little creative when fabricating elements like exterior ornamentation—which was to at least "suggest permanency."

Using principles of set design, Hollywood artist Juan Larrinaga simulated tile using wallboard segments—just one of the many artistic feats he pulled off throughout the expo grounds. Although those original wooden murals have since been removed (and destroyed?), local preservationists have placed temporary placeholders to evoke the original look and are currently raising funds to replace them with permanent replicas in ceramic tile.

From Milton Sessions' scrapbook via Parker H. Jackson (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

The Ford Exposition Building never really fit the theme of architecture of the Americas, though its purpose was more to "exemplify the latest ideas in modern industrial architecture."

Certainly, it was representative of a certain modernity that felt downright futuristic, which is probably why it's so fitting that it's now the home of the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

Since Ford needed a venue where it could showcase its vehicles as part of its sponsorship, the Ford Bowl was built directly adjacent, in a ravine that couldn't really be used for anything else, since it was too deep to fill or build over or across.

And it became not only a hub of automotive excitement but also a cultural center, thanks to Ford-sponsored performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Diego Symphony in 1935, which were heard across the country thanks to live radio broadcasts.

The amphitheater was always meant to be a permanent addition to the park, but when Ford pulled out of its title sponsorship after just one year, expo organizers had to figure out what to do with it.

And that's kind of the situation it's in right now. No show has been produced on its stage since 2010, and its 4273 seats sit empty.

It's a shame since this was Director of Architecture Requa's favorite of his contributions for the expo. He saw it as his attempt to extend the work of Bertram Goodhue from the 1915-1917 event. And the cultural impact of the concerts that were held there—even on a national level—was undeniable.

But, after the expo ended, it wasn't long before the U.S. entered World War II and the Navy seized Balboa Park for military use. (The U.S. Naval Hospital still stands in the southeastern quadrant of the park.) And by the late 1940s when the park was returned to the City of San Diego, Balboa Bowl (as it was known then) was all but forgotten.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, though, the concrete bowl venue hit its stride, mounting productions of Broadway musicals like Carousel and Oklahoma. This was also the time that the stage was being used by the San Diego Civic Light Orchestra, which moved there in 1950, left in 1965, and returned in 1973. And in the 1970s, what had become known as "Balboa Park Bowl" was rechristened Starlight Bowl (no relation to the outdoor venue in Burbank) in reference to its history with the "Light" Orchestra. But unfortunately, when the SDCLO folded in 2012, that spelled doom for the place the ensemble had called home on and off for so many years.

Throughout its history, no matter what the venue was called or which show graced its stage, planes departing from and landing at the nearby airport has always an issue—going all the way back to the days of Lindbergh Field (established 1928), which ultimately became today's San Diego International Airport. And while no amount of restoration will abate that noisy distraction when it occurs during a show, some people actually like the nuisance for its nostalgic value.

A non-profit organization, The Committee of One Hundred, has been working to preserve Balboa Park's architecture and gardens since 1967 and has assembled an incredible list of resources that address the many issues that the park has been and is currently facing. The committee is also leading the charge to get the Palisades area the renaissance it's due, so it can cease to be seen as Balboa Park's "ugly stepsister."

And part of that involves the formation of a splinter group, Save Starlight, whose mission is to bring the bowl back to life, reinvigorated and ready to serve the community once again.

Personally I hope someone figures out how to bring back some of that lost Mayan ornamentation and nighttime lighting schemes. I'd also really like to see the lost Firestone Singing Fountains in action.

Much of the information here came from the book Inside Lights on the Building of San Diego's Exposition: 1935 by Richard S. Requa AIA. To read it and get the story from the horse's mouth yourself, click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The View from Above Balboa Park's Former Expo Grounds
Photo Essay: The World's Largest Outdoor Pipe Organ
Taking the Stairs to a Tower, a Terrace, a Dell and a Bowl in Hollywood

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Motherless Daughters Love Brunch, Too

"Hello... we were wondering on how many people in your party for Sunday?"

I'd bought a ticket for Chef LQ's Mother's Day brunch, which was part of the "Ma Maison" pop-up series at his house in Highland Park that I'd enjoyed last year but for dinner. And when I got the email asking about the size of my party just four days prior to the brunch, I should've known this experience would be different than the last.

But instead of questioning it, I just replied as honestly as I could by writing, "Just one. I don't have a mom and I was looking for something to do and I wanted to try Chef's brunch because breakfast is my favorite meal."

I didn't bother explaining that I do have a mom whom I haven't spoken to in over a decade or that Mother's Day is always a stinging reminder of what other people have that I don't, never did, and never will.

And worse yet, they didn't explain that they were asking because I wouldn't be seated at one long, communal table as I was for dinner last year. Instead, each party would be broken up into individual tables.

But I didn't know that until I got there, uncharacteristically the first to arrive and even three minutes before the gate would be unlocked, and was seated at a "Table for One," front and center, facing LQ's backyard from under the patio overhang, parties of six both to my left and my right.

I'd made a grave error in judgment for my Mother's Day plan of distraction—but by then, it was too late to do anything about it. After all, I'd already paid my fixed price for the meal when I purchased my ticket.

So, I sat down and dove in.

Judging by all the advertisements and promotional announcements leading up to Mother's Day, it's pretty clear that moms must love brunch. It's the thing to do with your mom on Mother's Day (though I don't think my mother has brunched a day in her life).

But brunch can't be just for mothers and daughters to enjoy together, right?

If I can't brunch alone, then I may never brunch. And while I rarely have the luxury of time to actually enjoy a fancy meal that early on a weekend day, I don't want to live in a world where solo brunching isn't allowed.

Thankfully, the LQ folks sold me the one ticket and gave me the one table. And that meant that I got to enjoy the entire pastry basket—filled with croissants and pain au chocolat, baked earlier this morningall by myself (and sneak leftovers home wrapped in a napkin).

Unfortunately, although the food was fab and the service was doting, there isn't a sandwich in the world that could have eased my discomfort and shame at sitting there alone, motherless. At a communal meal, I most certainly would've struck up a conversation with those next to or across from me, as I had when Chef Laurent served us dinner last year. But this morning, I only listened to the birds chirping and the rain falling and tried not to eavesdrop on other families' conversations.

I also tried to busy myself on the internet, but that ended up exacerbating my plight. And I should've known better—because every year, I am absolutely shocked at how much other people love their mothers and how much other people's mothers love them. It's a concept that's completely foreign to me. While many of my friends and contacts express their maternal gratitude and affection throughout the year, it's absolutely deafening on Mother's Day.

So, I put down my phone and bit into my Pan Bagna (sometimes called pain bagnat, and usually made with tuna instead of Main lobster), chewing though my eyes were welling, trying to appreciate the gifts from Mother Earth that I was tasting, like bell peppers from the garden and Picholine black olives.

Chef Laurent gets all his ingredients either from his own garden or from Apricot Lane Farms, which means the poached eggs I had with my bœuf bourguignon (a.k.a. Beef Burgundy) were from the very same chickens I'd met on my farm tour a few weeks ago and were the same type of eggs as in the carton I'd bought and cooked up for myself.

I wanted to tell Chef about my tour there, and joke with him about their snails getting fed to the ducks instead of becoming escargot for us, but he didn't come out to greet us this morning as he had at the last dinner. I could hear him in the kitchen, directing traffic and keeping everything running smoothly, so I could tell how busy he was.

After all, a prix fixe meal like the Mother's Day brunch—where you can choose among multiple options for the three courses—is much more difficult than the chef's tasting menu that's offered at dinner, when you just eat whatever food is placed in front of you.

With the lack of socializing and the swift service, I got through all three courses pretty quickly, despite trying to eat slowly enough to enjoy everything and commit the flavors to memory. The special dessert dish, for example, had so much going on with it—from poached rhubarb to strawberry crémeux and tonka bean ice cream—that it would have been a shame to just gobble the whole thing up without swishing it around a bit to try to distinguish the various textures and taste sensations.

But still, I didn't want to stay any longer than absolutely necessary. I had no desire to linger with another cup of coffee or indulge in a glass of wine. I wanted to be alone in my car. I wanted to get home to my cat.

Before I left, though, I needed to settle up my tab with my server, since the ticket I'd bought only covered the three courses of food and the coffee but not the beverage or the gratuity. The Ma Maison policy is to charge its guests a standard 20% gratuity, which would've only been $10 and that just didn't seem like enough for all the effort that everyone had put into giving us a nice Mother's Day. So, I asked, "Can I give more? I don't know if you have moms who you're not spending time with so that we can have brunch..."

The extra $5 I threw in doesn't make up for the time lost with mom, I'm sure. But there's really no other way for me to express my gratitude for the sacrifices that some people make—whether on Mother's Day or Thanksgiving—just to be sure that other people have something nice to do.

And for an orphan like me, that's priceless.

Related Posts:
On Motherhood
A Mother-Not-to-Be