Thursday, November 15, 2018

Photo Essay: The Victorian Atrium That Frank Lloyd Wright Transformed Into a Gilded Birdcage

Living in California, I've seen a few Frank Lloyd Wright-designed residences.

He often didn't get along with his clients...

...and went ahead and did what he wanted to do anyway...

...or stormed out and passed the project off to another architect to finish...

...including, frequently, his son Lloyd Wright.

I had to fly all the way to Chicago to see an early-career commercial project of FLW...

...for which he was commissioned to do a certain thing...

...and he actually did it.

The Rookery Building in the Chicago Loop's Financial District continues the grand architectural tradition of the Victorian atrium, like the Bradbury Building in Downtown LA or the Beekman Tower in Lower Manhattan.

FLW didn't design or build it—that was done by Daniel Burnham and John Root and completed in 1888.

It was in 1905 that FLW was brought in to make the "light court" less dark and Victorian and brighten it up a bit (hence the white paint job on the ceiling beams and seams in the glass ceiling).

Much of what you see ow on the ground floor and mezzanine level of the office building and commercial space is his work, with a few bits of the old design peeking through.

That includes the columns, which are just clad in gilded white marble and still contain the original dark iron supports underneath.

Much of the mosaic tile floor has been replaced as part of the 1992 (and most recent) restoration—except for a section that had been hidden under a staircase addition that has since been removed, exposing a preserved patch underneath.

The showstopper of the Rookery atrium is the oriel staircase...

...replete with dizzying geometric patterns and Moorish incised Carrara marble.

At the mezzanine, the staircase appears to float—but as you look up, you can see how it spirals all the way to the 12th (and top) floor.

From there, it's the best vantage point from which to look down into the birdcage.

The Rookery's atrium was initially all about letting light in, in an era when the building was outfitted for both gas and electricity, but neither was very reliable.

Frank Lloyd Wright added bronze chandeliers with prismatic glass that evoke his Prairie style and illuminate the court even when there's not much light to come in from the outside.

In the floor of the wraparound mezzanine, you can still see original glass blocks that allowed light to shine through from the upper light well to the bottom floor.

Yet another revamp was ordered in 1931—this time to make the former Victorian atrium more Art Deco. Former Wright assistant William Drummond replaced the elevator cages installed by Wright with bronze doors with figurative designs of blackbirds (in tribute to the Rookery Building's name), as well as a few other more modern flourishes (some of which were preserved in the last restoration, and others that were reverted).

You have to see it to believe it. It is absolutely breathtaking. And unlike any FLW project I've even seen in person or in pictures.

Related Posts:
Looking Up from the Streets of Downtown LA (Updated for 2017)
Photo Essay: A Desert Trek to Frank Lloyd Wright's Winter Home and Office

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Photo Essay: Things We Lost In the Woolsey Fire 2018 (Before Photos)

The Woolsey Fire that broke out last week has been the most destructive of any Southern California wildfire since I moved here nearly eight years ago.

Not so much in terms of loss of life—but loss of life's work and livelihood.

So far, 85% of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area has burned—but this is no forest fire.

The blazes ripped through natural resources and habitat, public parks, historic sites, and even the old western movie set at Paramount Ranch, some of which dated back 90 or so years.

It destroyed the house at Peter Strauss Ranch in Cornell...

...leaving only a fireplace/chimney...

...and a few brick walls standing.

Thankfully, it spared the businesses across the street...

...including The Old Place and Cornell Winery...

...but it took out the steel bridge you need to take to get to them.

In Malibu Creek State Park, the former Fox movie ranch where Planet of the Apes was shot...

...the Woolsey Fire took out the original barn and stables of Reagan Ranch...

...a thoroughbread horse farm called "Yearling Row" that Ron owned and frequented with Nancy from 1951 to 1966, right before being elected Governor of California.

It had become a popular area of the park for both hikers and equestrians (especially along the Yearling Trail), with a planned equestrian campground in the works.

Om the other side if the park, the recently restored Sepulveda Adobe also succumbed to the fire.

The 155-year-old historic site survived the 1994 Northridge earthquake (though it was badly damaged)...

...but was gutted by the fire, leaving only a shell.

Built in 1863 and occupied by homesteader Don Pedro Alcantara Sepulveda and his family... hadn't been occupied since 1980.

It hadn't even reopened to the public yet, its restoration was so recent.

And the site that Malibu Creek State Park is most famous for—the set from the TV show M*A*S*H—was also ravaged. But since the set was mostly the natural landscape and no structures—just vehicles and interpretive signage—there's not much to rebuilt. Nature will take its course.

Farther west down Mulholland Highway, Saddlerock Ranch—home of Malibu Wine Safaris—lost 95% of its structures, including barns and other exotic animal enclosures. Stanley the giraffe survived after sheltering in place.

Most of the other animals did, too—though one sheep is still missing, and a llama experienced a burned front hoof.

What's really scary isn;t so much where the Woolsey Fire went—but where it started.

Fire sparked (probable from SoCal Edison electrical ultility equipment) at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills, where nuclear tests 60 years ago were so dangerous that staffers had to view them from a underground control center containing a periscope.

In its time of operation, at least four of the 10 nuclear reactors had accidents, and there were numerous fires throughout the field lab in its history. Overheated power cells were "ventilated," releasing radioactive materials into the atmosphere. In a 1959 incident involving a partial meltdown of the SRE power plant, radioactive gasses were emitted into the atmosphere. Cleanup for that didn't even start until 1975. The public wasn't informed of any of it until the information leaked 20 years later. (The site was demolished and removed in 1999.)

Chemicals were illegally disposed of in metal drums placed into fire pits, where they would be shot at and explode, releasing the contaminants into the air. Among the chemical compounds spilled around these testing sites was TCE (trichloroethylene), which was used to flush the engines and the fuel systems prior to testing. Lots of exotic chemicals have made their way into the groundwater.

The Department of Energy and the Department of Toxic Substances Control claim that a fire ripping through this badly contaminated site poses no more danger than any other wildfire would.

But on a tour in 2014, guides admitted that the clean-up crews were keeping the most contaminated structures for last.

Why? So they have somewhere to store radioactive materials before they end up at some California hazardous waste landfill (in Buttonwillow or Kettleman Hills).

That means that whatever did burn at Santa Susana would definitely pose a danger. It would definitely release radioactive material to land on neighboring houses and cars and be breathed in by local residents and their animals.

There's no denying that.

But right now, we don't know what's gone and what's left at Santa Susana—including any of the historic testing structures that had been landmarked.

And we don't know what else the Woolsey Fire took, either. I'll keep this post updated as I get more information.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: In the Line of Fire 
Surveilling the Santa Monica Mountains For Smoke
Photo Essay: Solstice Canyon

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Photo Essay: The Rendon Hotel, from Red Light District to Arts District

"Was this area ever nice?" my friend asked me as we were waiting to get into the latest art installation at the Rendon Hotel, Stories.

Photo: William Reagh (LAPL Photo Collection, 1964)

"Uhhh... no."

Google Street View circa 2011

I didn't mean to be dismissive. But as developers try to gentrify the corner of 7th and Santa Fe—about 800 feet from the LA River's left bank and about a half-mile from the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail freight depot and yard (now an architecture school, Sci-Arc)—the area's history persists.

Photo: Diane Cockerill (Courtesy Cartwheel Art)

What's now known as the Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles was once a makeshift red-light district for railroad workers who were housed there temporarily. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it essentially served as an extension of The Nickel and Skid Row—just a little farther east down 5th Street.

The Rendon Hotel served its purpose for the neighborhood at the time—as a flophouse and probably a brothel, too. (The more famous flophouse in the district is the American Hotel on Hewitt and Traction, home to punk rock and Al's Bar.)

Just like the old saloons of the Wild West, it had a number of drinking establishments on the first floor...

...from the Topaz Cafe and Pete's Club Santa Fe in 1964 (see photo above)..., most recently, Licha's Bar and Grill.

For the last few years, the bar and the hotel have been occupied mostly by film crews.

But this year, everything old is new again—and the space has been reinvigorated with a series of art installations and immersive (though not interactive) performances.

Audiences were invited to peek through windows and holes in the wall and stand in doorways, observing the goings-on in many of the single occupancy rooms—one of which, presumably, having been the scene of a murder.

Given the hotel's history of rooms rented by the hour, replete with timers and a control board...

...and the communal bathrooms in the hallways...

...the "fly on the wall" experience wasn't nearly as X-rated as I expected.

Then again, the concept of the Arts District isn't new. The conversion started at least as early as the 1970s, and maybe even the 1960s (depending on who you ask).

And parts of it—like right around the Rendon Hotel—still look pretty post-industrial apocalyptic.

But the LA River is getting a facelift, with new bridges. And the Arts District continues to get new bars and loft-style condos. If developers had their way, there'd be no room left for art in the Arts District.

So, it's exciting to see something happening in one of those old buildings—something that retains its grit and revels in its history.

Special thanks to Eric Brightwell for filling in some gaps of my knowledge of the area. Read Eric's blog on the Arts District here. 

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Linda Vista Hospital Comes Alive With "The Groundskeepers"
Dancers Descend Upon the Semi-Vacant Crenshaw Hospital