July 30, 2015

Photo Essay: Terminal Annex, A Great Building in Its Own Right

[Last updated 11/13/19—architect attribution added]

In LA, a lot of tourists and locals find themselves drawn to certain places because of a role they played in a film, a TV series, or even a book. There's the Batcave, the M*A*S*H site in Malibu, the Charmed house in Angelino Heights, the police station from Dragnet, the swimming pool from Mad Men, and Doc Brown's house from Back to the Futureamong many, many others.

I was lured by the Terminal Annex Post Office in Downtown LA, without knowing that it was the one from Charles Bukowski's breakthrough novel Post Office.

After all, I haven't read it yet. I hadn't even heard of Charles Bukowski before moving to LA four and a half years ago. I didn't get to study the writings of a drunk and dirty old man in literature classes back East in the '80s and '90s. Maybe times have changed. Maybe it's different here, out West.

Regardless of its literary significance, I knew it was a great building, and after years of driving past, I finally found myself on foot nearby and able to wander in.

When it opened in 1940, the Terminal Annex was the central processing unit for LA's incoming and outgoing mail. Its utilitarian purpose didn't detract from its beauty—it was designed by architect Louis A. Simon to complement the architectural style of Union Station across the street, and oh, how it does.

In real life, Bukowski worked at the postal service as a mail carrier and sorter for 14 years. Then he wrote his semi-fictionized, thinly veiled account of it in Post Office, giving the Terminal Annex a certain status of infamy.

Because of its size and rate of growth, the city's mail demands actually outgrew the Terminal Annex facility, so it had to be replaced in 1989. It had a good 50 years.

The postal service reportedly moved out of the building in 1995, and subsequently, it started appearing in all sorts of films and TV episodes. It stood empty for years, inaccessible to the public.

I wasn't sure what was there now, or if I would even be able to get inside, but I saw a few others opening the doors with ease. So, I followed suit.

Inside, it has the feeling of a grand municipal building, decorated with several WPA era murals by modernist figurative painter Boris Deutsch. Understandably, it has stood in for city halls and hospitals on screen.

Its high ceilings make it feel cavernous...

...but the glow of mid-afternoon sun coming through the windows, with no other lights on, makes it feel cozy.

It's quite a looker, for a facility that wasn't meant to be open to the public.

But despite its emptiness, it appears that it is open to the public now—somewhat.  Its front area is a small USPS location for retail services and drop-offs and retrievals of mail. The LA Sheriff's Department instructs those wishing to reach incarcerated inmates (at the Men's Central Jail, and other area prison facilities) to address their packages to a P.O. Box here, to be subsequently scrutinized for explicit sexual content and other contraband.

On a Saturday afternoon after 1 p.m., there was not a postal clerk in sight. It's a bit eerie in there, with one hallway roped off and the elevators inaccessible, the dim lighting and the clocks that have stopped running. As beautiful as it is, this place has seen some ugly events—from workers going "postal" to pipe bombs going off.

Especially when admiring its Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival architectural features on its exterior, you'd never know that somewhere behind these terrazzo floors and wall murals now lies a technological powerhouse.

After a 2001 renovation, which modernized the structure to attract high-tech occupants, CoreSite Realty Corporation moved in and transformed the newly-restored structure into an annex data center—their "LA2" facility, a computer ecosystem that probably powers more things in The Cloud than we could ever imagine. They needed a lot of square footage, and this protected, designated landmark had it. And no one else was using it.

The building was saved because of its architectural style and not because of the role it has played in LA's literary heritage and American pop culture. But now that I've been there and seen it for myself, maybe now is a good time to finally read a Bukowski novel. It feels like a rite of passage, in order to really understand LA.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: James Farley Post Office / Future Moynihan Station
Photo Essay: Union Station, Open to the Public

July 29, 2015

Photo Essay: The Dorothy Bembridge Murder Mansion

Los Angeles is full of little bedroom communities that used to be cities—places that got gobbled up by a better-known neighboring municipality, and are now just a footnote on a historic plaque.

Willmore City is one of those places. With Drake Park (then Knoll Park) at its heart, it was the first historic district of Long Beach. What's left of it is just one square mile in size, perched on a bluff over the LA River, across from the Port of LA and Terminal Island.

The crown jewel of Willmore City—which has plenty of landmark homes in Mission, Craftsman, and Queen Anne architectural styles—is the Historic Bembridge House, a Queen Anne Victorian with an original carriage house and aviary.

The original owner was Stephen Green, one of the founders of City National Bank—but its namesake was Dorothy Rankin Bembridge, who grew up in the house after her father bought it and moved his family from Nebraska in 1919.

Its ornate features are amazingly well-preserved, thanks to the fact that Dorothy maintained it as a single-family residence until her death in 1999. Although she did move out and get married, she returned to the house when her husband bought out her brother's share, once the two siblings had inherited it from their parents.

An international concert pianist and local piano teacher, Dorothy Bembridge was an important part of the early development of Long Beach, its community for 80 years, and its current cultural heritage. She was a founder of the Long Beach Historical Society, and she saved her own house from demolition.

So it was shocking for her to be murdered in her own backyard.

Because Dorothy collected some things over time but never really got rid of anything, the house contains antiques from many different eras dating all the way back to the turn of the century...

...creating a narrative of her nearly 90 years, now frozen in time.

Although there have been talks of turning the Bembridge mansion into a house museum of the Victorian Era, for now, it's full of Dorothy's personal belongings and furniture...

...whether they're technically historic or not.

Clearly, she wasn't ready to die.

She taught piano lessons here...

...and kept the house in pristine, largely unaltered condition, in all its splendor.

She surrounded herself with objects that she loved.

Maintaining this two-story house was no small undertaking...

...with a total of 18 rooms, four of which are bathrooms (all original).

And yet, she still found time to sew, in a room off the old sleeping porch.

Dorothy's presence is felt everywhere in the house.

Sometimes it feels as though she is still there, watching...

...or maybe playing piano. She always loved the soft acoustics of the curtains and floors.

On the third floor, a very large attic houses even more collectibles and memorabilia. Despite the heat up there, it was once converted into sleeping quarters as part of the coastal defense during times of war.

Up there, you can walk right into the hexagonal turret, which resembles more of a witch's hat from the inside.

How did this beloved founding daughter of Long Beach come to her demise at the hands of another? Most think it was revenge. In 1990, a transient who frequented the park across the street, Daniel William Borunda, had been doing odd jobs for Dorothy for a while when he burglarized her. He was convicted and sent to jail for the crime.

On October 19, 1999, Daniel was released on parole. On November 4, 1999, he broke into the Bembridge mansion again and strangled Dorothy to death, leaving her in the backyard to be found by police. In 2001, he was captured, convicted, and sentenced to 60 years to life.

No one has lived in the Bembridge House since Dorothy's death. Her treasured home is now owned by Long Beach Heritage, which opens it up for tours and hosts occasional special events there, as well as a quilting club. The scene of the crime—the backyard—is available for weddings, for those able to stomach the grisly history.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Time Capsule That Is Lanterman House
Photo Essay: The Museum of Misfit Houses
This House Has a New Home
Photo Essay: Inside Greystone Mansion

July 24, 2015

Photo Essay: Invasive Plants, Parasitic Birds, and Giant Stinging Nettle at Prado Wetlands

After I had taken a tour of the Orange County Sanitation District wastewater treatment facility, I was curious to see what else set the OC Water District apart from the ones I'd visited in LA.

circa 2017

It turns out that they run a patch of wetlands in Corona—actually in Riverside County—just behind the Prado Dam, at the base of the Santa Ana River. In 1992, they converted a series of duck-hunting ponds into an ecosystem that further treats wastewater that has been already treated three times.

This is nature's most natural filtration system—with a few pumps and pipes added.

These ponds remove ~30 tons of nitrate a month, plus other pollutants like sex hormones and pharmaceuticals, residual traces of which end up getting urinated into the toilet. (Do not flush your unwanted pills down the toilet, please!)

They are not only functional, but pretty...

...and create a great habitat for various types of wildlife... well as a number of birds.

These aren't natural wetlands, of course.

In fact, they're the largest manmade wetlands in Southern California.

Part of the maintenance of the wetlands includes removing non-native invasive vegetation, planting native species...

...and rotating the ponds so they're not all working at the same time.

It's become a precious area for conservation of threatened species, so it's not open to the public.

Fortunately, OCWD conducts occasional bird-watching tours in the spring.

And oddly, duck hunting is still allowed here.

Although it looks tranquil, the adjacent shooting range regularly erupts in gunfire, making the visit a bit unnerving (apparently only to people—the birds seem to have gotten used to it).

The Prado Dam is actually a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a branch of the military devoted to working on national security from an environmental perspective.

Often that means employing measures to control floods—including 700 dams in U.S. states and territories, and the LA River. Lots of civilians work with army officers to help make that happen.

The Prado Dam releases floodwaters incrementally, so Orange County doesn't get too much water flow all at once.

There are some nice flowers here, too—including jimson, which is usually referred to as a weed, but at least it's native.

The problem with non-native, invasive species of plants is that usually they require a much higher water load than the natives—and they're aggressive, which means they use up all the water available (which isn't much), and overtake the area, killing the water-starved native plants.

Typically invasive plants—like Arundo donax—don't provide a natural food source, because they can't be eaten by native species.

Fortunately the bird life seems to be thriving there, with barn owl chicks fledgling in boxes, almost ready to leave their nests.

There are some actual natural nests built up in the trees. Environmental stewards plant native mule fat trees at the wetlands, but there are lots of other trees as well.

In a grove of willow trees, we were surrounded by so much white puffy cottony stuff that it looked like it was snowing.

We also encountered a huge stinging nettle grove with gigantic leaves. Stinging nettle—which does sting upon skin contact—is abundant throughout the wetlands, and its numbers are increasing.

Conservation efforts also include protecting the Santa Ana Sucker Fish, a now-threatened species of fish that used to thrive in the Santa Ana River watershed.

Some years, the Prado Wetlands see an active nesting season, while other years they don't—and it's not necessarily dependent on how bad the drought is. At one point or another, in addition to the barn owls, you're likely to spot box owls, Great Blue Herons, and even endangered species like the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the least Bell's Vireo—the latter of which is particularly protected and monitored.

A big part of this is trapping the cowbirds that parasitize the nests of this small, migratory songbird. The female cowbirds literally go into the nests of vireos (and other songbirds too) and lay their own eggs in there to let the unsuspecting host raise it as their own. They don't even bother building nests of their own—ever!

Sometimes they'll knock one of the host's eggs out of the next to make room for their own. If they don't do that at first, sometimes they'll keep an eye on their intruder egg, and if it's threatened or removed for some reason, the cowbird will destroy the host's eggs. And sometimes if the vireo spots the intruding egg, it will abandon its nest—even with its own eggs still in it, drastically reducing their population.

So traps are set up with male cowbirds (the dark ones) inside to lure the females (the brown ones) in through a narrow opening at the top. It's easy enough for the girls to get in, but nearly impossible for them to escape, so they are trapped in there until they meet their gruesome fate—destruction.

And then, of course, there are the ducks. But the sanctioned hunting helps control the population of the waterfowl, at least.

Prado is lesser-known than some of the other area wetlands, but it's super-weird and fascinating—and if you can manage to get on a tour, your small group will have the place all to yourselves.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Wastewater in the Time of Drought
Basking in the Gloom at Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Photo Essay: Hansen Dam, from Floods to Drought
Typhoid Sandi