August 22, 2016

Photo Essay: A Rock House of Plays, Poetry, and Ceramics (and The Cross That Overlooks It)

[Ed: Updated with photos and info on the cross 4/15/17]

It's hard to really know anything about someone until you see where they live—or, in the case of poet John McGroarty, where he lived.

Circa 1933 (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

The historic monument house now known as the McGroarty Arts Center wasn't the McGroartys' first home in Tujunga. They'd initially moved to the area in 1901 to ease John's respiratory issues and had previously lived in a cabin and a house that had burned down.

Circa 1960 (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

It's not even the first house that they built or vied in on this particular parcel of land. It's actually an exact rebuild of a home whose housewarming party turned into a house-burning catastrophe.

This second version was completed in 1924—a feat that was only possible thanks to the success of McGroarty's The Mission Play, a long-running pageant production that also gave rise to The Mission Playhouse in San Gabriel.

Appropriately, the McGroarty House was designed by the same architect as The Mission Playhouse, Arthur B. Benton...

...who also designed The Mission Inn in Riverside.

The stained glass windows in the main downstairs room were a gift to McGroarty from his friend Frank Miller, the owner of The Mission Inn, where McGroarty had written much of The Mission Play.

Upstairs of the McGroarty House acts as a kind of living museum to John McGroarty's life and career as a writer, editor, journalist, and politician.

He wrote his own column for The Los Angeles Times, mostly about life near the Verdugo Mountains... well as a number of poems inspired by the state he'd adopted as his new home, after having moved here from Pennsylvania.

He earned the title of Poet Laureate in 1933...

...and two years later was elected to Congress, representing California's 11th district for two terms under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The home is now used as a community arts center, which has managed to reuse and retain much of its original features... the countertops in the kitchen...

...and the vintage stove.

Since life in the McGroarty home wasn't all about the written word...

...a player piano has been faithfully restored and is on display, and piano lessons are sometimes offered.

This house made of rocks collected from the Tujunga Wash (and local fields and hillsides)... now also surrounded by rock walls, which are inlaid with various found objects and ceramics.

McGroarty himself was inspired by the natural landscape of the Crescenta Valley as well as by architecture and art...

...and so, having had no children of his own with his wife Ida, he instead left behind a literary, architectural, and artistic legacy.

He also left a natural legacy: his namesake mountain, Mount McGroarty, which bears a cross (at 2000 feet of elevation) that was erected the same year that the rock house below was built.

The same architect was responsible for both.

But the cross—named after the idealistic, utopian cooperative of San Ysidro at the Mexican border—had less to do with McGroarty's Mission Play, poetry, or other writings (though it did appear in his LA Times column)...

...than as a beacon for the "Little Landers" community of Sunland and Tujunga, a group of pioneers who'd "landed" in the Crescenta Valley to replicate their ideals of living "little."

They wanted to do little work for a little land, where they could succeed a little on their little farms.

Ysidro (a.k.a. Isidro or Isidore) is traditionally known as the patron saint of farmers and ranchers, but the "Little Landers" pioneers (who were also known as "The Millionaires of Happiness and Contentment") appropriated him as the patron saint of "little homes."

The thing was, this area of the Rancho Tujunga was a lot rockier than the pioneers expected—making agriculture a nearly impossible way to exploit the "little lands" ("los terrenitos") that they'd obtained.

But some good came out of the rocky landscape when a rock mason (a.k.a. "Nature Builder") named George Harris built this 30-foot monument out of that native rock. (Harris also designed and built the clubhouse for the Little Landers Colony, Bolton Hall.)

Since its completion, locals have flocked to that poured concrete cross on top of Mount McGroarty for sunrise service on Easter Sunday—though the trail that leads to it is open for hiking the rest of the year as well.

But most people probably know the cross from below, looking up to the beacon from their little homes on their little lands in the little community known as Tujunga, named after the mountain range that surrounds it, protected from the bigness of the City of Los Angeles that eventually absorbed it.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: San Gabriel Mission Playhouse
Photo Essay: The Lighted Windows of La CaƱada Congregational Church
Photo Essay: An Inn for Presidents, Padres, and Patron Saints

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