Friday, May 24, 2019

The Hills Have Mines

There's not much in the Los Angeles area that you can take at face value. You have to dig a little deeper.

Case in point: Hostetter Fire Road, open only to hikers, dogs, and bicyclists.

It may look like any other emergency access road in the Verdugo Mountains...

...overlooking the 210 freeway and Verdugo Golf Course (including the site of the former Tuna Canyon Detention Station)...

...but it has secrets, ones you can only discover if you know where to look.

And after climbing a bit from the La Tuna Canyon trailhead and where La Tuna Canyon Road splits off, you might find some clues hiding in the brush.

Fortunately, I was with the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley—including some who'd already explored the terrain and figured a few things out.

What we were looking at was some of all that remains of the former Hostetter Mine, including some intact fragments of rails that had once transported ore carts and a wheel of the former funicular, made of solid cast iron. 

An 1891 article from the Los Angeles Times (a printout of which was distributed on our hike) bemoans how Southern California had neglected its mineral resources, despite gold having been first discovered in LA County, and switched all its attention to horticultural resources (presumably, citrus orchards and the like).

The singular exception, of course, was oil.

Of course, you have to acknowledge the challenge of mining SoCal's rugged terrain, which often is so overgrown it has to be cleared first and doesn't have enough water to support mining operations.

With sharp drop-offs making every steep canyon potentially deadly, you really can't blame mining companies for not trying that hard.

Some hikers can't even make it.

But some prospectors did, indeed, try—and a "practically inexhaustible" deposit of graphite was discovered in the Verdugos.

No trace of an actual mine shaft has yet been found in the canyons up there, after the paving gives way to dirt (and what looks like a creekbed).

But there are definite remnants of an industrial operation.

The mine is thought to have closed in the 1920s—it was still operating sometime in the 19-teens.

But by the 1960s, the presence of a graphite mine in the area was nothing more than a "rumor."

Back then, there was a piece of it hiding in plain sight...

...a concrete bunker along Cedar Bend Edison Road, once fully visible from the freeway...

...but now completely consumed and obscured by overgrowth.

According to mining historian Xavier Drenfold, the concrete-and-steel structure was the base of the mill...

...where you can find the old loading area, ore chutes, and even some more railroad track used as rebar.

Still, a lot of questions remain unanswered. But that, too, is typical of Southern California.

Local historian Mike Lawler tells this story better than I do. See his article "More Info on the Mystery Mine of the Verdugos" from the Crescenta Valley Weekly.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Verdugo Mountains Open Space Preserve, Along Edison Road
Lost in the Mountains
Becoming Californian
Something's Got to Give

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Photo Essay: The 1980s Skyscraper That Ate the San Diego Fox Theatre

Over the last 10+ years since I've been visiting, Downtown San Diego has really sprung up with the high-rises and the condos.

But it was in 1989 that San Diego's second-tallest building (by a foot) was completed—the 34-story Symphony Towers.

Fortunately, its construction preserved the home of the San Diego Symphony, known as Copley Hall since 1988.

In 1929, today's Copley Hall opened as the Fox Theatre—but you'd never know that a former movie palace was hiding inside this 500-foot glass tower.

The marquee that once faced Seventh Avenue is gone, without a trace (except for the historic photos framed and hung in the lobby).

But from the tower's B Street lobby, you can enter the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Music Center (so named since 2013, after a $120 million donation)... back 90 years and bask in the architecture of W. Templeton Johnson and William Peyton Day (of Weeks and Day)...

...and the interior design of A.B. Heinsbergen.

Initially operated by Fox West Coast Theatres, the Fox San Diego was the third largest movie palace on the Pacific Coast—part of the "Fox Block," a massive development by the Gildred Brothers Building Company (Philip L., Sr. and Theodore Gildred) that encompassed an entire city block.

Of course, that original development—$2.5 million worth of performance space, offices, and storefronts—was only four stories tall.

The San Diego Symphony purchased the then-derelict Fox in 1984 and embarked on a massive renovation the following year. While it was originally Gothic Revival with a decorative scheme that reminded some of Spanish Baroque, French Renaissance, or even Rococo, the "warm amber" hues of the mezzanine foyer walls and the "mellow" greens and grays appear to have been whitewashed.

Though it certainly is still gilded.

Intriguingly, the former Fox Theatre—now Copley Hall—remains its own building, entirely independent of the structures that surround it. They don't even touch! That way, nothing can interfere with the interior sound quality of the symphony hall.

Inside the auditorium, the hall has been meticulously preserved in its original condition (despite or perhaps because of further restoration work that occurred as recently as 2015). The Heinsbergen Decorating Company even returned to the theatre during its 1985 restoration to touch up A.B.'s original murals.

The seating capacity has been reduced from 2876 to 2248...

...but the circa 1923 theatre organ by The Robert Morton Organ Company remains.

Originally relocated from the nearby Balboa Theatre, it has expanded from 32 ranks to 47, with new ranks added in 2011/12. The horseshoe-style console is moveable...

... and its 3000 pipes are hidden from view behind organ grilles on either side of the stage.

The stage was originally built much larger than those commonly found in other movie palaces—which came in handy at the time for any "legit" theatrical productions and has allowed the full symphony orchestra (as well as other musical ensembles and opera productions) to perform there without major construction or demolition.

It makes me wonder what other historic buildings might be squirreled away behind modern facades, hidden from plain view?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Art of Performing at Lincoln Center
Photo Essay: The San Diego Theatre Built By A Sugar Fortune
Photo Essay: Music, Architecture, and the Rescue of the Heifetz Studio

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Photo Essay: The Russian Experiment That Helped Siberia's Mutant Foxes Escape the Fur Trade

Visitors to the Chernobyl plant company town of Pripyat in Ukraine (like me) have got a thing for its resident red fox, named Simon. (Of course, I've had a thing for foxes for a while.)

But it turns out a small group of rogue Russian genetic scientists do, too—originally led by Dmitry Belyaev, director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics and namesake of the so-called Belyaev foxes (a domesticated form of the wild red fox, Vulpes vulpes).

In 1959, he began to try to replicate how dogs (also members of the Canidae family) first became domesticated—but in a much shorter period of time. Instead of millennia, it took 55 years for his team at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences to develop a domesticated population.

They're not "tame," a trait that can be acquired through training, but genetically domesticated. Physical traits unique to these "friendly" foxes—but not those in the wild—include spots in their fur coloring, curled tails, and floppy ears. Litter sizes are larger, by one pup each.

Behaviorally, these domesticated foxes are more than just "nice"—they show no fear of humans and even actively seek out our companionship. But as cute and friendly as they are, they reportedly don't make good pets (at least, not yet).

They still mark their territory and guard their resources...

...and are fiercely curious.

But they're highly food motivated, so you can train them to sit and stay—just like a dog.

And treats make them really happy.

And not just the red foxes, but also a dark mutation (the silver fox) and a light-colored mutation (Georgian white) of it.

The selective breeding, however, hasn't yet gotten rid of their musky smell, which comes out of numerous scent glands that can be found from nose to tail. You can't remove the glands to get rid of the odor, the way that ferrets or even skunks can be "de-scented."

And even if you could, it seems cruel to do so. Why remove something that so distinctly makes a fox... a fox?

The Russian genetic experiment, which had continued after Belyayev's death in 1985, lost most of its funding with the collapse of the Soviet Union—and tragically, it only kept going by selling some of its docile foxes to the Russian fur trade.

On the surface, the purpose of domesticating foxes was to make them easier to keep in captivity on fur farms. Keeping them less stressed out around workers would make them easier to raise. (Domestic foxes even exhibit lower levels of the "stress hormone," cortisol, as well as adrenaline.)

But it turns out that was just a cover story to keep Belyaev from getting executed by a government that had outlawed the study of genetics.

In more recent times, foxes have begun to become more valued as pets than as pelts, so the institute now sells the domesticated breeds to individuals as well as organizations like the JAB Canid Education and Conservation Center in Santa Ysabel (East San Diego County).

At least in California, a fur ban is in the works and keeping foxes as pets is prohibited.

But that doesn't mean that people don't break the law.

And I'm not sure that the "fox encounters" offered by JABCECC won't encourage rather than discourage either activity.

American scientists have been working with the Russians to try to continue Belyaev's program—at least to see how far they can take it. But the foxes that have been shipped out of Siberia are fixed, so they can't breed. Apparently, the Russians don't want their genetic material getting spread around in uncontrolled environments.

And that means these Russian domesticated foxes may eventually go extinct.

But maybe wild foxes will eventually choose human companionship, if only for the increased proximity to a food source.

And maybe evolution will render them naturally domesticated in thousands of years, the same way that it did with dogs and cats.

After all, foxes are like the perfect combination of the two—some say they're like dog hardware that's running cat software.

Like both, they appreciate a good scratch (something I now know first-hand).

Related Posts:
Meet Simon, The Red Fox of the Radioactive Red Forest
The Island of the Blue Dolphins and One Lone Woman
Photo Essay: The Island That Prisoners Pioneered
Photo Essay: Hollywood's Wildest Stars