Friday, August 23, 2019

Photo Essay: The Mansion Where California's Last Mexican Governor Lost It All

Excerpted and adapted from my article 

Pío Pico is one of the most intriguing – and controversial – figures in California history.

Born just outside of Los Angeles while California was ruled by Spain, Pico became three different nationalities throughout his lifetime – without ever moving beyond present-day Southern California.

Over the course of his 93 years, his story was one of “rags-to-riches”—and back to rags—from establishing a cattle empire to holding the highest political office in California under Mexican rule and succeeding as one of the wealthiest men of his time.

He solidified his financial security by selling beef and cowhides to the Gold Rush miners—and then became a political revolutionary, seizing the office of governor of Alta California.

But as meteoric as his rise to the top was—thanks to a healthy dose of ambition and fearless risk-taking—Pico’s fall was just as dramatic.

The most accessible, historically preserved and culturally rich resource to learn about Pío Pico’s life is “El Ranchito,” his former ranch on a parcel of the former Rancho Paso de Bartolo Viejo, once part of San Gabriel Mission’s massive landholdings.

Pico purchased the property in 1848, the year after the nearby Battle of Rio San Gabriel of the Mexican-American War.

During Pico’s time, El Camino Real passed directly in front of the park—marked today by a reproduction bell.

Now known as Pío Pico State Historic Park, this is where you’ll find the country home where Pico escaped city life and government in an adobe mansion he built in 1853.

"El Ranchito" narrowly escaped dismantling—its adobe bricks to be used as roadfill—when a preservation effort saved it and allowed it to be deeded to the State of California. In 1927, it became one of California's first state historic parks.

In the restored and rebuilt rooms, hardwood floors have replaced the original packed dirt.

The main entrance has been moved from the side patio to the front porch and balcony.

Some rooms show unrestored sections to expose the handmade adobe bricks that were once whitewashed with limestone plaster.

Evidence of historical upgrades include layers of paint on top of original wallpaper, lowered floors, moved walls and even a “hidden” wall.

Many original items owned by Pico and his family are displayed.

On the grounds, you can walk through grapevines planted by Pico himself...

...and the former “kitchen garden” and orchards...

...where you’ll still find prickly pear, quince, and pomegranate ripe for the picking.

There's also the preserved “horno” oven where bread was once baked...

...and the dovecote where pigeons once roosted.

These are just some of the artifacts that remain after Pico was evicted from "El Ranchito" in 1892, the victim of loan sharks who took advantage of his English illiteracy and had him sign a deed of sale he thought was a loan agreement.

The Afro-Mexican politician, land baron, and entrepreneur died two years later, a pauper.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Pico House Ghost Hunt
Photo Essay: A Historic Oasis in the Valley of the Oaks

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Standing in the Shadows of Towers In Hollywood (Or, What Will Happen to the Fonda Theatre?)

Hollywood is starting to look drastically different than when I first moved here in 2011 (not to mention when I first started visiting 10 years before that).

I always enjoyed the low profile of our non-existent skyline outside of Downtown LA—but now, newly-built towers are rising higher than ever before along Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards.

They may have "paved paradise" to "put up a parking lot"—but now they're building on top of all the parking lots, too.

Nobody's really thought about the shadow they'll be casting—even if they're not replacing historic structures, and are just being built around them.

Legacy businesses are losing their open air.

Take the Fonda Theatre, for example, which currently sits next to a parking lot that's slated to become the Hollywood and Gower Apartment Tower.

circa May 2011 (Screenshot via Google Street View)

It's had some nice breathing room on either side of it—and above it—not only since I first visited for a Twilight Singers concert in May 2011, when it had been branded the Music Box Theatre, but pretty much since it first opened in 1926 as the Carter DeHaven Music Box.

Back then, it operated as a musical comedy theatre with Ziegfeld-style revues with dancing, before becoming one of Hollywood's first legitimate theatres. And even when the outer lobby got its Skouras-style remodel in the 1940s, the theatre didn't have to cower away from the encroaching claws of developers.

Mid-century cladding would cover up the Spanish churrigueresque style facade designed by Morgan, Walls and Clements; and the Music Box would become the Pix in 1959 when Pacific Theatres took over for Fox West Coast.

Jaws would premiere at the Pix in 1975, and Rocky in1976—just before shutting down operations from 1977 to 1985, only for Pacific Theatres to convert it back to a legit operation in 1985 and rename it the Henry Fonda Theatre.

The Fonda/Music Box has always felt bigger than its 31,000 square feet—thanks to its open-air "roof garden," located above the lobby.

You can see the sky—and practically all of Hollywood Boulevard, looking west—standing up there, outside the colonnade that leads to a rooftop pavilion.

Legend has it that the enclosed rooftop space was used for illicit drinking, speakeasy-style, during Prohibition. Now, it's just a nice respite for all that's happening down below.

The construction of the apartment tower directly east of the Fonda Theatre won't affect its interiors.

Not the faux vintage of the inner lobby...

...the semi-original (but cladded) open standee area...

...or the auditorium, whose floor was filled in and flattened when the seats were removed to convert it into a concert venue.

The plasterwork surrounding the proscenium niches may get painted at some point in the future—but they won't be touched by the parking lot development next door.

The former fountain tiles will still cling to the walls...

...the gilded stenciling will shine...

...and the 1940s-era lighting fixtures will hang.

The Hieronymus Bosch-inspired wall hangings will simultaneously delight and horrify until someone has the good sense to remove them.

The embroidered balcony seats didn't even change in 2012, when the Music Box Theatre flipped back to the Fonda Theatre. No need to touch them now, with 22 stories and 252 feet of neighboring construction being added.

The Edwardian Ball, circa 2014

Hopefully, the vibration from the building project won't damage the historic structure. Hopefully, complaints from neighbors won't shut down late-night concerts, masquerade balls, and other performances. Mew residents of the new tower should know what they're getting into when they move in above a venue that's been operating for over nine decades.

But some things will change for sure—development or no development. They always do.

Film reels disappear from projection booths.

Orchestra pits get filled in and blocked off.

Theatre management was nervous about the new development really just for one reason: They needed a clear path through the alley behind the building, from N. El Centro Street to N. Gower Street, for trucks to load and unload rigging and gear for shows.

After appeals and petitions, the developer agreed to an easement that would allow Fonda-related delivery/loading traffic to pass through its above-ground parking structure.

It feels like a crisis was averted—and maybe one was.

But was it the only potential crisis that presented itself to this particular historic structure?

The Music Box/Fonda/Pix/Music Box/Fonda was deemed eligible for the National Register years ago—but it's not (yet) landmarked.

It's still vulnerable.

Historians will point out that the parcel directly east of the Fonda Theatre wasn't always unbuilt—at some point between the 1960s and 1980s, the building that once housed the Hollywood Gun Shop was razed and, well, paved for a parking lot. (See historic photos here.)

The current plan is better than demolishing an extant structure.

But I kind of love all the parking in LA.

And I'm not sure I'm willing to witness LA turning into NYC.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Globe Theatre (formerly Morosco), Under Construction
Photo Essay: The Wiltern Theatre, Public Areas
Mexican Wrestling In a Mayan Porno Palace

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Photo Essay: The 19th Century Lighthouse at California's Last Nuclear Power Plant

During my most recent trip to San Luis Obispo, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to visit the Point San Luis Lighthouse, located above Port San Luis Bay in the town of Avila Beach.

The only problem? It's not so easy to get to—and access is restricted by Pacific Gas and Electric, whose Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is just up the coastline.

You can't drive yourself there—a bus picks you up in Wild Cherry Canyon and shuttles you up a winding, narrow road that looms over the old Port San Luis Pier and Whalers Island.

The view alone is worth the journey up to the point—but then you get that 1890 lighthouse in view.

Located on a 30-acre parcel, the Prairie-Victorian-style head keeper's structure is the last of its kind on the West Coast—though the Coast Guard officially decommissioned it in 1974.

Its Fresnel lens was retired in 1969, replaced by an electric, automated beacon.

Now, a simple LED lantern is perched atop the old Coal House and pings on and off every four seconds, visible up to 17 nautical miles away.

It can get really foggy at the Bay, even during the daytime. Conditions haven't changed much since 1888, when the Queen of the Pacific ship was taking on water and made it to within 500 feet of the pier and sank in 22 feet of water.

By then, officials had already known that San Luis Harbor needed a lighthouse to guide steam ships carrying millions of pounds of such cargo as rocks, livestock, grains, and butter. But they'd been dragging their feet.

The near-tragedy of the Queen of the Pacific—including the loss of the ship and its cargo, though no lives were lost—brought a sense of urgency that finally made them pull the trigger on the lighthouse construction.

The lighthouse was fully restored to its original splendor—and museum quality—in 1995.

It features rare artifacts from this lighthouse and the U.S. Lighthouse Service, as well as interpretive displays and information on what life was like for a lightkeeper in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For instance, their rations included canned corn and tomatoes, oatmeal, beans, split peas, molasses, corned beef, codfish, and mutton.

The carved wooden bannister along the staircase leading to the second floor is original...

...and bedrooms (including that of Lucy Brohard, who lived as a girl at the lighthouse in the 1930s, when her mother was married to its keeper at the time, Robert Moorfield).

But there's one more level to climb up to...

...and that's the old light tower, with its trap-door floor...

...air vents built into the walls...

...and breathtaking views as seen through the lamp room's picture windows.

This was the lightkeeper's view, too—with Roman numerals etched into each corner of the eight-sided room so he'd know which direction he was looking in during poor visibility conditions.

Down below, there's still the brick oil house—original to 1890—that stored kerosene lamp oil (and other flammables) behind its iron door, before the light switched to electricity.

The former Coast Guard living quarters, built in 1961, remain—but the Victorian residence it replaced was razed and literally pushed off the cliff.

Between the main keeper's house and the Coast Guard residence is the former "Whistle House"...

...which became known as the Horn House when the whistle was replaced by a steam-powered fog signal, first operational in 1891.

Unfortunately, the original horn was lost—though its refurbished successor circa 1924 is on display.

No horns are currently hooked up—which is probably a good thing.

Reportedly, it used to be so loud that it would shake the dishes right off the table...

...and create a break in conversations every 30 seconds... far away as in the bars down on the beach.

The Horn House contains the 4th Order Fresnel lens that was removed from the tower's lamp room, where it would alternately flash red and white light every 30 seconds.

Sailors and ships' captains knew the pattern, which differed from lighthouse to lighthouse up and down the coast. So, even if they were hopelessly lost at sea, they could immediately orient themselves by the colors and frequency of the unique light flashes.

Since the decommissioning of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon is the last operational one left in California.

And its operation hasn't been without controversy—not just because of anti-nuclear protests in the early 1980s, but also concerns over seismic safety in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in Japan.

PG+E announced that it would not apply for any renewals or extensions and would begin shuttig Diablo Canyon down in 2024.

Although it's a victory for some, it does pose the question of what will happen to the sprawling expanse of property in the plant's buffer zone?

The energy company's involvement has kept other development at bay—be it housing or commercial. The land surrounding the Point San Luis Lighthouse is pretty pristine (until you get to the reactors themselves, of course).

As much as 12,000 acres could be conserved. But it's hard to say if they will be.

I'm glad I got to see Point San Luis when I did.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Point Fermin, Keeping Watch Over the San Pedro Bay
Photo Essay: Low Visibility Hiking at Bishop's Peak