Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Photo Essay: Crystal Cathedral, Upon Its Reconsecration As Christ Cathedral

The other day, I offhandedly mentioned something about going to church. My friend said, "Yeah, right—you in church."

But it's true: Although I consider myself a recovering Catholic, I end up in churches quite a bit.

In fact, one of my favorite buildings is a church. And it was designed by one of my favorite architects.

The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California was designed by the firm of Philip Johnson/John Burgee Architects at the behest of Garden Grove Community Church's Robert H. Schuller, a Protestant televangelist known for his weekly "Hour of Power" TV show, which broadcast from there until June 2013.

circa 2011

Upon its completion in 1980, the home of the megachurch (a Reformed Church in America affiliate) was "the largest glass building in the world." Surely a skyscraper has supplanted it by now. 

But it still houses one of the largest musical instruments in the world—a 293-rank, 17,106-pipe mish-mosh that incorporates a large Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ (originally built in 1962 for Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, another Philip Johnson-affiliated project) and the Ruffatti Brothers-manufactured organ from the church's previous sanctuary.

circa 2011

Inside was something like a giant greenhouse—its 11,000 glass panes turning the sanctuary into a hotbox, with no A/C for relief. (Recently, perforated aluminum panels were added to shade the congregation, with an HVAC system added for cooling.)

The 18-story, 236-foot Prayer Spire (a.k.a. Crean Tower) was added in 1990. (That might actually be my favorite part.) It was also designed by Johnson, who upon its dedication said that it was a "tower built of light... that celebrates the sun."

circa 2011

Now, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County owns Crystal Cathedral—and has renamed it "Christ Cathedral," reconsecrated as such on July 17, 2019.

Crystal Cathedral Ministries had filed for bankruptcy back in 2010, but "Hour of Power" still airs—just from a new location, Shepherd's Grove in Irvine, CA. It's now hosted by Robert H. Schuller's grandson, Bobby.

Crystal Cathedral wasn't the first home for "Hour of Power" anyway. That was the Neutra Sanctuary (now called the "Arboretum") a "drive-up" church designed by Richard Neutra, completed in 1961. It could accommodate 500 cars—plus a non-motorist, "walk-in" congregation inside the church. “Come as You Are in the Family Car!” they'd say.

circa 2011

It was somewhat of an homage to the congregation's early days, when Schuller awaited the construction of a permanent home and, in the meantime, rented out the Orange Drive-In (now demolished) in Orange, CA for Sunday services. He preached from the roof of the snack bar.

By 1958, the church offices were housed in low-slung buildings on the 34-acre campus, now known as the Large and Small Galleries.

Also designed by Neutra, they still look out onto the gardens and water features (though they now serve as conference and community meeting rooms). 

But by 1967, Reverend Schuller needed more offices and Sunday School classrooms—so he called up his old friend Richard Neutra.

Neutra's 13-story Tower of Hope was added to the drive-in's north side in 1968—designed with the help of Richard's son Dion Neutra and with bells reportedly donated by Walt Disney.

At the time, it was Orange County's tallest building (though that distinction now belongs to the 520 Newport Center building in Newport Beach, CA).

It's unusual for the Catholic Church to engage in adaptive reuse—but, in this case, repurposing the Crystal Cathedral was a lot cheaper than building a new one. And Orange County's Catholic congregations had outgrown any existing church building.

That means that in order to become "Christ Cathedral," the diocese had to add a few hallmarks of Catholicism—the Stations of the Cross, a Carrara marble altar and baptismal font from Italy, some medieval art, and so on.

It still doesn't evoke the Catholicism of yore—the kind I grew up with—but maybe that's a good thing.

And not everybody loves the Crystal Cathedral as I do. But in the realm of historic architecture, it's still pretty new.

It might not be until, say, the year 2030 before anyone else takes it seriously.

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Walk Softly and Carry a Plastic Scraper
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A Prohibition-Inspired Speakeasy Tucked Away in The Mob Museum's 'Underground'

The Mob Museum in the "old downtown" section of Las Vegas has been open since 2012...

...but I've resisted going, thinking it might glorify a violent chapter in U.S. history that's perhaps already gotten too much attention from Hollywood.

Located in the Neoclassical former Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse (circa 1933, a national landmark designed by Louis A. Simon but credited to James A. Wetmore), you'd think the architecture would've been enough to draw me in.

But it wasn't until I found out that the museum had opened a speakeasy and distillery tour in the basement that I really wanted to go.

It's not just a drinkery down there—but a surprisingly deep collection of Prohibition-era artifacts, including a phone booth from the Four Deuces—a saloon, brothel, and gambling hall that served as the headquarters of the Chicago crime syndicate run by Johnny Torrio and Al Capone in the early 1920s.

Capone served served as manager and enforcer at the Four Deuces, which was demolished in 1966. Maybe this payphone is all that's left of it.

Like any other good "speakeasy," there are private rooms where you can escape the public eye.

But unlike the dark days before the Volstead Act (which enacted Prohibition) was repealed by the 19th Amendment...

...the "moonshine" is made in proper copper pot stills, and not in bathtubs.

The distillery at The Mob Museum makes its own "clear" or "white" whiskey, which it calls "Moonshine," as well as some flavored riffs on the medicinal whiskey that was actually legal during prohibition.

The craft cocktails offered at the bar—like the Hemingway's Muse—are surprisingly outstanding.

And while you're sipping away at the bar, you can learn even more about Prohibition from the embedded glass display cases, also full of artifacts.

You might as well order another drink—like the dark rum-based Airmail—while you read about the antique anti-Prohibition corkscrew in the (not-so-flattering) image of Prohibition proponent, Andrew Volstead.

Fortunately, the quality of distilled spirits has improved since the only legalized ones were either prescribed by a doctor or used in very limited quantities by bakers.

A lot of distillers leveraged this loophole to survive Prohibition—though bottles of federally-bonded liquor could only be distributed in pint-sizes, and supplies were rationed.

Of course, people found ways around that, either by carrying excess liquor undetected (like in this Ambercrombie & Fitch valise with hidden flasks under a false bottom, above)...

...or by making their own at home in a moonshine still, which could hold as much as 5 gallons, maybe more.

And then, of course, there was the smuggling—confirmed by the 1977 discovery of the wreckage of the Lizzie D, an 84-foot, coal-powered tugboat used mainly for towing.

Built in 1907, it was recorded leaving the New York Harbor on October 19, 1922 and was last seen about 50 miles east of Fire Island—well into the territory of "international waters," where a ship could stay off-shore and distribute illegal cargo along "Rum Row." Long suspected as being part of the Prohibition-bucking scheme, the Lizzie D.'s rum-running legacy was confirmed with the salvage of bottles of Jameson and other whiskeys by wreckage divers.

Prohibition was largely unpopular and eventually repealed—but not until after tipplers suffered through a long 13 years.

How did it get voted in in the first place?

Largely, women who wanted to try to keep their swilling spouses at home instead of in the saloon.

One campaign slogan read:
"Shall the mothers and children be sacrificed to the financial greed of the liquor traffic?" VOTE DRY

And then there were the outspoken few—the vocal minority of the teetotalers—who caused a ruckus to try to outlaw the manufacture, distribution, and sale of spirits.

Temperance advocate Carrie Nation attacked Kansas saloons with a hatchet!

But in some ways, that just emboldened the opposition, which made its own hatchet—an Anti-Carrie Nation one—that read, "All nations welcome but Carrie."

"Drying out" the country also did something else between 1920 and 1933.

It gave rise to organized crime. Fragmented factions of ethnic gangs began working together to dodge law enforcement.

A lot of that history actually predates the birth of "Las Vegas" as we know it, as its first gambling license wasn't issued until 1931, the same year that Fremont Street received the city's first traffic light.

Now I know there's so much more to see upstairs at The Mob Museum, so I'll have to go back.

And although I don't need to tour the distillery again, maybe I'll need to get the password so I can revisit the speakeasy in "The Underground."

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Friday, November 8, 2019

Getting Ahead of Vanishing Vegas at Circus Circus, Sold Again Upon Its 51st Year

Circus Circus in Vegas always seemed like a joke to me. But I really only started becoming aware of Vegas in the 1990s, when more "luxurious" resorts like the Bellagio and Mandalay Bay were rising up from the depths of the southern end of the Strip.

And maybe Circus Circus Hotel and Casino is a joke. But if so, it's in on the joke—because, you know, clowns.

I'd passed by the resort and the adjacent freestanding slots casino (opened 1971) many times in my many trips to Vegas—but I'd never gone inside.

And then it occurred to me that there's no way Circus Circus can last much longer, the way that Vegas has been going.

So I'd better go and document it now, while I can—if only for its spectacular neon sign.

In a city that's far more saturated by the aerial circus of Cirque du Soleil—in Vegas since 1998—it's actually a novelty to see an actual circus.

Lucky the Clown (not to be confused with Topsy the Clown in Reno) greets guests and visitors to what's billed as "the largest permanent big top in the world." But he, of course, isn't the only clown at Circus Circus.

in 1967, Circus Circus founder—the late Jay Sarno, also of Caesar's Palace fame—commissioned artist and circus performer Montyne to sculpt five statues for display on Las Vegas Boulevard. Only one remains, known simply as "the clown," the rest (including a giant gorilla) having succumbed to the landfill in 2006.

I guess you could blame Circus Circus for the influx of "family-friendly" entertainment in the 1990s—why every casino from New York, New York to the Stratosphere and even the Sahara eventually needed to have at least one rollercoaster, if not a full-fledged theme park. (Some blame The Mirage and Steve Wynn, but that's a story for a whole 'nother blog post.)

When Circus Circus first opened in 1968—as the world’s largest combined casino and amusement center—it was merely as a circus tent, designed by Rissman and Rissman Associates (and featuring those characteristic "Sarno Blocks").

There were no hotel towers. Those were added later—and in stages, from 1972 to 1996.

Inside the big top, you could find bawdy shows and showgirls, scantily clad cocktail waitresses, and "sleazy" games.

And yet Sarno also actively courted families—including low rollers who'd gamble a little or even pay an admission charge just to take in the spectacle (which, on opening day, included skydivers and a wedding ceremony whose bride and groom dangled from a hovering helicopter).

It wasn't until 1993 that Circus Circus opened the first theme park in Vegas, the Adventuredome.

Before that, the Carnival Midway was enough to keep gamblers and their underage offspring engaged...

...and even within earshot in the football field-sized casino.

But in many ways, the family amusements kept up appearances for the mob ties that occurred behind the scenes at Circus Circus (including a huge loan from the Teamsters that funded its construction) and the shysters running the midway games.

Over the last 50 years, the casino has been threatened with closure by the authorities and has changed hands several times.

It's kind of amazing that there are still world-class circus acts performing under the big top. And that's kind of the best part.

Turns out my instincts may have been right—because Circus Circus just sold to its new ringmaster, developer (and Trump supporter and associate) Phil Ruffin.

Originally built at a cost of $15 million, it most recently went for $825 million.

Ruffin says he's got big plans for it.

What that means remains to be seen.

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Farewell, Circus Drive-In
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