November 26, 2019

How Prohibition Shaped SoCal (Interview on KPCC's "Take Two")

I don't know how I've become an expert on Prohibition in Los Angeles—but somehow I have.

I'm not complaining, mind you.

Because I'm fascinated by both the lawmakers and the lawbreakers. And you can't talk about Prohibition without mention of the amendment that enacted it, the 18th, and the one that repealed it, the 21st.

Plus, stories about Prohibition are almost always about drinking—and not about not drinking.

So my latest expert testimony aired on Southern California Public Radio's KPCC this week, as I was interviewed by "Take Two" host A. Martinez.

We chatted about the King Eddy Saloon, which operated as an underground speakeasy until 1933...

...Greenbar Distillery, LA's first legal hooch-maker in 80 years...

...San Antonio Winery, which survived Prohibition with a little help from God...

...and how today's craft cocktails were influenced by the "bathtub gin" and moonshine that tipplers had to try to choke down when they were supposed to be "dry."

You can listen to the segment in the player below, or check out the entire episode here

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Finding Carroll Shelby, the Car Designer Who Helped Ford Beat Ferrari

Anyone who's seen the recent Ford v Ferrari movie will recognize the powder blue, Carroll Shelby-built Ford GT40 that help start a winning streak at Le Mans—the 24-hour endurance car race that's been held annually since 1923.

I got to see one in person (fortunately parked, as they have clocked in at a max 210 mph).

It's just one of the treats that the Carroll Shelby Museum (a.k.a. the Shelby Heritage Center) in Las Vegas has in store for its visitors...

...parked alongside other Shelby racers... a garage our tour guide called "a hospital for well patients."

This is where they make good cars better.

Though it's hard to imagine how the maker of cars that won Le Mans three years in a row, from 1966 to 1968.

But time has forgotten Ford's legacy of performance vehicles...

...and Shelby hasn't exactly been a household name (though a major motion picture release may change that).

Never mind the fact that Shelby himself beat Ferrari while co-driving an Aston Martin DBR1 in the 1959 Le Mans, which he won.

That certainly influenced Ford's decision to tap him to build a car that would beat Ferrari again, once the auto giant decided to get into racing.

Shelby helped Ford also win international endurance races at Daytona and Sebring—but Le Mans would always be the "crown jewel" of them all.

The Texas-born racer, designer, and team manager passed away at age 89 in 2012—but every year in May, around the anniversary of his death, the Carroll Shelby Foundation honors him with a tribute and car show at its headquarters in Gardena, CA.

It's a good opportunity to wander a Shelby shop and look under the hood.

Because the Cobras and other Shelby cars—Ford or no Ford—were about the inner workings as much as they were about the chassis.

How else could they go so record-breakingly fast?

At 1 p.m. during the tribute, car show participants and spectators join in on the “Rev Your Engine” salute to Shelby...

...a deafening display of revving engines (of course), honking horns, and I swear I heard some squealing tires though I saw no car actually move in the parking lot or on the surrounding streets.

I never seem to like that ear-splitting soundtrack—like when I attended the Grand Prix of Long Beach and could not seem to get away from it—with one exception.

It doesn't bother me one bit when I'm inside the car. Especially in the driver's seat.

In fact, I find it calming.

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November 25, 2019

R.I.P. Architect Dion Neutra (1926-2019)

Dion Neutra died yesterday at age 93. A master architect in his own right, he was perhaps best known as the son of modernist pioneer Richard Neutra. You can read his Los Angeles Times obituary here.

I'd heard he'd broken a leg in August. I didn't know he'd been sicker than that. But as it turns out, his health had declined a lot since I first met him in May 2012.

circa 2012

His house was a stop on the Silverlake stretch of The Big Parade, a now-dormant (or perhaps defunct) urban walking event that led Angelenos up and down the various public stairways or LA's eastside.

I was just learning about Mid-Century Modernism and the Neutra contributions to it, but I knew the encounter was important.

circa 2012

We stood listening to him on Neutra Place—outside what I didn't realize then was the Reunion House, Dion's home since 1966, designed by his dad in 1950. 

The house had opened up for public tours sometime in 2018, maybe earlier. I'd bought a ticket to take a tour but didn't go when I realized photos wouldn't be allowed and I was too exhausted to go anyway (or perhaps otherwise occupied). I feel kind of weird poking around somebody's house while they're still living there, anyway.

circa 2011

But now I think maybe I should've gone for the chance to see Dion again, or experience the house in his element. Fortunately, I'd already toured the VDL II studio in 2011—one of the first of my many modernist explorations throughout my nearly nine years in LA. 

In 2014, I'd also visited the current headquarters of the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design—also in Silverlake, in the landmarked Neutra Office Building. It was an art opening and I didn't take photos.

I can't remember if Dion was there. He probably was.

The thing I'm probably grateful for the most when it comes to Dion Neutra is how he worked so tirelessly to preserve his father's architectural legacy—threatening to chain himself to buildings slated for demolition, showing up unannounced to inspect maintenance and modifications of Neutra-designed private residences, and so on.

He was good at being a squeaky wheel. And preservation needs all the squeaky wheels.

Thanks, Dion.

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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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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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