March 31, 2020

Photo Essay: San Diego Civic Theatre, Upon Its 55th Anniversary

Believe it or not, reaching the 55-year mark is a big deal. Some places don't make it 50 years—or 10, 20, 30, or 40 years.

Fifty years is the bar that's been set for so-called "historic significance"—and if a building is younger than 50 years old, it's darn near impossible to get it landmarked.

But the San Diego Civic Theatre has hit 55 years, having opened on the night of January 12, 1965 with a performance by the San Diego Symphony. Since then, such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Bob Hope, Jerry Seinfeld, Diana Ross, and Maya Angelou have graced its stage—while organizations such as Broadway San Diego, California Ballet, San Diego Opera, and La Jolla Music Society also call it home.

Maybe the four-story, semi-circular performing arts center—with more than a few Brutalist tendencies—is easy to dismiss, compared to the movie palaces that were built decades before. But the Civic Theatre is important—if only for its role in helping to catalyze the development of Downtown San Diego with the creation of the San Diego Concourse complex (a.k.a. Charles C. Dail Concourse, in honor of former Mayor Charles C. Dail, who served from 1955 to 1963).

The Concourse development also included a new City Hall, a convention center, and a parking garage—and the Civic Theatre was the last of the cluster of buildings to open and provide a a stage for civic gatherings.

The Civic Theatre does benefit from its association with the Bow Wave Fountain by Malcolm Leland— added to the Concourse in 1972 in conjunction with the Security Pacific Bank tower (which is technically outside the concourse boundaries). Constructed with a steel frame clad in layered sheets of copper, the sculpture evokes the bow of a ship cutting through the sea (even when the fountain's water feature isn't spraying properly).

Like the fountain, the Civic Theatre is owned by the City of San Diego—which has leased it to San Diego Theatres, a non-profit organization that manages it along with the Balboa Theatre (photo essay coming soon), through the year 2063.

But part of the leasing terms is that  $30 million worth of renovations have to break ground by the year 2023—and that's not going to come from ticket sales, especially when the rest of the 2020 season has been canceled, postponed, or otherwise rescheduled in light of the coronavirus pandemic. In 1966, the Civic Theatre raised $36,000+ to install a Bavarian crystal chandelier in the Grand Salon through contributions from community donors. What could they raise today?

It's unclear what those renovations might be—and whether they'll take place on the exterior plaza or will address the interior, which, like the exterior, was designed by the architectural trifecta of Ruocco, Kennedy and Rosser.

Lloyd Ruocco FAIA, widely considered the "Father of San Diego's Post-War Modern Architecture" (the "war," in this case, being WWII), collaborated with Selden B. Kennedy, Jr. and William Frederick Rosser to create the city-owned performing arts theatre at a cost of $4.1 million.

Architectural critics say that Ruocco "broke apart the box" with his curvilinear performance space and its oval façade.

Inside, the continental seating arrangement—with no center aisle—makes a big impression, especially when all 2967 seats (less so when the orchestra pit is being used) are full.

The appearance from afar is seamless—but a closer look at the armrests reveals where the rows have been stitched together.

On my tour, it struck me how huge—or, rather, deep— the stage is‚ from the proscenium line/apron to the upstage (back) wall.

Of course, it has to be in order to accommodate the Broadway touring companies and other stage productions that arrive ready to put on a show.

Backstage, there are also 64 sets of counter-weighted lines on steel guides and three sets on wire rope guides—installed by R.L. Grosh and Sons Scenic Studios, founded in 1932 on Sunset Boulevard in LA by scenic artist Robert Louis Grosh.

Grosh and Sons worked with all the Hollywood studios—MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, United Artists, Universal, 20th Century Fox, RKO, and Columbia, especially for movie musicals. They even worked with Disneyland and the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel.

Today, 88 years later, Grosh—now in its fourth generation, operated by R.L.'s great-granddaughter— is still known for its scenic backdrops and stage draperies

So the Civic Theatre may be lacking the obvious cosmetic grandeur of the great movie palaces of Old Hollywood—but it's not without its ties.

Then again, in 1965, some of those theatres weren't yet 50 years old and had fallen out of favor as garish or even tacky.

Early Modernism was essentially a backlash against that over-the-top aesthetic. And now, 55 years later, we're still trying to figure out how to appreciate both—and how both can coexist, without being replaced by the next new thing.

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March 29, 2020

Photo Essay: The Alexandria Hotel's Early 20th Century Hat Trick (And The Demise of Its 'Ghost Wing')

Located in the Spring Street National Register Historic District, The Alexandria Hotel might appear to be a single hotel.

But a closer look reveals that it's a complex of three buildings, each with its own owner who leased the land they were built on—a total of seven separate parcels.

And it may soon lose one of those three historic structures. Because it turns out that they're not as seamlessly linked as you might think.

Named after owner Harry Alexander, the first (or "main") section of the hotel was constructed by the Bilicke-Rowan Fireproof Building Company—developers Albert Clay(A.C.) Bilicke, president of the Alexandria Hotel Company, and Robert Arnold (R.A.) Rowan—in 1906 for $2 million, an almost unheard-of cost at the time.

Architect John Parkinson (Bullocks WilshireUnion StationCity Hall) created the 8-story, Beaux Arts hotel with 360 rooms—each with private bathrooms, central heating, and automatic do not disturb signs on the doors.

Although the pressed brick façade (by Pacific Clay Manufacturing Company) with terracotta balustrade may look relatively simple, The Alexandria Hotel was the most elaborate in LA at the time, offering luxury and drawing upscale clientele. Some decorative sculptures placed on top of the decorative parapet with balusters divided by columns were removed in the 1950s.

But the cast stone chimeras still provide a unique character to this corner lot at 5th and Spring in the Historic Core of Downtown Los Angeles.

Screenshot: Google Street View

The second part of the hotel to be built arose on the 5th Street side, essentially concurrently with the first—and the two sections were designed to function as one unit, with more or less indistinguishable façades (the line of demarcation noticeable only at the fire escapes). William Chick owned the land and had operated his Chick Brothers' livery stable there, until he tore it down upon partnering with the hotel.

Screenshot: Google Street View

But Chick made a grave error in its construction—he omitted "hoistways" (a.k.a. elevators) and stairwells. A dispute with the new owner of the reopened main hotel in 1938 resulted in the annex being sealed off ever since—now known as the "phantom" or "ghost" wing. (An update on this wing at the bottom of this post. In the meantime, the history is all very complicated—so for a full explanation, click here. And for contemporary photos click here.)

In 1911, a 12-story addition—technically, the "Second Addition," or "the Spring Street Addition"—was constructed out of reinforced concrete immediately to the south of the original steel frame "main" structure, also designed by Parkinson with his partner G. (George) Edwin Bergstrom.

This third and final addition helped bring the hotel's capacity up to about 500 rooms and kicked off a heyday that would last until about 1922, after which its popularity was eclipsed by the newly opened Biltmore Hotel a few blocks away.

But what a heyday it had, for those 11 years.

At the time, 5th and Spring was considered to be the "up-and-coming" shopping area, as the center of Los Angeles was moving west and south from its pueblo beginnings. Its proximity to Broadway's bustling nightlife didn't hurt, either.

The Alexandria Hotel became a hangout for Hollywood execs and silent film stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Rudolph Valentino—so much so that the Persian rug in the lobby got nicknamed "million-dollar carpet" because of all the deals being made there.

The Spring Street addition's ground floor included a 196-foot long banquet hall called the Franco-Italian Dining Room, later known as the Grand Ballroom and the Continental Room, and now called the Palm Court. Of all the interior spaces in the hotel, it's the most intact.

Upon its opening, it was already the city's most prestigious ballroom—but speeches given by U.S. Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson and a wedding ceremony between Gloria Swanson and Herbert Somborn in 1919 cemented its reputation. (The couple also honeymooned at the hotel and even lived there for a few years after.)

The Palm Court's most distinguishing feature now is its stained glass skylight, widely attributed to Louis Comfort Tiffany. It was painted black during World War II (so as to not aid enemy aircraft) and forgotten about—but later rediscovered and restored. It's what helped earn the Palm Court its designation as a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM#80) in 1971—one of the few “interior-only” HCMs in the city.

Unfortunately, the original Italian and Egyptian marble has been removed from the hotel lobby—which, after several redecorations and a later gutting, has been rendered unrecognizable. But they kept a little bit of the marble on the walls at the stairs leading to the basement.

Across from a frieze of cherubs, you can climb the marble-floored staircase up to the mezzanine...

...holding onto its iron railing by an oak handrail...

...and emerging into a loft-like space called "The Mezz," now used as a venue for weddings and such as part of the Alexandria Ballrooms event planning service.

Upstairs you'll also find the former Rose Ballroom, its French windows opening out onto the Spring Street side of the building, with its original beamed ceiling and hardwood floors.

It's now called the "King Edward Ballroom"—incorrectly so, since apparently the rumor that King Edward ever visited the hotel has been debunked. Harry Houdini and his wife Bess, however, did celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in that room.

Colloquially, some people still call the former Rose Ballroom the "Paula Abdul Room," because of the music video she shot there for the song "Cold-Hearted" in 1989, directed by David Fincher.

The video (above) gives a great glimpse into how the room looked 30 years ago—which is remarkably pretty much the same as now, except for the paint job on the walls.

Like any other successful hotel, The Alexandria boasted both private ballrooms and eateries for their guests and visitors—including the Peacock Inn Coffee Shop (now a private bar available to rent) and Gentlemen's Grill upstairs (which sometimes women weaseled their way into).

Down on the lower level, underneath the Spring Street Addition, was the Mission Indian Grill (a.k.a. Indian Grill Cafeteria). It was converted into an underground parking garage, the tile floor paved with asphalt. But foot and tire traffic have been wearing that blacktop coating away, revealing little bits of the original tile, piece by piece.

Despite its massive success, the Alexandria Hotel ultimately couldn't overcome the local competition (like from the Biltmore) combined with the Great Depression. It went bankrupt and closed in 1932.

It did reopen a few years later and experience somewhat of a revival—but as it changed hands time and again over the following decades, it was slowly stripped of its grandeur.

In the mid-1950s, boxing matches brought rowdy crowds. In the 1970s, the banks left the Spring Street financial district.

What once was a destination for fine dining now brought customers in with concepts like the Guv'Nor's Grille—a kind of British pub/surf n turf establishment on the corner of 5th and Spring at street level in the late 1960s/early 1970s. (It's now occupied by The Down And Out Bar, though a shield-shaped bronze bas relief still promotes steaks, chops, and seafood on the corner column. Prior to that, it was Charley O's Cocktail Bar, which seems to have closed in 2010.)

In addition to serving "California's Finest Salads," it also offered dishes named after Mary Pickford, Oliver Hardy, Rudolph Valentino, Sarah Bernhardt, Tom Mix, and Harold Lloyd—all of whom had been associated with the hotel at one time or another.

In the 1980s, the Alexandria Hotel had become overrun with drug dealers taking advantage of its weekly rates. By 1988, it was called "the worst drug-trafficking spot in Los Angeles" by city officials.

Rezoning it later as a low-income housing property/single room occupancy (SRO) didn't help the blight much. Neither did its proximity to Skid Row (5th Street a.k.a. "The Nickel").

It's now a mix of market rate and subsidized housing—and still a popular filming location.

None of those challenges have kept developers from trying to revitalize the Alexandria, much like other vintage buildings in Downtown Los Angeles have been given new life.

But for the Alexandria, that may come at the sacrifice of one of its three sections—the ghost wing.

That wasn't always the plan. In 2012, the sealed-off second building was sold and slated to be developed into the 35-room "Chelsea Building."

But since that time, the deterioration has been deemed "irreversible"—and developers argue that they'll need to entirely rebuild the interior to include some stairways and an elevator.

They will, however, preserve the façade—which, as one letter of support put it, is an "irreplaceable contributor to the historic fabric and artistic architectural aura of Downtown LA"—in a practice that's been nicknamed a "façadectomy."

The result will be The Annex, with 31 residential units. Applications for the project to move forward were filed as recently as 2018. But no work has begun. 

In the meantime, you can enjoy other public areas of The Alexandria (besides The Down And Out) by patronizing The Wolves on the ground level of the Spring Street Addition and The Little Easy, a subterranean spot below the main hotel.

People say the whole thing is haunted—and you can bet it's not by Rudolph Valentino (because if that were true, man does he ghost get around).

The Alexandria's most famous ghost is "the woman in black," who walks the halls for all eternity.

But it's possible that there's lots of other bad juju that hasn't been cleared out of the hotel—including some recent events, like when an 87-year-old man fell to his death in 2009 or another man died jumping from the 4th floor in 2013.

I don't plan to stick around long enough in that building to find out.

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March 27, 2020

Photo Essay: The Rancho Remains of Pico's Mexican Land Grant, Seized by the Second War Powers Act

My first visit to Camp Pendleton, the principle Marine training ground to prepare for combat in the Pacific Theater during World War II, brought me to the Ranch House historic complex and its 21 acres of associated grounds.

Besides the adjacent "Ranch Chapel," the main attraction is the 8,500-square-foot house that eventually became the home of 35 of the base's former commanding generals.

The first of those to live there was Iwo Jima hero Major General Graves B. Erskine and his wife, from 1947 to 1950 (leading up to the Korean War). The Last was Major General Michael R. Lehnert and his wife, from 2006-2007 (when he moved to the general’s quarters that had just been completed).

But before the newly-passed Second War Powers Act allowed the U.S. government to create the world's largest Marine base (at the time), what's now known as Camp Pendleton USMC was SoCal's largest Mexican land grant, Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores.

And the ranch house was the center of its activity.

Rancho Santa Margarita got its name from St. Margaret of Antioch (or Asia Minor), as the Portolá Expedition passed through the San Luis Rey Valley in 1769 on the anniversary of her death. It was claimed as mission lands by the Franciscan friars—but by 1832, it had severed its ties to Catholicism in general, thanks to the secularization of the missions.


In 1841, it was granted to Pío and Andrés Pico, who already owned Rancho San Onofre and used the adjacent rancho as livestock acreage. In 1864, they sold it to their brother-in-law—an English seaman named John Forster (sometimes Forester, a.k.a. Don Juan Forster after being granted Mexican citizenship) who'd married the Picos' sister Doña Ysidora and paid off Pío's gambling debt. Upon his death in 1882, he passed the ranch onto his son, John F. Forster—a.k.a. Juan Fernando Forster, who married Josefa Del Valle, the daughter of the owner of Rancho Camulos in Ventura County.

In 1882, cattle rancher James Flood partnered with Irish immigrant Richard O'Neill to take over the ranch ownership and operations. In turn, the ranch was passed down to Jerome O'Neill and Flood family members, including James Flood, Jr. That same year, the ranch house served as a stop on the transcontinental California Southern Railroad line (which began in National City, outside of San Diego, and joined the main line at Colton, near San Bernardino).

Together, Jerome and James Jr. formed the Rancho Santa Margarita (RSM) Corporation in 1923 and controlled it until their deaths in 1926. After that, the heirs of the two families split up the land, some selling their shares to the Marines and others losing theirs to condemnation by the federal government in the aftermath of the 1942 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

By 1944, Camp Pendleton—named for retired Marine Corps General Joseph H. Pendleton of Coronado—had been declared a "permanent installation." But for over a century before that, the Ranch House had served as the administrative center of Rancho Santa Margarita.

The "T and O" ranch brand—a "flying T" and a "hanging O"—has now come to symbolize the Marine base as well as the ranch itself.

The Santa Margarita Ranch House bell has once again assumed its position on the front porch at the "Bell Entrance," despite having been absconded with as a souvenir, and later returned, by members of the Baumgartner family (descendants of the O'Neills).

That bell was essential to daily ranch operations—starting with the 5 a.m. wakeup call and 6 a.m. breakfast call, and extending to the 12 noon lunch call and 6 p.m. dinner call. It didn't ring otherwise, except in an emergency or when it tolled upon the death of Richard O'Neill Sr. in 1910 and of James Flood II and Jerome O'Neill in 1926 (two days apart!).

The ranch house itself—designated a state landmark and national historic site—is a well-preserved example of California's early ranch architecture, specifically in the Spanish Colonial/Mexican California style.

Also known as the Rancho Santa Margarita Adobe, its Spanish Mission influence on it is clear as well—not surprisingly, as it's situated midway between Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission San Luis Rey. The original structure was built in the 1830s, though it's been built upon and expanded since.

In the central courtyard (or "atrium") there's a fountain (donated in the 1980s) as well as an old bougainvillea shrub, surrounded by the dining room (El Comedor), bedrooms, and other living spaces.

One such space is the former Forster family chapel, which later became a dining room and, in 1938, the bedroom of Richard O'Neill, Jr. Although the altar by the fireplace has been removed, there's still a kneeler (one of the oldest pieces of furniture in the ranch house). But it's now known better as the President's Room—having been visited by Roosevelt on Dedication Day in 1942, and containing the same chair that Nixon (1966, before his presidency), George H.W. Bush (1998) and George W. Bush (2001) have all been photographed sitting in.

There's also "The Bar," a room that was primarily used as an Officer's Club after the creation of Camp Pendleton—with the actual bar installed sometime in the 1940s.

As a nod to its former use as a butchering room and meat staging area, and the property's former life as a cattle ranch, you can still see the hooks from which slabs of raw beef used to hang.

Likewise, there are the constant reminders of the ranch brand and its historic branding irons—in this case, from Rancho Santa Margarita (the "T and O") and the O'Neill family's Rancho Mission Viejo (the "rafter M").

The formal sitting room is now the roped-off "Cowboy Room," with its old wagon wheel chandelier hanging from the ceiling—so called because it's where the vaqueros ((or Mexican cowboys) would come in for their meals. In the earliest days of Camp Pendleton—before any major generals moved into the ranch house—the Cowboy Room was used as the officers' mess. It was later converted into the generals' quarters.

In certain rooms, like the historical living room, it's worth looking up at the ceiling—not for more wagon-wheel chandeliers, but for the rough-hewn ceiling beams that were probably from trees on Palomar Mountain—the only nearby source of lumber. Reportedly, "Indian workmen" cut them, who got them blessed by a priest, and carried them by hand all the way down the mountain to perhaps Mission San Luis Rey and, eventually, this spot.

One of the first rooms built in the original structure is now known as the "Pico Room," whose handmade walls slope inward and whose adobe bricks are unbelievably thick (as evidenced by how wide the windowsill is). Open the correct door, and you'll reveal a complete Pullman bath (toilet/sink/shower) tucked away.

Pico's hat, as seen in the portrait painting that hangs on the wall, is preserved in a bedside glass case.

Across the way, inside the bunkhouse that was built by Don Juan Forster in 1864, you now get a slice of life of the vaqueros who worked on the cattle ranch during its heyday—before it was militarized.

In 1965, it was transformed into the bunkhouse museum—and now, among the horseshoes, barbed wire, ropes, and branding irons, there are more artifacts branded with the telltale insignia of the ranch (the "T and O").

Paul Durrance (Chairman, Rancho Santa Margarita y Flores Docents)

Rededicated in 1978, its displays are exhibited throughout the Tack Room, the Bunkroom, the Tomaino Room, Jerome O’Neill’s Bedroom and the Museum Gallery.

Outside the bunkhouse is a replica of an El Camino Real bell, donated in 1988—but gone are the milk cow corrals, the buggy shed, the vaqueros, the Christianized "Indians" (a.k.a. "neophytes"), and the vineyards of the mission winery (now the Ranch Chapel).

There is, however, an incredible amount of that old rancho life that remains.

And although few members of the public ever get to see it because of its location inside a secure military base, that probably means it'll be there longer for people to enjoy than it would if it were more exposed.

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