Friday, 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.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Marines' Camp Pendleton Ranch Chapel, Saved From Flooding... and Development
Photo Essay: The Mansion Where California's Last Mexican Governor Lost It All

Monday, March 23, 2020

Photo Essay: Battery Osgood-Farley, Beyond the Guns and Into the Airwaves

I'd been fascinated by Fort MacArthur in San Pedro—part of LA's coastal defense system—since I first visited one of its former outposts in 2012.

And although I'd thoroughly visited the Fort MacArthur Museum (located in the fort's Upper Reservation) a few times over the last few years, people kept telling me they thought there was more to see.

Turns out they were right—because in 2018, I returned to the Battery Osgood-Farley and got into some rooms I never knew existed.

Of course, it's all been declassified now—but these are areas that aren't usually open to the public, like the Battery Commander's Station. That's where the B.C. could observe the firing of the guns from a observation station that afforded him a clear view of the field of fire (accurate to 1/100th of a degree).

It's also where they could track targets and report their positions to the plotting room, located directly below them, so they can triangulate the targets and point the guns properly and accurately (in terms of both distance and direction, or azimuth, as measured from the artillery).

From there, they had complete control over the battery's operation—thanks to a series of seven "speaking tubes."

This U.S. Army post guarded the LA harbor from 1914 to 1974.

And sometimes, the most basic technology turned out to be best.

I also knew that there were some tunnels that ran from the Ft. MacArthur Museum to elsewhere in San Pedro—but whenever I asked anyone in charge about them, they'd say things like, "Oh, there's nothing down there to see" or "It's just used for storage now."

That wasn't, in fact, true—which I would find out later in my explorations beyond the public eye.

But first, I had to hit the Communication Room. Fortunately, it's no longer "gas-proof"—so a hard blast of air didn't have to "blow off" any poison gas in the decontamination room before I entered.

This was "ground zero" for the United States Army Signal Corps (USASC)—critical for detecting an approaching enemy they couldn't see (not even with a telescope). That meant aircraft.

This is where communication specialists and, essentially, information technology personnel would use radio receivers and transmitters—not only tuning but also calibrating and encoding across multiple frequencies.

In terms of detecting an incoming threat, obviously this is where RADAR (Radio Detection And Ranging) would really come in handy.

But switchboards—for both telephone and telegraph—were also critical to the missions.

And sometimes communications boiled down to a more analog form of communication—namely, typewriters.

Oh, and don't forget about Teletype (TTY)—the great-granddaddy of email.

And of course there was also Morse code...

...which radio operators (or "keyers") would learn on a special Signal Corps "learning machine"... paper "practice tape" spat out signals recorded in ink for playback.

But what better communication was there for those enlisted in the U.S. Army than good ol' paper mail? Handwritten letters on perfumed paper in lipstick-sealed envelopes beat electronic communiqués any day.

This was the first time in recent memory that the Fort MacArthur Museum had opened up these areas (formally, anyway) to the public. And it hasn't again in the last two years, as far as I can tell.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from other "underground" areas around the various reservations of the former Fort MacArthur. 

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Fort MacArthur and The Battle of Los Angeles
Photo Essay: Trespassing Through Southland's Military History

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Photo Essay: Sowden House, The Great White Shark Fortress of Franklin Avenue

People have called it the "Jaws House"—probably only since the movie came out in theaters in 1975 (or maybe the year before, when the book came out).

But even before that, the Sowden House in Los Feliz, Los Angeles probably looked like a shark to passers-by.

And maybe its architect, Lloyd Wright (son of FLW), intended it to look that way.

After all, the Mayan Revival style incorporates iconography and symbology that would've been important to the pre-Columbian civilization. And apparently, the Mayans were terrified of the shark (or xoc)—their mighty jaws and impossibly large teeth used as hunting trophies and for trade, even in the inland parts of Mesoamerica.

The Sowden House was the last home built by the elder or younger Wright in this Mayan style, subsequently having come to be known as "Wrightian." And it sure made a splash.

Completed in 1926 at the behest of Wright's friend, photographer John Sowden, and his wife Ruth, the Sowden House—as it's still called, though they sold it in 1930 and it's currently on its 10th owner—greets you from the street with stepped pyramids, zigzags, and jagged peaks like teeth. You can't miss it, now that the overgrowth of yucca, palm, bird of paradise, and banana leaves no longer obscures the sidewalk or street view and leaves it starkly unenshrouded.

That's the first taste of the textured concrete or "textile" block ornamentation that the Wrights were, for a time, notorious for using. And you must pass underneath it—into the gaping mouth—in order to explore the rest of this fortress on Franklin Avenue.

First, you're greeted by entry gates of sculpted copper, with their green patina highlighting chevron-shaped plates lined up on vertical bars (the most Art Deco part of the entire house).

After entering a "cave-like" purgatory...

...and emerging out from under the interior "hood"... walk out into the 6000-square-foot "rectangular doughnut," whose courtyard is no longer festooned with cascading bougainvillea in shocking pink, hacked away with nary a stubble left.

The water features out there have pretty much always been a point of contention, as Wright and the Sowdens disagreed on what should be there (if any at all). For a time, the courtyard featured water organs—but now there's a pool (which seems more ornamental than utilitarian).

Courtyard pillars help make the Sowden House resemble, say, the Palace of Sayil or The Governor's Palace of Uxmal—but looks can be deceiving. It's not the Mexican state of Yucatán; it's Hollywood!

And just like the Mayans, we like to celebrate the sun, water, harvest, and clouds here, too. Wright even incorporated their respective Mayan symbols into the textile blocks that surround the pool.

The open floor plan of the Sowden House is marked by side rooms—lit by skylights and accessed through sliding pocket doors—situated along a colonnade. Somewhere in there, there's a secret passageway, too.

And although the interior has been "updated" for "modern living," it hasn't yet been scrubbed of its secrets.

There are still those who believe that Elizabeth Short—a.k.a. "The Black Dahlia"—was slaughtered here, in the partial basement below the living room, before her remains were dumped in Leimert Park in 1947. She was only 22. Her murder is still officially unsolved.

And there may have been others, some of whom may have never left the basement.

Some are quick to point their fingers at the fifth owner of the Sowden House—Dr. George Hill Hodel, the "Hollywood gynecologist" who served as chief of staff and checked patients for venereal diseases (or "blood-sex diseases") at the First Street Clinic in Little Toyko/"Bronzeville," Los Angeles.

Funny enough, Dr. Hodel was also accused of hosting crazy "sex parties" while he lived at the Sowden House from 1945 to 1950.

But he was never convicted of any wrongdoing—sexual or otherwise.

Nevertheless, his fictionalized story was recently told by the TV series I Am the Night, shot in the Sowden House for historical accuracy.

L.A. Confidential, The Aviator, and other productions have also used it as a filming location.

Despite its possibly grisly history, it doesn't seem to scare people away. In fact, it seems to draw visitors and owners in—even though some who came before them never escaped.

Related Posts:
A Lloyd Wright Masterpiece, Commissioned By a Murdered Silent Film Star
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