September 26, 2020

Photo Essay: Pasadena's Vacant Hospital of St. Luke, Patron Saint of Physicians, Doctors, and Butchers

Its a sad but common story in Southern California. 

A beautiful old hospital can't keep up with increasing demand for beds or modern amenities. It no longer makes enough money, so it stands vacant—while patients needing care have to travel farther to bigger hospitals with less personalized care. 

In the case of the circa 1930 Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, it gets taken over by the Scientologists.

In the case of the circa 1924 Linda Vista Hospital, it provides housing to low-income seniors. 

In the case of the circa 1888 land donation to the Veterans Administration in Westwood, its buildings are still vacant. 

And one of the first hospitals in the San Gabriel Valley—St. Luke Hospital of Pasadena, circa 1933—has been used for nothing but film shoots for so long, it couldn't even be revived to care for COVID-19 patients when we were facing the prospect of a bed shortage. 

As of right now, there's no plan to use St. Luke's for anything other than a film location. 

But it deserves notoriety for more than as the setting for movies like Kill Bill, Million Dollar Baby (where it stood in for the Serenity Glen Rehabilitation Center) and La La Land—or TV shows like Grey's AnatomyDexter, and Scream Queens. 

St. Luke's was founded as a non-profit, Catholic hospital by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange—a congregation of nuns whose mission of helping the poor and sick dates back to the 17th century in France. 

It wasn't just one building—but an entire enclave or campus of buildings that continued to grow into the decades that followed its original dedication. 
Postcard image circa 1960s: eBay

The original monolithic hospital was designed in the Moderne style by Canadian-born architect Gene Verge, Sr. At seven stories high and 74,000 square feet, it was exemplary of modern concrete construction at the time. 

Although at some point it was seemingly white-washed, it remains a postcard-worthy landmark—even on a gloomy day. 

Cast concrete bas-reliefs depicting the life of Jesus beckon visitors to take a closer look... do two planters clad in turquoise-colored terracotta tile, ornamenting each side of the front door with chevrons and wave patterns. 

The beacon for most Pasadena locals is the dome (or cupola), which was considered Spanish-style when it was covered in terracotta tiles—even when a neon cross was installed on top of it in 1965. But now, the current lead- and copper sheeting-clad dome dates back to only 1997—when it was replaced in the wake of the 1987 Sierra Madre Earthquake. 

Through the 1980s, St. Luke's expanded to include five wings and annexes...

...including emergency and acute medical care, surgical services, and obstetrics/a birthing ward. 

But none of them were nearly as architecturally significant as the Gene Verge-designed additions of the mid-1940s, which included a chapel (replete with stained glass windows, still extant) and a convent for the nuns. 
The 1980s, however, marked a huge change in the historical trajectory of St. Luke's—and not just with its rebranding as the St. Luke Medical Center. 

In 1985, the founding Sisters—and therefore, the Catholic Church— sold it (with the Vatican's approval to the non-sectarian, for-profit, private firm Summit Health Ltd. 

In 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that the hospital was already "antiquated and inefficient" and "badly in need of renovations" to "correct the ravages of age."

In 1994, ownership transferred to OroNda Healthcorp, which was bought by Tenet Healthcare Corporation in 1996. Tenet closed the 165-bed hospital in 2002 and sold it a year later to Pasadena-based educational institute Caltech, which intended to use it for office and research space. 

When that didn't work out, Caltech sold St. Luke's in 2007 to Beverly Hills-based real estate developer DS Ventures, which attempted to convert it into an assisted senior facility while an opposing group pushed for an urgent care facility.

None of that has happened yet. 

And when officials visited St. Luke's to determine whether they could commandeer it during the pandemic, they discovered that the plumbing has been stripped out. (It's unclear whether that was intentional or the work of copper thieves.)

Presumably, the terrazzo floors and wide, winding stairways remain inside. I've yet to get in to confirm that one way or another. 

But I haven't lost hope. 

Fortunately, the Pasadena City Council declared St. Luke's hospital, convent and chapel a local Cultural Heritage Landmark in 2002—which offers it some, but not absolute, protection. 

Im the meantime, it's nice to imagine what it was like when the gardens were kept up and the lawns were manicured, the dome tiled and its cross all lit up. 

Drone video via Getty Images, for editorial use only

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September 21, 2020

Photo Essay: A Preserve of Wetlands and Willows In the South Bay's 'Garden Spot' City

The Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve in the South Bay city of Gardena, California is only open on the second Sunday and fourth Saturday of the month—and after months of pandemic closure, it's now reopened by advance reservation only.
It's easy to miss, with the Meadowlark Manor senior housing tucked into its corner, and its entrance tucked onto the corner of the city's Johnson Park. 

Upon entering the preserve, you take the North Loop trail going clockwise, starting to your left...

...past laurel sumac and an observation deck enshrouded in overgrowth...

...and you quickly forget you're anywhere near the 91/110 freeway interchange (or the LA metro area for that matter). 

Gardena may have gotten its name for being a "garden spot" (a factoid somewhat under dispute), but most of the city looks nothing like the land that the Tongva people lived off of—and that drew Spanish and Mexican rancho owners like the the Dominguez and Rosecrans families in the 19th century. 

But what's now hidden—though visible within "The Willows"—is marshland that's part of the 110-square-mile Dominguez Watershed. It was once fed by a "river" that got concretized into a flood control canal now known as the Dominguez Channel. 

Fortunately, this last remaining bit of the Laguna Dominguez Slough (or "swamp") is teeming with life—and not just monarch butterflies. 
On a hot and steamy August morning, there was plenty of greenery to behold—plus not-yet-dormant buckwheat and still-thriving wildflowers. 

It's amazing that a region that struggles with drought would spend so much time cutting off its water sources. 

The Willows nearly got filled in during the mid-1970s, when the City of Gardena floated such ideas as building a convention center there. 

Today, its 9.4 acres of wetland includes a riparian forest of water-loving trees (including multiple species of willows), shrubs, and other vegetation that form tree tunnels and a shady canopy for local critters and visitors alike. 

And besides the flower blossoms, oak acorns, willow seeds, and unfallen leaves, there are also unexpected outcroppings of fruit... the native and ripened lemonade berry, whose flavor lives up to its name. 

During normal times, you'd be able to learn about all these botanical wonders and more at Mother Nature's Backyard, a nature center located on part of The Willows' 4 acres of upland terrain. 
But with it closed for COVID-19, you've got to just keep going to complete the loop...

...crossing the Zigzag bridge (which hopefully keeps evil spirits away like it's supposed to)...

...and finishing up the South Loop Trail at the Stream Bridge. 

On my way into the Willows preserve, I was rushing too much to notice the wall of hybrid grapevines, known as "Roger’s Red" grape (Vitis californica "Roger's Red"), along the entrance path. But fortunately, my exit was much more leisurely—so I got a good look at the wild purple grapes and the green leaves that hadn't yet turned their fall red color. I hear that the red foliage is spectacular once it turns. 

Google Satellite View

As I was leaving, I couldn't quite believe where I'd just been—though while inside the preserve, I did catch glimpses of the traffic running up and down Vermont Avenue. But watching that urban scene through the fence was like peeking into some other world that I'd managed to escape—and somehow no longer seemed real. 

We've paved over so much. It's easy to forget what's underneath—like the the underlying riverbeds channelized by concrete. 

Even our green spaces are industrialized—built environments consisting of parking lots, playground equipment, artificial turf, manmade ponds, and other facilities. 

I'll take a little corner of wild land over a planned park any day. 

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September 19, 2020

Välkommen to Highway 99's Turn-of-the-Last Century Swedish Village, Kingsburg

I've been to IKEA maybe three times in my life, and I just don't get Americans' fascination with this Swedish brand. It's got to be more than the hot meatballs they serve in the marketplace. 

And it can't be that we have so many Americans of Swedish descent. Although the Swedes did arrive to the New World in waves—from the mid-1600s (the New Sweden Company trade expedition) to the late 1880s—they mostly stuck to certain Scandinavian communities where they could farm, as they had back home. 

That explains the Swedish colonies of the Midwest, surrounding the Great Lakes—with "Little Sweden" towns still located in Minnesota and even Illinois. At the turn of the last century, Chicago was the second-largest Swedish city in the world

Immigrant Swedish farmers also found their way to the agricultural riches of California's San Joaquin Valley—a.k.a. the "Central Valley," specifically to the town of Kingsburg, just south of Fresno along historic Highway 99. 

In its heyday, having been officially designated in 1926, Highway 99—the "Golden State Highway" before it was replaced by the 5 Freeway between LA and Bakersfield—had earned the nickname "The Main Street of California." 

And driving through Kingsburg, it's clear why. 

It was officially established as a town in 1908, after a group of Swedish immigrants settled in what used to be called "Kings River Switch" along the Central Pacific Railroad's Valley Line in the 1870s. 

But it wasn't until 1921 that Kingsburg really earned its "Little Sweden" nickname—when 94% of the population within a 3-mile radius was classified as Swedish-American. 

Nearly 100 years later, its Scandinavian population may have dwindled...

...but signs off the 99 and throughout town still greet visitors and passers-by with a "Välkommen."

Depictions of dala horses (a.k.a. Dalecarlian horses, or wooden horses originating from the Swedish province of Dalarna/Dalecarlia) dot the town...

...on flagpoles and lampposts, sides of buildings...

...and inside and outside the Swedish Village's butiks. 

Kingsburg keeps the Swedish theme alive not only through its architecture—but also its events, with the annual Swedish Festival having occupied the third weekend in May since it launched in 1924 as an early celebration of the midsummer/midsommar harvest. What began as a simple luncheon has evolved into a tourist draw that features, of course, a smorgasborg as well as the raising of the maypole and traditional Nordic dance.

There's also the Julgransfest annual lighting of the Kingsburg Christmas tree (julgrans) and Santa Lucia Day—December 13, the feast of the 4th-century Christian martyr Sankta Lucia, considered the kickoff for "Christmastide" (the 12 days before Christmas).  

But on a day-to-day basis, roadtrippers exit the 99 at Kingsburg to do a little shopping and a little gawking—like at the town's circa 1911 water tower, which has been a coffee pot since it was remodeled in 1985. Standing 122 feet off the ground, it pays tribute to Sweden's obsession with coffee, which rivals most countries in the world in terms of per capita consumption. For Swedes, having a coffee—a ritual known as fika—is a way of life!

The coffee pot water tower is conveniently located near the decommissioned Kingsburg City Jail, built 1925 and now leased to Kingsburg Historical Society as a historical exhibit. 

The poured, reinforced concrete box replaced a circa 1874 wooden jail—and shockingly was in active service until the early 1970s! After that, it temporarily became storage for police evidence. 

It's also located adjacent to the Kingsburg Historical Society's Walk of Fame, which honors some of the town's fallen heroes—like Constable George Boyle, who succumbed to gunshot wounds while pursuing escaped prisoners, and Deputy Night Watchman Fred French, who was shot in the head by a drunk and disorderly patron of the pool hall who'd been released and sent home. 

There's a mini coffee pot, too—planted on top of the sign for the Kingsburg Historical Park, which features vintage farm equipment, artifacts from Del Monte peach cannery (which closed in 2012), and the relocated Clay School Building (built 1913, arrived 1975 as the park's first building), the Olson/Ball House (built by carpenter Peter Olson in 1908, arrived 1981), and Riverbend Church (built 1911, relocated 2016). 

There is, however, one aspect of Swedish history that's earned a prominent place in Kingsburg as well—and that's thew Vikings. 

Not only does a Viking serve as the mascot for the local schools, but the town's central playground has taken the form of a Viking longship—in the gold and blue colors of the Swedish flag. 

And like the dragonships or drakeskips of the Viking era (say, the 8th through 13th centuries), this playground version features a dragon (or drakkar/drakar) head mounted on the ship's bow to protect her and her crew at sea. 

For all the Swedish immersion of Kingsburg, the town does acknowledge its home-away-from-home with its Three Crowns Fountain. In Memorial Park, a trio of metal crowns (tre kronor) represent the national emblem of Sweden (and the country's coat of arms) as they hover above a U.S.-shaped pool. 

Although I'd heard of and even visited California's Danish-themed town of Solvang, I might never have stumbled across Kingsburg had I not mentioned to some friends that I was heading up north to Fresno for Labor Day weekend. 

It's amazing when people can introduce me to something as entirely new—and captivating—as Kingsburg, after wandering through the lower half of California for over a decade now. 

And honestly, getting even a little bit of Sweden in the desert is just a magical thing. 

P.S. But it's nothing like IKEA.