October 15, 2020

Photo Essay: The Only 19th-Century-Style Panorama West of the Mississippi (And Its Arctic Trading Post)

What was built as a neighborhood cinema has been reincarnated many times—as a playhouse, a church meeting house, and the Tile Layers Union (Local 18) hall. But that's not why it's called the "Union" Theatre.

Located on 24th Street in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, it was right down the street from a small park known as Union Square. And today, it's home to The Velaslavasay Panorama, the creation of Panorama City-born artist Sarah Velas.

Velas moved into the space in 2005 after relocating from a circular building in Hollywood called the Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda (built in 1968 and opened as The Chu-Chu Chinese restaurant). She'd been there since the year 2000—but it was to be demolished. Fortunately, the orange ball that once topped it now graces the roof of the Union Theatre. 

I'd been to the Panorama back in 2013, when the installation was a "panoramic meditation on the arctic" called "Effulgence of the North," which had been running since late 2007. In 2019, the current exhibit "Shengjing Panorama" debuted.

That gave me enough of an excuse to return to the Union Theatre and have another look at architect Frank L. Stiff's circa 1910 design—and what now lies inside.

Fortunately, it's reopened by reservation only after a multi-month COVID-19 closure. 

It's been a long time since the Union Theatre actually screened movies on a regular basis—with parts of the former auditorium having been converted into office space (by the tile layers) and, now, gallery spaces.

And the main attraction here—the 360-degree panoramic painting—actually pre-dates motion pictures by several decades.

Some might consider the "theatre in the round" of proto-cinematic landscape paintings a lost art form of the Victorian era—but it's alive and well at the Union Theatre, with rotating exhibits occupying an immersive space at the top of a flight of stairs. 

It's the only panorama of its kind West of the Mississippi—and features many of the hallmarks of the classic panorama, including a dark hallway entrance and an observation platform. 

The current exhibit—the 90-foot-long Shengjing Panorama—depicts the Chinese city of Shenyang circa 1910 to 1930. The first-ever collaborative panorama between China and the U.S., it took Chinese panorama masters from the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang five years to paint it.

Another new addition to The Velaslavasay Panorama in the Union Theatre since I last visited is the Nova Tuskhut, "The only Arctic Trading Post in the 'Lower 48,'" which opened in 2014. 

You can buy a postcard from the Velaslavasay gift shop for a dollar and post it to a friend (or yourself) from the Arctic—for free—simply by slipping it in the slot. 

Inside the trading post, you're even allowed to take a nap... long as you don't surpass the duration of your reserved time slot. 

Walk through the auditorium...

...past just 10 rows of theatre seats that remain...

...and you'll find an enchanted garden that contains a waterfall called "The Isle of Penglai" (referencing the magical and sacred island of Chinese mythology)...

...and a meditation grotto called the "Pavilion of the Verdant Dream" (a reference to a 2011 series of Panorama events titled "Pursuing the Verdant Dream").
Advertisement courtesy of Velaslavasay Panorama

What better way to escape from the pandemic than to travel through space and time to places both real and imagined? 

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