In early June, the Esotouric gang set off on a tour of Villa Aurora, the sprawling Spanish-Colonial Revival estate in Pacific Palisades that was for decades the home of the German emigrés Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger--he a journalist and novelist, she an athlete.
Lion's pointed criticism of Hitler's rise had landed the couple in concentration camps, and it was only through the efforts of powerful friends that they escaped with their lives. They entered the U.S. through Mexico, due to the vile immigration quota system which blocked the escape of thousands of less connected Jews.
Villa Aurora was built as an L.A. Times-sponsored showcase house in 1928, by a developer who soon went bankrupt. When the Feuchtwangers purchased it in 1941, it was a dilapidated, out-of-fashion pile half swallowed by underbrush.
Although the Feuchtwangers' architectural tastes ran to modernism, a mock-Spanish castle better suited Lion's need for wall space to house the tens of thousands of books that informed his historical novels. And the stunning views out over the Pacific were some solace. They made a home of it, and never left.
L.A.'s German and Jewish colony -- Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Arnold Schonberg, Franz Werfel, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein and others -- gathered frequently in the grand salon with its built-in pipe organ and broad terrace. Mann called it "truly a castle by the sea."
Lion and Marta lived together in the Villa Aurora until his death in 1958, and she stayed on. Marta had already donated Lion's books and papers to USC, and on her 1987 passing left the house as well, intending that the school maintain it as a tribute to her husband's work.
USC countered that it would just as soon sell the house and move the books downtown.
It looked as though the lights would soon flicker out at Villa Aurora.
But Marta had many friends, and had kept her husband's rebel spirit alive. A cultural preservation campaign was launched, a rare collaboration between book-loving Angelenos and the German government and intelligentsia. With Mayor Tom Bradley's support, City Councilman Marvin Braude successfully sought to have the house declared an Historic-Cultural Monument. This bought time against any demolition attempt. In Germany, millions were raised.
The result was the establishment of Villa Aurora e.V., a non-profit organization that maintains the property, hosts visiting German artists, and stages cultural events. USC owns Feuchtwanger's books, but many of the less delicate and valuable volumes from his working library still line the walls, between sculptural busts of Marta at all ages, and the bits of driftwood she collected on her shore walks.
Villa Aurora is home to one of the largest collections of intact tile from Harry C. Hicks' mid-range Hispano-Moresque line, and the primary reason for our visit was to view this installation in the company of our favorite Southern California tile expert, Brian Kaiser.
It truly is an extraordinary display, although the years, and perhaps mineral seepage from the hillside, have not been kind to massive murals in the front courtyard.
After climbing the winding hillside road, which the Los Angeles Times installed for the many thousands of visitors who toured their Demonstration House in the spring of 1928, we gathered in the secluded entry courtyard with our tour guide Mona, and a small group of German visitors, who fortunately did not object to the tour being given in English.
After introducing us to the history of the Demonstration House and the Feuchtwangers' life in exile, our guide opened the door to Marta's sitting room, and ushered us inside. We remarked upon the handsome red tile floor, the busts of Marta, the stunning wood- and ironwork and the moist, chilly air.
And then the odd thing happened.
Richard and I are cat people. Brian is, too. The tour was suddenly even more interesting. We were eager to meet the Villa Aurora's resident pussycat.
"Where's the cat?" interrupted Richard.
"There is no cat," said Mona.
"But we heard the cat," I insisted.
"There's a small dog here, but no cat." said Mona, a little confused and perhaps unnerved. We let the matter drop. But later, we heard the cat mew again, in the kitchen. We never saw or heard the little dog, who was far away upstairs in the visiting artists' living quarters. And as it turned out, nobody else had heard the cat, not even Brian.
The cat's call came from around this spot.
Later, we found a photograph of Lion Feuchtwanger holding a handsome black pussycat. Perhaps this was the spectral spirit who called out to us as we entered the Villa Aurora.
The house is packed with charming, thoughtful details.
Cast-iron door knobs.
Bathrooms to die for.
Villa Aurora is open for private tours by appointment, and hosts regular screenings and events. To learn more, click here.
And to see all of the photos from our visit, click here.
In late May, the Esotouric gang set off on a desert road trip, with our compass set to points unusual and mysterious.
You won't find many stranger, or more awe-inspiring, attractions in Southern California than the Trona Pinnacles, the towering remnants of hydro-chemical activity on an ancient lakebed.
100,000 years ago, the interior of California was dotted with a network of interconnected inland seas. The ancient seas are gone, but the mineral excrescences that formed over tens of thousands of years still stand sentinel in a vast and windy landscape, far from human habitation.
In 1968, these tufa formations, the result of calcium-rich ground water meeting the alkaline sea, were designated by the Department of the Interior as a National Natural Landmark.
To visit the Trona Pinnacles, one leaves the sleepy military town of Ridgecrest and heads east, passing through a dramatic, wind-formed landscape that suggests cathedrals in the rock.
The BLM road to the Pinnacles is gravel, dust and ruts, and slow going with a conventional vehicle. Visitors must be conscious of heat, wind, rain and the precise moment that the sun will set, and should allow at least an hour round-trip once leaving the paved highway.
Still, there is something extraordinary in slowing to a crawl to approach these ancient monuments, which loom ever larger on the sandy plain, throwing off wild shadows as their details come into focus. For this is how the Pinnacles appeared to those approaching on horseback a century ago, or to walkers earlier still.
Worried our car might not be happy climbing up again, we parked on the ridge overlooking the plain to hike down to the dry lake bed. Richard noticed the dust of another car approaching, and stayed on the ridge until he could make eye contact with the newcomers. (Oddly, they never got out of their car, and soon turned and left.)
These would be the only other people we would see for our entire visit, save the solitary young man in the 4WD truck who arrived as we were hiking back, then disappeared onto the darkening dry lake bed bound for points unknown.
The Pinnacles are spread out over a rise in the flat landscape, with soft-packed sandy paths that lead up to the peaks and astonishing views out across the desert. The wind out here is like a living creature, whistling in our ears and shaping the ancient mineral towers. How many more centuries will they stand, before nature finishes breaking down what she has created?
We wandered around for some time, marveling at the strange forms that are designated as Towers (tall and slender, up to 40' high), Tombstones (fat and wide, up to 30' high), Ridges (like mountain ranges, up to 140' high) and Cones (little mounds, up to 10' high).
Then the sun moved, and the shadows shifted, and we knew it would soon be dark and cold on the ancient plain.
Trudging back through the dust, we spied a gangly lizard that took off running, so fast and frantic that it seemed to be flying on the ground.
And a little armored beetle, its shell a beautiful ridged black, like a Japanese warrior girded for battle.
Dusty and awed, we crawled back along the gravel road to rejoin the flow on the highway and the modern world.
The Trona Pinnacles are standing now, as they have for thousands of years, each day a little smaller, a little different. They were standing when the Caesars ruled, and will be standing when the Caesars have been forgotten. And you should see them if you can.
See all of Chinta Cooper's photos from our trip here.
And if you'd like to tour the Trona Pinnacles, visitor information is here.
Located at the end of a steep dirt road on a ridge of the Tehachapi Mountains, Tomo-Kahni was for centuries the winter settlement of the Kawaiisu people, a tribe of hunter-gatherers famed for their basketry skills and high protein trade goods, including chia seeds and pine nuts.
Despite the coming of the Spanish and later the Americans, the tribe maintained their ancient seasonal traditions through the early 1900s, living in simple juniper bough huts, some of which which still survive in the form of stone circle footprints.
But Los Angeles' insatiable thirst for water brought industry to the little town of Tehachapi, and the younger Kawaiisu began to migrate down to take high-paying jobs in the Monolith Portland Cement Company plant. The Owens Valley aqueduct was built from good Tehachapi limestone, and by the time it was finished, so was the old life up in the mountains.
Kawaiisu still live in the region, but have adopted modern ways. It was the tribal elders who worked with anthropologists and the State Parks Department to ensure that Tomo-Kahni was preserved as an interpretive site for future generations to explore.
Tomo-Kahni isn't like other State Parks. You don't pull up to a paved parking lot dotted with interpretive signs and rattlesnake warnings, and you won't meet other hikers, their dogs or loud children on the trail. The only access to this sheltered spot is on the occasional tours hosted by trained guides who can interpret the fascinating artifacts that dot the hillsides leading up to the grand spirit cave at the mountain top.
We left Los Angeles early to join our group at the Tehachapi Museum, located just off the charming main drag in Kern County's decommissioned Depression-era library. After a brief orientation and gear check, drivers were provided with directions to the semi-secret site, and our caravan took off down the highway. We passed the hulking Monolith plant, then swung up into Sand Canyon, with its hand-painted protest signs opposing wind farming. And soon, we were bouncing up a rough sandy road to the trailhead gate.
Our little group set out along the park's unusual powdery red sand path, which in the wet season expands to many times its volume and releases old artifacts hidden deep within.
The treeless, scrubby hills had once been heavily forested with pine and oak, but the massive 7.7 earthquake of 1952 altered the water table, and Tomo-Kahni lost its live-giving open stream. While plants still grow, including some stands of reeds clearly sapping up the subterranean remnants of the old flow, the landscape is today much changed from that which sheltered the Kawaiisu.
Soon we came to a colorful lichen-dotted flat rock ledge, which our guides informed us had been the communal grinding station. Hundreds of deep bowls worn into the sandstone rock face provided a surface against which to mash nuts and acorns for cooking and storage, as well as a social space for the tribal women. The past was powerful as we peered into the natural bowls scraped from long use by the original Californians.
The Kawaiisu believe that a powerful spirit called Grizzly Bear ushered all of the spirits of the animals out of the underworld through a narrow gap in the rocks high atop Tomo-Kahni. As each spirit emerged, it chose an animal to inhabit--although some became locked within stone forms, which explains the rabbit and turtle-shaped boulders near the Medicine Cave.
Approaching Medicine Cave is an intimidating experience. High in the rocks sits a massive raven's nest, its tender residents guarded by fierce black parents. As the path switches back, a visitor feels exposed upon the open hill, knowing that the holy place is just around the bend and out of sight. Gnarled, wind-hewn boulders suggest monstrous faces and hulking forms.
And then we arrive. Medicine Cave is a broad, shaded opening in the ancient stone, with deep overhangs giving way to the mystic fissure from which the Kawaiisu say all life emerged. It was cool in the shelter of the rock, and strange. On the walls are ageless pictographs: spirals, handprints, prey animals stalked by hunters and a strange splayed figure that might represent a pelt or sea mammal or the formless spirits waiting in the rock.
The sight of a thread-wrapped medicine bundle reminded us of the great power this sacred place still possesses for the people of the mountain. After a short break to rest, eat and chat with our fellow travelers, we quietly gathering our things, and started off back down the path.
There was one last site to see on the path back. Nettle Spring is a deep split between two rocks, lined with the spiky nettle bushes that were used for fiber and medicine. Tribal elders say this was a place where women retreated for ritual purposes. The rock here is heavily scored with vertical lines covered over with red pigment, but the meaning of these marks remains elusive.
We stopped in at Kohnen's German bakery for hearty sandwiches, beer and old world pastry, to ease ourselves back into the now as gently as possible. Then it was off on another adventure… but that story will have to wait for another day.
See all of Chinta Cooper's photos from our visit to Tomo-Khani and Tehachapi here.
And if you'd like to reserve a spot on one of these very special excursions into ancient California, more info is here.
A visit to John A. Roebling's Sons Co Wire Works, Los Angeles (1913) - Custom Batchelder Tiles and Bridge Cable Staircase
On May 9, 2013, while recording interviews with longtime Arts District residents for the You Can't Eat The Sunshine podcast, we had the rare opportunity to step into the non-public corner entrance of the John A. Roebling's Sons Co Wire Works building (now home to Angel City Brewery).
We were stunned by the selection of unique, custom Ernest Batchelder tiles that honor the Roebling family's history and contribution to the industrial age.
(Roebling senior designed the Brooklyn Bridge, and spun the wire with which it was strung).
The beautiful staircase is constructed from Roebling's spun wire.
See all our photos from our visit to the lobby here.
Stay tuned to our podcast channel for chapters in our ongoing cultural history of the Arts District,
The Tamale, 6421 Whittier Boulevard, circa 1920s (photo: LAPL Collection)
Once upon a time, Southern California was dotted with the daffiest buildings ever slapped up in a frantic, entrepreneurial weekend: shaped like dirigibles and oranges, ice cream tubs and puppies, flower pots and hot dogs, tipis, old shoes, oil cans, owls, chili bowls, coffee pots, bowler hats, whales and donuts, they beckoned to passing motorists with a powerful whimsy.
Most of L.A.'s great programmatic architectural landmarks are long gone, and those that remain exist in various states of decay, alteration and uncertainty. Like the Tail O' the Pup, which tucked its meat between its buns and wandered off one day, or the unfortunate Wilshire Boulevard Brown Derby, now nothing but a weird swoop on a mini-mall roof.
The Tamale, 6421 Whittier Boulevard, today (photo: Kim Cooper)
And then there's the Tamale. The last of what was once a mini Oddball Row of programmatic structures along Whittier Boulevard between Montebello and East Los Angeles (an oil can-shaped diner and crashed airplane called The Dugout vanished decades ago), the Tamale's twisted ends twitch tight against the newer buildings on either side, and instead of tamales, today it serves up perms and trims.
Although it's among the last of an indigenous California architectural form, unfortunately there is no structure in place for protecting or preserving the Tamale. Located in unincorporated Los Angeles County, it is not subject to the city's historic preservation guidelines. State and National monument status is dependent on the whim of the property owner. And so she sits, caked in plaster, under the blazing east side sun, waiting for something to happen.
Yesterday, something happened: the lot on which the Tamale sits, comprised of this small storefront and a tiny two-bedroom, one-bath house behind, was placed on the market with an asking price of $459,000. The rental income is $2,060 a month. And that's what you call a teardown, folks.
So what can be done to protect the Tamale--assuming the property is sold and the new owners want to make more efficient use of the small lot? Although there are no binding historic preservation options available, there is still some hope.
Inspired by her commitment to protecting the murals on the facade of the First Street Store, we're reaching out to Supervisor Gloria Molina and asking for her support in ensuring that the Tamale is preserved, even if that requires moving the structure from its current location. If you agree that the Tamale is an important L.A. landmark worth preserving, you can share your thoughts with Sup. Molina's office via email HERE.
Encouraging news just received via email from Supervisor Gloria Molina:
"Thank you for sharing your views regarding the “tamal” building located at 6421 Whittier Boulevard. I, too, fondly remember it and other iconic structures that lined Whittier Boulevard, and I agree that the structure is worthy of historic designation.
I am pleased to share with you that in the near future, I intend to establish a Los Angeles County ordinance to provide certain benefits for buildings designated as historic; please know that the property owner's consent will be required. My staff is engaging the building's owner to determine if there is interest, and if needed we will work with future property owners. If enacted, this ordinance will preserve this noteworthy edifice for future generations to enjoy, and the property owner will receive tax credits to be utilized for the structure's maintenance. For further information about the proposed ordinance, please contact Phillip Estes with the County Department of Regional Planning at (213) 974-6425. I also encourage you to share your thoughts with the building's owners, Sky Realty Investments, which is located at 5191 Fox Hills Avenue, Buena Park, 90621.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me about this essential issue."
Sincerely, GLORIA MOLINA, Supervisor, First District
Tamale on Whittier Boulevard put up for sale (L.A. Observed, 4/24/13)
East Los Angeles's Tamale-Shaped Building is Up For Sale (Curbed, 4/24/13)
Redevelopment might eat East LA's giant tamale building (KPCC Off-Ramp, 4/25/13)
LA giant tamale building's future uncertain (ABC-7 News, 4/25/13)
Supervisor Gloria Molina promises to help save East LA's giant tamale building (KPCC Off-Ramp, 5/1/2013)
County Preservation Effort Could Save East LA Tamale Building (Curbed, 5/1/13)
Peel Away the Layers to Find East L.A.’s Giant Tamale (EGPNews, 5/2/2013)
We complained about graffiti on the terrazzo in front of Clifton's Cafeteria in late February. The City's 3-1-1 service responded immediately:
According to the contractor servicing the area, the graffiti removal (1800679) you requested on Feb 27, 2013 at 648 S BROADWAY was removed on Feb 28, 2013."
Today we stopped by and saw that the graffiti was not removed at all. Lightened, perhaps, but still very visible. The contractor falsely told the City that it had removed the offending marks--and charged the taxpayers for the work. Meanwhile, the most beautiful sidewalk in Los Angeles is still smeared with black scrawls. It makes us very sad.
It's been a peculiar, and a sad few days.
On Tuesday, a missing Canadian traveler, Elisa Lam, was discovered inside the rooftop water tank of the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles.
That hotel happens to be one of the stops on Esotouric's tour Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice, and if you go looking for information about the place, you'll be sent our way. So this week we've given a number of interviews to reporters from Canada, New York and here in Los Angeles, clarifying the history of the hotel, its changing demographics, litany of suicides, and the peculiar bit of trivia that two serial killers stayed there during their sprees.
LINKS: CNN previews Cecil Hotel death lore from our Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour.
Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour creator Kim Cooper talks about the Cecil Hotel’s grim history on CBC Canada (link), on CNN (link), on NBC4 (link), on KNX (link), in The Sun (link) and in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (link).
Debunking L.A. myths before they form is sort of a hobby of ours, so when two different reporters asked "And is it true that this is one of the last places that the Black Dahlia was seen?" we quickly set them straight. And yet...
Although Beth Short, the victim in the notorious and still-unsolved Black Dahlia murder, has no known association with the Cecil Hotel, there are a number of startling similarities between her story -- the subject of our most popular crime bus tour -- and Elisa Lam's.
• Both have names derived from Elizabeth.
• Both were women in their early 20s, traveling alone, frequenting public transportation.
• Both of them had loose travel plans that were known only to themselves.
• They were both petite, attractive brunettes, with personalities described as charismatic and outgoing. Both also suffered from depression.
• Each one traveled from San Diego to Downtown Los Angeles in January.
• Each was last seen in a Downtown hotel.
• Neither woman's disappearance was immediately reported. Both were missing for a number of days before being discovered, dead, in a shocking location.
• And the deaths of both of these unfortunate young women has inspired enormous media attention and speculation.
So we wait, for answers to the newest mystery to unfold in this mystery-drenched neighborhood.
With no results from Elisa Lam's autopsy and toxicology results still weeks away, the question lingers: was she murdered, or was this just some bizarre and perhaps unexplainable accident? And if it was murder, will the similarities continue to pile up?
For the sake of all who loved her, may the answer to this question be a resounding no.
Take a peep inside one of the strangest geothermal oddities in Southern California.
If you want to see this strange place for yourself, put on shoes you don't much care about, and head for the intersection of Schrimpf and Davis Roads in Calipatria, California.
For more info, and some wonderful photos, visit
25 January 2013
Submitted by email
To Mr. Ibarra,
As preservationists, architectural historians and residents of the east side, we are writing to express our grave concern over the proposed demolition and redevelopment of the historic Wyvernwood Garden Apartments in Boyle Heights. This is one of the best designed and most significant examples of modern architecture on the east side of town, and it ought to be preserved and maintained and not demolished. Similar properties on the west side have waiting lists to live in them, because they are recognized as the best sort of urban residential design.
15 Group has been a neglectful landlord of Wyvernwood for many years, and now wants to evict hundreds of families and build a massive development that is unsuitable for the community and which many people do not believe will welcome the longtime residents back. This is the same out-of-state developer that recently purchased and demolished a beloved Silver Lake coffee shop, The Coffee Table, demolished it for residential redevelopment, abandoned the project and left a vacant lot.
Why should Los Angeles trust 15 Group to do what's right for Boyle Heights when they have such a poor track record in our communities?
In a part of town which has so many vacant lots and derelict industrial structures, there are simply thousands of better choices for redevelopment than is the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, and we urge you to consider a plan that will preserve this gem of Boyle Heights.
Recent posts in the 1947project time travel blogs include the surprising link between American Gothic and the Union Rescue Mission, the story of the unique downtown character known as The Potato King and an inquiry into the story that Teddy Roosevelt slept at the King Edward Hotel. Esotouric grew out of these online history websites. Swing by and enjoy all the interesting digging we've been doing.
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