Journey to the Center of 1909

Back when the New Year turned 2000, some sort of promised computronic glitch was supposed to send us back to 1900. Remember that? I booted up everything I could find, sat in a room full of Coleco Adams, VIC 20s and TI 99/4s, wearing a high starched collar and waiting for President McKinley to send wire that all was well. It never happened.
bunkernewyear
I won’t say that I go through the same ritual every year, but it was hard not to plummet, turning as we were to 2009, deep into the wonder of 1909. You may lose yourself in the limpid pools of your lover’s eyes, or the majesty of your maker’s sunsets; I was transported to the world of Los Angeles, 1909, courtesy the Western Lithograph Company. Unfortunately, I came back. So I’ll plop down in front of my beloved Apple Lisa, which once failed to transport me to 1900, and try and take you around a bit to Bunker Hill, 1909.

Our journey involves a map. There are in fact two versions of the beast-in-question: one published by the Birdseye View Publishing Company, which included a legend at the bottom. Another variation without the legend, commonly known as the "Worthington Gates," as it names its compiler, was published the same year by Birdseye (or "Birds Eye" as they’re called on the WG; it as well identifies itself as product of the Western Litho. Co.). For the record, contrary to popular belief, these are not entirely the same map. For example, here’s the corner of Fourth and Hill. The Birdseye-View map:
bonzai
Now note the Worthington Gates—which we should note was also printed smaller, and in and of an overall brownish hue, as opposed to the verdant greens of Los Angeles in the Birdseye above—apparently published later: while the buildings have remained untouched, their naming has altered slightly (the LAP building) and some names have been added (note Danziger and University Club to the north of the Wright-Callender).
westernlitho

Very well. We commence our journey through the interstices of space-time!

From the get-go, let’s get a feeling for just how high the Hill once lorded over downtown:

lording

Starting with our western edge:

fiftholive

Fifth and Olive, of course, the unassuming future site of the Auditorium Hotel, a mere year away. In the future. Heading up Olive into the Hill there’s our old friend the Trenton.

Swinging around to our southern border:

AngelsFight

Third and Grand at upper left, Third and Olive center, Third and Hill bottom right. The Nugent stands proud at 3&G; there’s the Elks, the Astoria, the YWCA and of course perennial favorite Angels Flight. Note that what’s usually known as the Mission Apartments over at Second and Olive is called the Castle Craig.

fourthgrand

A couple more you should recognize above—Zelda at Fourth and Grand, over her shoulder, the Touraine.

Of course no account of BH would be complete without an image of the Second/Hill area:

2ndhill

…covered of course to an absurd degree here and here. In this depiction one gets a feeling for the majesty of the Hotel Locke, and of the ornate nature of those façades lopped off due to Second Street’s widening during construction of the tunnel (say goodbye to the Argyle turret!).

BHA

The Rose Mansion at the bottom corner of Fourth and Grand (closest to the Fr in Fremont). Kitty-corner across from the Rose are the towers of the Hershey/Castle; next to her, the magnificent Brunson Mansion. The Fleur de Lis you’ll remember as the blink-of-an-eye Bryan Mansion. Upper right, looming large at Third and Bunker Hill Avenue is the Alta Vista; behind, on Flower, the St. Regis.

While we’re on the subject of Buker Hill Ave., let’s take a closer look-see:

bunkerC/U

…heading up the street we’ve got the Salt Box, 333 South Bunker Hill, the Castle, the Lady McDonald, and the distinctive tower of the Foss/Heindel all on the east side of the street.

minniewacky

A bit further north is Hill standout The Dome (aka the Minnewaska) at Second and Grand; the Majestic, top, at First and Hope, later became the Rossmere; our turreted pal in the upper left is at First and Flower.

Bunker Hill north of First tends to get the short shrift around here. (For that we apologize and look forward to remedying this injustice in the coming year.) Not that we haven’t poked around up there a bit:

upgrand

Here for example, center right, is the St. Angelo, up on North Grand. Lurking behind would be the Larronde residence.

And that’s just a taste of the Hill. (Where, you ask, are the Melrose and Fremont, to name but two?) And the map stretches from West Lake Park to the river. But don’t take my word for it. Whether you cleave to the Worthington Gates, or cotton to the Birdseye View, there’s no better way to spend the better part of, oh, the rest of your life than poring over these maps. You’ll find as well that a quick internet search will reveal no lack of suitable-for-framing reproductions to be had of both kinds.

Now then. Having applied quantum gravity to traversable wormhole metrics, and stuff, I’m pretty sure I’ve constructed a time machine by affixing a Powerbook 180 to the Worthington Gates.

timemachine

See you in the lobby of the Cumberland, Kip Thorne!

Odd Incarnations: The Bunker Hill of Towne’s Ask the Dust

fromthetrailerBunker Hill of old is gone, never to be again. Until we concoct some Disneyesque Colonial Williamsburgian simulacrum, complete with sullen teenagers hired to pose as grimy grifters, we’ll never be able to amble down Third toward Hill and catch Angels Flight up to battenboard and gingerbread. (Imagine, the collapse of the Vanderbilt will be repeated at two, four, and six! Visit the souvenir stand outside the Elmar! We gotta get Eco on board. Dang, too bad Baudrillard just died.)

But the Hill did rise again, for one brief moment, when Robert “Chinatown” Towne said full speed ahead, we’re building this thing. We’ve got Ask the Dust to film. And with all that devalued Rand, what did they build down in a Capetown rugby field? A presumptuous pastiche. A goofy Golem. A dopey doppelgänger.

Bear in mind this post is less a criticism than an investigation, because it’s not so much they got it wrong as they got it weird.

AtDWhat is this Asking of Dust, you ask? Fine, a little background. It’s the 1930s, and while the world was awash in novels of the mannered drawing-room variety, aspiring writer John Fante was banging out gritty realism, as best he could, considering that at every turn he’d find the “mechanism of [his] new typewriter glutted with sand.” This is the titular dust, the tiny brown grains that’d blow in from the Mojave, that’d get in his hair and ears and find its way into the bedsheets of his little room at the Alta Loma, his Bunker Hill flop.

Ask the Dust is Bunker Hill. And AtD’s protagonist Arturo Bandini is our displaced dago everyman, there at the Alta Loma, built on the hillside in reverse: he climbs out the window and scales the incline to the top of the Hill and walks “down Olive Street past a dirty yellow apartment house still wet like a blotter from last night’s fog.” Via Fante/Bandini’s description, the Hill takes on all necessary romance and despair:

I went up to my room, up the dusty stairs of Bunker Hill, past the soot-covered frame buildings along that dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet. Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street.

(In actuality, Fante wrote Ask the Dust in a [recently-demolished] pad on Berendo. But he had lived at the Alta Vista, seen here…

theAltaVista

….and whose plot is now here:)

theyellowofcowardice

Anyway. Robert Towne reads the 1939-published Ask the Dust in 1971 while doing research for Chinatown. Towne decides then and there to make a picture out of the novel; it takes him a while to do so. Come 2006, voila, Ask the Dust.

I won’t comment on the performances or the diegetic structure of this oft-maligned film. While the reviewers cobbled cranky critiques, none cast aspersions on this piece of celluloid for any abuse of architectural accuracy. I would, however, were I to have an appropriate forum to do so. This being barely it, we’re off to the races.

Towne beat his brains out making this movie, befriending Fante, writing the script on spec (unheard of for a man of his stature), jumping through every archetypally ugly financing hoop and unearthing some undiscovered ones in the process. But yes, this labor of love paid off, because I was there opening day, ignoring the performances and diegetic structure to sit gape-mouthed at—what else? Bunker Hill. And sit in wonder and disbelief I did, mostly at the sheer strange world into which I’d been injected: Bunker Hill was dementedly askew. Therefore I was dementedly askew. Well, Mr. D.A., I hear you say, if you’re so All That, you try to make period picture.

TreasureIslandI may only know the bare minimum about making period pictures, but at least it’s something. Ten years ago, Richard and I—Kim’s Richard, builder of this blog—were the art department for “indie” film Treasure Island. Treasure Island was shot on film and set in 1945—and who on earth has ever made a serious period feature with no budget? We built sets in a makeshift soundstage, shot at locations with cajoled props in a manner that would make Ed Wood blush, and shut down City streets (necessary when staging a riot). That’s how you make a big, sprawling period picture (which went on to win the top honors at Sundance, the “Special Jury Prize for Distinctive Vision in Filmaking,” aka the coveted “What the Hell was That?! Award”) for less than the latte budget of Beverly Hills Chihuahua: make sure you have neither money nor expertise. But I’m not here to impugn the excesses of studio excrescence. I’m just pointing out that we did more with less. We were historically accurate. To an annoying degree.

Ask the Dust, less so. Oh, it looks great, but it’s Bunker Hill Bizarro. Batman once pointed out to the Mystery gang that the Joker did first-rate counterfeiting, save for one thing: President Lincoln never wore a turtleneck sweater. Suffice it to say, Bunker Hill’s neck will never get cold.

Consider. Towne was in development on this project for thirty years. During that time he could have learned the difference between the Second and Third Street tunnels. Or spent an hour finding someone who did. Look, no-one is here to talk smack about Ask the Dust Production Designer Dennis Gassner. Many have gone into production design to be Dennis Gassner. And the production looks terrific—but there are those among us will forever be at a loss to understand what the hell it was that Towne/Gassner & his team/whoever’s responsible was doing.


Ask the Dust
—it’s not that it’s full of rampant anachronism (if The Sting is set in the 30s, why are they listening to 1890s Scott Joplin, and have 1970s hair?), nor does it feel just altogether wrong & parachronistic (Ha! Ha! Harlem Nights!)—no, it’s anatopistic, which is a ten-dollar word meaning strange as all get out. Instead of mere chronological anomaly, we have full-bore objet-out-of-place, for example, a tunnel that’s moved over. (I’m just talking about the giant corporeal set they built. The actual CGI they dropped on top of it is a monument to chronological anomaly. We’ll get to that.)

Let’s talk tunnels. The designers read the script, and it says Angels Flight, Third Street. Ok. Art Department gets to work. Now then:

This is the Third Street tunnel:
TSS

This is the Second Street tunnel:
SST

This is what they elected to build:

SST2000
Hence:
FancifulBH

Got it? It’s the Second Street tunnel with Angels Flight next to it. And other Third Street whatnot atop. Some of it, anyhow.

This is no mere clickety-clack of computer, or making of matte painting (do people still do those?), this was built:

tunnelofyore

1924 looked just like 2004…

sstunderconstruction

Yes, I find this peternaturally exciting, but then, I need to get out more. In any event:

fancifulsmaller

 

 

 

 

Let’s again turn our attention to AtD‘s world of Third and Hill, 1933.

 

3HCrock

Here then is your standard pre-June 1908 Crocker Mansion shot. There’s the Crock, the observation tower, no Elks gate of course. Down from the Crocker there’s the Nelson House and the Ferguson house. On the east side of the street, in descending order, the Hillcrest, the Sunshine Apartments, the McCoy House, and the St. Helena Sanitarium.

elksahoyWhat I find really intriguing in Ask the Dust’s interpretation is the inclusion of the six-bay arched entry to Angels Flight, up top on Olive Street (you can see four of the open bays because the two on the left were closed in for the ticket booth). This pavilion would naturally butt up against the Hillcrest, but because the tunnel below is now so wide, there exists this odd empty area. The six-bay pavilion up top also thrusts us into an all the more peculiar place within the time-space continuum; it only existed between 1910 and 1914. While the Crocker Mansion existed before 1908. And the here-absent Observation Tower was not removed until 1938, five years after the Ask the Dust shot was “taken.”

So why use the Second Street tunnel and not the Third? I have a possible explanation for this. Here is a passage from the book:

I took the steps down Angel’s Flight to Hill Street: a hundred and forty steps, with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it—claustrophobia.

So there you have it. They couldn’t build the Third Street tunnel because Bandini’s character was scared of…so they built the…OK, so there was a time when everyone was coked out of their skulls and something like that could have occured. But nowadays there’s oversight, and bottom lines, and so on. Right?

But go back to the Ask the Dust image. The (pre-1933) Ferguson home down on the street by Angels Flight is sort of correct, though its gable faced at an angle to the street. And where is the entry arch to Angels Flight, pre-1910 or post? The buildings on the other side of the street are entirely fanciful…vaguely correct in their massing, but that’s about it. The Hillcrest never had bay windows. The McCoy house wasn’t double gabled—and the Sunshine Apts are gone, presumably so that the Sanitarium could be shoved up the hill.

In theory Gassner made a conscious aesthetic decision to go with the Crocker because it played better visually. Or there was an unpaid intern who saw a stack of postcards and slapped this together.

whatthe
tookabath

 

 

(Someone apparently saw an image of the Bath Block, once on the SW corner of Fifth and Hill.)

 

 

 

walkin

It doesn’t seem to bother Bandini much that he lives in a counterfactual alternate time universe. (Also, the Confederacy won, and because of that we have gills. Perhaps, rather than being doomed to an episode of Sliders, Bandini’s existence in this new world of speculative fiction where the Crocker survives is more akin to Delenda Est, and isn’t, therefore, you know, that bad?)
cominhome
notonhillWhat’s also interesting is that Bandini doesn’t actually live on Bunker Hill. The Alta Loma slopes down to Hill Street, in the middle of the 300 block—to the right of the St. Paul neon.

Back in the day, in the 300 block, that St. Paul Hotel was the site of the Western Mutual Life Bldng, the Alta Loma where the Hotel Columbia stood.

lookdownthird

A shot from the Graf:

viewfromthegrafzep

The entrance to the tunnel is on the right; the Alta Loma, bottom center.

Let us note too that while they built this:
gatesofhell

gateindistance

It gets barely a nod in the film. (Probably because while they constructed a working PE Red Car that got lots of camera time, there were no Olivet or Sinai.) Nevertheless, it’s all the more effective when we’re not hit over the head with the thing.

 

 

 

 

I don’t even want to discuss the unexplainable “flying in” opening credits—which, of course, is exactly what I’m going to do. So we’re flying in, and Bunker Hill has all of, oh, nine structures, and Bandini’s Alta Loma on Third is one of them, which we recognize as 512 West Second Street, once just above the Second Street tunnel:

flyingin1

flyingincloser

almostthere

altawho

I could go on and on (haven’t even deconstructed Third Street) but think I’ve made my point: weird, and enjoyably so. It’s not that the sets were treif out of lack of effort. They had the opportunity to rebuild Bunker Hill from the Ground Up, something never attempted before and will likely never happen again (until I’m given thirty-six acres and a drunken bank president), and I commend them for doing most impressive work:

impressive

(The first rule of any period LA picture: when in doubt, stick City Hall in there.)

hello

cityhallvigilant
Yes, impressive, impressive work. Now consider, if all had been perfect, what would I have had to write about?

fromthefutureguy

 

 

I should point out as well that the costuming was first-rate (Albert Wolsky won the Oscar for Bugsy).

 

 

Bet when you got up this morning you weren’t wondering whether you’d see Arturo Bandini with his Discman today.

 

 

 

 

 

For more on Fante and Bunker Hill, ask a teacher or librarian. Or better yet, get on the bus.

Speaking of CGI, what’s next on deck? Again starring our City Hall, CGI removing modernity like debridement.changy
Yes, Changeling. Which yeah, I’ll see in the theater, but won’t be as good as Choke, because it’s about a woman yelling “Give me back my son!” and also because they shot it in San Bernardino and San Dimas.

changebackalready

I get so tired of hearing about you can’t shoot old LA because there’s no old LA left in which to shoot (yes, I know they’re not actually just sloppy and lazy; it’s just a disingenuous way to get around verbalizing that it’s cheaper to shoot in fill-in-the-blank). But give me a camera and some crazy people and twelve dollars I’ll make you the best damn Bunker Hill movie yet.

2nd St. tunnel 1923, TICOR/Pierce Collection, University of Southern California; Alta Vista, Bath Block, 215 W 2nd, 2nd St tunnel 1960, Arnold Hylen Collection, California History Section, California State Library; I especially want to thank Jon, Lead Fabricator for AtD’s Art Department and his collection of images without which this post wouldn’t have been nearly as complete; Bandini and his Discman, and the Third and Hill mock up, come from here; the shot of the set from above is from here; super special thanks to the good people at Viacom/Paramount Motion Picture Group for not sending their thugs and/or lawyers after me, because they are I’m sure very nice people. Oh, I also stole screen grabs from that GE/Vivendi "Changeling" thingy. I am so headed for an earthen dam.

Kartography Korner


Golly, I cain’t never remember, is the Dome right kitty-corner to the Melrose? Weren’t there the Richelieu ‘tween ‘um? I kin hardly recall. Reckon there ought to be a map.

Reader, we hear this sort of comment often, though we are yet to understand why it is forever posed à la Opie Taylor. That notwithstanding, it is a reasonable query, and rest assured we are working on a map of Bunker Hill, replete with requisite names and addresses and footprints, and in a perfect world, will also include neat stuff like topographies, chronologically morphing blocks, and rollover, uh, hyperlinks. While I cannot promise all or any of the futuristic ideas I believe I’ve heard bandied about, it should definitely have pretty colors, and by the next time you go to MOCA, you’ll be able to call up the map on your PocketEniac™ and say “ah yes, we’re just now on the site of the (tap tap tap) Lovejoy Apartments.”

Until such time, let me offer you this map. It has none of the aforementioned geegaws, save for the pretty colors, and only comes in one year: 1921. Behold, Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Los Angeles. You may have heard of the Baist’s map; you can get a good look at it here (and their 1910 outing here). Plat Seven is the one to click for Bunker Hill. I suggest you head down to Central Library in a couple weeks and take a gander at an in-the-flesh Baist’s. Please be advised that as regards pretty colors, red=brick, yellow=frame, beige=stone.
bunkermapoverview

 

Soooo…here you go!

 

Bunker Hill!

 

Bordered by Temple, Hill, Figueroa and Fifth!

 

Ok, so this doesn’t do you any good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s look at something up close. Something we can really sink our teeth into.

ZeldaEtAl

Now we’re cooking with gas. Above, Hope, Grand and Olive run north. There’s the Fremont and Zelda along Fourth. The Sherwood is yet to have the Edison as her neighbor. And T stands for Trenton. (Bottom right, note Neher & Skilling‘s 1910 Auditorium Hotel, which once existed in all its finial’d glory, before mid-30s streamliny reincarnation into the San Carlos hotel [dig the 1955 Armet & Davis Googies addition]…Neher had a hand in designing the hotel’s big brother, the Auditorium itself, which also underwent a cleanlining).

Alright, off somewhere else:

Fig2Grand

Between Second and Third; I’ve typed in street names up top to keep y’all oriented (that’s Bunker Hill Avenue between Hope and Grand). Familiar faces—façades? footprints?—abound: Marcella, The St. Regis, Van Fleet, The Elmar, the Brousseau Mansion, the Dome (still listed as the Minnewaska) and of course the Alta Vista, venerable home of John Fante, model for Arturo Bandini’s residences in Ask the Dust and Dreams from Bunker Hill. Many other tales on this blog occured in as-yet-unnamed locales; we now know from the particular slice of mappery above that this tale occured at The Raymond.

moremoremore

The Vanderbilt! The Imperial! Such regal names for two of my favorite places on the Hill. And the 300 block of South Flower is rich with goings-on, most notably at the Glenview. And yes, that’s the Hildreth down at the corner of 4th and Hope.

noelmsthere

I want to add that the footprints of the buildings are not Sanborn-quality; do not take them as gospel. And at 321 S. Olive, that’s the Ems, not the Elms. So, ok, not everyone at Baist’s was as exacting as a Sanborner. Nevertheless, gaze here upon the glory of the Northern! Places of unusual unusualness! Herein lurks the future CRA offices themselves. And more of the usual suspects–the Astoria, the BPOE.

worldofelmoro

In 1921, we still had 411 and 409 standing on West First, though the Hotel Locke is gone…and if you’re wondering what it is I’m talking about, you can always consult the egregiously over-detalied mapping on the subject in this post, and this. And notice how 425 was called the Rio Grande. There’re our old pals the Richelieu, Melrose, Argyle and Moore Cliff.

Well, you get the idea. As we cast our light on bulldozed hills and fallen homes (and as you get to know the forgotten folk whose culture was so different, but whose attitudes were so similar to yours) perhaps when you dream of Bunker Hill, you’ll be able to traverse the grand avenues (and dart down the alleyways) with surety. Because as much as we’d like to rebuild Bunker Hill on some empty acreage, we had too much self-respect to get one of those "Everyone Deserves Everything" loans so popular until recently. We may have to content ourselves with designing a 3D tactical shooter, with HLSL and dynamic tonemapping. Again, until such time, we have this map.

Special thanks to Kim Cooper, who hipped me to the Baist beast’s whereabouts, and without whom I couldn’t have snatched it up.

 

Downtown L.A. and the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933

Having spent the earthquake today underground on the Wilshire/Vermont subway platform, I, for one, am grateful for the building codes and seismic retrofits of today.

unshakenAnd the downtown Los Angeles of today came through the quake swimmingly, with the most significant damage being sustained by the Literature & Fiction Department at Central Library, which was briefly closed this afternoon after many of its books were flung from the shelves by tremors.

However, everyone knows that Southern California hasn’t always escaped these quakes quite so unscathed. For today’s Bunker Hill time travel, let’s step back to the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933.

Centered on the Newport-Inglewood Fault, the 6.4 quake hit Southern California in the early evening on March 10, 1933. Rubble filled the streets, fires broke out, and approximately 120 people were killed in the quake, with hundreds more injured filling the Southland’s hospitals. The cities of Long Beach, Compton, Watts, Huntington Park, and Huntington Beach were particularly hard hit.

Though downtown and the Bunker Hill area fared better, there were more than a few close shaves.

At 130 S. Broadway, 19-year-old Morgan Gordon was sitting in his car when two 3-foot square blocks plummeted from the cornice of the building. One crashed through the car’s hood, the other through its roof, fortunately, landing in the empty passenger seat.

crushed carsNearby, witnesses watched in horror as the tops of the Federal Building, the Hall of Justice, and City Hall swayed visibly, and the screams of prisoners being held on the top three floors of the Hall of Justice could be heard from the street below: "We want out! We want out!"

Paint was literally knocked off of all four exterior walls of the Hall of Records, broken glass filled the streets, and people were struck and injured by falling bricks and debris (though no downtown fatalities were reported).

Dramatic as the scene downtown was, the long-term damage was limited. Most of the debris was cleared over the weekend, and of all the large buildings in the area, only three were deemed potentially unsafe: the Detwiler Building at 412 W. Sixth, the Edison Building at Broadway and Third, and the Great Republic Life Buildling at 756 S. Spring. In all, the damage to downtown buildings was estimated at a relatively modest $250,000 ($4.2 million USD 2007).

Photo from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection