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Five Hidden Los Angeles Treasures (Part I)

Five Hidden Los Angeles Treasures (Part I)

“What's Been Did and What's Been Hid.”
- Donovan's first album, released in the US as Catch The Wind.


Having lived in Los Angeles for thirty-five years, I recently returned and experienced this most remarkable of cities through fresh eyes. The first thing that strikes the casual tourist is the geographical immensity of Tinseltown. Even armed with the latest SATNAV and GPS devices, facing eight-lane freeways is an intimidating challenge, but a car is nevertheless a necessity in this enormous city built around a spaghetti junction of asphalt interchanges. Deciding to head straight for Disneyland and/or Universal Studios is also a serious mistake - both are over-priced and over-crowded disappointments. Similarly, the Downtown district, despite being the site of huge development over the past decade, still provides refuge to thousands of dispossessed citizens who struggle daily with various forms of dysfunction, drug addiction, and insanity.

The Big Orange has never lacked for detractors. “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city,” jeered Dorothy Parker, while Frank Lloyd Wright suggested. “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” More recently, Jay Leno has joked, “California is so broke that Mexico fixed the hole in the fence to keep us from crawling back in again. California is so broke that I saw a going-out-of-business sign at a meth lab.” Since 2012, the number of homeless people in LA county has grown 75%, to over 53,000, with spiraling rents, low wages, mental illness, and addiction all playing a role. Inadequate shelter means most of them sleep outdoors, constantly vulnerable to abuse, eviction, and assault. Residents deserve some credit for finally approving $4.6 billion to build affordable housing, but it is long overdue and municipal authorities still struggle against what sometimes seems like an overwhelming tsunami of poverty and homelessness.

Nevertheless, Los Angeles remains a fascinating and paradoxical dystopia. It is not simply the home of the film business. Netflix and Hulu have revolutionised the entertainment industry, while Google, YouTube, Snap and other tech giants have built extensive campuses across Silicon Beach. This year, it passed the UK to become the world’s fifth-biggest economy, with a GDP of $2.7 trillion. A multitude of new bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and condos have revitalised the Downtown area. Voters recently approved $120 billion for new transport infrastructure, expanding bicycle lanes, underground, and rail networks - one of the most ambitious public works in US history. Air quality has improved dramatically and the beaches that line the Pacific Coast Highway still supply endless vistas of clean sand and impressive surf.

LA is home to over two hundred languages, all jammed together into ethnic enclaves including Chinatown, Koreatown, the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Pasadena, and Pacific Palisades. This immense cultural diversity provides an extraordinary variety of lifestyles and cuisines that would excite even the most jaded Anthony Bourdain. Here are five 'hidden' destinations where the discerning traveller can appreciate and enjoy this unique and constantly evolving metropolis.


1. The Watts Towers

No visit to LA would be complete without a visit to the extraordinary Watts Towers. The entire site of seventeen interconnected sculptural towers, architectural structures, mosaics, pavement, and walls were designed and built solely by Sabato ('Simon') Rodia, an Italian immigrant construction worker and tile mason, from 1921 to 1954. Rodia constructed the towers on a small piece of land he had purchased shortly after moving to Watts in 1917. Divorced and estranged from his children, he came to Watts with little money or hope for the future. "I was one of the bad men in the United States," he recalled. "I was drunk all the time, always drinking." He was forty-two, barely literate, unskilled beyond the basic tasks from a life of labour. "You have to be either good or bad to be remembered,” he said, “You gotta do somethin' they never got 'em in the world." He began by digging a foundation, then made the rest up as he went along.

The sculptures' armatures are constructed from steel rebar and Rodia's own concoction of wire mesh wrapped in concrete. The main supports are embedded with broken pieces of porcelain, tile, and glass, and decorated with shards of found objects such as bottles, ceramic tiles, seashells, figurines, and mirrors. Rodia called the Towers "Nuestro Pueblo" ("our town") and built them with no special equipment or predetermined design, working alone with hand tools. Neighbourhood children brought pieces of broken pottery to Rodia, who also salvaged damaged pieces from the Malibu Pottery and CALCO (California Clay Products Company). Fragments of green glass include recognizable soft drink bottles from the 1930s through 1950s (some still bearing the logos of 7 Up, Squirt, Bubble Up, and Canada Dry), while the blue glass came from milk of magnesia bottles. Rodia bent much of the Towers' framework from scrap metal, using nearby railroad tracks as a makeshift vise, while other items came from alongside the Pacific Electric Railway. He often tramped along the right-of-way all the way to Wilmington in search of material, a distance of nearly twenty miles.

In the summer of 1954, Rodia suffered a mild stroke and shortly afterwards fell off one of the towers. In 1955, he quit claimed his property to a neighbour, moved to Martinez to be with his sister, and never returned. Rodia's bungalow inside the enclosure burned down as a result of an accident on the Fourth of July, 1956, and the City of Los Angeles condemned the structure, ordering it all to be destroyed. Actor Nicholas King and film editor William Cartwright visited the site in 1959, and purchased the property from Rodia's neighbor for $2,000 in order to preserve it. The City's decision to expedite the demolition was still in force, but the towers had already become famous and there was opposition from around the world. King, Cartwright, architects, artists, enthusiasts, academics, and community activists formed a committee that negotiated with the city to allow for an engineering test to establish the safety of the structures. The test took place in October, 1959. Steel cable was attached to each tower and a crane was used to exert lateral force, all connected to a 'load-force' meter. The crane was unable to topple or even shift the towers with the forces applied, and the test was concluded when the crane experienced mechanical failure. The stress test registered 10,000 lbs. The towers are anchored less than two feet in the ground, and have influenced the way architectural structures are designed for stability and endurance.

In 1961, Rodia was discovered living in Martinez. In his eighties, with broken teeth and a shock of white hair, he sat unnoticed at an art show in Berkeley where slides of his towers were shown. When the lights went up, Rodia was introduced and the audience stood for wave after wave of applause. He bowed and tipped his hat. He died four years later

The Watts Towers are now considered one of Southern California's most culturally significant public artworks. They are one of only nine folk art sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated both a California and a National Historic Landmark in 1990. The structures suffered little from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, with only a few pieces shaken loose, but weather and moisture have gradually caused pieces of tile and glass to come loose. These have been conserved for reattachment in the ongoing restoration work. Nor have the structures been compromised by riots, vandalism, or gang violence, despite being located in an area considered one of the most 'dangerous' in LA. The Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center was established in 1970, holding art classes primarily for youth and Special Needs adults from the local community, while partnerships with CalArts and Sony Pictures provide media arts and piano classes. The Day of the Drum and Jazz Festival occurs annually on the last weekend in September. For at least three more years, guided tours will no longer be available within the site, as substantial restoration is still in progress, and tours are currently given from the exterior of the site only.


2. The Gamble House

Another National and California Historical Landmark, the Gamble House was designed by brothers Charles Sumner and Henry Mather Greene and constructed in 1908-09. Originally intended as a winter residence for David and Mary Gamble (of the Procter and Gamble company), Mary's sister Julia lived there permanently until her death in 1943. Cecil Huggins Gamble and his wife Louise Gibbs Gamble moved into the house in 1946 and briefly considered selling it until prospective buyers spoke of painting the interior teak and mahogany woodwork white. In 1966, the Gamble family turned the house over to the city of Pasadena in a joint agreement with USC's School of Architecture and was included in a list of all-time top ten houses in Los Angeles in an LA Times survey in 2008.

Located on a grassy knoll in Pasadena, the three-storey building is now considered a masterpiece of the American Arts and Crafts Movement which placed a premium on the use of natural materials, attention to detail, and fine craftsmanship. Its style shows the influence of traditional Japanese aesthetics and a spaciousness born of available land and the California climate. The Greenes employed a team of local contractors who had worked together for them on several other homes, including Peter and John Hall, who were responsible for the superb quality of woodworking in the house, as well as its furniture.

The house was specifically designed to complement its rustic setting and reflect the Gambles' love of nature. Flower and tree motifs decorate the interior, creating pictures in wood, metal, art, glass, and semi-precious stone. The building itself appears to emerge organically from the landscape, an effect enhanced by a blend of man-made and natural materials such as vines covering the house from the ground up.These design features were all inspired by organic forms and influenced by Japanese architecture: the abstraction of clouds, mist, and other natural motifs repeatedly applied to the house's doors, windows, screens, beams, chairs, and lanterns. In addition, the Greenes emphasised natural forms through the theme of three components that could be seen in every room. This triadic design was extended to the juxtaposition of decorative objects, sometimes (but not always) arranged symmetrically. The use of asymmetry accompanied by classical balance was intended to reflect nature's proportional variety.

The Gamble House was constructed from multiple kinds of wood, with Port Orford cedar and mahogany surfaces placed in sequences to bring out contrasts of colour, tone, and grain. Inlay in the custom furniture designed by the architects matches inlay in the tile mantle surrounds, and the interlocking joinery on the main staircase was left exposed. One of the wooden panels in the entry hall is actually a concealed door leading to the kitchen. Another panel opens to reveal a large wardrobe. The different woods, the low and horizontal room shapes, and the natural light that filters through the art glass exterior windows coexist within a relatively traditional floor plan, with most rooms being regularly shaped and organized around a central hall. Although the house is not as spatially adventurous as contemporary works by Frank Lloyd Wright, its mood is casual and its symmetries tend to be localized (i.e. symmetrically organized spaces and forms in asymmetrical relationships to one another).

Ceiling heights vary on the first and second floors and in the den, and the forms and scales of the spaces constantly shift, as the visitor moves from the interior of the house to its second-floor semi-enclosed porches and its free-form, front and rear terraces. The third floor was planned as a billiard room, but was used as an attic by the Gamble family, whose family crest was also integrated in part or whole in many locations around the house. The living room was designed without any entry doors so that the room would be as open and inviting as possible. It consisted of a spacious sitting room, decorated with five rugs, also designed by Charles Greene. Across from the fireplace, an expansive window, designed to let light brighten the room during the late afternoon, leads to the terrace, which overlooks the garden. At the far end of the room are bookcases, a small games table, and a piano, all designed by the Greenes to blend into the paneling.

In the west wing of the house, the dining room is surrounded by a terrace and garden on three sides. According to Edward R. Bosley's Gamble House: Greene and Greene, it was designed to offer "nature to the indoors." The entrance of the room is diagonal from the hall with two doors, decorated with cloud-designed glass panel, while the transition from hall to room provided a sense of "anticipation and discovery." Another feature of the Gamble House is its distance from adjacent homes and its architectural distinction from the Victorian style of adjacent buildings. Considering that many other Greene and Greene projects have been extensively remodeled and stripped of their original content, the Gamble House provides a unique example of expert preservation and maintenance throughout.

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