Thursday, July 30, 2009

Vacant lot blues

I happened across this telling vacant lot on Melrose the other day. Like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Click the image for a larger view.

This lot, to judge from the weeds, is not even used as a valet parking lot for the Larchmont Grill, across the street.

Interestingly, I don't find it sad . . . at least, no more sad than a good blues lament. If there were ever an argument for the sociologically expressive power of graffiti, this lot is something of a masterpiece. Perhaps it should be preserved the way Pompeiian graffiti has been preserved: as an indelible expression of our unique moment in time.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Crime of the Week

Larchmont-adjacent gemisch.

The taste for pre-fab Corinthian columns is not limited, it seems, to Encino's nouveau riche enclaves. This house is Larchmont-adjacent (to use the parlance of real estate agents) and on a street with many nicely maintained cottages and bungalows.

Here, however, the builder opted for an inarticulate stucco box with a hodge-podge of mail-order "features" slapped on: skinny, entasis-free fluted columns which, fortunately, don't really have to support anything; an off-the-shelf Georgian-style door surround, surrounding a vaguely Mediterranean door; a crude balcony befitting a '50s public housing project; an afterthought of an oeil-de-boeuf;
prison-like gratings on the lower windows.

When it tuned out that this malproportioned mess lined up perfectly on the grid with the unattractive (although better designed) office building behind it, I felt I had to include the latter as well.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Auction fun

20th Century Props in North Hollywood is calling it quits and auctioning off its inventory this week.

You can bid on these chandeliers used in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Or this marlin from the set of Days of Our Lives. (A stuffed marlin on Days of Our Lives? Well, whatever . . . )

Or this beauty parlor chair, which served double duty in both Ugly Betty and Mad Men.

Loads of Heywood-Wakefield furniture going on the block today (Wednesday).

All the merch comes with a big-screen or small-screen pedigree, no matter how insignificant. You have been advised.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Excess in Encino

For the past two years I've worked in the San Fernando Valley. I've become quite fond of my local Starbucks and its creative, writerly vibe, and I resolved a while back never again to pre-judge the Valley.

But on a drive today through the Encino hills, south of the Boulevard, I ran across more than a few examples of the kind of architectural excess that can literally result in migraine. (Thanks to blogger Bobolini of proun 21 for suggesting the excursion.)

Pretension to grandeur fail!

With the possible exception of the air-conditioning, nothing about this house works, least of all its pompous portico. Corinthian??! In Encino?

Déja vu all over again, on a slightly larger scale.

Busy, busy.

I frequently have architectural nightmares, but this house, unfortunately, is real. Is it just me, or is the open-cylinder entryway making some oblique reference to the dreaded May Company building (aka LACMA West)?


I appreciate the severity of the façade (and its earthy, neutral color), but the proportions are disconcertingly wrong. And why the Shingle Style dunce caps?

A gate in Klingon Nouveau.

As I was leaving the area, I ran across what must the largest estate in Encino, with an unbreachable perimeter wall that goes on and on. The wrought-iron gate is equally forbidding: part Art Nouveau, part Klingon shield.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Holy guano, Batman!

Mirabile dictu! The Virgin Mary has appeared under the 101 Freeway overpass at Argyle Avenue in Hollywood. She has taken a kneeling position, almost directly facing the nearby Monastery of the Angels, and has a wing-shaped aura about her caped head (an angelic protector, no doubt).

Our Lady of the Hollywood Freeway

The apparition seems to be composed of pigeon excreta, but my sources at the Vatican tell me this does not invalidate its holiness or its value as a tourist attraction, the Holy Ghost often being portrayed as a dove.

Neighborhood residents are bracing for the onslaught of pious pilgrims who will no doubt swarm the site within the next several days, continuing to worship the stain until CalTrans sends out the pressure-washing squad. (Note to CalTrans: while you're at it, please take care of the clichéd peace sign as well.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Crime of the Week

A hot pink disaster.

I am a long-time renter, but I do sympathize with property owners (aka "landlords") who are faced with the vandalization of their rental units by tenants. It may be even worse when the damage is done by naive renters who think they are improving the place.

The bedroom above is in a 1926 Hollywood building that is in the midst of a long, meticulous, and expensive restoration to bring it back to its silent-era charm and appeal.

The tenants in this unit, however, (who have now been evicted for other reasons) took it upon themselves to paint the walls a frightening shade of electric raspberry sorbet that even Angelyne would blanche at. But the real crime is that they also slathered all the woodwork with a nice heavy layer of gold metallic paint that will have to be laboriously removed.

The owner, who is a friend of mine, had just paid workers thousands of dollars to strip, refinish, and repaint the trim and the 28 original sash windows in the building.

The gold heart crudely drawn above the bed—upon which the couple, both "artists," must surely have celebrated their masterwork with domestic champagne and a good round of hot pink sex—is the tawdry icing on this disaster.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Addendum to "A nice find"

Thanks to Anonymous (there are so many of you, Anon!) for clarifying my last post.You learn something every day.

Turns out the L.A. Times published an informative article on the Brookside neighborhood on Feb. 27, 2005. Worth reading. And they used a shot of the same house to illustrate the "magical" qualities of the neighborhood, without mentioning its Québecois origins; the author calls it a "Moorish-style Scottish-influenced castle," which is not even close. But it j
ust proves you can have anything you want in L.A. (minus the snow).

Vieux-Québec in L.A. (from the L.A. Times)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A nice find

This quirky 1926 storybook house (but aren't all 1926 L.A. storybook houses quirky?) just south of Hancock Park sold for $1.4 in May, according to, and is now being thoroughly renovated, with new trenches dug for garden walls and a thorough refurbishing of the turrets, among other sensitive preservations.

It's hardly the most beautiful house in this neighborhood of lovely, undertstated manses, but I was certainly struck by the commitment the new owners are showing to preserving the movieland ethos of this only-in-L.A. original.

846 S. Longwood Ave. under renovation

846 S. Longwood Ave. before (from

A handful of workmen were still there on Saturday when I drove by just at quitting time (and witnessed a bit of after-work wagering going on in the driveway). They generously let me take a peek inside.

The best features of the interior are being preserved.

The detached garage and its upstairs unit are utterly charming. I think I could be quite happy living up there.

Garage and second-story unit

Due to the curvature of the street at this point, the house faces a stretch of Longwood just north of Olympic, one of the most beautiful residential blocks in Los Angeles.

If anyone knows more about the history of this house, please post in the comments.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Crime of the Week

Just when I was looking for a Crime of the Week (I don't usually have to look far, but it's been a busy week already, people), one fell right into my lap.

As reported by Curbed L.A., the Los Angeles City Council not only approved, but positively kvelled about, this knife fight in steel and glass by Daniel Liebeskind, penciled in for the L.A. Convention Center area.

A knife fight in steel and glass.

Buildings by Liebeskind
who for whatever reason feels obliged to act out his long-simmering resentment and paranoia by inflicting them on others in the form of architecturehave so far been conspicuously absent from the Los Angeles skyline. Isn't there enough violence in L.A. without building it into our skyscrapers?

This is one of those rare instances in which a crime can be prevented before it happens, and the City Council, acting in gaga star-struck mode over the obviously anguished Mr. Love-Child, has let us down.

Might I recommend an extended course of Paxil for Mr. Liebeskind and an architectural refresher course for the City Council?

Architectural intervention

Culver City's SPFA:rchitects (that's Studio Pali Feketi to those who communicate in English) was contracted last year to update the May Company building on Wilshire and Fairfax, now LACMA West.

According to the SPFA:architects, I mean
the SPFA:rchitects . . . oh, hell, the Studio Pali Feketi website, the update is an "intervention," a term that suggests drastic measures. But will they be drastic enough?

The May Company building, designed by Martin and Marx in 1939 in the luckily short-lived Moderne style, is in my opinion the single most overrated structure in Los Angeles. It has been ugly since its inception, and it continues to annoy on every passing. As much as I try, I can't find a single feature to recommend this early temple to American consumerism.

The May Company building, 1939

The cylindrical corner tower, gauded out in something resembling gold leaf, is said to represent a chic perfume bottle, but to me it seems more like a giant tube of roll-on deodorant. Unfortunately for my theory, antiperspirant was not patented until 1941.

LACMA acquired the building in the mid-1990s for a whopping $18 million and, other than removing the MAYCO signage (what happened to those letters, I wonder?), the façade looks pretty much as drab, lifeless and boring as it was before.


But the Pali Fekete intervention is meant to fix all that. Hey presto!

LACMA West redux , mit Klimt!

As much as I admire the original contemporary designs of Studio Pali Fekete (and I do: more about them later), this is frankly lame.

I can't help thinking that this pathetic veneer of pseudo-Viennese kitsch is nothing more than a last-ditch solution for a building that remains in essence what it will always be: just plain ugly.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Workmanship, then and now

NOTE: Thanks to a December 2011 email from Lorna Auerbach, this entry has been revised.

Throughout a decade or more of poring over architecture and interior design literature, I've read numerous passages extolling the virtues of prewar workmanship in the building crafts, with the writer inevitably adding an unfortunate cliché: that it is impossible to find this kind of workmanship today.

To take one local example, in an article on Wallace Neff's legacy in the March 18, 2004, L.A. Times Home & Garden section, David A. Keeps says that Neff provided his clients
"a visual grandeur that it is unobtainable with modern construction techniques."

Not so fast, Mr. Keeps.

Luckily, Wallace Neff's 1926 Los Pavoreales just went on the market (as reported here by Curbed L.A.) and provides a good case in point when compared visually with the Auerbach residence in Pacific Palisades, completed in 2003 and designed by developer/designer Lorna Auerbach (with architect Richard Landry). The photographs of this house are by Erhard Pfeiffer.

The entryways to both houses are beautifully articulated. Neff admits neoclassical Italian renaissance motifs to his mostly Spanish design, while Ms. Auerbach sticks to a more authentic Andalucian style, including impressive tile work. I'm not so sure I'd want to enter my house through that massive defense gate, but you can't deny the quality of the design or the workmanship.

I haven't seen Los Pavoreales, or its namesake peacocks, but I did tour the Auerbach house during a fortunate show house event a few years ago. The iron work, woodworking, Venetian plaster, and other finishes are absolutely top-quality.

A visual grandeur unobtainable by modern construction techniques?

While it is certainly true that the level of workmanship overall has dwindled today to the point where skimpy, unarticulated walls, off-the-shelf doors from The Home Depot, and a dozen of prefab aluminum-framed windows can constitute what might (generously) be called a "house," the truth is that there are artisans who maintain the same standards as their prewar forebears, and those of their 18th and 19th century predecessors.

And there are also architects keen to employ them. The's contractor for the Auerbach project was Tyler Development Corporation of Calabasas; they obviously keep the craftsmen needed to build a house of this quality on speed-dial.

ADDENDUM: I recently discovered this passage in an essay by Quinlan Terry, which confirms my take on this matter:

"People ask, 'How can you find men to do your class of work these days?' as if men no longer can or want to produce skilled work. The truth is that whenever there is good work to be done there are men to do it. We have never had difficulty in obtaining first class joinery; we prepare full size details and specify the quality, and provided a reputable builder is doing the work it normally needs no further explanation. The same goes for plasterers, bricklayers, slaters, stonemasons and even woodcarvers and coppersmiths. Generally, I find that the more intricate the detail, the more willing the tradesmen are to take on the work."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Crime of the Week

House of the Eight Gables, Upland

I'm sure someone is very proud of this rather too-big-for-its-britches house in Upland (where, on a recent outing, I counted more Mercedes-Benzes per capita than in Beverly Hills).

It's hardly the worst crime to be reported in these pages and, in all fairness, it's not quite finished yet . . . but enough mercy.

The rock wall outside is in keeping with this area's Flintstones-like preference for building with small boulders that have gravitated down from Mt. Baldy, whose pate is visible just over the roofline on the top right. The median strips of Upland's major north-south thoroughfares are attractively built from the same material and beautifully planted; someone at City Hall knows what he or she is doing.

This disproportionate house, however, lacks a focused entryway, hidden between two projections with clumsy rooflines, and sports windows that are too puny and too insignificant (not to mention too prefab) for their positioning on the façade. And what's in all that attic space?

I occasionally hear radio advertisements encouraging people to hire trained architects who are members of the AIA. What a better house this could have been had the builder taken that suggestion.

I'm not an architect, but I took the liberty of editing the design in a quick Photoshop, using real windows and some common sense. It's still far from perfect, but I think it's an improvement.

At least a tad better?

Monday, July 6, 2009

A visit to Pomona

I took a drive out to Pomona yesterday.

I knew next to nothing about this small Inland Empire town, but there's a very good backgrounder on Pomona's history here thanks to (although "Metro Ponoma" might be pushing it a bit).

Pomona in the early days, coutesy of Metro Ponoma.

There are a few more-or-less preserved architectural keepsakes in the town center, but fewer than one would hope. The Masonic Temple (1909) is in a style that might be called "bumpkin Beaux-Arts," but the building is still in use by the local Masons, bless their compass-and-angle-wielding hearts:

Masonic Temple, Ponoma (1909)

Masonic Temple side view

Masonic Temple Beaux-Arts cornice and roof detail

Just nextdoor is a handsome storefront building, the Rockroth (1910). It's no major architectural statement, but it's nicely maintained and has a lovely street-feel that made me want to set up shop then and there . . . perhaps selling nostalgia?

The Rockroth Building (1910)

The Craftsman-esque Seventh Day Adventist Church a couple of blocks away is a bit the worse for wear, but seems to be have great potential for restoration. It flanks a lovely winding block of Gordon Street planted with glorious cottonwoods in full bloom.

Seventh Day Adventist Church

It's difficult to be cynical about the many little places like Pomona that made Southern California a small-town paradise for so many people in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They're as much as part of our history as urban/urbane Los Angeles.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Cozy in La Cañada-Flintridge

Went to the Sunday open house for this 1925 Ray Kieffer last weekend, just off the 210 Freeway at Foothill Boulevard. It's being offered at a reduced $2,295,000 (was $2,495,000) by The Fairbanks Group.

A Cotswolds cottage in L.A.

Let others rave about the latest Craig Ellwood glass box to hit the market in Brentwood, I'll take the privacy and introspection of this brick English Revival, with many original fixtures (including stunning door hardware) and some sensitive updates in the two smaller upstairs bathrooms.

There is, however, one drawback to this property: immediately nextdoor is this meritricious French pastiche, an obscene grab-bag of overdone clichés, disproportionate features, and clumsy architectural come-ons.

"'Tis a pity she's a whore."