By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN A WORLD THAT SO SURGICALLY SORTS ALL MORTAL PLAYERS into winners and losers, it seems inevitable that we would devise systems by which the ”L”s might aspire to join the “W”s….some kind of schooling or preparation that transforms some of us, the one who are coal, into The Anointed, the ones designated to be Diamonds. Often, that sorting process comes in the form of commercial consumption, and one of its Meccas is Hollywood.
A photographer on the loose in Tinseltown becomes aware early on that all its shops and attractions, all its tour stops and theme parks, are actually one big Academy Of Making It, a huge machine that models the behaviors of the Chosen, a tutorial on how to persuade the Choosers to ask you into the club. And the most obvious cues occur at retail level.
Across every souvenir stand and shirt shoppe, the message is clear: winners buy this: winners wear these. If you don’t see anything here that looks like your look, your look is wrong. Hollywood purports to be about dreams, but it is also about nightmares, like the fever dream of not belonging to The Crowd, of not being plucked out of the chorus.
Whether the scenes we encounter on our streets are of victory or despair, the camera bears witness to the ongoing emotional high wire act. Hollywood is a uniquely American construct, which, like this all-night souvenir stand, encompasses both our desires and our defeats in the single act of selling us stuff…symbols, myths, ways of keeping score. It’s a special kind of envy-driven loneliness that’s also an industry that feeds on itself.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR JUST ONE DAY A YEAR, Los Angeles’ Southwestern Law School opens its doors to non-students from across the world, hundreds of whom stream through its halls with bulged eyes and gaping mouths. This reaction is not, as you rightly suspect, because the public, in general, is fascinated by endless banks of books on tort reform and intellectual property. It’s primarily due to the fact that the SLS conducts its day-to-day affairs in the shell of what once was, arguably, the most beautiful building in the City of Angels, the storied Bullocks Wilshire department store, opened to grand fanfare and a decidedly upscale clientele in 1927, the same year Warner Brothers brought Al Jolson’s voice to the world in The Jazz Singer.
In the age of Lindbergh, Bullocks’ mid-town location at mid-town 3050 Wilshire Boulevard was considered to be “out in the sticks”, a long trip from central L.A. and hence a substantial business risk (who’s ever gonna come out here?). Bullocks tried the pre-emptive move of capping the structure with an ornate, copper-tipped tower and designing the main entrance to its “cathedral of commerce” at the rear of the store, inviting motorists to enter its sumptuous porte-corchere (car port) for valet parking and a peek, across its ceiling, at Herman Sachs’ modern mural “The Age Of Transportation” featuring a winged Mercury surrounded by luxury liners, locomotives, biplanes, and the Graf Zeppelin. Having thus been so royally deposited on the store’s back porch, customers were ushered into the main showroom, its every case glistening with jewelry, perfumes and cosmetics for milady, its every wood-inlaid elevator door inviting the visitor to rise to floor after sumptuous floor of furnishings, fashions and refreshments.
The Bullocks store, with separate design/color schemes and innovative, elite shops on each of its five retail floors, truly revolutionized the relationship between retailer and customer, in a space where young lovelies modeled fashions in elegant salons for clients and where local polo players were serviced inside a custom saddlery shop. Concerned that your new riding breeches may pinch a bit when you start your next chucker? No worries: the store also featured its own full-sized horse mannequin so you could check your look in the saddle. The Bullocks local customer base typically included Hollywood stars, many of whom, like Mae West, might send their standing orders for lingerie or sports clothes to the store in the care of their… chauffeurs. Others looking to eventually climb the ladder of stardom themselves, such as a young Angela Lansbury, might be found working the Bullocks counters between studio gigs. Most importantly to generations of mothers, daughters, and granddaughters was the linen and white glove service at Bullocks’ fifth floor tea room, equipped with its own anteroom, the Cactus Lounge, where ladies could listen to live pianists as their lunch table was readied. Add to all these wonders the building’s predominantly Art deco appointments and you have, at least in my case, a photographer’s fever dream.
As to that….
Since this blog’s inception, the menu tabs at the top of the pages of The Normal Eye have been reserved for photographic essays too large to be contained within the scope of a single post, and, with the recent completion of my first-ever walk through the Bullocks building earlier this year, I thought it was time to paste together another little daisy chain of images to create a photo story on this most majestic of merchandisers. To view the results, just click the Bullish On Bullocks tab up top, just to the right of the “Blog” tab. Of course, if you haven’t already, feel free to also check out the neighboring tabs, including Small Slices From A Big Apple (street views of NYC), The Wonderful Woolworth (an interior tour of the old five-and-dime chain’s national headquarters), When Lights Are Low (adventures in under-exposure) and Wright Thinking (a visit to one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final residential designs, created for his son David).
One more thing: the Southwestern Law School, whose exhaustive research and civic-minded sweat helped stabilize and restore the Bullocks Wilshire build to its 1920’s glory, hosts a special page on its site to highlight the beauty of the structure, including a seven-and-a-half minute campus video. Go here to check it out. It’s all hands on Deco (sorry).
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S HARD TO ATTRACT ATTENTION IN HOLLYWOOD, a town that shouts in five dimensions, a million colors, and four thousand decibels about almost everything. Here, in the town that hype calls home, design always swings for the fences, and Subtle Is For Sissies. Small wonder, then, that photographers, who typically love to play top this with their peers, find that Tinseltown and greater L.A. are already at gold medal status in playing the very same game. I’ll see your weird, and raise you two weirders.
As a street shooter in Hollywood/L.A., you routinely witness the bizarre being passed off as the normal. As a consequence, the very act of visually commenting on this mad sensual overdose can make even your most prosaic shots seem like a trip through the looking glass. Words like stately, venerable, or traditional seem oddly out of place in the town that invented fourteen-story billboards and the Walk of Fame. Using a camera to say something new about it all can be a fool’s errand, or at least, a mental obstacle course.
Whenever I visit Los Angeles, I am constantly looking for some kind of reversal pattern, a way to treat the most outrageous visual artifacts on their heads. I don’t always succeed. I did, however, have fun trying, recently, to come up with a new way of seeing a very strange building, the Peterson Automotive Museum, located at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, the outside of which has undergone a very radical facelift in recent years. From afar, the building seems to be a wild, untethered series of curves and swoops, a mobius strip of red and steel spaghetti floating in space in an abstract suggestion of motion. It’s a stunning bit of sculpture that actually is a wrap-around of the original, far more conventionally-shaped museum building beneath it.
And, as it turns out, that’s the way to reverse-engineer a photo of the museum, since it’s possible to walk behind the swirly facade and into a shadow-and-color-saturated buffer space that exists between it and the underlying structure. From inside said space you can view the outer bands as a peekaboo grid through which you can view neighboring buildings and local traffic, rather like looking between the slats of some big psychedelic set of venetian blinds. And that’s where I stood when taking the above shot with a Lensbaby Composer Pro lens with a fisheye optic, the aperture set at about f/5.6 to render the whole thing somewhat soft and dreamy. I’ll see your two weirders and raise you one bizarre.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN A HOUSE CRAMMED WITH LUXURIANT COFFEE TABLE BOOKS ON PHOTOGRAPHY, my most lovingly thumbed volumes seem to center on studies of Art Deco architecture, a subject which provides me with endless enjoyment. Some books touch on overall moderne design, but most are specific reference works on the zigzags, chevrons, whorls and curves of buildings, clad in this seductive, streamlined celebration of style. Similarly, my travel plans over the years involve sticking pins in the globe to indicate the fattest troves of these buildings, mapping my strategies for someday capturing them inside a box. It’s a bucket list, if buckets had been designed by Walter Dorwin Teague or Norman bel Geddes.
Shooting Deco buildings can humble one, since the sheer volume of decorative accents in a single skyscraper could consume a coffee table book all its own. Deco may use fewer details or lines to suggest an idea compared to earlier eras, but it is still undeniably busy. Some truly extreme edifices, such as Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre, can nearly give you claustrophobia. These places were certainly meant to be looked at, but, to our contemporary eye, trying to take them “all in” is a little like sending your eye on a three-day bender. This also means that, for photographers, trying to tell a complete story in a single image is pert nigh impossible.
To that thought, I have spent several years going over shoots of Deco buildings that originally involved, say, thirty to forty images, only to find that, even when I was trying to break these giant birthday cakes into smaller slices, there was still enough going on, even in the edited shots, to warrant a second, third, or even fourth “sub-cropping”. One such place, also in L.A., is the giant faux-jade tower known as the Wiltern Theatre, so named because it occupies a corner at the intersection of WILshire Boulevard and WesTERN Avenue. The place was originally the Hollywood capstone of the Warner Brothers theatre chain, and survives today as a live performance space (think alt-rock meets emo). Point a camera anywhere, and you’ll harvest a click-ton of exuberant, exploding ornamentation.
The large shot seen at the top of the page is but one section of the glorious molded plaster overhang beneath the Wiltern’s marquee. The inset image at left is the larger master shot, in which I originally thought I was keeping it simple by limiting the frame to the lower part of the front right corner of the building. Turns out that even this “tighter” composition was too busy, hence the more radical crop to a smaller part of the pattern. On the way to the final edit, I also flipped the design upside down to make it splay out more dramatically and converted the dull gun-metal green to blue for a little extra romance.
All of which seems to be yet another re-hash of the old “less is more” argument. Simplify, simplify, grab the stone from my hand, grasshopper, etc., etc. Art Deco is a style in which the devil (the delight?) is most definitely in the details. Some are so incredible that it seems a sin to have them vanish into large, comprehensive uber-shots of big buildings, rather than being given the loving attention they deserve. And certainly, for photographers, there are other such visual birthday cakes that are more appetizing if you simply cut yourself a smaller slice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOW ME A HOLIDAY SEASON AND I’LL SHOW YOU PEOPLE WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN. They form lines for special orders, last-minute items, a kid’s brief audience with Santa. They hope to bump someone on a flight, beat someone out of a bargain, talk someone into a discount, refund or exchange. But mostly, they wait.
For as many festive holiday subjects that dance before the photographer’s eye, there are many more scenarios in which nothing much happens but..the waiting. And, while this seemingly endless hanging-out never offers images that define joy or wonder, they are fodder to the street shooter within us, the guy looking for stories. Stories of tired feet. Tales of people who can’t get a connecting flight ’til tomorrow at the earliest. Sagas of mislaid plans and misbegotten presents. Folklore of folks who are lost, lonely, disappointed, and down. In short, all of us, at various times.
Transit points are often among the most poignant during the season, with legions of faces that plead, what’ll I get for her? How will I get all the way down this list? How soon can I get home? Your best bet? Hang at the train stations, the port authorities, the airports, and hear the plaintive strains of I’ll Be Home For Christmas sung in the key of ‘as if’. Seek out those aches, that weariness, the many false starts and stumbling finishes of the holidays. And keep your camera ready, hungry for whatever visions dance in your head.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS A PART OF WILSHIRE BOULEVARD IN LOS ANGELES that I have been using for a photographic hunting ground for over ten years, mostly on foot, and always in search of the numerous Art Deco remnants that remain in the details of doors, window framings, neighborhood theatres and public art. Over the years, I have made what I consider to be a pretty thorough search of the stretch between Fairfax and LaBrea for the pieces of that streamlined era between the world wars, and so it was pretty stunning to realize that I had been repeatedly walking within mere feet of one of the grand icons of that time, busily looking to photograph….well, almost anything else.
A few days ago, I was sizing up a couple framed in the open window of a street cafe when my composition caught just a glimpse of black glass, ribbed by horizontal chrome bands. It took me several ??!?!-type minutes to realize that what I had accidentally included in the frame was the left edge of the most celebrated camera in all of Los Angeles.
Opened in the 1930’s, the Darkroom camera shop stood for decades at 5370 Wilshire as one of the greatest examples of “programmatic architecture”, that cartoony movement that created businesses that incorporated their main product into the very structure of their shops, from the Brown Derby restaurant to the Donut Hole to, well, a camera store with a nine-foot tall recreation of an Argus camera as its front facade.
The surface of the camera is made of the bygone process known as Vitrolite, a shiny, black, opaque mix of vitreous marble and glass, which reflects the myriad colors of Los Angeles street life just as vividly today as it did during the New Deal. The shop’s central window is still the lens of the camera, marked for the shutter speeds of 1/25th and 1/50th of a second, as well as T (time exposure) and B (bulb). A “picture frame” viewfinder and two film transit knobs adorn the top of the camera, which is lodged in a wall of glass block. Over the years, the store’s original sign was removed, and now resides at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California, while the innards of the shop became a series of restaurants with exotic names like Sher-e-Punjab Cuisine and La Boca del Conga Room. Life goes on.
True to the ethos of L.A. fakes, fakes of fakes, and recreations of fake fakes, the faux camera of The Darkroom has been reproduced in Disney theme parks in Paris and Orlando, serving as…what else?….a camera shop for visiting tourists, while the remnants of the original storefront enjoy protection as a Los Angeles historic cultural monument. And, while my finding this little treasure was not quite the discovery of the Holy Grail, it certainly was like finding the production assistant to the stunt double for the stand-in for the Holy Grail.
Hooray for Hollywood.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
SHE HAS WITHSTOOD THE GREAT DEPRESSION, A WORLD WAR, DECADES OF ECONOMIC UPS & DOWNS, and half a dozen owners (some visionaries and some bums), and still, the sleek green/blue terra-cotta wedge that is the Wiltern Theatre is one of the most arresting sights in midtown Los Angeles. From her 83-year old perch at the intersection of Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, the jewel in the lower half of the old Pelissier building still commands attention, and, for lovers of live music, a kind of creaky respect. The old girl isn’t what she used to be, but she is still standing, as the same house that once hosted film premieres in the days of Cagney and Bogart now hosts alternative and edge, with pride.
And she still makes a pretty picture, lined face and all.
Opened in 1931 as a combination vaudeville house and flagship for Warner Brothers’ national chain of film theatres, The Warner Western, as it was originally named, folded up within a few years, re-opening in mid-Depression L.A. as the Wiltern (for Wilshire and Western) operating virtually non-stop until about 1956. As a vintage movie house, it had been equipped with one of the most elegant pipe organs in town, and enthusiasts of the instrument built a small following for the place for a while with recitals featuring the instrument. By the 1970’s, however, economies for larger-than-life flicker palaces were at an all-time low, and the Wiltern’s owners tried twice themselves to apply for permission to blow her down. Preservationists got mad, then got busy.
Restoration began in the 1980’s on the Pelissier building in general, but the Wiltern, with its ornate plaster reliefs and murals, had been so neglected over the years that its turnaround was slower. It was finally reborn in 1985 as a live performance theatre, losing some seat room but newly able to stage everything from brain-blaster garage rock to Broadway road productions and ballet.
I shot the Wiltern with three HDR frame, all f/5.6, with exposure times of 1/60, 1/100. and 1/160, and blended the final image in Photomatix to really show the wear and tear on the exterior. HDR is great for amplifying every flaw in building materials, as well as highlighting the uneven color that is an artifact of time and weather. I wanted to show the theatre as a stubborn survivor rather than a flawless fantasy, and the process also helped call attention to the building’s French Deco zigzags and chevrons. For an extra angle, I also made some studies of the glorious sunburst plaster ceiling over the outside ticket kiosk. It was great to meet the old girl at last, and on her own terms.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE STRANGEST VISUAL EVIDENCE OF MAN’S PRESENCE ON THE PLANET IS HIS ABILITY TO COMPARTMENTALIZE HIS THINKING, the ability to say, of his living patterns, “over here, cool. Over there, six inches away, ick. You see these kind of yes/no, binary choices everywhere. The glittering, gated community flanked by feral urban decay. The open pasture land that abuts a zoo. And the natural world, trying desperately to be heard above the roar of its near neighbors from our co-called “civilization”.
I recently re-evaluated this image of the running paths at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park and the nearby uber-grid of the central city. The colors are a bit muted since it was taken on a day of pretty constant rolling overcast, and it really is not a definitive portrait of either the city or the nearby greenspace, but there is a little story to be told in the ability of the two worlds to co-exist.
L.A’s lore is rife with stories of destroyed environments, twisted eco-structure, bulldozed neighborhoods and political hackery advanced at great cost to the poor and the powerless. In the face of that history, the survival of Griffith, a 4,310-acre layout of parks, museums, kiddie zoos, sports courts, and concert venues on the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, is something of a miracle. It’s the lion lying down with the lamb, big-time, a strange and lucky juxtaposition that affords some of the most interesting fodder for photographers anywhere in California. Photogs observe natural pairings in the world, but they also chronicle alienations, urban brothers from different mothers, tales of visual conflicts that, while they can’t be reconciled, are worth noting.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THOSE OF US WHO HAVE LOGGED SOME TIME IN THE WAITING ROOMS OF PEDIATRICIANS can recall struggling through the “Hidden Pictures” page of Highlights For Children magazine. I would love to tell you that I always found 100% of cartoonist John Gee’s camoflaged squiggles by the time the receptionist invited me into the examining room. But I would be lying.
That said, there are many times when, as photographers, we play the same game with our images, especially the ones in the “doesn’t work” pile. Loving at least the idea behind what we were originally after, we pore over every pixel in the frame, repeating the vain mantra there must be a picture in here somewhere. Often, the photo simply returns to the Hall of Shame despite our best efforts to redeem it. Sometimes, the crop tool is your unexpected best friend.
I recently looked at a failed candid of my wife outside one of my favorite buildings in Los Angeles, the “Deco” Building (real name) at the corner of La Brea and Wilshire near the museum district. A combination of wind and facial expression had spoiled the quickie portrait, but the address panel over Marian’s head contained something I could use if I re-purposed the picture.
In the space of a few inches of the building’s entrance was a miniature representation of the best features of the entire building; its wild pattern of chevrons and zigzags. I had already done a master shot of about 90% of the front of the place, but a study of its details started to sound appealing. Cropping away more than 2/3rds of the original shot reduced the sharpness a little, but since I always shoot at the highest file size possible, I just squeaked by.
For a moment, I found that I had redeemed all those failed sessions with Highlights.
Watch out, New York Times crossword. You’re next.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
VISUAL WONDERS, IN EVERY HOUR AND SEASON, ARE THE COMMON CURRENCY OF CALIFORNIA’S GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY. The setting for this marvelous facility, a breathtaking overlook of downtown Los Angeles, the Hollywood Hills, and the Pacific Ocean, will evoke a gasp from the most jaded traveler, and can frequently upstage the scientific wonders contained within its gleaming white Deco skin.
And when the light above the site’s vast expanse of sky fully asserts itself, that, photographically, trumps everything. For, at that moment, it doesn’t matter what you originally came to capture.
You’re going to want to be all about that light.
Upon my most recent visit to Griffith, the sky was dulled by a thick overcast and drenched by a slate-grey rain that had steadily dripped over the site since dawn. The walkways and common decks were nearly deserted throughout the day, chasing the park’s visitors inside since the opening of doors at noon. By around 3pm, a slow shift began, with stray shafts of sun beginning to seek fissures in the weakening cloud cover. Minute by minute, the dull puddles outside the telescope housing began to gleam; shadows tried to assert themselves beneath the umbrellas ringing the exterior of the cafeteria; the letters on the Hollywood sign started to warm like white embers; and people of all ages ventured slowly to the outside walkways.
By just after 5 in the afternoon, the pattern had moved into a new category altogether. As the overcast began to break and scatter, creating one diffuser of the remaining sunlight, the fading day applied its own atmospheric softening. The combination of these two filtrations created an electric glow of light that flickered between white hot and warm, bathing the surrounding hillsides with explosive pastels and sharp contrasts. For photographers along the park site, the light had undoubtably become THE STORY. Yes the buildings are pretty, yes the view is marvelous. But look what the light is doing.
Like everyone else, I knew I was living moment-to-moment in a temporary, irresistible miracle. The rhythm became click-and-hope, click-and-pray.
And smiles for souvenirs, emblazoned on the faces of a hundred newly-minted Gene Kellys.
“Siiingin’ in the rainnnn…”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LOS ANGELES USED TO BE COMPOSED OF MANY PEOPLE LIKE RUBEN PARDO, the balding, beaming driver of the elevator at the Desmond building at 5500 Wilshire Boulevard. Once upon an urban time long, long, ago there were people who specialized in guiding, in fact, feeling the rise and fall of elevators in cabs they manually controlled. They were the unofficial greeters of their buildings, as familiar with the fortunes of the tenants and clients of their respective towers as the counterman at a diner.
Once, these ascension specialists were turned out in resplendent uniforms befitting their twin duties as both concierge and mechanic. Epaulets. Braided cords. Hats that earned the word “snappy”. Gloves. And always, the inextinguishable smile that Ruben still radiates to all, from the edgy curators of the Desmond’s second floor Gallery “A” to its street level Fed Ex workers to the Deco lovers who float into his lobby to admire his peacock-bedecked elevator doors and the warm mahogany wood of his stately 6×8 foot cab, all original from 1928.
And always, there is the science of measuring the distance between the floors himself, knowing when the car is level, waiting for the right moment to sweep back the flexible cage door that protects his passengers. Watch your step, sir. Turn right and go to the end of the hall, ma’am. Press the button to call me if you finish early, and I’ll come up and get you.
Mr. Pardo has seen Desmond’s descend into the ashes of yesterglory, and now, is still around to see new leases beginning to give the old girl a facelift in one of L.A.’s biggest comeback neighborhoods. Everything old is new again, and, as the crowds start coming back, he is ready.
I asked Ruben, after thirty-seven years on the job, if he would mind posing for me before his cab. “I’ll just look out toward the street”, he said, and he was right. Mid-morning sun from Wilshire lit his smiling face to perfection as he stood next to his beloved car. It was the look of someone who is doing exactly what he wants to do, a rare thing in a world where we hurry to throw things away, to surge on to we don’t know what. Ruben has earned his little vertical sliver of sky, and he’ll take you up there anytime, himself.
Whenever you’re ready.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOTING LARGE SUBJECTS IS OFTEN MORE CHALLENGING THAN CAPTURING STORIES NEAR AT HAND. If you’re doing a tight frame around a bowl of fruit, there may be more than only one story for the shot, but, compared to trying to find the essential visual core of a vast area, it’s not really the stuff of MENSA club meetings. When you’re shooting tight, the message, the central spine of the idea reveals itself fairly quickly. Panning over an immense scene, the story is “out there”, but your editor’s eye will certainly get a more rigorous workout in paring away the unneeded extras.
Important note before we continue: I am not a storm chaser. I lack the mixture of admirable fortitude and creepy bravado that allows people to take truck and gear in hand in an insane game of dodge-ball with a meteorological Godzilla. So, if I am in the position to grab a moment during one of Mother Nature’s more picturesque tantrums, it’s purely a case of being in the right place at the right time. I am not intrepid. To my thinking, the only thing cool about being Indiana Jones is, you get to wear a seriously rockin’ hat.
Thus, the above frame is largely luck, the very casual luck associated with pulling off the road for a rest stop precisely as something is becoming interesting. The cloud you see belongs to a horrible wildfire that tore through more than 20,000 acres in California’s San Jacinto Mountains last Thursday, August 8, 2013. From our westward trek toward Los Angeles on the I-10, most of what we saw of the fire, for nearly 100 miles, was a dense, diffuse haze which more closely resembled Pollution’s Greatest Hits of 1968 than a fire. However, during our leg-stretcher at the wonderful Hadley Fruit & Nut superstore in Cabazon, California, it was finally possible to see a salmon-colored, tightly defined cloud of fire smoke, snaking its way southward across the freeway, billowing to the size of a football stadium over the mountainous terrain near our car.
The cloud was a free, here-you-are gift, the central part of the story, but the shot wasn’t ready. I needed some earthly point of reference to convey its size, and all I had were distant palm trees and fairly featureless terrain. Fortunately, there was a short masonry wall that marked Hadley’s lot from those of its neighbors, and, crouching down a bit, I could bring it into frame as some way to contextualize the cloud monster. The other problem was haze, which was rendering all colors too faintly, given the high position of the sun reading off the smoke. A simple screw-on polarized filter cut the haze and delivered the hues. Click and done.
Back in the car, far away from the Devil Cloud, and on to L.A.
With a lucky frame in the back seat.
And walnuts and raisins in the front.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye, and view his Flickr photostream at:
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CALIFORNIA’S CITIES, FOR STUDENTS OF DESIGN, contain the country’s largest trove of Art Deco, the strange mixture of product packaging, graphics, and architectural ornamentation that left its mark on most urban centers in America between 1927 and the beginning of World War II. The Golden State seems to have a higher concentration of the swirls, chevrons, zigzags and streamlined curves than many of the country’s “fly over” areas, and the urban core of Los Angeles is something like a garden of delights for Deco-dent fans, with stylistic flourishes preserved in both complete buildings and fragmented trim accents on business centers that have been re-purposed, blighted, re-discovered, resurrected or just plain neglected as the 20th century became the 21st. And within that city’s core (stay with me) the up-again-down-again district once dubbed the “Miracle Mile”, centered along Wilshire Boulevard, remains a bounteous feast of Deco splendor (or squalor, depending on your viewpoint).
The Miracle Mile was born out of the visionary schemes of developer A. W. Ross, who, in the 1920’s, dreamed of drawing retail dollars to an area covered in farm fields and connected only tentatively to downtown L.A. by the old “red car” trolley line and the first privately owned automobiles. Ignoring dire warnings that the creation of a massive new business district in what was considered the boondocks was financial suicide, Ross pressed ahead, and, in fact, became one of the first major developers in the area to design his project for the needs of passing car traffic. Building features, display windows, lines of sight and signage were all crafted to appeal to an auto going down the streets at about thirty miles per hour. As a matter of pure coincidence, the Mile’s businesses, banks, restaurants and attractions were also all being built just as the Art Deco movement was in its ascendancy, resulting in a dense concentration of that style in the space of just a few square miles.
It was my interest in vintage theatres from the period that made the historic El Rey movie house, near the corner of Wilshire and Dunsmuir Avenue, my first major discovery in the area. With its curlicue neon marquee, colorful vestibule flooring and chromed ticket booth, the El Rey is a fairly intact survivor of the era, having made the transition from movie house to live-performance venue. And, as with most buildings in the neighborhood, photographs of it can be made which smooth over the wrinkles and crinkles of age to present an idealized view of the Mile as it was.
But that’s only the beginning.
On the same block, directly across the street, is another nearly complete reminder of the Mile’s majesty, where, at 5514 Wilshire, the stylish Desmond’s department store rose in 1929 as a central tower flanked by two rounded wings, each featuring enormous showcase windows. With its molded concrete columns (which resemble abstract drawn draperies), its elaborate street-entrance friezes and grilles, and the waves and zigzags that cap its upper features, the Desmond had endured the Mile’s post 1950’s decline and worse, surviving to the present day as host to a Fed Ex store and a few scattered leases. At this writing, a new owner has announced plans to re-create the complex’s glory as a luxury apartment building.
The details found in various other images in this post are also from the same one-block radius of the Wilshire portion of the Mile. Some of them frame retail stores that bear little connection to their original purpose. All serve as survivor scars of an urban district that is on the bounce in recent years, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (installed in a former bank building), the La Brea Tar Pits, and other attractions along the Mile, now dubbed “Museum Row”, have brought in a new age of enhanced land value, higher rents and business restarts to the area. Everything old is new again.
Ironically, the district that A.W. Ross designed for viewing from behind the wheel of a car now rewards the eye of the urban walker, as the neighborhoods of the Miracle Mile come alive with commerce and are brought back to life as a true pedestrian landscape. Walk a block or two of the Mile if you get a chance. The ghosts are leaving, and in their place you can hear a beating heart.
Suggested reading: DECO LAndmarks: Art Deco Gems of Los Angeles, by Arnold Schwartzman, Chronicle Books, 2005.
Suggested video link: Desmond’s Department Store http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJj3vxAqPtA