The Enchanted House

Porter Ranch Road, 2003 by Larry Sultan from the series The Valley. Photograph courtesy of Larry Sultan Estate

Porter Ranch Road, 2003 by Larry Sultan from the series The Valley. Photograph courtesy of Larry Sultan Estate

I often daydream of houses, and I think Larry Sultan did too. Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher of the spaces of our lives, insisted that daydreams of home — of any place of desire and loss — require shelter. He also said, “to be housed is to dream.”

Porter Ranch Road, 2003 might almost be an annotation to Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. As Bachelard believed, as Vermeer showed and as Larry Sultan shows, a home is both a body of images and an anticipatory space. Every house contains a daydream of its future as much as a memory of its past. The chair in the vacant room improvises a sitter; the doorway, a hesitant trespasser; the staircase, a trysting couple, and above them, a bedroom, a bed.

As much as we might try — by critical analysis or real estate speculation — no house is ever entirely disenchanted. We feel the house in this photograph is haunting itself, just as all houses, when temporarily empty, are haunted by themselves. We might also say that this corridor, staircase, and inner room persist in dreaming for us when we’re away, when we remember again those places in a house we knew or think we knew. Read more.

Horrible Catastrophe!

Disaster in Civil-War-Era Los Angeles

On a blustery Monday afternoon in the spring of 1863, a small, steam-powered tender passed down the tidal creek that led from New San Pedro to the deepwater anchorage where the side-wheel steamship “Senator” waited. Earlier that afternoon, the “Senator” had received a consignment of freight from the tender. Now the “Ada Hancock” was returning with passengers bound for San Francisco. The little vessel was crowded with 50 or more adults and children.

Albert Sidney Johnston, Jr., the 17-year-old son of Confederate General A. S. Johnston, was on board, perhaps considering if he would join the war that had killed his father the year before. Louis Schlesinger, a Los Angeles merchant, had business interests that required the three-day trip to San Francisco as did Maximilian Strobel, one of the founders of the Anaheim colony.

Hiram Kimball and Thomas Atkinson, Mormon missionaries, were on their way from Salt Lake City to Hawai’i. Lumberman William Waddell was returning home to Santa Cruz. Henry Oliver was returning to San Francisco with stock certificates and documents connected to his Arizona mining investments.

Fred Kerlin, employed at the Tejon Reservation, carried $30,000 in paper currency. William Ritchie, a messenger for Well Fargo & Company, watched over a strongbox with $11,000 in gold dust from the Arizona mines and $575 in coins and bank notes.

Maria de Jesus Wilson and Medora Hereford. Medora (right) was the sister of the second wife of Benjamin Davis Wilson. Maria was Wilson’s daughter by his first wife, Ramona Yorba. Both Maria and Medora were aboard the Ada Hancock. Photograph courtesy of the B. D. Wilson Family Collection, Huntington Library

Maria de Jesus Wilson and Medora Hereford. Medora (right) was the sister of the second wife of Benjamin Davis Wilson. Maria was Wilson’s daughter by his first wife, Ramona Yorba. Both Maria and Medora were aboard the Ada Hancock. Photograph courtesy of the B. D. Wilson Family Collection, Huntington Library

How the Daughters of Charity Brought Social Services to 1800s L.A.

Until the Daughters arrived in 1856, L.A. offered few social services for the sick, the poor, and the orphaned.

Los Angeles was a flea-bitten, murderous, mean little town in the early 1850s. Rancho beef went north to the gold fields; gold came south to be gambled on horse races and cards or spent on Chinese silk and Manila embroidery or paid out for fandangos that filled whole days with dancing.

In the saloons and brothels that fronted on the city’s unlighted dirt streets, aguardiente – “ardent water” (wine distilled into white lighting) – fueled so many deadly brawls among cattle drovers and vaqueros that Los Angeles was possibly the most violent city in America.

In fact, it was barely a city even in mid-19th century terms. There were no hospitals and no services for the orphaned or abandoned. Genuine piety was on daily display, but charity was a family matter. In a town filling with Anglo strangers after sleepy colonial decades, to be helpless and alone was a curse. When periodic epidemics of smallpox and cholera swept through the town in the early 1850s, the sick were quarantined in a wretched “pest house” or were nursed by boarding house proprietors paid so much a head by the county.

St. Vincent’s Hospital, about 1900. In 1883, The Daughters of Charity purchased land in Beaudry Park at a cost of $10,000 and erected a new hospital building a year later. In 1918, the hospital was renamed St. Vincent’s Hospital. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

St. Vincent’s Hospital, about 1900. In 1883, The Daughters of Charity purchased land in Beaudry Park at a cost of $10,000 and erected a new hospital building a year later. In 1918, the hospital was renamed St. Vincent’s Hospital. Photo courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Laurel Canyon Suite: Gods, Myths, and Fires

The canyon's millennia-long history reveals a complicated and dark mythology.

The myth also involves sex and murder. But there are gods in the story and glory of a kind near the end. In one version, the myth begins with a girl – pretty, well-connected, high strung (they would have said; today, that she had gender issues). This version ends with a divine musician and a laurel tree. But the myth doesn’t end there, or, rather, the story has neither a beginning nor an end, only further renditions – sometimes melancholy and bluesy, sometimes raucous and lowdown, sometimes elegant and lingering – making the myth even more dreamlike, harder to place. Think of the myth as an album on the theme of longing; just as predictably for Los Angeles, desire for undying beauty and youth. More

Los Angeles from Grandview Drive, 1951. Seen from the hills above Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the street grid of mid-century Los Angeles glows. Photograph courtesy of Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries

Los Angeles from Grandview Drive, 1951. Seen from the hills above Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the street grid of mid-century Los Angeles glows. Photograph courtesy of Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries

The Problem of Profitable Leisure: Bringing Chautauqua to Los Angeles

TED Talks of the late 1800s: When the Chautauqua movement came to California

By the thousands, between 1881 and 1940, vacationers who called themselves Chautauquans gathered for a summer week or two at rustic campgrounds in the canyons of Pacific Palisades and along the beaches of Venice, Long Beach, and Redondo Beach. They were drawn there by a national movement of progressive Protestants that idealized learning but also offered entertainment, uplift, and healthy outdoor recreation.

Chautauquans were fiercely proud of their name, which bound them to the “mother Chautauqua” in upstate New York. Their movement was born in 1874 at Chautauqua Lake and began as a summer training program for Methodist Sunday school teachers – origins that reappeared in the campgrounds that “daughter Chautauquas” established in Los Angeles (and elsewhere in California) in the 1880s. An appreciation of nature, some proximity to water, and a spirit of Methodist belief linked the Chautauquan source to the Los Angeles summer camps and to what became dozens of local Chautauqua reading circles.

Chautauqua was many things to its members. It was a home study course that, if followed over four years, gave graduates the breadth of a liberal arts education.It was a weekly meeting of Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle members where readings in the home study course were discussed, guided by instructions and questionnaires in the monthly Chautauquan magazine. And it was an opportunity to spend a few days each summer with other Chautauquans while attending lectures, performances, and discussions in an outdoor setting. More

Graduates, 1890. These graduates of the educational program of the Saratoga Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle at Pacific Grove are holding their honorary diplomas. Photograph courtesy of the Saratoga Historical Foundation and Saratoga History Museum

Graduates, 1890. These graduates of the educational program of the Saratoga Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle at Pacific Grove are holding their honorary diplomas. Photograph courtesy of the Saratoga Historical Foundation and Saratoga History Museum

Draw, Stud, and Hold’em: A Brief History of Poker in LA

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Although hardly anything remains of the era when California was the terminal part of the Old West, one survivor of those wide-open days lingers. Around tables in shiny casinos and seedy cardrooms in more than 140 cities, poker players eye the competition, calculate the odds, and still reach for cards that will make – or break – their luck.

Poker was a western game from its beginnings in New Orleans in the first decade of the 1800s through its spread further west by riverboat gamblers. Poker’s fast pace was made for California’s Gold Rush camps, where sudden wealth and loss were facts of camp life after 1849. “California is the place where poker has been most favorably received and industriously cultivated as a science,” wrote historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1888, who wrote about all the ways in which gambling had shaped the experience of California.

But the poker player knows science isn’t enough. “Luck is his religion,” Bancroft added, “and in it he is a firm believer and devotee. There is but one thing certain about it however, and that is sooner or later it will change. To know when this point is reached is the sum of all knowledge.” More

A Walk Along Long Beach’s Gaudy, Tawdry, Bawdy Pike

The Pike was one of Southern California's largest playgrounds by the sea.

On July 4, 1902, the Los Angeles “rabble” arrived, crowding on a new line that quickly became the PE’s most profitable. Many of the visitors that summer headed for Charles Drake’s Long Beach Bath House, with its 60-by-120-foot concrete pool, specially designed Ladies Plunge, men’s and women’s dressing rooms, Casino Café, and bowling alley. There were band concerts every afternoon and evening but, as the proprietors carefully pointed out, no liquor.

By 1906, Drake’s Long Beach Bath House and Amusement Company had bought up much of the oceanfront below Pine Avenue and leased the land to lunch counters, a fortuneteller, candy and popcorn stands, a roller rink, and a shooting gallery. They were connected by a 12-foot-wide boardwalk that led to the colonnaded pool building. “All along this particular portion of the beach,” wrote a reporter for the Evening Tribune, “stands the row of stands, some of quaint design, and an interesting sight to the tourist. It is here that the hot tamale vender, the peanut crisp man and the pretty girls who sell sweets of all kinds, find a living for themselves.” More

Photograph courtesy of Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Photograph courtesy of Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Interpreter of Dreams: On the Passing of Kevin Starr

California historian and former state librarian Kevin Starr has died.

Starr accepted the convention that the idea of California would forever be connected to dreams, with the implication that Californian longing was merely a dream, merely desire without substance. But Starr’s use of “the dream” – as something that might be manifested by Californian desire – was his way of secularizing another aspect of his faith – his Catholic belief in the incarnation, in the mystery of the divine turned into flesh, or, as one of the titles in his California history series puts it, in the realization of “material dreams.” More

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

This Jewish Pioneer Chronicled a Changing L.A. from 1853 to 1913

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Los Angeles was a city made of mud – of adobe, which is dried mud – when Harris Newmark arrived in 1853. He had come to California, as many did in the mid-19th century, for something better than his birthplace, better than his life in Löbau in Prussia (now Lubawa, Poland), better than working for his father in the manufacture of ink and boot blacking to be wholesaled to retailers in Denmark and Sweden, and better than sales trips in miserable weather on poor roads or over rougher seas. Newmark was just 19; of course he was willing to leave when his older brother wrote from Los Angeles offering him passage money. More

Retailing in Old LA: Dripping Tar, Imaginary Coins, Whiskey, and Horse Blankets

Photograph courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Digital Library

Photograph courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Digital Library

Shopping in old Los Angeles was not easy, pleasant, or cheap.

Stores in 1850s Los Angeles were small, half-lighted from the crookedness of the town’s street plan, with a Colt’s revolver under the sales counter against the town’s terrible violence. When night fell, stores were shuttered against theft and riot with stout panels of cast iron. Shopping in old Los Angeles was not easy, pleasant, or cheap.

Laura Eversten King, writing in 1900, described the town’s shopping district as “two or three streets whose business centered in a few tiendas, or stores, decorated with strings of chilis or jerked beef. The one window of each tienda was barred with iron, the tiendero sitting in the doorway to protect his wares, or to watch for customers. Sidewalks were unknown. Pedestrians marched single file in the middle of the street, in winter to enjoy the sunshine, in summer to escape the trickling tears of brea [tar] which, dropping from the roofs, branded their linen or clogged their footsteps.” More

The Invention of Southern California's Spanish Fantasy Past

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license

Helen Hunt Jackson – misunderstood romantic, misremembered advocate of Native American rights – lingered some weeks in Los Angeles between December 1881 and the end of January 1882, on assignment for The Century Magazine to write about Southern California as a destination for adventurous tourists. She apparently came with a larger purpose than a series of travel sketches, although her purpose was never fully realized. The seductive power of an invented past, created by rival mythmakers seeking to preserve their place in newly American Los Angeles, made her plan a failure and Helen Hunt Jackson famous. More

Shock of the New: Los Angeles vs. Modernism

Why was the city of Los Angeles so scared of modern art in the mid-20th century?

In 1939, conservatives on the county museum board turned down a gift of modern works from the collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg. In 1944, the Arensbergs tried to interest UCLA in the collection, but nothing came of their offer. Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, and Fanny Brice founded the Modern Institute of Art to keep the Arensberg collection in Los Angeles, but the institute closed when funding ran out. When James Byrnes, the first curator of modern art at the county museum, sought to buy works by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in 1947, he was advised by one of the trustees to keep the paintings off the museum walls. More

Photograph courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Milk Made These Communities of Southeast L.A. County

Photograph courtesy of City of Lakewood Historical Archive

Photograph courtesy of City of Lakewood Historical Archive

We’ve gotten used to L.A.’s “littles” and “towns” – among them Little Ethiopia, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Filipinotown – the places where immigrant aspiration gets a foothold, nostalgia is served, and Jonathan Gold finds the joints he loves. Official recognition of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods is fairly recent, but Los Angeles has always been culturally diverse, even as far back as the end of the Mexican colonial period and the start of the city’s Americanization.

French and Italian communities clustered around the old plaza in the mid-19th century, as did Basques and German Jews, creating some of the city’s earliest civic institutions. Sonoratown, north of the plaza, and old Chinatown to the east kept those ethnic communities at a distance. At the edge of San Pedro, a Japanese fishing village – Furusato – flourished on Terminal Island from the turn of the century until World War II and internment.

South and east of downtown, along the Orange County border and straddling it, are lesser-known ethnic communities that continue to hybridize with suburban Los Angeles. Milk made two of them: Bellflower and Artesia, where Holland and the Azores met. More

Beneath Our Feet: Water and Politics in Southeast L.A.

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

The cattle and horses were dying in early September 1864. Three years of little rain was burning through rangeland that had been unusually lush in 1861. Over-grazing now made the land barren. In Los Angeles County, 70 percent of the herds died or were slaughtered to leave forage for the rest. Carcasses were left where they fell. Out of reach beneath them – in some places, only a few dozen feet – pooled billions of gallons of life-sustaining water in the Los Angeles aquifer. 

New cycles of drought intensified the search for reliable water at the start of the 20th century. The worst dry period lasted for eleven years, from 1893 to 1904. In six of those years, rainfall was less 70 percent of normal; three consecutive years averaged less than 51 percent. The city of Los Angeles went looking for water in the foothills of the Sierras and found it in the Owens Valley. The communities west of the city and the towns on the Downey Plain punched some 3,500 wells into the Los Angeles aquifer for agriculture, industry, and the neat rectangular lots of suburban homes. More

How Did the Mexican-American War in California Actually End?

Uncertainty clouds our memory of January 13, 1847, when Andrés Pico and John C. Frémont signed a document variously called the Capitulation of Cahuenga or Treaty of Cahuenga.

It’s a perfectly ordinary table, big enough for two to sit across from each other. The grain of the wood shows through the worn finish in places. The panels of the top are uneven, but not so much to make the table unusable. It’s a piece of homely furniture that could have been found in any kitchen anywhere in Los Angeles until the middle of the 20th century.

A table like it might be in anyone’s garage today, after losing its one drawer, and now a place to set a clothes hamper or store garden tools, except this ordinary table isn’t in a garage. It’s in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It stands, elevated and lighted in a tall glass box, as a witness to history (although both the witness and the history, in this case, are somewhat ambiguous). More

Mural photograph courtesy of the federal Works Progress Administration Collection, Los Angeles Public Library; table photograph courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Mural photograph courtesy of the federal Works Progress Administration Collection, Los Angeles Public Library; table photograph courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

When L.A. Sold Itself Into Existence: The Boom of 1887

Photograph courtesy of Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Photograph courtesy of Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

The writer for the Los Angeles Herald knew his stuff. There was, he said, a favored place just 45 minutes by train from Los Angeles that “comprises … the finest land on the globe, with ample water rights and a water power equivalent to 250 horsepower.” And that wasn’t all, the Herald reported. “A grand avenue, 88 feet wide, bordered with shade trees and containing two highways, extends from the Sierra Madre to the south side of the tract. In the center of this highway, ten electric masts are being erected so that the great highway that cuts the land into two royal domains will be lighted from (and after) tonight with the pure light borrowed from the sun by the permission of that luminary.”

According to the Herald, Professor Warren, “the electrician in charge of the manufacture of electric energy in Los Angeles,” would provide the promised lighting. William Gladstone, briefly the Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1887, provided the townsite’s name. Gladstone, “the most beautiful land that the sun ever shone upon,” would be the city of destiny for smart buyers who got in early. “Business lots … will double in value within a week after the day of sale,” developer H. H. Boyce confidently predicted. More

Cathedrals of the Air: Sister Aimee, Fighting Bob, and Early L.A. Radio

Photograph courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The softly glowing dial of a radio receiver illuminated nearly every middle-class living room in 1920s Los Angeles. Crooners and dance bands came over the airwaves. So did exercise routines and household hints. Recorded concerts played on weekday evenings. Sunday mornings were set aside for local pastors whose sermons were a little dull, like the ones that listeners had heard “back home.”

“Back home” was still very real for the majority of Angeleños. Nearly half a million new residents had arrived in the decade of the 1920s, almost doubling the city’s population. It had already doubled in the previous decade. Many of the newcomers were the chronically ill or retirees from the Midwest cashing in on the prosperity that the post-World War I boom had brought them. These new Angeleños would be described later, somewhat unfairly, as lonely and troubled. A better description would have been unsettled. More

A City in Opposition: How History Shapes Tomorrow’s Los Angeles

Photograph courtesy of City of Lakewood Historical Collection

Photograph courtesy of City of Lakewood Historical Collection

We’ve been here before, arguing fiercely about the look of Los Angeles, memorably in the mid-1970s, when the growth machine that had boomed the city to bigness – and greatness – first stalled. It had been an epic, hundred-year bender by then, turning square miles of flood plain, valley, and foothill into single-family house lots. And it seemed that the city was sobering up – and growing up – as its development pattern matured around its low-rise, suburban-appearing uniformity. Sure, the hangover from the boomtime lingered in City Hall’s failure to notice the changing direction of the growth machine, and in Angeleños’ faith that an improved middle-class paradise – in the form of yet another subdivision – would be found around the next bend in the freeway. More

From Lummis to Hockney: What Coming to California Has Meant

Image courtesy of the Bancrof Library, UC Berkeley.

Image courtesy of the Bancrof Library, UC Berkeley.

In 1884, Harrison Gary Otis was looking for newspapermen to staff the Los Angeles Daily Times, the modest paper he edited in a very modest Los Angeles. The city’s first paved road – Main Street – had been laid down less than four years before. With only 12,000 residents, Los Angeles was the provincial seat of a rural county with hardly 34,000 residents.

But more would come, Otis was sure. The Southern Pacific railroad linked the city to the transcontinental rail network (but it wouldn’t be until the end of 1888 that trains arrived directly from the East). An “orange empire” in the county’s inland valleys had begun to boom. The whole nation wanted the golden promise of navel oranges from Los Angeles.

Civil War veterans suffering from PTSD and “lungers” – men and women suffering the urban scourge of tuberculosis – had a promise to redeem too: the promise of renewed health in the easeful sunshine of the valleys and foothills. The new rail connection from the East would bring them by the thousands.

Los Angeles, so favored by nature, Otis thought, was not destined to remain in the shadow of San Francisco, the center of industry, finance, and population in California. What Los Angeles needed was a storyteller, a weaver of tales, a poet really, to further Otis’ demand that the city deliver on its promise of wealth for those, like him, who intended to turn millions of vacant, dusty acres into farms, orchards, and house lots for millions of migrants. More

Part 2 - Red Flags Over Los Angeles: Bombs, Betrayal, and the Election of 1911

Part 2 - Red Flags Over Los Angeles: Bombs, Betrayal, and the Election of 1911

In part two of Red Flags Over Los Angeles, bombs and ballots decide the future of socialism in Los Angeles.

Job Harriman’s gifts for organizing and oratory had helped the Los Angeles branch of the Socialist Party grow from just seven affiliated clubs in 1890 to a countywide network with members in Santa Monica, San Pedro, Glendale, Long Beach, Bellflower, Buena Park, Fullerton, and other communities. He had barnstormed the state while running for governor on the socialist ticket in 1898. In 1900, as the party’s vice presidential candidate, Harriman ran with Debs on the Socialist Party ticket.

Harriman was even better known in Los Angeles as the defender of union members jailed for violating the city’s anti-organizing and street meeting ordinances.

Harriman’s true opponents, however, weren’t at city hall. They were at the Los Angeles Times building on First Street, personified by Harrison Gray Otis, the paper’s fiery antiunion publisher, and in the boardroom of the Merchant and Manufacturers’ Association, whose members were just as reactionary as Otis. According to the San Francisco Bulletin, the members of the Merchant and Manufacturers’ had only one principle: “We will employ no union man.”

In addition to being an advocate of progressive causes, Harriman was on the right side of the ideological split within the socialist movement which separated the moderate majority that followed Eugene Debs from a faction led by Daniel De Leon, one of the founders of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). More