Monday, April 25, 2016

Mosaics at Alhambra's Renaissance Plaza

Mosaic Monday features Alhambra today.

At the northeast corner of Garfield and Main Street sits Renaissance Plaza. It won awards when it was completed in 2002, mainly as a public space that integrated art with storefronts in a thematic way. And it brought people on to the streets, something that a 2002 story in the Los Angeles Times said had been missing for 25 years.

The site of an Edwards Imax Multiplex and lots of eateries, it's being revitalized again, and the two big pictures here came from the company that's handling that revitalization, Transtech.

As you can see, there's not just one mosaic. There are mosaics on pillars, on bench backs, plastered onto planters, ornamenting fountains, and in the background you can see mosaic spheres. A veritable plethora of mosaics. One of the several civic online brochures I looked at says that the history of the city is informally told through these tiles.

In all honesty, I'm not seeing that.

If you go to the Downtown Alhambra Facebook page, you will see hundreds of pictures of street parties with these mosaics in the background. Christmas tree lighting, St. Patrick's Day blowouts with live music and leprechauns and green beer, Halloween costume parades for all ages.

So the Plaza is exactly what a plaza should be -- a great place for street parties and celebrating.

That Los Angeles Times 2002 story says that the Renaissance Plaza, part of the redevelopment of a mile-long stretch of Main Street, took eight years to design and complete, costing the city $1.2 million.

They did not want to go trendy or hip, though there was a martini bar. The  city wanted to retain its image as a nice place to live.

In another paragraph, I learn that, during the decade leading up to 2002, the city gave out $14 million in grants to get businesses on to Main Street.

One of the restaurants, Charlie's Trio, has a mosaic sign as well.

What I don't find anywhere is a note on who designed these mosaics.

And it's late. So I guess we'll just appreciate the mosaics for what they are: part of a huge and very successful downtown redevelopment project that revitalized the city. Yay!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Mosaic in a Paul Williams Home

So I'm looking through a photo essay and story about a beautiful private home in La Canada Flintridge (the article is in Los Angeles Magazine), scrolling through the pictures, and Whan! A mosaic!

The home, backed by an acre of gardens,  is just as astounding. Paul Willimas designed it in 1927.

I am shy of putting up any other pictures from the magazine's online spread, so I urge you to go there and read about the place.

The address pops up several places: 5200 Alta Canyada Road.

You can learn more about Paul Williams, the brilliant architect who happened to be African American at the Paul Williams Project.  There, I learned he designed thousands of homes and buildings, including the homes of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Bert Lehr, Luise Rainer, Zasu Pitts, Johnny Weissmuller, Lon Chaney Sr., and Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, I don't see this house listed there.

LACurbed, reporting on another Paul Williams home being sold last year, says this:

A very young Paul Williams got to be friendly with the future senator and real estate developer Frank Putman Flint from selling him newspapers on the corner of First and Spring downtown. Per the PRWP site: "After he became a licensed architect in 1921, Williams designed scores of the homes either directly commissioned by Flint or as a result of Flint's referrals. Eventually the Flintridge area would have one of the largest concentrations of Williams' designed residences in Southern California.At least ten of his designs were either model homes or spec projects commissioned by Flint."

I think I spot the house on this Flickr site belonging to Michael Locke, called the Degnan House. Great pictures of the outside, but you'll have to follow the link to see them.

This closeup of the mosaic at the "Guerra Estate" (those are the current owners) ornamented an article by Diane Keaton in C-Home.

In an NPR story I learned that Paul Williams was a good friend of Danny Thomas, and designed St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis without charge, as long as Thomas agreed to keep his involvement a secret.

And in this LA Times story I learn that the house, built for one James Degnan, was the site of a 2002 "Gatsby Picnic"

However, I haven't seen anything indicating who created the mosaic. I don't think Williams dabbled in that art form; he either commissioned it or bought a mosaic somewhere and had it installed.

The Times apparently reported on the restoration of the house, and a letter from a  gentleman who has the original drawings of the home refers to the mosaic--but no artist.

So we have a minor mystery, and some lovely pictures.

Residence A in Barnsdall Park

This item was all over local TV news: The Residence A Guesthouse at Barnsdall Park is about to get a $3.2 million restoration. Here's one story, in case you missed the news.

This is Barnsdall Park's Hollyhock House, at left. It was just restored and reopened last year. Looks beautiful, doesn't it? The first time I saw it, in the 90s, there was significant earthquake and water damage, and stains streaked the facade from leaking water.

The address for the entire Barnsdall Arts complex is 4800 Hollywood Blvd.

When Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built Hollyhock House around 1920, he also created two guesthouses, Residences A & B. Aline Barnsdall, who hired Wright, actually lived in Residence B for years, and it was torn down to create space for an apartment building after she died, almost 70 years ago. Residence A is still around.

The picture at right shows Residence A in 1965, when the city declared it a cultural landmark.

You can read all about Aline Barnsdall,, about her family and her independence, and a little about Wright himself at the Barnsdall website. Turns out that Wright's neglect of the Hollyhock House project (he was in Japan building the Imperial Hotel) was a big factor in bringing both Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra to Los Angeles--Aline Barnsdall figured she needed new architects!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Mosaics at the Getty Villa till September 12

Happy Mosaic Monday!

Since March, and through September 12, the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades is showing off Roman mosaics from the 2nd through the 6th centuries A.D. The mosaics come from all over what was then the Roman Empire, from North Africa through Italy and into France (Gaul), and east to Turkey and Syria.

I'm astonished by how much information is online: maps, histories, citations, and descriptions of each find. For instance, here is a photo of one mosaic, uncovered in Syria in 1938.

Just to be compliant, here is the caption with the photo: Excavation photo showing Mosaic Floor with Animals from the Bath of Apolausis, Antioch, Syria, 1938. Antioch Expedition Archives, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, no. 4092.

This  was a Roman bath discovered near Antioch. It was a public building surrounded by villas, so we can imagine the clientele was wealthy and pampered. Think of the appointments of Bullocks Wilshire, and glance back at the picture I posted a couple of days ago -- of that store's sportswear department in the 1930s. Rich people like luxurious surroundings.

So they had mosaics on the floors, and frescoes on the walls, The frescoes did not fare so well.

That's just a tease of the information you can find on this single page published by the Getty Villa. The layout of the entire bath and all its rooms is there. Descriptions of what was found in the 1930s. Explanations of the heating system that ran under the floors. An overview of other sites in the area.

The Getty purchased this floor from another museum in 1970. Which is why I think I have a refrigerator magnet with the bunny on it somewhere, from a visit to the Getty Villa way back when.

If bunnies and peacocks are too tame for you, there is a graphic mosaics of a lion ripping into an onager (an ass) for dinner, or one of wrestlers facing off, one of hunters going after wild beasts, and more. There is even one featuring naked men climbing the rigging of ships and doing other nautical things. I don't know the story behind that particular mosaic.

To commence your own adventure through the catalogue of mosaics, start here. Or anywhere. Or go to the Getty Villa yourself and see these amazing mosaics.

Start planning your trip here. There are other things to see besides the mosaics of course, but it is Mosaic Monday.

Special lectures accompany the exhibit. There are once-a-month tours, and the next one is April 28th.. If you're at the Getty on Thursdays or Fridays, you can drop in  to the Getty Reading Room from 11 a.m. till noon and see how mosaics were constructed in Roman times. Touch the materials and the tools, that sort of thing.  Details on all of these programs are at the Getty website.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Baseball Knickers, Oil Stills, High Fashion Stores and Modern Architecture

My last post listed articles about Los Angeles' first photo (probably), our black widow spiders, fighting smog in the 70s, a photo spread of a 1968 home in Palm Springs, and links to a PBS show and article that featured the Gamble House in Pasadena, and a Charles and Ray Eames home in Pacific Palisades.

Well, it was no sooner posted than Facebook delivered links to more articles about Los Angeles. So here are a few more items for this rainy weekend: links about Los Angeles baseball 135 years ago, the first oil refinery, elegant department stores of yeasteryear, and our 21st century cutting-edge architecture.

Baseball first. More to the point: baseball uniforms. Nathan Masters of KCET posts another great article about a photograph, and this time, I really have to repost it, at least in miniature:

If I had to name it, I think I'd go for "Knickers and Jug Ears." (Low-hanging fruit, as a certain friend would say.) The source is the USC Libraries, the California Historical Society Collection.

These guys are adorable, and they may be your great-great-great grandpas.

Second, the oil industry. By strict chronological reckoning, this should be first (1874 trumps 1884) but I like baseball better.

The Newhall Pioneer Oil Refinery was "the first productive oil refinery in California," according to Leon Worden, but sometime before 1961 the original stills from 1874 and 1875 went missing. They were teensy by today's standards, holding just 15 and 20 barrels of oil as it cooked. The old refinery closed down within 15 years, and Standard Oil (Chevron, now) owns the property.

Worden tells how he relocated the stills in "Missing First Pieces of First Oil Refinery Located," from the SCVHistory site. And there are tons of great "then and now" pictures.

"Decadent Department Stores of Southern California" is the name of a Pinterest Page that contains dozens of pictures of Downtown L.A.'s shops through the 20th century.

You'll find black and white photos like one of Judy Garland in front of the May Company in 1940, or models vamping in their finery during the Roaring 20s at Bullocks Wilshire, photos of entries and street traffic outside.

There are both b&w or dazzling color shots of the art deco effects and the murals of Bullocks Wilshire, as well as the beautiful furnishings, restaurants, chandeliers, and seating areas of other shops. These stores catered to women with money to spend, and they are about as far away from today's department stores, with their racks and stacks of sale items, as you can get.

Just for good measure, there are posters and dramatic ads from papers and magazines through the decades.

It's possible to get lost here.

But the funnest part of this page is that many of the photos link back to sites that are wonderful in their own right. This photo of the  sportswear department of Bullocks Wilshire takes you to Martin Turnbull's photo-laden post on that famed department store. Turnbull is an author that sets his books in old Hollywood, so his blog is well worth skimming and reading.

"A Guide to Los Angeles's Wildly Inventive Architecture" comes from New York Magazine's Daily Intelligencer. It's a flattering look at many new developments in L.A., such as West Hollywood's Courtyard at La Brea, with its metal ribbons like giant tape protecting the corner. I think the author finds it amusing that we in Los Angeles are finally having to design housing complexes rather than estates to deal with our population.

Workplaces (the Hayden Tract and the Pterodactyl in Culver City, for instance) and public spaces and museums (the Broad, the Petersen Automotive Museum, and Tongva Park) are also listed. There's even a nod to Googie -- a picture of Johnie's Coffee Shop is included.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Talk and Articles About Los Angeles

Here are some wonderful articles about our city, most worthy of your attention.

But first, an upcoming event: Were the '90s L.A.'s Golden Age?  On April 26, 7 p.m., at the Museum of Contemporary Art at 250 S.Grand. Parking is $9 but it looks like that's all you'll have to pay.

So here are articles about different aspects of Los Angeles through the ages:

  • A discussion of the First Photo Ever Taken of Los Angeles!  Nathan Masters writes the most interesting pieces about L.A.'s history, and this one is about a photo taken in the early 1860s. What does it tells us and who might have taken it? It shows the Plaza, but Masters points out how spread out Los Angeles was, even then. I mentioned this article last Monday, but if you haven't read it yet, go treat yourself.

  • PBS just debuted a show: "10 Homes that Changed America," and it features two houses in Los Angeles County: the Gamble House in Pasadena, and a Charles and Ray Eames home in Pacific Palisades. LA Curbed has the backstory and everything you need to know about these two structures and their environment, in a piece titled "Watch How Two LA Homes Changed America." Then you'll be ready for the PBS show--online at

  • It's not quite L.A., but close: a pictorial display of a Palm Springs house that was beautifully decorated when it was built in 1969 and has not changed since. LAist presented this a few weeks ago when the house was on sale for $850k. There's probably a house near you for that amount of money, or a condo . . . but nothing can touch this one for style.

    • How about a story of cleaning up the Valley of Little Smokes smog in the early 70s? A Zocalo feature, "How Angelenos Beat Back Smog" by Mary D. Nichols, describes a serious change in our air quality that Boomers remember well. I don't think kids today have many smog alerts, but they were a part of life in the Southland for many years. This 1968 photo of an October day in Downtown is from the LA Library's photo collection.

    • Finally, here is a headline I might have dreamed of seeing: "Tracking the Decline of L.A.'s Black Widows," except for one thing . . . they're being replaced by brown widows. No less creepy to me, though actually less aggressive, this is a 21st century phenomenon and the data comes from those Natural History Museum programs that ask folks to bring spiders from home in to the museum to be identified. My daughter did that. She was a grown-up at the time. I modeled one behavior toward spiders for her during her formative years: scream and run. She didn't listen.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Annunciation Mosaic at the Plaza Church in Los Angeles

The Annunciation sits over the facade of Our Lady Queen of Angels Plaza Church on Main Street in old Los Angeles. It was created by Isabel Piczek, according to the Public Art in L.A. website, and is 7 feet, 4 inches tall and 11 feet wide. This lovely picture showing all its detail comes from the YouAreHere website.

The mosaic was put together out of Byzantine tesserae from Pietra Santa, Italy in 1980.

I've blogged about Piczek's work before, at St. Catherine Laboure Church in Torrance, and at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. She is exclusively an ecclesiastical artist who used to work with her sister Edith, and she looks very fragile, like porcelain, in the picture that comes up when I google her name.

The mosaic replaced a plastered-over fresco dating from 1861 that showed Mary with the infant Jesus, along with two angels. The artist of that fresco was Henri Joseph Penelon, who came to Los Angeles from France in 1850 when he was in his early 20s. 

Penelon was our first local artist, painting portraits of Los Angeles area luminaries like Don Jose Sepulveda and the man at right, Don Vicente Lugo.  He was also a photographer and he may -- may -- have taken the first picture ever of Los Angeles. You can read about that (and see the picture, which actually shows the Plaza Church) in this KCET article by Nathan Masters.

Penelon lived until 1885, dying in Prescott, Arizona.

His fresco at the Plaza Church was plastered over in 1950; I haven't learned why -- was it deteriorating? fading? -- nor do I know what may have filled the space, if anything, before this mosaic.

And this mosaic was dedicated on September 4, 1981 (L.A.'s Bicentennial) by Cardinal Timothy Manning. Here it is as you can see it today, over the doors. This picture is on the Public Art in L.A. website (again), as is the text on the bronze plaque next to the doors:

La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles, oldest church in the city of Los Angeles. Dedicated December 8, 1822. Plaque placed by Californiana Parlor Native Daughters of the Golden West, March 20, 1983.

This mosaic at the Plaza Church is actually a replica of a painting in Italy created in 1393 by Ilario da Viterbo. "The Annunciation," or "L'Annunciazione," was part of a six panel mural that da Viterbo created for the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli near Assisi. That Basilica is built around the 9th century chapel called the Porziuncola, which is where St. Francis of Assisi renounced wealth, dedicated himself to God, and founded the Franciscan order in 1208.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I think our mosaic is far lovelier than the original mural. This picture of the original is from a collection of images called Bunavestire, dedicated to classic paintings of the Annunciation.