Local Notes No. 4 – Civic Architecture on Sunset Blvd

I have been stymied for some months now in my attempts to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House. The massive structure, inspired by pre-Columbian art and architecture, sits atop a hill named Barnsdall Park in Los Feliz.

Photos: Joshua White / JWPictures.com
Detail of the Hollyhock House with view to the west (I think).

It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019 and is an irreplaceable entry in Wright’s Los Angeles oeuvre, whose other entries comprise probably the most interesting architectural body of work in the area. (The City has closed Barnsdall Park for COVID-19 reasons, but transmission of the virus is much reduced in our little slice of heaven, and at any rate it is an outdoor park, so I remain miffed.)

Luckily, LA contains multitudes, and so by piloting yourself just a smidge further west, you can come across the two buildings I’d like to write about today: the headquarters of the International Cinematographers Guild and the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

Sorry for the picture quality! Those weird columns in the foreground are palm trees.

The two buildings straddle Genesee Ave and are just about equal in size, filling up the corner quarter-acre on each block. They also do what they say on the tin, housing the offices of the union locals which represent the crews that make Tinseltown run. In today’s age of atomized labor, the idea of a powerful, rich union making studio heads quake in their boots from showy modernist offices may read like science fiction. But the history of organized labor in film is long and rich – recall that Ronald Reagan, who ushered unions out of the modern workplace when he broke the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike in 1981, first made a political name for himself as President of the Screen Actors’ Guild. As the boss of SAG, Reagan led his actors on the first strike in film history and got the studios to cave to paying residuals.

reagan moneypenny ap images 615.jpg
The Gipper in 1947 presenting a SAG card to Lois Maxwell, who would later star as Moneypenny in several James Bond films.

David Fincher’s wonderful Mank sets itself right at the intersection of Hollywood and the drive for labor organization in the 1930s, though some of that action is backgrounded in favor of the drama of Upton Sinclair’s abortive gubernatorial run. These days, tens of thousands of industry workers carry a union card, and their actions continue to shape film and TV history – as an example, Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad was set to be killed off by the end of the show’s first season, but the notorious 2007-08 strike gave Vince Gilligan time to reconsider and rewrite the character for the long haul.

The Int’l Cinematographers Guild (ICG) and the Motion Picture Editors Guild (MPEG) are both locals under the umbrella of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, show business’ most storied union, with origins dating back to Vaudeville theater. The ICG, housed in the westernmost of our two buildings, is Local 600 of the IATSE and represents anyone who touches a camera, including big-name DPs and cinematographers like Roger Deakins. The MPEG, meanwhile, is known as Local 700 of the same mother union, and represents both film and sound editors, as well as other editorial staff.

The battle to build these organizations was mighty, but well-rewarded in the years following the Great Depression. Membership rose as the guilds secured better wages from the studios, who were themselves navigating the new landscape being forged by the emergence of television. By the late 1950s, the ICG and MPEG were on sound enough footing to construct a new set of offices down the block from their first headquarters.

This plaza at Sunset and Las Palmas, funnily enough named the Crossroads of the World, was home to the MPEG starting in 1937.

Internet records of the construction of these buildings are sadly scarce – if I were a more dedicated reporter, I would’ve gone into the Records desk at the city Dept of Building and Safety – but my sleuthing indicates that they were likely constructed as a pair beginning in 1959, under the design of the architectural partnership of Douglas Honnold and John Rex.

Motion picture cameramen & film editors unions building, 7715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 1959 : News Photo
Still of an architectural drawing of what was to become the MPEG headquarters.

Writing on the work of Douglas Honnold often mentions that he passed up on an opportunity to design the McDonald’s Golden Arches, which I find a bit unfair. Buildings he did actually design included the William Morris Agency building, several of a coffee chain known as Coffee Dan’s, and the Valley Plaza Tower in North Hollywood, one of the first true skyscrapers in Los Angeles (a 150-foot city height limit was scrapped in 1957, and Honnold & Rex struck quick).

The Valley Plaza Tower sits just of the 110 in North Hollywood, and dominated the skyline of the San Fernando Valley for years.

Honnold was a skilled residential architect, too. He built an estate for Samuel Goldwyn, now owned by Taylor Swift, and participated in a contest run by the magazine Architectural Products to produce a set of “Research Houses”. This contest was in naked imitation of the famous “Case Study” effort launched by Arts & Architecture, many of whose designs became classics of the mid-century modern style. The Research Houses never ended up with such fame, but Honnold’s entry has endured – Meryl Streep ended up owning the place before passing it on to Alex Rodriguez, who in 2019 sold it for a cool $4.4 million.

An ad for a later Research House – Honnold built his in 1954.

Honnold & Rex together were part of an enduring clique of forward-thinking, hard-working architects who had their finger on the pulse of jetset-era Los Angeles, a city hurtled into the future we live in today via an influx of modernist thinkers and builders, eager for a postwar landscape they could leave their mark on. I admire their designs for the ICG and MPEG headquarters so much because they manage simultaneously to be pristine examples of the mid-century corporate style as well as to express their intended function with absolute clarity.

In the facade of the MPEG building, the interplay of the exposed steel beams and the glass-paned wall behind it creates a resemblance to a film reel, frames of office life perceivable through the shutters – an invocation of the very stuff the building’s inhabitants spent their careers tenderly cutting and pasting together, or else leaving on the cutting-room floor.

7715 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046 - Property Record | LoopNet.com
Another view, this time from the southwest.

Meanwhile, in the ICG building’s case, Honnold & Rex deftly carved mass atop mass to create apertures out of their walls, sculpted quadrangles conjuring an association to the camera’s own eye. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window had come out just five years prior, and its conceit resonates here – both the camera technicians indoors and we as passers-by outdoors cannot venture outside of the frame given us by the architects to view the world. To paraphrase Scorsese, the design of the ICG building is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.

A view of the building from the southwest. Credit Elliott Cowand 2017.

Local Notes No. 3 – The Brock & Co Jewelers Building in Downtown Los Angeles

Happily, I got to go to Dodger Stadium yesterday to watch my Nationals lose the third of a three-game series and slink back east, well and truly swept. The loss didn’t bug me too much though, as going to Dodger Stadium means going downtown and going to downtown Los Angeles means getting to see some really excellent architecture, still standing from a different era of Angeleno development.

Anyone who’s been by the famous Olvera Street is familiar with the fact that Los Angeles used to consist entirely of what we today call downtown. Land speculation in the areas surrounding the old pueblo during the 1880s brought a mass of migrants, swelling LA’s population from its pre-American norm of ~10,000 people to 100,000 by 1896. In the twenty years that followed, the many-tentacled development of railways throughout the Southland would give the city more rail mileage than New York.

The North End of DTLA in 1894, as drawn by Bruce Wellington Pierce; sadly, almost all of this neighborhood was leveled to make way for City Hall.

At the center of all that iron and all those people was the Historic Core of downtown, where booming economic fortunes spawned arcades of department stores, great canyons of banking houses, and a jewelers’ district, where George C. Brock set up Brock & Co. jewelers in 1903. By the 1920s, Brock was doing so well in the diamond trade that he signed a 99-year-lease at 515 W 7th St, and there asked the architects Dodd and Richards to build him a new corporate headquarters.

PCAD - Brock and Company Jewelry Store, Downtown, Los Angeles, CA
515 W 7th in three-quarter view.

515 W 7th is a stunning building, even sitting squat as it does at only four stories tall. Indeed, its height sets it apart somewhat from its immediate neighbors – I find that its stature enhances the presentation of the whole thing, like a sprinter leaning forward to edge his opponents out at the finish line. Starting at bottom, the impression of iron frames and glass storefront is rather utilitarian, artfully set away from the shock yet to come above street-level. As we move up past the awning and into the mezzanine, with its lovely bronzed patina, we run for the first time into 515’s complicated web of columns and windows, inset into its facade as a painting into a gilded frame.

Màs Malo from “Scandal” – IAMNOTASTALKER
A frontal view of 515 W 7th.

The three stories of curvy pilaster breaking the glass space is striking, reminiscent of what others call the Churrigueresque style – others still refer to it merely as “Ultra Baroque”. The sinuous broken pediment which forms the top of the facade offers one last thrill for the eye, reveling in the full gaudiness of its curves.

The man responsible for the building’s design was William J Dodd, an architect of Midwestern extraction who was trained in the offices of William LeBaron Jenney, builder of the first skyscraper. Dodd spent a remarkable quarter-century in Louisville, there and through other states back east building beautiful houses in the Beaux Arts style.

The Major LW McKee House in Lawrenceburg, KY, built by Dodd in 1886.

In 1912, he quit Kentucky for Los Angeles. In truth, no one may be more responsible for the way the south end of DTLA looks than Dodd – for the next twenty years he would have his fingers in most of the city’s developing cookie jars. In 1917, he built an addition to the famous Brockman Building, then built Coulter’s department store a block east.

Advertisement for Dodd’s Coulter’s department store, which sat among the other great shopping stores on 7th St downtown.

His Henning Building went up right next to Coulter’s, and the Huntsberger-Mennell Building popped up the same year on the 400 block. He finished his annus mirabilis on 7th St with the construction of the great Ville de Paris department store.

Dodd’s Ville de Paris under construction.

Dodd had a hand, early in his California period, in helping the great architect Julia Morgan to build William Randolph Hearst a new home for his Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Works like the Herald-Examiner Building show off some of the decorative flair Dodd would bring to the Brock building.

The Herald Examiner Building, completed in 1914.

That decorative urge seems to have been everywhere in the SoCal air at this time – the revival of the Ultra Baroque in California is in fact credited to the architects responsible for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow. The pair chose a decidedly more Spanish style both to honor the history of San Diego, where the fair took place, as well as to stand apart from the Beaux Arts monuments so common of other fairs going on at the time. Think of Daniel Burnham’s White City in Chicago, home of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and you’ll have a good feeling for what the organizers were rebelling against.

The Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, San Diego, erected for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The Exposition helped revive the Baroque style in LA architecture.

Funny enough, it was at that Panama-California Exposition where the modern history of San Diego was set out: Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, gave a press conference from Balboa Park where he described the new naval base set for construction in San Diego Bay. While their permanent structures were under construction, the Navy would use some features from the Exposition still standing, as would the San Diego Zoo, which cobbled together some poor leftover critters from the exotic corners of the fair to use for their first exhibits.

For all these reasons, Dodd was a natural architectural call for the jewelry shop to make. Headquarters in hand, Brock pere went on to make his little concern Los Angeles’ biggest diamond dealer. Celebrities of a species we’ve all forgotten now, like Mary Pickford, frequented its 7th St halls.

Coquette Poster
Pickford won 1930’s Best Actress award for Coquette, advertised here as a ‘100% talking picture’. I bet it’s a great movie!

Ad men combined Brock goods with great copy to make timeless ads like the one below. Per one source, Tiffany’s actually approached Brock with the intention to merge their businesses, but the deal fell through.

Brock & Co even had a minor place in California legal history, as they sought to have a 1937 tax assessment reduced, arguing that much of their valuable stock was not in Los Angeles but actually in Hawaii and therefore not subject to the duties set by the LA County Board of Supervisors. They lost at the California Supreme Court.

1937 Ad Brock Jewelry Company Los Angeles Ring Diamond - ORIGINAL FTT9
$535 for a diamond ring – good deal

George Brock retired in the 1960s and the Clifton family, who ran a network of popular cafeterias, bought the building out from him to install one of their franchises. Clifton’s Silver Spoon Cafeteria operated until 1997 – Jack Kerouac mentions eating at one of their LA locations in On The Road.

A diner carries a tray in Clifton's Silver Spoon. 1981 photo by Shelley Gazin, courtesy of the Gazin Archive.
Shot from a 1981 story about the Clifton Silver Spoon

After that, the building briefly fell into disrepair, victim of the utter hollowing-out of DTLA in the years following the 1960s. History picked it back up as part of the vaunted Downtown LA revival in the late aughts, when a restauranteur refurbished its second floor and opened Seven Grand, a whiskey bar. Heads swiveled apace as young creatives poured into the watering hole, and a buzzy Mexican restaurant, Más Malo, followed the whiskey bar into operation a few years later. Network producers apparently liked the old styling of the Brock building’s interior too – Scandal and Parks & Rec both have scenes filmed there.

Más Malo met an abrupt end sometime in 2018, and the pandemic has meant that Seven Grand and Bar Jackalope, its speakeasy, have been shut for some time now. But I have faith that the life contained within William Dodd’s otherworldly Spanish terra cotta and marble creation, dropped into the middle of what was once an old pueblo by the mid-century California king of diamonds, will rise again.

Sharing some John Ashbery, and Poetry in California

Wanted to pass along some beloved excerpts from John Ashbery, who I try my utmost to imitate. Nothing is like his poetry.

An immodest little white wine, some scattered seraphs,
recollections of the Fall—tell me,
has anyone made a spongier representation, chased
fewer demons out of the parking lot
where we all held hands?

Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me.
I was touched by your care,
reduced to fawning excuses.
Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire,
the clock ticked on and on, happy about
being apprenticed to eternity. A gavotte of dust-motes
came to replace my seeing. Everything was as though
it had happened long ago
in ancient peach-colored funny papers
wherein the law of true opposites was ordained
casually. Then the book opened by itself
and read to us: “You pack of liars,
of course tempted by the crossroads, but I like each
and every one of you with a peculiar sapphire intensity.
Look, here is where I failed at first.
The client leaves. History goes on and on,
rolling distractedly on these shores. Each day, dawn
condenses like a very large star, bakes no bread,
shoes the faithless. How convenient if it’s a dream.”

In the next sleeping car was madness.
An urgent languor installed itself
as far as the cabbage-hemmed horizons. And if I put a little
bit of myself in this time, stoppered the liquor that is our selves’
truant exchanges, brandished my intentions
for once? But only I get
something out of this memory.
A kindly gnome
of fear perched on my dashboard once, but we had all been instructed
to ignore the conditions of the chase. Here, it
seems to grow lighter with each passing century. No matter how you twist it,
life stays frozen in the headlights.
Funny, none of us heard the roar.

“Wakefulness,” in John Ashbery, Wakefulness, 1999

I was introduced to his works by this September 2018 LitHub article by Nathan Goldman, on the pleasures of Ashbery’s poetry. Written a year after the master’s death, the piece is part personal engagement on Goldman’s part with Ashbery’s work and part deliciously close reading of his final poem, “Climate Correction”.

“I came to believe that entering Ashbery’s often incomprehensible work requires us to set the goal of comprehension to the side and to linger patiently in the poems’ pleasures,” Goldman writes – beautifully, I think.

Orpheus liked the glad personal quality
Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part   
Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends   
Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks   
Can’t withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon   
To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness.   
Then Apollo quietly told him: “Leave it all on earth.   
Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to   
Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather,
Not vivid performances of the past.” But why not?   
All other things must change too…

…Meaning also that the “tableau”
Is wrong. For although memories, of a season, for example,   
Melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure   
That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting;   
It is a picture of flowing, scenery, though living, mortal,   
Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt,   
Harsh strokes. And to ask more than this
Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow,
Powerful stream, the trailing grasses
Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action   
No more than this. Then in the lowering gentian sky   
Electric twitches are faintly apparent first, then burst forth   
Into a shower of fixed, cream-colored flares. The horses   
Have each seen a share of the truth, though each thinks,   
“I’m a maverick. Nothing of this is happening to me,   
Though I can understand the language of birds, and   
The itinerary of the lights caught in the storm is fully apparent to me.
Their jousting ends in music much
As trees move more easily in the wind after a summer storm   
And is happening in lacy shadows of shore-trees, now, day after day.”…

“Syringa,” by John Ashbery in Poetry, Apr 1977

Goldman chronicles Ashbery’s own grappling with his status as a “difficult” poet. When after a seminar he asked his friend Richard Howard how it had gone for his students, Ashbery was told, “They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks.”

Goldman adds a flourish on that anecdote: “Here, as in Ashbery’s description of his reputation as ‘a writer of hermetic poetry,’ his work’s difficulty is framed as impenetrability, as inaccessibility: it withholds its meaning from the reader. But the fact that the work is difficult does not mean that is inaccessible—not if we try to see open doors where Howard’s students saw keyholes. Rather than suspect Ashbery of deliberately concealing his poems’ true meaning, we might begin from the premise that Ashbery left doors open everywhere in the particular modes of strangeness he chose.”

So what if there was an attempt to widen
the gap. Reel in the scenery.
It’s unlike us to reel in the difference.

We got the room
in other hands, to exit like a merino ghost.
What was I telling you about?

Walks in the reeds. Be
contumely about it.
You need a chaser.

In other words, persist, but rather
a dense shadow fanned out.
Not exactly evil, but you get the point.

“Climate Correction,” by John Ashbery in Harper’s, Sep 2018

By the by, I have learned that there is no currently appointed poet laureate for the great “state of California,” as Gov. Newsom would say. The post is irregularly filled, and this lacuna is no great chasm; still, this is a different state of affairs than the one prevailing when Charles Garrigus held the post, as he did from 1966 through to the end of the millennium.

The position has been extant since 1915, when the state commanded within its borders just a hair above three millions. Our last poet laureate was Dana Gioia, a graduate of Stanford’s GSB and former executive at General Mills, who went on to become Chairman of the National Foundation of the Arts. As poet laureate, he was the first to undertake a tour of all of California’s 58 counties.

‘We’re going,’ they said, ‘to the end of the world.’   
So they stopped the car where the river curled,   
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge   
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.

We tramped for miles on a wooded walk
Where dog-hobble grew on its twisted stalk.
Then we stopped to rest on the pine-needle floor   
While two ospreys watched from an oak by the shore.

We came to a bend, where the river grew wide   
And green mountains rose on the opposite side.   
My guides moved back. I stood alone,
As the current streaked over smooth flat stone.

Shelf by stone shelf the river fell.
The white water goosetailed with eddying swell.   
Faster and louder the current dropped
Till it reached a cliff, and the trail stopped.

I stood at the edge where the mist ascended,   
My journey done where the world ended.
I looked downstream. There was nothing but sky,   
The sound of the water, and the water’s reply.

“The End of the World,” by Dana Gioia in Interrogations at Noon, 2001

Los Angeles’s poet laureate-ship also appears to have lapsed – Robin Coste Lewis, whose debut collection, The Voyage of the Sable Venus, blasted onto the world and won a National Book Award in 2015, was appointed to a two year term in April of 2017.

Last summer, two discrete young snakes left their skin
on my small porch, two mornings in a row. Being

postmodern now, I pretended as if I did not see
them, nor understand what I knew to be circling

inside me. Instead, every hour I told my son
to stop with his incessant back-chat. I peeled

a banana. And cursed God—His arrogance,
His gall—to still expect our devotion

after creating love. And mosquitoes. I showed
my son the papery dead skins so he could

know, too, what it feels like when something shows up
at your door—twice—telling you what you already know. 

“Summer,” by Robin Coste Lewis, in Voyage of the Sable Venus, 2015

Legendary LA poet Bill Mohr (also a CSU Long Beach professor of English) posted about the city’s department of culture putting out applications for the next poet laureate, which were due in March of this year. So I guess we’ll have to see.

Waiting for the sink to fill and foam with the soap of permission,
I know it’s only ordinary tasks that tremble with any hope of permission.

How do I know, for certain? The aspiration’s fixed, and how
Could this wet bowl be other than a stage prop of permission?

Young lovers play at being disobedient, like constellations
In a galaxy that flutter in a dance that says we elope with permission.

I held out as long as I could. Poignant thrusts and I grope.
How even after fucking starts, it all rolls to a stop for permission.

A spigot leaks. I tease the parched trees round my house with playful arcs
Of water every other day. Even on webs, spiders grope for permission.

Did anyone ask the cop how horny he felt in his patrol car? Who says
That punishment awaits those who are given enough rope of permission?
Don’t laugh, my friend: ‘The protestors clashed with lightly armed police.’ Lightly?
In swearing to uphold the law, they mock the trope of permission.

“Hasty Deceptions of a Dishwasher,” by Bill Mohr in Ghazals, 2015

…This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers   
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

These then were some hazards of the course,
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else   
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,   
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time…

“Soonest Mended,” by John Ashbery in The Double Dream of Spring, 1966