On the Radio

The completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct 100 years ago this month forever changed the course of the city’s history. But other projects did, too. On November 5, I spoke with Alex Cohen of KPCC’s Take Two about four more civic projects that transformed Los Angeles–the subject of my article in the November 2013 issue of Los Angeles Magazine. Listen here.

And while we’re on the subject (radio), tune into KNX 1070 on December 13. I’ll be featured in the station’s On Your Corner segment about the origins of West Hollywood as Sherman, a streetcar suburb that sprang from the lemon groves of the Cahuenga Valley.

Photo: Flickr user chrissam42. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Don’t Overlook This Historic Parking Garage in Downtown L.A.

Parking garages don’t often receive attention as architectural objects or historical monuments, but this one might deserve a second look. Designed by one of Los Angeles’ leading architectural firms, Wurdeman and Becket, the General Petroleum Corporation Parking Garage opened on Feb. 28, 1949, on the northwest corner of Flower and Eighth streets in downtown Los Angeles. general petroleum garage 3It served as the off-site parking facility for General Petroleum’s new office building (today, the Pegasus Apartments)  two blocks away at Flower and Wilshire; instead of excavating five or six basement levels for on-site parking, the oil company opted to build a standalone garage here to accommodate 446 cars.

The self-park garage was revolutionary in its corkscrew-style design that maximized efficiency by including parking spaces on the sloped ramps. (In earlier designs, the ramps simply provided access to the levels above and below.) And though it could use some detailing today, the structure’s clean lines, graceful curves, and vintage “PARKING” sign grant it a charm lacking in most parking garages. Wurdeman and Becket, I should note, was the firm behind the famed Pan-Pacific Auditorium as well as the General Petroleum office building down the road. Later, after Wurdeman’s 1949 death, Becket designed Hollywood’s landmark Capitol Records Tower.

There’s a plaque on the structure’s Flower Street side announcing the architects and deidcation date. It’s what initially caught my attention, and apparently blogdowntown’s Eric Richardson also stumbled across it back in 2006.

Downtown office workers still park in the structure, but the fate of another historic garage just a few blocks to the east suggests an interesting possibility for its future. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a 1924 parking garage on Grand Avenue between Eighth and Ninth was converted into the South Park Lofts around 2002.

The General Petroleum Corporation Parking Garage shortly after its 1949 opening. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
The General Petroleum Corporation Parking Garage shortly after its 1949 opening. Courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Actually, It’s 107 Years of Digging at the La Brea Tar Pits

There’s been a lot of buzz today about “100 years of digging” at Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits, but the claim just doesn’t add up. In fact, scientific excavations began under paleontologist John C. Merriam of the University of California in 1906 — 107 years ago. Merriam was alerted to the fossil beds by William Orcutt, a geologist with the Union Oil Company of California (later Unocal) who recognized the fossilized remains of an extinct species of ground sloth while exploring the asphalt deposits in 1901.

Perhaps the Natural History Museum (founded in 1913 as the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art) is celebrating 100 years of its own involvement in the diggings?

In any case, there were discoveries even earlier than 1901. Certainly the region’s native Tongva people stumbled across some prehistoric remains, and in the 1870s the owner of Rancho La Brea, Henry Hancock, found some fossils, though he didn’t realize their importance.  If you have access to JSTOR, you can read an account of the 1901 discovery courtesy of The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly.

Update: I corrected an earlier misspelling of Merriam’s name.

Photo by Flickr user andy castro. Used under a Creative Commons license.

L.A.’s Beer History Stretches Back to the 1850s

Thirsty Angelenos have been sipping locally brewed ales and lagers since the 1850s, when Christian Henne opened the New York Brewery at the corner of Third and Main streets. In the early 20th century, bars served local brands like Eastside — named in reference to the brewery’s location on the east bank of the Los Angeles River — before the city entered a long, dark age dominated by mass-produced national brands.

Thankfully, that dark age is now in the past. Led by companies like Angel City, Eagle Rock, and Golden Road, a resurgent Los Angeles brewing industry crafts beers — as well as product packaging, marketing campaigns, and drinking establishments — that appeal to local tastes and traditions.

On Saturday, October 12, I moderate a panel discussion at the 8th-annual Los Angeles Archives Bazaar that explores what makes Los Angeles’s beer scene unique. Panelists include Dieter Foerstner, brewmaster at Angel City Brewery; and Charles Perry, president of the Culinary Historians of Southern California. Join us at 2:00 p.m. in USC’s Doheny Memorial Library.

Can you recognize any historic Los Angeles architecture in Angel City’s bottle labels? At the Oct. 12 Archives Bazaar, I’ll ask brewmaster Dieter Foerstner how the brewery developed its product packaging.


Photo above courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

Los Angeles From the Air, 1887 vs. 2013

Floating some 9,000 feet above the city in a hot-air balloon in 1887, Edwin H. Husher took what may be the first aerial photo of Los Angeles. (I tell the full story behind this historic image and its creation over at Los Angeles Magazine.)

After seeing the photo, The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal had a great idea: why not overlay the aerial image onto a present-day map of the city? My Photoshop skills were not quite up to the task, but I was able to simulate the same view today using Google Earth. Sharp eyes will notice that the perspective is not exactly the same—with altitude, location, and tilt, there were simply too many variables—but it is fun to compare how the city looked in 1887, when roughly 20,000 people called it home, to the metropolis of nearly 4 million people today.

The Los Angeles River suffers the most dramatic change. In the earlier image, the river’s wide, sandy wash dominates the landscape. By 2013, the river has been reduced to a concrete flood channel, fading into the surrounding industrial development.

Los Angeles from a balloon, 1887. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
Los Angeles from a balloon, 1887. Courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Roughly the same view in 2013. Imagery courtesy of Google Earth.
Roughly the same view in 2013. Satellite imagery courtesy of Google Earth.

Summer Rain in L.A.?

Dry summers—they’re one of the perks of living in Los Angeles. Ninety-two percent of precipitation falls between the months of November and April. But while it’s rare, summer rain does sometimes dampen L.A.’s summertime fun, forcing Angelenos to fumble through their closets in search of an umbrella.

Aside from marine layer drizzle, the main source of warm season rain is monsoonal moisture leaking from the interior deserts onto the coastal plain. Thunder and lightning often accompany the rainfall. The downtown Los Angeles weather station recorded its one-day rainfall record for the month of July on July 14, 1886, when 0.24 inches fell. August typically brings more monsoonal rain than July; that month’s record is 2.06 inches on August 17, 1977.

Another, even rarer source of summer rain is a tropical storm. The remnant of one came ashore on September 25, 1939, dumping 5.62 inches of rain on downtown Los Angeles. (I wrote about this storm—and an 1862 hurricane—a couple years ago at KCET.) And even when storms don’t impact the region directly, their residual moisture can bring unseasonable rainfall.

Source: “Climate of Los Angeles,” NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS WR-261. 

Thanks to Alissa Walker, a/k/a @awalkerinla (formerly @gelatobaby), for suggesting this post. Above photo by Flickr user zimtwookie, used under a Creative Commons license.

Related: A Snowstorm in Los Angeles? It’s Happened. (City Think blog, Los Angeles Magazine)

KCET Miniseries on Angels Flight and Other Incline Railways

I’ve had the privilege of writing and directing a miniseries for about the incline railways of Los Angeles history. Angels Flight is an L.A. landmark, but many Southern Californians are not aware of the other, lesser-known funiculars that once scaled steep slopes across the region. The first episode looks at Angels Flight and its forgotten downtown sibling, Court Flight. Future episodes explore the incline railways of Mt. Washington, Catalina Island, and the San Gabriel Mountains.

More than most of my projects, this video represents a collaborative effort, and the product you see here is the work of an amazing team. Henry Cram is a patient editor who also made archival still photos come alive through animation. The video benefits from cinematographer Nick Bupp’s eye and Andy Theiss’ audio expertise. Zach Behrens and the folks at KCET provided invaluable production support. And of course the archivists, librarians, and others who appear in front of the camera contributed their personality and expertise.

Episode Two drops this Thursday, July 11. Stay tuned for more; we’ve set a goal of one new episode per month.

Remnants of Fort Moore?

Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection
Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection

Could this flagpole and the two cannons be remnants of Fort Moore, the earthworks constructed by American troops in 1847 during their occupation of the city?

This week, at Los Angeles Magazine’s City Think blog, I write about the city’s first Fourth of July celebration in 1847. A 150-foot flagpole crafted out of two pine tree trunks played a key role in the military ceremony. In researching the post, I came across the above ca.1901 photo, copies of which exist in both the USC Libraries’ and Los Angeles Public Library’s collections. The LAPL’s metadata identifies the objects as remnants of the historic fort. The USC Digital Library’s metadata, meanwhile, is silent. I did find another view of the flagpole here in the USC Digital Library. (The Broadway tunnel, no longer extant, was built underneath the site of Fort Moore.) Is this Fort Moore’s flagpole, hauled over dozens of miles by gardener Juan Ramirez? Or was it a replica placed at the site by historically minded citizens?

The Story of L.A.’s Oldest Palm Tree Continues…

Palm trees are one of my pet research topics. Beautiful native trees grace Los Angeles, but to me imported plants like the palm often prove more interesting as cultural and historical artifacts.

Last year, Ed Fuentes alerted me to the fact that a once-famous palm tree — the palm that from 1888 to 1914 greeted new arrivals to Los Angeles at the Southern Pacific’s Arcade Station — now lives in relative obscurity near the Coliseum in Exposition Park. After some research, I determined that the tree’s history actually extends back much further than 1888. Transplanted originally from a desert oasis sometime in the middle of the 19th century, the fan palm was already a mature tree and famous landmark by the time it was moved in front of the rail depot.

In April, over at Los Angeles Magazine‘s City Think blog, I suggested that a lone California fan palm growing in Exposition Park may be the city’s oldest palm tree. Since then, D.J. Waldie has written about the palm, calling it “perhaps the most footloose piece of the city’s landscape,” while the digital history detectives of Noirish Los Angeles (a SkyscraperPage Forum thread) have filled in important pieces of the story. Still, there’s much yet to be discovered — including the exact origins of the tree. After filing my Los Angeles Magazine post, I did run across an article from the Autumn 1950 issue of Lasca Leaves by William Hertrich, a horticultural expert and a primary force in shaping the Huntington Gardens:

As far as the author is able to determine, there is no record available as to the exact date of the first transplanting of such palms from the native habitat for use in ornamental planting in Southern California. but the late Ernest Braunton and I gathered sufficient information to establish an approximate date in the year 1888, when there appeared on July 28th in the Los Angeles Express the following item:

“Three of the stately palm trees which graced the Saunder’s place (originally the Lugo estate) on San Pedro Street, have been purchased by the Southern Pacific to adorn its new depot site on the Wolfskill tract. The first has been successfully moved, and the other two will follow in a day or two.”

As a matter of fact, only one of the four was actually moved, the other three being transported to a location on Washington Street in 1905. [There’s a discrepancy here — Hertrich refers to four trees, while the Express clipping refers to three.] Braunton, as I recall, quoted: “W. H. Workman who came here in 1854 says they were conspicuous trees then, and he told me in 1905 he thought they were then about seventy years old.

photo (6)
Another view of the historic palm

I’m in the June 2013 issue of Los Angeles Magazine


The June 2013 issue of Los Angeles Magazine has hit newsstands, and I’m proud to announce that inside you’ll find two contributions by yours truly. On page 34, I explain what’s changed at Echo Park Lake after a multi-year renovation. (Note that at press time, the reopening date was mid-May. We’re still looking forward to the reopening, as the city subsequently pushed the date back to June 15.)

I also have a small story on pages 104-05, inside the Seth Rogen cover package. In it, I pick five local brews worthy of a growler fill this summer. Now that was a fun piece to research.