Wednesday, October 27, 2010

High Tower stairs

We took our third stairway walk back in September on our son's last weekend in Los Angeles. It's a testimony to how disorganized and busy I've been that it's taken this long to write about it.

Our son wanted to experience dinner and cocktails at Musso & Frank Grill, and we thought it would be worthwhile to get some exercise in first. The walk starts out just a block from the central point of tourist Hollywood - the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

From the strip malls and rushing traffic on Franklin, you could see the looming edifice of the Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex, the crowds silhouetted as they stood on the raised walkways spanning the ridiculous Assyrian-lite archway. We turned away from this overhyped vulgarity, and walked north on Highland, past a venerable tiled American Legion Hall, and turned right onto Camrose, a small residential street.

Up Camrose, we came upon High Tower Drive, where we could see the famous tower against the houses ranging up the hills. The High Tower is a tall narrow shaft, modeled on an Italian campanile, or bell tower, and it holds a private elevator to carry residents from their garages at its base to their hilltop homes. The tower and the apartments it serves were built by real estate developer Carl Kay in the 1930s. There are some thirty people who have keys to the elevator.

The High Tower was featured in Michael Connelly's book "Echo Park" where his hero Harry Bosch discovers the car of a missing woman hidden in one of the garages. It's also featured in the 1970's filmed version of Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" - Elliot Gould plays Philip Marlowe, who lives in one of the hillside houses.

Our guidebook had us turning away from the tower itself, going south on High Tower Drive for a walk up our first staircase to Glencoe Street.

Here's the view from the top, toward Hollywood and the Capitol Records building. The guidebook offered a short detour that promised a view of the Samuel Freeman House, one of four textile block houses built by Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles. We followed Glencoe down a pretty, winding set of steps threading between the houses. It felt like private property, but the book assured us it was a public set of stairs.

The Freeman House is sited on the hill at an ox-bow turn on Glencoe Street. One of Wright's smaller houses, it was built in 1924 for Samuel and Harriet Freeman, who were patrons of the arts and frequently entertained artists, musicians, and architects in their living room, which has been called one of the loveliest rooms ever designed by Wright. The construction technique was Wright's attempt at creating an affordable modular system - concrete blocks were stacked together and joined by steel rods. The blocks were molded with designs inspired by Mayan archeology, and they were hollow, so they'd keep the interiors cool in summer and warmly insulated in winter.

Like all of Wright's textile block houses, it leaked. The blocks were mixed from dirt at the site, which weakened them. A young Rudolph Schindler took over from Wright's son Lloyd supervising the construction, Schindler painted some of the blocks, and mixed mortar into them, which annoyed Wright far more than the fact that he may have had an affair with Mrs. Freeman, a modern dancer.

When we encountered the house, there was a car in the driveway and a young woman opened the door. She was with the USC Department of Architecture, owners of the house since Harriet Freeman had donated in in 1986. She was conducting a private event, she said, and was unable to let us see the interior. We admired the view from the carport. The house had been damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and was still under renovation.

As you can see, it's a bit shabby. For an interview with the house's caretaker and a great slide-show, read this article by Mark Hertzberg.

We backtracked on Glencoe and found the next staircase, which took us up to Paramount Drive. This wound down and met Camrose again, giving a stunning view of the hills around us, houses of all kinds perched there.

Camrose wound downhill past this amazing orange house, and turning left at Glencoe again, deposited us at the foot of the stairs of Broadview Terrace.

Broadview Terrace is a flight of stairs threading its way between houses. It's a true "walk street" - the houses on Broadview Terrace have no other address.

Halfway up, Broadview Terrace intersects another stairway walk street, Los Altos Place.

A little clearing here allows you to step off the walkway and take in the view. And then continues, steeply, further up.

At the top of this flight is a more gently sloping walkway. Here you can see the multi-level streamline moderne apartment building served by the tower's elevator.

Another short flight, and you're at the top of the tower.

The concrete bridge connects the residences to the elevator. At the end of Broadview Terrace, one overlooks the parking lot for the Hollywood Bowl.

From here, the gently sloping walk street Alta Loma Terrace takes you down to the bottom again. Heavily shaded and serene, you feel as though you've entered a secret world.

The walk passes between fenced yards with mature yet carefully tended landscaping, punctuated regularly by gates, lanterns, potted plants and other symbols marking potential entry to the private homes behind the walls.

A banana leaf droops over the fence here. There's a glimpse of a heavily laden orange tree there. Bougainvillea sprawls above the walkway, and palms wave overhead. The occasional bronze plaque marks a home behind a gate as a historical structure, or the home of a celebrity or public figure.

A note about celebrities - this being Los Angeles, like all neighborhoods, the High Tower neighborhood boasts some celebrity history. Past residents include Adriana Caselotti, the voice of Snow White in the Disney cartoon.

A jog to the right, then a short flight of steps, and we're down into a broad lower street. An old faded sign points up to where we came from.

Here at the base of Alta Loma Terrace, the residents' garages are draped with mature bougainvillea.

The street opens back onto busy Highland Avenue. The huge scale of the broad road and the traffic noise suddenly startle. After the hushed closeness of Alta Loma Terrace, it's like being dragged out into the world again.


Ellen Bloom said...

THanks for the Hollywood stair tour! Never, in a million years, would I take that hike! I appreciate your photographs and narrative!
What a view!

Anonymous said...

So many stairs! My knees and I are glad it was you who took this hike --and these photos!-- and are now sharing it with the rest of us.
I'm still convinced you would make a terrific travel writer. :)

Gary's third pottery blog said...

DANG! All that sunshine and funky beauty!!!!!!!!!! Tell Jack I will be visiting you in February :)

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

That's gorgeous... simply gorgeous. It's always nice to find out-of-the-way nooks to explore.

M. Bouffant said...

Haven't been up & down this one, though I'd heard of the private elevator for many yrs.

Now I'm not sure that I need to, as you've covered it so well.

cactus petunia said...

So cool! There are lots of public stairways in Portland, too. Next time I'm down in Southern California I'll look those up!