Monday, January 17, 2011
Stairways to heaven
We're continuing to explore Los Angeles through Charles Flemings' book "Secret Stairs: A Walking guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles." Recently, we took walk number 35, through the Temple Hill neighborhood in Hollywood.
The walk started on Argyle Avenue north of Franklin, directly north of the famed Hollywood Tower Hotel. Once a fabulous French chateau-inspired luxury hotel, it declined in the past several decades to a flea-bag housing impoverished retirees, scuffling rockers, and drug dealers. Its faded decrepitude is said to have inspired the Disneyland adventure ride "Tower of Terror." But in recent years it's been revamped, revitalized, and restored and now condominium apartments are being sold with a marketing campaign that evokes the glamor of Hollywood past.
Argyle slopes steeply uphill north of Franklin, but the guide had us turn left, walking up equally steep Vine Street that curved at its apex, and looked over the 101 Hollywood freeway, with a view of the top of the Capitol Records building and some of the venerable old buildings on Hollywood Boulevard.
One associated Vine Street with the hustle and traffic of busy Hollywood, but here north of Franklin, it's a sleepy residential street, although the constant rush of freeway traffic keeps it from being very quiet.
We turn off Vine at narrow Vedanta, where an incredible cactus garden grew before one shabby cottage. Just past, Vedanta Place is a stub of a street but here we find a tiny treasure - the little Vedanta Temple.
The temple was built by the Vedanta Society, a religious sect lead by Swami Prabhavananda, in 1938. English author Christopher Isherwood was an adherant, writing about his experience in "My Guru and His Disciple." The temple serves as a monastery and a meditation center today.
We turn onto Ivar Avenue, and climb up. Along the street is a pretty Spanish revival apartment court. It's serene, but always the rush of the nearby freeway plays as a soundtrack.
At the corner of Longview there's an extraordinary French-Normand chateau that's been hideously bowdlerized first with an Italianate balustrade and a space-age rooftop enclosure of glass. It's an event venue, so you can go to the website HERE and tour it. Phew!
Up Longview to Vine, where we find at the corner a grand Italianate building that once belonged to singer Jeanette MacDonald, and now is said to be part of the Vedanta Society.
Across the street from this house is a Spanish-style home that once belonged to Hopalong Cassidy.
Turning left on Vine, we pass more Spanish style homes and apartments, including the entrance to this hidden apartment court, where Charlie Chaplin once is said to have lived.
Just a little past this, we find a staircase going up.
Gracefully curving, it brings us to Alcyona Drive.
This magnificent rambling Spanish villa lies at the top of the stairs. The street continues to climb. The guide takes us up steep Primrose Avenue, left onto Argyle, and then right again on Temple Hill Drive.
Some 11 acres of this neighborhood was once a religious colony, built between 1912 and 1919 for the elite Esoteric Society - a sub-group of the American Theosophical Society. The land was snapped up in the real estate boom of early Hollywood by wealthy benefactor A.P. Warrington, assisted by donations from followers. The group planned an educational and cultural institution where people attended lectures, made art, dance and music, and studied science and philosophy, all viewed through the multi-faceted lens of occultism, Rosicrucian, Hinduism, astrology and Free-masonry that made up the religious melting pot of Theosophy. They called the colony Krotona, after a legendary school founded by the Greek philosopher Pythagorus.
Theosophy was hugely popular at the time, especially among Hollywood's new creative population. "Wizard of Oz" author L. Frank Baum embraced Theosophism in 1897. Movie people like Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow and director William Ince dabbled in Theosophism. The colony staged outdoor musical and dance pageants featuring leading choreographers of the day, like Ruth St. Denis.
Here on Temple Hill Avenue, where this modern garage shelters under the tall eucalyptus, a broad natural amphitheater once served as the venue for outdoor productions including "The Light in Asia," a dramatization of a poem celebrating the life of Buddha, and "Julius Caesar," presented to celebrate Shakespeare's 300 birthday.
This white rambling building with Moorish-style keyhole windows was known as the Ternary, and it was the residence of three dignitaries of the group. It's now an apartment house.
In keeping with their embrace of mystical orientalism, Krotona colonists added Moorish or Arabic touches to the Spanish revival style popular in Hollywood. As we walked up Temple Hill, we encountered another Krotona-era villa.
From here you can look across the canyon to another Krotona structure, a private home named Moorcrest. Designed by Theosophy heavy-hitter and architectural amateur Marie Russak Hotchener, it was leased to Charlie Chaplin for a time before being sold in the 1920s to the parents of movie star Mary Astor.
Everywhere we go we find a former home of Charlie Chaplin. He sure got around town!
Little of the house can be seen today behind tall hedges, but over the tree-tops you can see the onion domes of its roofline.
Here's another Krotona-influenced residence.
At the corner of Primrose and Vista del Mar lies the main Krotona structure. Here the colonists studied in their library, worshipped in a temple-like assembly hall, contemplated philosophy in a serene inner courtyard, and ate communal meals in a vegetarian cafeteria.
Today it's an apartment building. Here's a glimpse of the pretty courtyard.
Continuing down Vista del Mar, we encountered two large residential villas on our right, at the corner of Holly Mont Drive. One of these, on the downhill side, was the home of A. R. Knudsen, one of the wealthy founders of the colony. The home was built around a flight of steps leading from the colony's trails, landscaped gardens and meadows down to the sidewalk leading to the trolley stops at Franklin Boulevard.
It's a double flight of steps separated by fountain basins now planted with succulents. Walking down the steps, you pass arched gates leading to the residences on either side.
Before we took the flight down, though, the guide asked us to contemplate the house at 6215 Holly Mont Drive.
A rambling Spanish revival in somewhat poor repair, this house was once the home of actress Barbara Stanwyk. Its current owner has decorated the exterior with an amazing collection of statues and artifacts. The house is rumored to be haunted, and was the subject of a filmed investigation in the 1980s. I don't know about the ghosts, but it sure looks creepy in this photo.
Something about this neighborhood must inspire a sense of serenity and contemplation, despite the rush of traffic and the faded past of Hollywood movie stars. In addition to Theosophists and Vedantists, the neighborhood is also home to the Convent of the Angels - a monastery housing Domincan nuns.
The monastery garden is a pretty retreat to visit. At the gift shop, you can buy rosaries, religious tokens, and scarves hand-knit by the nuns. Even better, you can buy nun-made pumpkin bread and chocolate fudge.
What a neighborhood! I'll explore its fascinating history in later posts.