Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Stairs of Hollywoodland

In 1923, a group of real estate developers started to sell property in the Hollywood Hills south of Mullholland Drive and east of Lake Hollywood reservoir. They wanted to create an exclusive community with homes that were picturesque and historically European in style, nestled in the beautiful rolling hills. It was a planned community, marked by a gated entry, and the target market was wealthy East Coast folks longing for a life of affluence and elegance in sunny Southern California.

They erected a huge sign on the slope of Mt. Lee, above the development, with the name of the development spelled out in huge letters and lit up with 4000 light bulbs. The sign was meant to be temporary, but it stayed on the mountain, and over the years it suffered from lack of maintenance and other misfortunes. In 1932 a despondent starlet named Peg Entwhistle leapt off the "H" to her death. A few years later, a drunk driver careened off the cliff above and destroyed the "H." In 1949 the sign - without the "Land" - became the property of the City of Los Angeles, but it continued to deteriorate. The first "O" crumpled, so it resembled a "U". The last "O" collapsed entirely. In 1978, rocker Alice Cooper started a campaign to restore it, which has kept the sign in shape today.

If you drive up North Beachwood Drive from Franklin Avenue, the sign is centered over the roadway in your windshield.

Soon you come to two granite gateposts that span the sidewalks with curved archways. This is the entrance to Hollywoodland.

Nowadays, people tend to call the neighborhood Beachwood Canyon. Although it's home to many industry people and celebrities, it's not glamorous at all - it's quaint and kind of quiet and neighborly. To the left of the gates a small complex holds a market, cleaners, and coffee shop. We stopped in the coffee shop for lunch before taking walk number 34 from Charles Fleming's Book "Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles."

The coffee shop is like a throwback to the 1940s - all knotty pine woodwork, colonial-style furnishings, striped wallpaper and antique decor like old stoves, butter churns, vintage Coca-cola trays, and copper pans. The counter is set with low vinyl swivel stools, like a movie malt shop.

Inside, the cozy wooden booths were occupied with customers - impossibly skinny young women in tight jeans, young men with spiky hair-styles discussing club venues for their bands, families with small kids, and women in yoga-wear talking about screenplays. We had lunch - a cup of soup and half sandwich for me, a burger for [The Man I Love] before starting our walk.

Across the way is the Hollywoodland Realty office, a gabelled half-timber Tudor cottage. Beside it is an apartment court decorated like a Spanish hacienda. We started walking up North Beachwood Drive from this corner, and found our first set of steps.

Wow. These were some seriously steep steps. Made of the same granite as the gateposts - and other retaining walls we'll find later - they are steep and narrow, but fortunately have good sturdy handrails. This flight has 143 steps in all.

At the top, we walked around a road that curved beneath a looming hill crowned by this extraordinary juxtaposition of architectural styles:

Here, a cantilevered modern glass box sits side-by-side with a turreted French chateau that could have been airlifted from the Loire Valley. It even has fake, rigid flags topping its conical turret, permanently flying in the wind.

On the road below, this charming Spanish cottage is for sale. I could live there....couldn't you? It's only $1.3 million.

Or I could live here, in this sprawling pink Italianate villa perched high on the hillside. Just below the pink villa, we found the second flight of steps.

149 of them. By the time we got to the top, we were winded and our calves were aching. As we crested the last of them, we were greeted by this extraordinary sight:

This is what's wonderful about this neighborhood. Like Hollywood itself, it's a place where anyone can create a fantasy life. Have you always wanted to live in a stone castle? A Moorish palace? a Zen paradise? Hansel and Gretel's cottage? A Swiss chalet? Take your pick, you can find them all here in Beachwood Canyon.

Just beyond the ramparts of the castle, there's this '50s style low-slung modern, with its decorative block screen.

Here's a glimpse at the street-level entrance to the pink Italian villa we climbed past.

This Indo-chinese inspired goddess statue presides serenely over a home with a stunning view of the Griffith Observatory behind her fence.

Our climb had brought us to the street where the French chateau and its neighboring glass box had their entrances. Here's the unremarkable entry to the modern house,

And here's the French house, its fanciful charms well hidden from the street.

The streets were remarkably quiet. A few cars - Range Rovers and Mercedes predominated - navigated the hairpin curves, but we saw no other walkers, no people in the front yards, and very little activity going on, even though the houses were decorated for Halloween. It was startling, then when we saw, perhaps fifty yards away, a coyote strolling boldly up a branching street in broad daylight. It was a reminder how high in the hills these houses are, and how close to the park and mountain wilderness.

As the road curved around, the Hollywood sign came into sight. This side of Hollyridge Drive is lined with low houses whose street faces look modest, but just think of the views they must have from the back of the house!

On the hill above the road, a pink asymmetrical '80s structure was perched next door to another castle, this one faced with irregular fieldstone.

Beyond this, a mustard-colored Spanish house with lovely leaded-glass picture windows revealed a gilt grand piano in the parlor. We admired it for a while until a young man wearing nothing but a bright orange pair of Speedos stepped out to sweep the doorstep, and, embarrassed, we kept walking.

Beyond his home - which must have an enviable view of the Hollywood sign - another flight of steps - 178 of them - led down all the way to Beachwood Drive.

Our guide took us south on Beachwood, past homes built like Norman manor houses and medieval castles and ivy-covered cottages.

This one has a dove-cote at the peak of its tower, while its neighbor has a striped awning held up by decorative spears.

We crossed Beachwood, and just off the drive at Woodshire Drive, we found the next set of stairs to carry us up the west side of the canyon.

These stairs are special. A double set divided by what used to be basins filled with cascading water and now planted with lush succulents, this set of stairs was declared Historic-Cultural Monument No. 535 by the City of Los Angeles in 1991. It's 148 steps in all, very steep, and - fortunately - fitted with benches to rest on partway up.

At the top of the flight, I noticed this adjoining house was for sale.

How about that downtown city view? You can buy it, for only $659,000!

We continued around Belden Drive, and then up another flight of stairs to Durand Drive. Our guide urged us to take a short detour up Durand for a peek at a fabulous estate surrounded by massive granite walls.

This is Wolf's Lair - a 3 acre compound built by L. Milton Wolf, one of the real estate founders, in 1923. It's said that its guesthouse operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition, and that it included a secret hideaway apartment in the gatehouse with a South Seas style tiki bar, the better to seduce young starlets. It was recently sold to a famous musician for $3.5 million - quite a steal from its before-crisis listing of $7.9.

Legend has it that Wolf kept a pet gibbon in these small turrets.

It was shrouded in scaffolding when we arrived, so I couldn't get any good photos, but here's a location site that has some pictures.

At the height of Durand, at the entry to the Lair, the road turns and a footpath drops away through undeveloped wilderness, leading down to the shores of Hollywood Lake reservoir below, sparkling like an unexpected jewel.

Are you exhausted yet? We are!! We followed the guide back down to the very last staircase, strewn with pine needles, heading down to Woodshire Drive.

From here it was an easy stroll back to the small village market, the stone gates, and our car.

You can read blogger Robert Guerrero's account of his hike through Beachwood Canyon here - his group even took the detour down to the lake! He's further along than we are, covering the climbs in the book.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Thematic Photographic - Yellow

"Thematic Photographic" - Carmi at the blog Written, Inc. presents a weekly themed photographic challenge. This week's theme is YELLOW. Check in and see who else contributes photos based on this idea.

You could call it yellow, but to me the light inside the bar room at Musso & Frank Grill seems more like "golden." Especially in the early evening, when Manny makes you the perfect sidecar. And it's yellow.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Thematic Photographic - Yellow

"Thematic Photographic" - Carmi at the blog Written, Inc. presents a weekly themed photographic challenge. This week's theme is YELLOW. Check in and see who else contributes photos based on this idea.

Chinese witch hazel, or hamamelis mollis, blooms in the Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden of the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. Its curious yellow blossoms are like thin shreds of lemon peel, gathered in a cluster, on the branch.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Later that same day....

The sky was amazing tonight at the beach. Those bumps on the horizon are Catalina Island.

Click to "embiggen."

Right here right now

Now you can click to "embiggen" all photos.

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.