Friday, February 17, 2012

Street Art

Looking south on Main from 4th Street.
South Main Street in downtown Los Angeles is not pretty. Though once a busy commercial district, even in the old days Main Street lacked the cachet of neighboring thoroughfares - Broadway bustled with department stores, cafeterias and cinemas, while Spring Street was home to banks and stock exchanges. By the 1930's Main Street was home to dance halls, bar-rooms, cheap hotels and burlesque theatres. It was the gateway to Los Angeles' Skid Row - and still is.

Fifth and Main looking south in 1930, Los Angeles Public Library. Click to "embiggen"
By the 1970s, Main Street had descended into deeper funk, a gap-toothed streetscape where dilapidated flop houses and grindhouses stood flanked by empty parking lots. The stretch of Fifth Street east of Main Street was notoriously known as "The Nickle", and is home to one of the largest population of homeless people in the United States. Social service providers like the Union Rescue Mission, Midnight Mission and Downtown Women's Services operate in this area.

Fifth and Main, 1972, looking south. LAPL
This part of the city has always been, to some extent, the home of a transient, mostly male population. A few blocks east of Main, near the Los Angeles River, is where the first railroad stations were located. Businesses in the area hired seasonal labor, attracting short-term workers, often migrants, almost exclusively male. Cheap hotels housed these workers and those working in the railroads and shipping businesses.  Bars, cheap diners, whorehouses and other unsavory attractions flourished here.

Fifth Street, just east of Main, 1971 LAPL
Lately, though, the neighborhood has become hip, with real estate developers transforming the old office buildings into residential lofts, and high end restaurants and trendy cocktail bars replacing the diners and dives of the past. Though still gritty, the neighborhood is becoming a place to see art.

One of my favorite pieces of art is this decorative weathervane atop the roof of a building on the southeast corner of Main Street and Fifth Street. An orb aflame with flickering rays, and are there figures there or is it just twisting sun-flares that writhe and flash against the sky?

Look closer. Are there birds? Dancers? Leaves? Dragons?  A curved crescent moon arcs across the orb. It's all mounted on a crowned dome above the round corner bay.

The building it stands on is one of the oldest buildings still remaining in downtown Los Angeles. Known as the "Charnock  block," it was built in 1888 as a hotel with retail space on the ground floor.

It's so easy to ignore, but when you do take a look at it, you suddenly realize what an extraordinary building it is. The corner has a round bay window, and on either street side, rows of arched oriel bay windows alternate with sash windows. On the Fifth Street side, as the hill drops away, small retail spaces are arranged in step-like procession along the sidewalk.

Oddly, it is not on the list of Designated Historic-Cultural Monuments by the city of Los Angeles.

The building is known as the Pershing Hotel, and it is among the many remodeled hotels and apartment buildings developed and managed as supportive housing for the homeless by the Skid Row Housing Trust. I contacted their office to see if they knew anything about the weathervane.

Through the Trust's External Affairs director, I was referred to Alice Callaghan, one of the founders of the Skid Row Housing Trust. She now runs Las Familias del Pueblo, a community service organization serving the Latino workers in Los Angeles's downtown garment industry.

The Charnock block, 5th St. side, 1965 LAPL
Over the phone, Alice was friendly and happy to share information about the weather-vane with me. Titled "Sun Moon Dome," it was made and installed in 1989 by blacksmith sculptor Adam Leventhal. Mr. Leventhal worked for the Skid Row Housing Trust, whose offices were in the building at that time. Adam worked for them after school, she said. He put it up there, she said, "because there was nothing up there."

But sadly, Adam is no longer alive.  I was able to find out more about Adam on the internet.

Born in Connecticut in 1958, educated at Pomona College, Adam lived and worked in downtown Los Angeles, and examples of his work are still on the streets downtown. Tragically, he suffered from bi-polar disease and took his own life in 2000. You can read about him HERE.

I noticed "Sun Moon Dome" a few years ago, but only today did I learn its story. What took me so long to ask? Look around you. What stories are there for the asking in your world?

All historic photos are from the Los Angeles Public Library. Click to "embiggen."


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I'm loving the architectural features all over that building (and in other photos shown as well). When the weather warms up here, I will have to take some field trips downtown!

smalltownme said...

I love your L.A. history lessons. That vane is a beautiful work of art.

Janet said...

that is a beautiful work of art. I was sorry to read he has passed.