The Vanished "House of Spirits" Neon Still Haunts Echo Park Boulevard
and whispers of a new golden age of sign preservation in the City of Angels
Greetings from your friendly historic Los Angeles sightseeing tour company, in mothballs until we can again organize groups to gather and explore the city we love. Many of you have asked us about virtual events, and we’re pleased to announce that we’re working out the bugs to turn the communal Esotouric experience into something that can be enjoyed discretely from the comfort of your bathtub. Thanks for your patience/interest, and watch this space!
Last week, we got a hot tip on a spectacle worth breaking quarantine to see: the scheduled removal of the enormous House of Spirits neon sign from the fire-damaged Echo Park liquor store that was its home for six decades.
We masked up so even our mothers wouldn’t know us, and joined a small group of neon historians and preservationists to watch a crew from the venerable Williams Sign Company (established 1930) disassemble the metal cans and bring the huge pieces down to earth, in a thrilling aerial ballet.
Bittersweet because although the family-run community hub House of Spirits will not reopen, and the structure is likely to be demolished when the property is sold to a developer, the sign’s removal is not the final chapter for this Echo Park treasure.
The property owners, the Telis family, love the sign and didn’t want to see it destroyed or hidden away in a private collection, so they donated it to the Museum of Neon Art. And because the sign is so precious to the community, and far too big to be easily exhibited in the museum, MONA came up with a plan to protect and preserve it, then find a suitable public space where it can be reinstalled, so it can again cast a magical glow as its cute little clouds waft across Echo Park’s sky.
We feel strongly that landmark signs belong to all of us and ought to be preserved in place whenever possible, whether that means putting a protective coat of anti-graffiti film over a hand-painted ghost sign or adapting a vintage marquee to spell out a new business name. But if a sign has to be removed—as in the case of House of Spirits, with development likely and vandalism threatening the sign’s survival—the next best thing is preservation near place.
It’s exciting to see MONA using a sign as beloved as House of Spirits to advocate for this policy, so more sign owners and community members realize this is an option. We’ll keep you posted about the sign’s adventures, and you can learn more about MONA’s work and their Glendale museum (presently closed to help contain COVID-19), here.
Before the current crop of future felons took control of Los Angeles government, a percentage of the hotel tax was used to fund the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), a scrappy city agency that worked with artists, nonprofits and community members to fund cool projects like the streetlight sculpture Vermonica (soon to return!) and the restoration of vintage commercial signage through the LUMENS program.
But big developers got in the habit of asking for hotel taxes to be forgiven, illegal Airbnbs never paid their share, and corrupt politicians like Jose Huizar were only to happy to screw DCA and the citizens of Los Angeles. A recent damning audit of DCA’s art holdings lists hundreds of pieces that have been neglected, damaged, stolen or lost as the underfunded department lurches on, a zombie husk.
The DCA audit is horrible, bad folks are still in power, and the local news seems darker every morning, and yet lately we’re feeling an unfamiliar sensation…
The Feds have additional indictments of elected officials and cronies in the queue. Anxious politicians facing primary challengers respond to community pressure with uncharacteristic progressive photo ops and policy swaps. The Planning Commission is starting to hold developers to a higher aesthetic and social standard—tune in tomorrow (Thursday) morning as Onni Group comes back from the drawing board, begging anew for the chance to demolish the Los Angeles Times Buildings that we landmarked. And enlightened property owners like the Telis family recognize their responsibility to the community that always supported them, finding ways to leave something behind when they cash out.
That funny sensation we’re feeling might just be hope for the future, a future where Angelenos with good ideas can once again get a helpful boost from city government instead of the old fish eye or a blatant solicitation for a bribe. And wouldn’t that be refreshing.
We’ll be looking to the pending relocation of House of Spirits, with the complicated permitting issues that accompany installing such a huge sign in a spot where it’s not grandfathered in, as a test case for how local government can prove itself and do better.
Here’s to a brighter, cooler, cleaner city and the happy return of a landmark sign worth breaking quarantine to see!
yours for Los Angeles,
Kim & Richard
Subscribe! In the latest subscriber's edition of this newsletter—$10/month, cheap!—The Mystery Skulls of the Pala Sub-Mission, or that time we went riding with the Notre Dame blues and the spirit of the highway played all the tricks up her sleeve.
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AND WHAT'S THE NEXT TOUR? WHO KNOWS?!
We're dark until public health officials determine that groups can gather safely. But we've got 138 episodes of the podcast You Can't Eat The Sunshine free to download for armchair explorers, and videos of the Downtown L.A. LAVA walking tours, plus Cranky Preservationist videos.
AND FINALLY, LINKS
Road Trip! Although public bus tours are on hiatus, we still get around on our social distancing road trips around our beloved Los Angeles. Be a virtual backseat companion when you click the #esotouricroadtrip hashtag, on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
New on the Esotouric blog: Ned Paynter's Rare Views of Los Angeles Landmarks, from Tail O’ the Pup to the Mayan Theatre’s racy XXX era.
Corruption Corner: Jack Humphreville echoes our call to use California Code Section 1090 to seize bribe-tainted properties… RIP to Curbed LA, folded into New York Magazine just as the evil marriage of real estate and local politics flares into the biggest corruption scandal in a century; one of editrix Jenna Chandler's last pieces was a bribe guide…. In Boyle Heights, the RICO charges against Jose Huizar feel personal… Every member of City Council is complicit in the crimes of Huizar and Mitch Englander… To get a sense of how Chinese money laundering has warped local land use, simply observe that a crooked councilmember in Toledo, Ohio demands a slice of carrot cake for a greased vote, while Jose Huizar gets half a million bucks!
Cool gig alert: the MAK Center is hiring a new Director to manage the Schindler House and other architecturally distinguished sites.
Glendora's legendary Donut Man opens at Grand Central Market, in Stall A-1, the space that historically housed the Gold family's liquor store. When we can give tours again, our guests will be drawn like moths to a sweet flame!
Here's a fascinating time capsule: a 1951 issue of Official Wrestling magazine, with a focus on female grapplers ("Marj, mind holding my diamonds while I'm in the ring?") and a loving Mike Mazurki feature that gets his name wrong.
Architect Paul Revere Williams' archive, thought lost to fire, is safe. The Getty and USC will acquire it. This is very strange. Wonerful news, but how sad that decades of research opportunities were lost, and Williams' legacy falsely spun as riot wrecked.
Los Feliz Ledger reports on the history of redlining and restrictive racial covenants in the neighborhood. More local news sources should do this—it can be an eye opener.
A Vice News deep dive: What Went Wrong at the Los Angeles Times? Pretty clear the answer is spelled N-O-R-M. More Times travails: we’re disgusted that such vile behavior was enabled by the paper, with the entire Food Department terrorized by a single, New York-based editor. Angelenos, and journalists, deserve so much better than this.
The Huntington Library just digitized this wonderful c. 1890 Jay T. Last Collection circus poster promoting the great English clown Billy Burke (father of actress Billie, who played the Good Witch Glinda). Would love to see the Electric Dudes act!
One of Alhambra's rare surviving bungalow courts, and its craftsman neighbor, threatened by oversized condo project. Neighbors are petitioning for preservation.
Up to your ears in backyard bounty? Sign up for LA Fruit-Share and be part of Sunday's citywide giveaway, or glean something tasty harvested from a neighbor's yard.
A July 4th message from 1933 Group about their latest programmatic restoration project Tail o' the Pup: Los Angeles, get excited, the doggy is coming home... to a yet undisclosed, soon to be iconic, location.
Friends Of Residential Treasures: Los Angeles (FORT: LA) is a new nonprofit dedicated to celebrating the Southland's vulnerable domestic architecture through films, self-guided tours and new research.
Here’s Bob Hope's Tuna Fish Salad recipe, if you dare.
Graphic designer Paul Prejza talks with NOlympics LA about how his work on the LA 84 games created a friendly brand that masked urban misery.
Cheers to SPACES (Saving + Preserving Arts + Cultural Environments) for including our Watts Towers preservation podcast in their Summer 2020 "Audi-Tour-Y" virtual folk art road trip. We yearn to explore all these weird gems in person!