Bombshell public records exposed in our quest to preserve the Old Trapper's Lodge folk art environment at Pierce College
Since February, we have been advocating for Old Trapper’s Lodge, a California State Landmark folk art environment that since 1988 has been housed on the campus of Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley. The college has never done much to care for or highlight this unique cultural resource, and in the past couple of years has been actively, though very quietly, working to get it removed.
Because Pierce College is a public institution, its communications about Old Trapper’s Lodge are subject to the California Public Records Act, a law which empowers any person to request and quickly gain access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business.
And because the manner in which Pierce was treating the California State Landmark on its campus was so egregious, including allowing an amateur crew from Valley Relics Museum to remove and transport at least five of the sculptures in the back of a pick up truck, we wanted to better understand what the hell they were thinking. So we filed a public records request. The emails and documents we received proved as almost as illuminating as they were infuriating.
A year into the pandemic, with its campus closed and the public unable to visit, Pierce spent nearly $30,000 in public funds to commission an appaisal by Escher Associates, which gave a lowball value estimate should the sculptures—less those works that Pierce claims have no value, due to the assertions of racism by two professors who know almost nothing about John Ehn or his work—be sold on the open market.
While it is morally wrong to split up a landmark folk art envrionment comprised of dozens of individual pieces large and small, we’re certain if The Fight and The Kidnap were individually available on the open market that they would find buyers. But the null valuation serves the interest of the paying (with our tax money) client, seeking to make Pierce’s case that Old Trapper’s Lodge has no value and must be erased.
Far more interesting are the specific instructions from art handler Crozier for best practices by which the fragile sculptures could be safely stabilized, crated and removed from the Pierce Collage campus by professional art conservators, at an estimated cost of $233,540.
Then there are Escher Associates’ four options for how they advise Pierce to deal with a folk art environment that some on campus want gone: 1) Storage / Relocation; 2) Recontextualization; 3) Reconciliation and/or 4) Digital Documentation.
But Escher Associates’ use of the header “Reconciliation” is deceptive, since option 3 actually proposes the ceremonial destruction of the landmark folk art environment—as if the work didn’t still belong to the Ehn family, hadn’t been honored with a prestigious California State Landmark designation and wasn’t protected under the Federal statute VARA, the Visual Artists Rights Act.
This flawed report was never published, nor was it ever discussed by the Los Angeles Community College District board which oversees Pierce College and approved payment. Instead, six months later, LACCD put a vague item on its agenda: "Approve Donation of Surplus Property at Pierce College" and voted yes with no discussion.
Surplus Property is a mighty rude and sneaky way of describing California State Landmark 939.5, don’t you think? It’s only now, four months after we began researching and advocating for Old Trapper’s Lodge, that we found this hidden agenda item from September 2021.
We’re not sloppy researchers, so you know they hid it well.
Then in April 2022, with no public notice that the art was going to be removed from campus, Pierce allowed the amateur crew from Valley Relics Museum to dig up at least five sculpted tombstones and stack them in the back of a pick up truck for an unprotected ride over city streets.
Pierce College administrators knew that this was not the appropriate way to handle the fragile sculptures because they had commissioned, and presumably read, the $30,000 report from Escher Associates. We knew it was wrong because we have eyes—and degrees in Art History, but having eyes was enough.
We understand that these sculptures aren’t to every taste, and agree that a conversation needs to be had about what they represent and why—without context about the artist’s personal history, Native American family members / subjects and intent—they could be disturbing and offensive to some viewers. But Pierce administrators and the professors demonizing Old Trapper’s Lodge didn’t want to have this conversation. They took advantage of pandemic isolation to plot the destruction of a California State Landmark, spending nearly $30,000 in taxpayer funds along the way.
That money could have been used to create new interpretive signs, to host a public conversation about John Ehn and the history of Old Trapper’s Lodge, to develop a teaching module about the complexity of outdated Old West symbolism, to make a short documentary or to seek a new steward for the sculptures should it be decided through a transparent process that Pierce was no longer the right place for it.
Instead, Escher got paid for an expensive report that you can only read because we put in a public records request.
This is Southern California. We don’t burn books here, and we don’t invite people to ritualistically destroy art. But somehow, in their virtual pandemic bubble, the Pierce crew convinced one another that this was all fine. It’s not fine.
So what’s happening to Old Trapper’s Lodge now? We’re not sure. After the tombstones were removed and photos posted to social media, we made contact with with Kristen Cassidy and Marsha Klopfenstein, direct descendents of John Ehn and relatives of most of the drawn-from-life characters that inhabit Old Trapper’s Lodge, and have been helping them to advocate for the preservation solution that their great/grandfather’s landmark deserves.
Together we’ve made public comment to the California State Historical Resources Commission, asking that the Commissioners and staff help navigate the crisis of stewardship facing the registered state landmark. You can hear these comments on Cal-Span starting with Richard at timestamp 4:49:07, then Kristen and Marsha at 4:53:59. This group also made comment to LACCD (link), raising alarm about the damage done and asking the board to have Escher Associates give a public report on their findings and recommendations.
If you have only read about Old Trapper’s Lodge, you might think that it’s a funky oddity, or a monument to 20th century ideas that are better left in the past. We think you ought to have the chance to see it for yourself, and form your own opinion, if this is the kind of art you’re interested in.
So as painful as it’s been to discover how people who call themselves educators have been working hard to censor and destroy something so cool, we’ll continue to dig into this story and to advocate for a preservation solution that keeps this unique and provocative California Landmark accessible —ideally with factual interpretive signage, repairs to the broken sections, fresh paint and a change in attitude.
While we work and wait for that happy day, here’s a rare film clip shot on location at the original Old Trapper’s Lodge motel complex, showing the entrance (with a cameo from O.T. the Old Trapper himself) and the back units playing a bordello, in Kris Kristofferson’s Vigilante Force (1976).
This daffy place could only exist in Southern California, and it’s something of a miracle that the delicate sculptures survived the eminent domain seizure of the original site and their 20 mile move from Sun Valley to Woodland Hills. Here’s hoping that good fortune still holds, and Old Trapper’s Lodge will survive this challenge, too. O.T. was a tough old bird and so is his Lodge, so we believe it will.
yours for Los Angeles,
Kim & Richard
Psst… If you’d like to support our efforts to be the voice of places worth preserving, we have a tip jar and a subscriber edition of this newsletter, vintage Los Angeles webinars available on demand, and a souvenir shop you can browse in. Or just share this link with other people who care.
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