A vanished city lives again...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Rediscovering the "Willard" house

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite movies was the original Willard (1971), which was about a young man who befriended some rats that lived in and around his house. I liked the movie because I had so much in common with the protagonist, Willard Stiles. Willard was the son of a steel-industry man; so was I. Willard's mother was domineering and sickly, and demanded complete devotion. So did mine. Willard's working life was made a living hell by his duplicitous general manager and harassing co-workers. Mine, too. And, as I did, Willard turned to the companionship of animals as a psychic refuge from his tortured daily existence.

Fast forward ten years. I was working for my father's company at the time, and I had a business appointment in the Wilshire district across town. That office turned out to be in a grand old Victorian mansion, the likes of which were rarely seen anymore, especially right off Wilshire Boulevard, which was one of the most heavily developed (and re-developed) streets in West Los Angeles in the mid-20th century.

Anyway, I trotted up the front steps, opened up the huge carved wooden door, and stepped inside. Right away I saw it wasn't just one office, but many. I walked through the main hall seeing a large parlor then a large dining room to my left. To my right was a grand staircase. Then, as I spotted the office I was looking for at the end of the entry hall, it struck me.

I've been here before.

But no, no way. I'd never been in this house, obviously. But that front room, the room next to it, that staircase. Wow! This is the Willard house! Talk about a chill running up my spine! I was completely dumbstruck. I walked through a doorway on the far side of the main room, and there, again, to my right was another staircase – Willard's mother's staircase, the one in the movie that had the invalid's escalator chair on it. And the office my appointment was in was in the former kitchen, where Willard prepared the poison for Ben and the rest of the rats!

This was almost too much.

As soon as I introduced myself to my business associate, I asked, "Is this the house where they filmed Willard? "Yes! How did you know that?" "I just walked in and I recognized it from the movie." Then I looked out the back windows, and there was the overgrown garden and the cement pond, again, just like it was in the film.

(As an aside, there was another memorable thing about that office. It was the first time I ever saw a computer used in a work environment – and it was an Apple II, of course. ^^)

Anyway, in July, 2009, I got to see the old mansion again, though only from the outside. Oh well, I'm quite content with my memories as they are. Nothing could re-create the surprise of that initial visit!

The Higgins-Verbeck-Hirsch mansion, 637 S. Lucerne Blvd., Los Angeles. Photo by J Scott Shannon.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Origin of an obsession

It was this building and this shabby old postcard of it that planted the seeds of my present obsession with pre-WWII Los Angeles.

It's kind of a long story, but I'll try to make short work of it. Back in late 2007, while browsing the Panoramic Maps collection on the Library of Congress website, I found a number of "bird's eye" views of old L.A. I'll never forget my reaction upon seeing them for the first time.

"I don't recognize anything here."

The two maps which most caught my eye were both dated 1909. They were the most detailed, by far. After searching them for a while, I finally found something familiar: the Bradbury Building at Broadway and Third. OK, now that I had my bearings, I kept scanning the maps and found what looked like a civic center: a Hall of Records and a Court House. And, nearby, a large Post Office. Strange thing, though. The two maps had two completely different drawings of that building. Which was the correct one?

A cursory web search proved fruitless, so, just on a whim, I searched eBay for 'los angeles post office', and up came this single postcard. The image was striking and completely unfamiliar. Surely if this building were still standing when I was growing up in the L.A. area, I would have remembered it.

But if such an expensive and ornate edifice – which was clearly meant to endure as a civic monument into the ages – was gone by the time I was born, what happened to it? Well, after studying the more-accurate 1909 map a bit more, I saw why. The old post office was located very close to where the 101 freeway "slot" would be constructed in the 1940s. No wonder everything in that vicinity was gone now...

At that point, I really wanted to find out what that part of town looked like back in the day. Googling again, I queried about the post office's location – Temple and Main Streets – and voilĂ , I found a Blogger entry by a "lastraphanger" entitled "Temple and Main Streets: What Used to be Here." Wow! With both text and photos, this guy answered every question I had about the locale and much much more. I was utterly fascinated by his descriptions of this vanished part of old Los Angeles, and upon searching his blog further, I was delighted to find an absolute wealth of new information there.

So I became an ardent reader of this anonymous person's weblog. Practically every day, I learned more and more about this L.A. I never knew. Unfortunately, less than two months after I found lastraphanger's blog, he moved on in life and deleted it. To this day, I lament the loss of that important historical document...

However, that loss ultimately proved beneficial, because since I no longer had someone else to rely upon to tell me about the history of old L.A., I had to dig up the knowledge I sought by myself. Back when I was a college student, I loved literature searches, and thanks to the various online archives and the wealth of information they contain, I quickly became adept at finding my own answers to practically every aspect of old L.A. that I was curious about. The result is what you see here in my blog today!

*smiles* I still remain rather fixated on that old post office, though. As with everything else about the vanished city, the more I find out about it, the more fascinated I become. Anyway, I will definitely have a lot more to say about this building when its centennial arrives in 2010. Trust me, it will be a tale well worth the telling!