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High Noon at Trapper's Lodge : A Showdown With Progress Threatens Folk Artist John Ehn's Fanciful Monument to the Old West

June 14, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer.

FOLK ART ENVIRONMENTS--THOSE sometimes preposterous constructions that seem to be willed into existence through creative energy, tunnel vision or sheer cussedness--are a worldwide phenomenon. They are also a breed under constant attack. As surely as they are brought to life by eccentric characters, they are threatened by conventional forces.

The villain may be indifference or outright hostility to untidy art that doesn't reside in museums. More often, the enemy is progress, manifested in the public safety regulations and rising real estate values that come with urban development.

Watts Towers had to withstand the indignity of stress tests to avert demolition, and its subsequent restoration remains a source of controversy. Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley probably would have been leveled if a tenacious committee of preservationists hadn't come to its rescue.

Now, Old Trapper's Lodge, a residential motel decorated with a flamboyant Wild West tableau, is in trouble. The Sun Valley property, next to the Burbank Airport, is on the market, and supporters are engaged in a desperate effort to preserve the late John Ehn's monument to the Old West.

A former government trapper with a seventh-grade education and boundless energy, Ehn came to Southern California from Michigan in 1941 with his wife and four children. He bought a vacant lot and built the motel--actually a collection of 78 small rental houses--then created an elaborate display of Western sculpture and assemblage that eventually filled the front garden and an office designed to resemble a hunting lodge.

Inspired by Western figures he'd seen at Knott's Berry Farm, Ehn hired a sculptor in 1951 to fashion a likeness of himself as a trapper. But after watching the artist work for a few days, Ehn decided he could do as well and proceeded to construct a tableau of 20 towering cement figures. He modeled their faces after those of his wife and children, painted the cement with bright enamel and installed the whole congregation in his front garden--dubbed Boot Hill--along with humorous "tombstones" and such corny concoctions as a "rattlesnake pit" that contained infants' rattles.

Ehn's artwork eventually overwhelmed the frontage of the lodge. Western trappings and curios now crowd outdoor display cases and hang from tree branches. Over the years, the office became filled with "memory board" assemblages of keepsakes and his collection of such Western objects as weapons, a bear rug and deer horns, turning the room into a funky museum.

For years until his death in 1981, at 84, Ehn loved to enchant visitors with more-or-less true stories of his adventures as an animal trapper and to spin yarns about the cement Indians, gunslingers and dance-hall girls that populate Boot Hill. His flowing gray hair and buckskin costume made the tales seem all the more marvelous; his lack of art training only accentuated his achievement.

Ehn's youngest daughter, Rosemarie Farish, manages the lodge and serves as a tour guide for folk art aficionados and visitors. "Dad didn't consider himself an artist. He made the figures as a tribute to the family," she says, explaining that each face was made from a plaster cast of a family member. Farish is pictured as a flashy character called "Two Gun Rosie." Her mother, Mary, who died in 1982, is remembered as a stoic pioneer woman.

Farish proudly points to a bronze plaque designating Old Trapper's Lodge as California State Historical Landmark Monument No. 939 and credits a Los Angeles-based organization called SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments) with having brought official recognition to her father's unorthodox artwork. She loves tending her father's garden and updating the file of articles published on Old Trapper's Lodge, but the future of her father's dream has been imperiled by financial reality.

The city of Los Angeles is now requiring that the rental units, at 10340 Keswick St., be connected to the city sewer system. The cost of this upgrading would be prohibitive, Farish says, so she and her siblings have decided to sell the property--and to figure out a way to save their father's artwork. "We don't want to sell it; we don't want it to be bulldozed; we just want it to be preserved," Farish says.

A new owner would be likely to demolish the motel (60 units are now occupied) to make way for a storage facility or some airport-related business. The family's dream, Farish says, is to find a buyer who sees the advantage of maintaining Boot Hill as the provocative centerpiece of a business. But so far, prospective buyers have tended to view the folk art as an unwanted responsibility or a worthless obstacle.

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