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PALM LATITUDES

Urban Art : Such a Lovely Place

August 20, 1995|Ian James

At a tree-shaded edge of Griffith Park, two steel signs the size of semitrailers rise behind a chain-link fence. Ragged electrical cords hang from the white rusting ornamented letters; empty holes, which once held glass tubing, pock the metal. Relics of L.A.'s urban glory among the weeds, the signs read, "HOTEL CALIFORNIAN."

"I remember the hotel," said Andres Quintana, a 60-year-old former carpenter, who spends most days under a leaning pine tree near the antique signs. "The building was on the corner when I lived on Bonnie Brae in the '70s."

Constructed in 1925, the Californian sat at South Bonnie Brae and West 6th streets, part of a booming hotel district around MacArthur Park. As the neighborhood deteriorated, the hotel was converted into apartments and then into a low-rent, single-room-occupancy hotel. By 1994, squatters had moved into the five-story building. Citing 30 building and safety violations, the city ordered the Hotel Californian closed last July. By the end of the year, three fires had charred the brick building, and the only remaining indication of its upscale past were the imposing curlicue signs on its roof, which City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department general manager Adolfo V. Nodal could see from his apartment overlooking MacArthur Park.

For the past nine years, Nodal has been pushing the city to preserve its old neon signs. Los Angeles was the first American city to acquire neon signs when, in 1923, a Wilshire Boulevard Packard auto dealer bought a pair from Georges Claude, the French businessman who perfected the glass tubes. L.A.'s signs were shut off during WW II and remained unlighted until 1987, when five were turned on for a Cultural Affairs demonstration.

This year, the city allocated Cultural Affairs $100,000 toward relighting 21 of the 38 remaining signs in the so-called "historic neon corridor," a square-mile rectangle that runs between 3rd and 8th streets and from Bixel Street to Lucerne Boulevard, with Wilshire Boulevard as its spine. The Ansonia and Evanston apartments are the only signs currently lighted; they will be joined this year by the Gaylord, the Piccadilly, the Mayan and the Hotel Chancellor, among others.

Before the city demolished the Hotel Californian in January, its two neon signs were hauled away to Riverside Drive, where the city maintains a storage site. They will remain there, looking fantastically incongruous, until a building is erected at the site of the old hotel. City Councilman Mike Hernandez hopes then to persuade the new landlord to adopt the hotel's signs.

Nodal says the idea to relight the signs was inspired partly by the works of novelist Raymond Chandler, who in "The Little Sister" wrote about L.A. when it was a booming neon capital: "I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it, it smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights."

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