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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

Tempus Fugit

March 26, 1997|ROBERT A. JONES

Every city has a few ghosts, but Los Angeles seems filled with them. You can live here for 30 years, then turn a corner one day and find yourself facing a new ghost, one you've never seen before.

You wonder, why is it standing in that place? Who left it there?

I'm talking about the city's inanimate ghosts, the great old buildings thrown up by prior civilizations and then abandoned. The monumental hulks that once formed the nexus of the L.A. culture and, like Mayan temples, now remain as the only evidence of what flourished here.

Everyone has their favorite ghost. Bullock's Wilshire maybe. The Ambassador Hotel and the Cocoanut Grove. The old mansions of Mt. St. Mary's College.

There's so many. They lend a spooky feel to L.A. You can walk through certain neighborhoods and come away with the notion that we are living in the ruins of a mightier civilization that came and mysteriously went.

Most of the old hulks have been gutted, but a few remain so pristine that the old inhabitants seem merely to have walked away a few hours before. The chairs still seem warm.

Take the Elks Lodge next to MacArthur Park. We do not think of the Elks, these days, as major players in politics and business. But when this lodge was built, the Elks were exactly that.

"Lodge 99 was called City Hall West, and that's how it worked," says Sonny Lamberson, an Elks leader. "If you wanted to be somebody in Los Angles, you had to join the Elks."

Lodge 99 opened in 1925 and more or less guaranteed the success of Westlake--the name for the district before World War II--as the new gathering place for the city's carriage trade. When it opened, its membership included the mayor, all the city councilmen and a great number of judges. All of the 7,000 members were white. All of them were men.

They spent $2.6 million on their new joint. If you want to know what $2.6 million would get you in 1925, go and look some day. The Elks are long gone but their shrine to civic power remains in all its detail.

The lobby seems like the entrance to a great European train station. The room soars 56 feet to the ceiling, from which hangs a huge, gothic chandelier. It dimly lights the ceiling's epic mural.

The scent of ancient cigar smoke clings to the walls, especially in the grand ballroom where the Elks' Exalted Ruler presided. Sometimes the Lodge meetings would begin with a booming fugue from the pipe organ, one of the largest in the city.

At the Elks Lodge, it was said, you could do much city business simply by hanging out at the main bar. At one time or another during an evening, most of Los Angeles' movers and shakers would cruise by for a nip.

Members could live at the Lodge if they wished, taking their meals at the main restaurant where the chef had been imported from France. They could swim in the 100-foot pool, take steam, get a haircut, play blackjack all within the confines the Lodge.

Next door to the Lodge was the mansion of Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of The Times. Luxury apartment buildings like the Asbury started popping up around the lake. Soon, Bullock's Wilshire opened a few blocks away. Westlake and the Elks Lodge, for a time, ruled the social universe of the city.

But in the Lodge's lobby, under the clock, was carved this prescient warning: Tempus Fugit. Time flies. The heyday of Westlake lasted barely a generation. By 1966 the Lodge was broke, its membership shrunk from a high of 9,000 to 1,500. The Elks could not even pay their property taxes, and the building was sold at auction.

By that time, most of the civilization that built Westlake had also fled. The mansions were converted to boarding houses, the grand apartment buildings fell into ruin. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Los Angeles neighborhoods often don't have second acts.

*

Unlike the Mayans, the disappearance of the civilization in Westlake poses no mystery. The white gentry fled to Encino and Westwood, leaving their ghost buildings behind them.

Fortunately, though, the Elks Lodge itself did get the chance at a second act. Developer Eugene Bauer bought the building from the Elks and saw that its grandeur could be put to use. In addition to weddings and banquets, the Lodge now serves as a movie location approximately once a week.

In fact, unless you live in a cave without television, you have most likely seen the Lodge more than once. It has served as a location for "Bugsy," "Hook," "The Mask," "The Hunt for Red October," "Splash," and, as they say, much more.

In no other city could a building like the Lodge survive on the largess of movies. So, in a way, Los Angeles giveth what Los Angeles taketh away.

It also means that the Lodge's lobby is open to any and all who would like to witness the opulence of Westlake in the '20s and sense the cigar smoke hanging in the air. But go soon because, after all, this is Los Angeles. Tempus Fugit.

'Lodge 99 opened in 1925 and more or less guaranteed the success of Westlake--the name for the district before World War II--as the new gathering place for the city's carriage trade. When it opened, its membership included the mayor, all the city councilmen and a great number of judges.'

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