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The spirit lives on

October 23, 2003|Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah | Special to The Times

Next door to the bustling Grand Central Market downtown, the headquarters of the water company lay vacant for decades. "Metropolitan Water District 1917" was still painted in a wide stripe across the top of the building, above what had been chief engineer William Mulholland's offices. In 1995, the building was converted to apartments. Downtown lore said that Nicolas Cage leased the top floor.

I lived on the ninth floor, with a view across Broadway. Beyond the peaked glass roof of the Bradbury Building, I looked into a long-abandoned beaux-arts building on Spring Street.

That building's windows hung askew from their frames. There on the deserted 13th floor, one light flickered all night long. In the flashes, I could see a man at a desk moving papers from in basket to out.

Cage left in 1999. "Penthouses available," the management advertised.

The building's superintendent, Jim, said, "It's your money" and unlocked the door to the top floor. Leopard-print carpet ran down the center of a marble hallway. Mahogany double doors opened to Mr. Mulholland's offices. You walked through each room to get to the next: paneled living room to dining room, to kitchen, to study, to bedroom. Finally, you were stopped by a bathroom with two sinks, a shower and a separate tub. Too much water for one person, but fabulous.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 06, 2003 Home Edition Home Part F Page 9 Features Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Mulholland's post -- An Oct. 23 story on the history of office and apartment space at 3rd Street and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles incorrectly indicated that engineer William Mulholland was head of the Metropolitan Water District. Mulholland was head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Looking out the huge windows, the sun fell behind Bunker Hill, Angels Flight traveled up and down the hillside in a reassuring rhythm and the lights in Grand Central Market glowed through skylights. It was perfect.

I only asked to change Cage's leopard carpet. "That ain't leopard," Jim said. "It's cheetah."

When I moved in, I burned some sage. I'd been in California that long. I burned sage not because I thought there were ghosts but because I knew there'd been politics. Water politics and tragedy. Stolen water and the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster.

I'd seen "Chinatown." I lighted the sage and said to whoever was listening, whoever built the aqueducts or made deals or traveled here from the Owens Valley or San Francisquito Canyon in rightful protest, "Anyone who's still disgruntled," I pointed through the open front door, "the deputy mayor's moving in across the hall."

I blew out the sage and it smoked down. That was that. The dog and cat blinked at me in what I felt was a judgmental manner. "What?" I said to them.

The next night after work, I walked down the long marble hallway toward my apartment door. I was 15 feet from it when I heard the deadbolt turn. The deputy mayor hadn't yet moved in. The sound echoed. When I slid my key in the lock, the deadbolt was already free.

Then I opened my mahogany double doors to an apartment heavy with the scent of cigars.

A weary Jim drew a diagram of the building's ventilation system on his desk calendar. No, it wasn't the apartment below or across from me.

"I'm not saying I don't believe you," he said. "But unless someone's on the roof, exhaling into your intake vent, that smoke's in your imagination."

Then began the water high jinks. I wrapped myself in a towel and called Jim. "How long will the water be off?"

"The water ain't off."

I held out the phone and turned the taps. All Jim heard was silence.

When the water disappeared, it disappeared completely. No knocking pipes, no tapering of pressure, no leftover drops in the tap. It was as if water had never run through the pumps, as if there'd never been an aqueduct, as if the city were still desert.

At night, padding to the kitchen for a glass of water, I could have sworn I heard the murmur of a cocktail party, the clink of glasses. I smelled ladies' perfume, and the cigars. I sipped my water and stared over the top of the glass, looking into the darkened living room. I didn't see anyone in fancy clothes, but still I felt self-conscious in my pajamas.

Forget the sage. I set out a glass of gin and a good cigar. Whenever the gin got low, I refilled it.

Mulholland's suite of old offices have long been divided into three penthouse apartments. The 1917 building was restored by developer Ira Yellin, who also restored Grand Central Market and the Bradbury Building. Architect Denny Lord renovated the interiors, keeping the original rooms true to their history.

Over the years, enough of the tenants have had enough strange experiences that something like a legend has developed.

Conservancy tour guides and old downtowners swap stories. There's the one about the ghost under the stage of the Palace Theater, who leaves a wet trail of bare footprints. There's a starlet ghost in an upstairs dressing room of the Orpheum, a spirit in the basement of the Bradbury, the lady in black in the Alexandria Hotel. In Grand Central Square Apartments, I hadn't known we had a ghost. We'd had Cage. We still talked about seeing him.

A year after I'd moved out, I asked the new tenants, Paul and Patricia Ramos, if they had a ghost.

"He stands next to the bed," Paul said, "and presses on the covers until you wake up. He just doesn't like the bedroom door closed." Paul and Patricia's locks flick, they share their living room with a ghost with perfect posture and they've never found anyone on the roof responsible for the smoky scent.

"So I just go up on the roof and have a cigar with him," Paul says. "I know he's there."

When I moved out, Jim had retired; he and his wife were driving their RV around the country, visiting the national parks. I couldn't believe I'd ever wanted to replace Cage's cheetah carpet. After the movers had cleared everything out, and I'd vacuumed the cheetah one last time, I stood in the middle of Mr. Mulholland's office, the ghost's sitting room.

"Goodbye, ghost," I said. I would miss him most. I turned in a circle; I didn't see him. He doesn't believe in good-byes.

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