In the mid-1980s I started visiting downtown Los Angeles with my new Nikon camera. Back then few folks were living down there so it was a ghost town at night and on weekends. The bustling nightlife of gentrified nightclubs and bars would happen decades later. Old buildings were not rehabbed yet and many of their upper floors were occupied by pigeons and rats.
Only Broadway, the produce, and garment districts were alive with immigrant businesses, sweatshops, and sidewalk commerce. It was here that I fell in love with old signage– busted neon tubes hanging off old storefronts, faded names of long gone businesses painted on the upper floor windows, and ghost signs magically appearing when beautiful old buildings were demolished for parking lots.
I’d walk the streets with my Nikon, capturing forgotten signage, street life, building details, and long closed store fronts.
One day I was driving thru the back alleys of what would much later be called the Arts District, looking for a spot to park and walk around, when I came upon a pile of old signs in an empty lot: twisted metal, broken neon tubes, shattered plastic, smashed light bulbs.
I snapped a few photos and started to walk away. Then I recalled something I read about Walker Evans, my photo hero and the master photographer of storefront and signage. Evans loved signage so much that eventually he decided to stop taking pictures of signs and just take the signs themselves. I turned back and rummaged thru the heap of signs.
Most were junked beyond repair or too large for one lug to lug. But then I saw it, an arrow, its bulbs still screwed to sockets but glass long smashed. It was battered and weathered but fantastic looking. I managed to yank it free from the other signs, then I picked it up and jammed it in my ride.
The arrow sat outside my door for years until one day I wondered if it was possible to relight it… I decided it was time to do what Walker Evans did, bring the sign inside. These days my arrow lights up a dark little corner of my house. I only regret never going back to rescue more pearls from the junkpile, especially the Jesus Saves and a liquor sign or two.
At the end of last year, it was reported that the The Cork bar on West Adams quietly ceased to be. However due to a long history of disturbances the establishment and its patrons created in the nearby residential neighborhood, perhaps the quiet is much needed.
Nonetheless, another LA dive bar becomes history.
Constructed in 1933, the building at the corner of West Adams and South Palm Grove operated for years as a retail space housing a plumbing shop and then carpet store. In 1947 The Cork Bar and Grill was established by a character named Big John Collins.
Back then it hashed soul food and highballs to athletes, jazz musicians, and professionals. It went through a couple more owners and several other changes before finally seeing its final days.
The awesome arrow style neon sign beckoned us in back in the late ’90’s. At the time, there was not much else in the way of nightlife nearby. Ducking in the Cork had a pleasant neighborhood feel. As memory serves, the dark inside was largely illuminated by large rectangle backlit bar where locals and regulars nursed their drinks. The cocktails were stiff, the music was prominent, and there was a bit of dancing among the high top tables.
In the cyclical pattern of history, the space will be folded into commercial units, prime real estate in a district swiftly succumbing to gentrification. And the Cork will soon be a distant memory.
Many generations spent their chili burger youth hanging out at Tommy’s Burgers at Rampart & Beverly Blvd at all hours of the day and night, long before Tommy’s was franchised and spread all across Los Angeles County, even stretching into Nevada. Tommy’s chili burgers could soak up a long evening’s worth of alcohol and even treat a hang-over or at least distract from the pain with a good dose of indigestion.
But close by, over at Virgil & Santa Monica Blvd there was another chili burger stand, much smaller but just as good, many Angelinos say even better. The burger stand had a great 58 year run, mostly as Jay’s Jayburgers, before it was forced to close in ugly fashion back in 2005, another bit of Los Angeles history tossed into the trash bin.
It was first closed in 2000 when owner Lionel “Jay” Coffin could not afford the massive rent hike demanded by the new owners of the land beneath Jay’s feet. However, Jay and his burger fans didn’t go down without a fight, fueled by their love of Jay’s chili burgers. And why not? Jay invented the recipe for Tommy’s chili and left Tommy’s when he wasn’t cut in with a piece of the action, or so the story goes.
A couple fans of Jay’s initially stepped in and purchased the stand from Coffin and managed to keep it running another 5 years until another rent hike forced a second closing. Jay’s daughter then tried to move the stand but the landowners claimed they owned it because it was bolted to the cement that was part of the corner lot they purchased. Most of the story is documented in the obit for Jayburger published in the LA Times.
But the story doesn’t end there because Jayburgers has a bitter sweet ending: Jayburger’s stand remains in its original spot though a two story mini mall now surrounds it and chili burgers are no longer sold but instead Mexican food with rows of chickens roasting on a large open barbecue most afternoons.
The Food House is a faded memory. Chalk it up to another place I never stepped inside. The generically named market heralded by bold deco letters was a standout on Sunset Boulevard until it was gone. Did The Food House ever really exist? Thankfully, sometimes a photograph is more reliable than memory.
In 1936, the Silverlake structure was built on Sunset between Edgecliff and Maltman in the Childs Heights Tract by Virgil Investment Co. The property operated as a market for over 60 years. It seems Food House Markets may have been a short lived chain in the LA area, having at least one other location on West Adams Street.
It’s unclear exactly when Food House came into the picture, but in 1940 a sign tower was constructed that would display their eye-catching vertical signage. (That tower still exists today, bearing the “99¢ Only Store” sign.) From the looks of it, Food House had great deals on all of the basic food groups: vodka, wine, and refried beans.
In November 1960, the Silverlake Food House made LA Times headlines when a dynamic duo of masked bandits attempted a crackpot overnight heist. Using the cover of nightfall, the pair breached the grocery store via the roof. While hard at work safe-cracking, the thieves helped themselves to some late night hors d’oeuvres and beer courtesy of the Food House. Turns out, that was the extent of their robbery as the looting was interrupted by the morning market manager and the cash was left behind in the scuffle.
Ultimately, like so many Los Angeles markets, the Food House shuttered. At some point in the late 90’s the signage came off the building and the letters sat on the roof for a while. Then in 1999, a 99¢ Store took over and the rest is history… for now.
Right next door to Jones Decorating sits the Olive Motel. The motel dates back to 1946. With its “L” shaped layout, rounded corners, flat roof, and classic neon signs, the Streamline Moderne Olive Motel is an iconic holdout amidst the rapidly changing Silverlake landscape.
Back in the dog days of August 2015, I took an evening walk around the neighborhood to cool off. As I turned onto Sunset, the familiar neon glow of the Olive Motel beckoned me to to snap a photograph.
A couple days later the sign was gone. It had been taken down to make way for some crummy new signs that carry the Olive Motel name but none of the original style.
The Olive may have lost its original signs but the motel lives on, perhaps persevering on pure grit. These days, the motel has a seedy reputation perhaps best known for rooms rented by the hour or a murder that occurred there in 2007, but what has always stood out to me is the understated art deco design that holds its own in the face of a neighborhood fast-flipping to gentrification.
The most striking thing about the Olive Motel is the remarkable human behind the design. Her name is Edith Mortenson Northman, the first licensed female architect in Los Angeles.
Northman cracked into the man’s world of architecture forging a steady independent career making her mark by designing over 100 buildings including residences, gas stations, motels, churches, temples, war effort projects and factories many of which are still standing today.
Northman was born in Denmark in 1893. As a child, she loved to watch buildings being built but back then such a thing was considered unbecoming for a lady. Edith came to the US with her family when she was 21. During a brief stint as a librarian, she read an article that reignited her fire to pursue architecture.
And that’s just what she did. She got a degree in architecture at USC and was licensed by 1931. Northman soon kickstarted a humble yet successful solo architecture practice with just one draftsman, bucking the odds of the economic depression while being a woman in a highly male profession.
Being a rarity in the species of architects, Edith caught Hollywood’s eye. When Samuel Goldwyn was producing a screwball comedy about the hijinx of a fictional female architect called Woman Chases Man, Northman was recruited to advise on the film.
Observing on set, she commented that the architect character played by Miriam Hopkins did “quite unbelievable things in the pursuit of the illusive client.”
Outside of her prolific career, Edith Northman strongly advocated for women to enter the field of architecture and construction. She aptly noted that “Women are no longer a curiosity in the field. They are just as qualified after training to design in the many architectural fields as men.”
Northman also believed in community service, participating in many philanthropic clubs and bringing her skills to the community teaching courses to the general public who wanted to be educated in home building.
Sadly, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in the early 1950’s rendered Edith Northman unable to hold a pencil, bringing a tragic end to a brilliant career. She died in 1956 but certainly not in vain. Edith Northman was a visionary that paved the way for designing women everywhere leaving a legacy of amazing architecture all over southern California and beyond.
Walking down Sunset Blvd. one afternoon in the early 80’s, I noticed the smoggy sunset making an old building glow yellow, highlighting its faux Moorish or Egyptian details like a 40s film noir set. The building was topped with massive bold letters in a font from another era reading Jones Decorating Company.
I snapped a photograph just as a lone figure ambled past Jones’ neighbor, the rundown Olive Motel, battling the burning setting sun. I didn’t notice until I developed the shot that there was a sign on the building saying Jones had moved to a small storefront down the street and that the building was for sale.
Soon afterwards, a few windows were cemented over, some architecture details were chipped off, the distinctive transom windows above the ground floor were painted over, new crappy windows were installed on the ground floor, and the massive letters were taken down.
A yoga studio and furniture store occupied the space for several years until the furniture store folded and the yoga shop moved. Then wood barriers went up fronting the sidewalk and I figured it was time to do some research before the wrecking ball came for Jones Decorating.
Turns out what was left of building was being rehabbed into “three levels of creative office, retail and restaurant space” branded The Jones Building. The property’s website dates the building back to 1928 but I still wanted to know who the heck was Jones and what did he decorate?
Building permits reveal the building was constructed for around $40K in 1928 on Sunset Blvd in the Mayberry Heights Tract by Percy G. Alen for the purpose of “studio and stores.”
By the 1940’s, E.S. Jones enters the picture as the new owner on the building permits which state that the building was being used as a decorating company on “all floors.”
More digging uncovered Jones Decorating ads in old Billboard magazines from the 40’s and 50’s revealing that Jones was a purveyor of eye-catching pennants and glowing banners, but still nothing on the man himself.
Sadly, it was a 1990 obit in the LA Times that gave life to Elmer S. Jones who has been described as a “flag, banner and bunting maker to Southern California and the world.” Elmer Jones exemplified the old fashioned American dream, where hard work actually counted for something. He was a true rags to riches story, coming to LA from Illinois and scraping by until he found a job with a decorator.
When his boss went bankrupt, Jones swooped in and took over the decorating business in 1926. With loads of ambition and elbow grease, he created a little empire. He made his mark on the city by jazzing it up it for many celebrations including the 1932 Olympics, The Rose Parade, the Academy Awards, and Hollywood Christmas parade to name a few. He even had a hand in designing the Los Angeles city flag.
Jones decorated everything from political conventions to military ceremonies, tradeshows, conventions, grand openings, and holiday parades. At his peak Jones was swamped with work orders and his bustling business employed over 50 people including production men, designers, artists, seamstresses, and salesmen.
At some when point decorating for festivities and events waned, Jones recalibrated the focus of his business to a year-round Christmas store catering to the general public and the Hollywood studios. Many Angelenos fondly remember this epoch.
As a testament to his work ethic, Elmer continued working in his building 5 days a week until breaking his hip a few weeks before his death in 1990. He was 92. I really wish I would have poked my head inside the store and met Elmer S. Jones, the man who decorated Los Angeles and beyond.
It’s 2019, Jones is long gone, and his old stomping grounds are being repurposed for a new world of entrepreneurs. (Who knows? Maybe his name will reappear on the building.) But in our haste to make old new again let us not forget the men & women who trail-blazed down boulevards like Sunset, throwing up awesome buildings and creating wildly successful businesses sometimes out of nothing but some bunting, banners, flags and ribbon.
Many are bemoaning that Silverlake just lost its iconic Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign at the corner of Sunset & Benton Way. A sad-foot day for sure, but icons have been disappearing from the LA landscape forever. Just ask Ralph Story, or you could if he was here anymore…
Unfortunately, this perpetual change is part of the fabric of Los Angeles. We have seen first hand just how much character our city has lost over the past 30 years and the change is only accelerating.
For example, the perhaps much less beloved Sofa Love sign on the side of the catty-cornered Silverlake Furniture was quietly painted over a few years ago without any hoopla. The spot is now currently occupied by Big & Tiny, an office space start up for working moms. But the honor of the Sofa Love loss goes to PETA, who refashioned and painted the old building obliterating other iconic signage that once greeted us as we left the 101 freeway and headed home.
On your next drive-by, if you squint really hard maybe you can imagine the lost hand painted iconography on the wall.
Sunflowers and birdseed draw a bevy of birds to the yard. The cast of flighty characters in our socal garden mainly consists of finches, scrub jays, mockingbirds and doves. Though now and again other feathered friends pop by to sing for their supper, providing infinite porchside entertainment…
Otherwise ordinary notes just may appear more beautiful when taken in our latest handmade Upcycled Mini Journal. At the turn of a page, original photography of urban beauty salons will keep your prose stylin’.