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.
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.
So you’re driving along and suddenly notice the city has lost a tooth. Where things once stood– a block is suddenly vacant, a lot is suddenly empty, a sign has disappeared.
You scratch your head and and rack your brain trying to remember what was there before. And then if you are lucky enough, you remember it was a spot that added color and life to the city. Then you kick yourself for never buying a burrito, a burger, or a shrimp there. And another kick for never getting a proper photo of the joint before it died, before it gentrified.
This was Tom’s Burgers. Its mighty sign and distinctive green tiled building anchored the corner of Sunset and Silverlake ever since I was a mere passenger in the back of the wood paneled Country Squire station wagon.
Yeah, Tom’s didn’t get rave reviews but its presence was a fixture in my LA geography. A few years back, the sign went blank and Tom’s was gone. I regretted never stopping in or to take a shot or two of Tom’s. Eh, why bother? It’ll always be there. I’ll drive-thru next time. Until there wasn’t a next time.
Now every time I pass the modern pizza joint that replaced it, I try to envision Tom’s. Through my spotty memory and a few random area snapshots I re-imagined the sign for better or worse.
The moral of the story? Go there. Experience the place. At least take a picture of it today. Because it could be gone tomorrow.
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.
Need to clean up your music collection? If you still traffic in CD’s, our Upcycled DVD/CD Holders may just do the trick. They are handmade from groovy upcycled record album covers and chockfull of artsy colorful pockets making a spiffy home for stray discs or like-sized mementos.
Each CD Case is one of a kind, so snap ’em up while they’re hot!
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’.
A desktop-daytrip through the mountains. Don’t you love that fresh air? Here’s a closer peek at the peaks of our upcycled Mountaintop + Skyscraper Pocket Cards. They suit either the city mouse or the country mouse!