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.
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.
The Kosher Burrito once stood on 1st Street between Los Angeles City Hall and Little Tokyo. (Yep, that’s the New Otani in the background.) I snapped this shot with my old 2 1/4 Spartus in the 90’s before it was gone for good in 2002.
Picture a simple lunch counter/ burger stand with a few stools that offered up a cross between Mexican and deli food such as the famed Kosher Burrito which was filled with pastrami, mustard, chili, pickles and onions. Word has it they had pretty good burgers too.
All in the backdrop of Little Tokyo. Only in Los Angeles. Just archive it in the ever expanding file of terrific things that aren’t here anymore.
We are still left with a few “Mexicatessens” around town– joints that serve Mexican food and hamburger style grub. While amusing and promising in name, the reality is a far cry from the Kosher Burrito.
Kinda tough to take to the streets these days without stepping into some roadside sanctimony. Take or leave the big messy bag of religion and take a second to appreciate the hand painted art on exhibit in everyday locales. Admission is free to the public. See Jesus lording over automobile shops where he protects and warranties everything from crankshafts and transmissions to windshields. And watch him preside over liquor store parking lots and back alleys, bringing hope to those with no bathrooms & no place to shoot up.
Amble along with us through the pious city streets and righteous country roads across the USA. Don’t be a-feared of the blood and apocalyptic messages. And just remember the choice is yours. Wherever you end up, send us a postcard.