Dungeons and Day Trips

San Juan Capistrano small

San Juan Capistrano. The mission the swallows come back to. Built by Father Junipero Serra three centuries ago. Real California history.

And I have a piece of it.

Well, maybe not a piece of the actual mission, but a piece of the stone the Great Stone Church was built from. Probably. Well, okay, it looks really similar. And it did come from the mission gift shop.

But let me start at the beginning with Elaine and her Groupon ticket. Because I’d dragged Elaine to a bunch of cemeteries, she thought it was her turn to drag me somewhere. Not that I actually had to be dragged to see the mission, but it did take us a while to get down there.

I was in the mood for some Mexican food and the guy in the information booth told us that the El Adobe was a good place. So we walked the few blocks down to the restaurant which the guide book (sheet of paper from the information booth) said had been made from two adjacent adobe buildings. Before becoming a restaurant, it had been a courthouse and a stage stop.

Cool.

El Adobe Patio

Since it was a nice day, we decided to eat outside on the patio. After a yummy meal, we headed inside to use the restrooms. While I was waiting for Elaine, I read a history of the building which they had hanging on the wall. All about how Richard Nixon used to eat there and how they’d found a dungeon when they were remodeling one of the dining rooms.

No way I was leaving without taking a look at that.

So when Elaine got out, I asked the hostess if we could see the dungeon. She smiled and led us through two dining rooms and into a small storage area before pointing down three brick steps. “It’s down there.”

At the foot of the steps was a door with steel bars. Apparently this had been the jail when the main building was the courthouse. In the center of the small room was a dark circular table with red napkins on it. Around the walls were bottles of wine. And behind the bottles were adobe walls with carvings in them, left by long ago prisoners.

Some of them are still supposed to be haunting the place.

Dungeon Room

Elaine has accused me of being more interested in the dungeon than the mission which is absolutely ridiculous.

Did I mention the dungeon is haunted?

Okay, the mission is haunted too so I guess it’s a tossup.

The mission grounds are beautiful, but there actually isn’t much left of San Juan Capistrano building-wise. A huge earthquake in 1812 took out most of the Great Stone Church, although what remains is pretty impressive. The earthquake did quite a number on the little town too so the townsfolk decided that instead of rebuilding the church, they would use the ruins to rebuild their own houses.

Can’t really blame them.

One of the buildings that may have been repaired with bits of the Great Stone Church is the El Adobe Restaurant. The one with the dungeon.

See how this all ties in?

Camino Bell

The bell on the walking stick is the sign of El Camino Real, the road (or more commonly a footpath) that ran between the missions.

Swallow Condos small

Swallow condos. No swallows around, though. Wrong time of the year for them. They come around on March 19th.

Great Stone Ruins

The remains of the Great Stone Church. Huge and haunted.

Tallow Vats

Tallow vats. Because who wouldn’t want to see tallow vats.

Serra Chapel Altar

Serra Chapel. The oldest building in California and the only place remaining where Father Serra is known to have celebrated Mass.

Lizard on a Hot Rock small

One of the local residents.

Doorway

Arches. I love arches.

Relic

Gray cross, blue sky.

Of course on the way out, we had to go to the gift shop and I noticed that some of the displays had a little piece of cream and rust sandstone holding the descriptive cards. Now these little pieces of sandstone were exactly the same color as the sandstone in the Great Stone Church and seeing as how pieces of it were “liberated” after the earthquake, it seemed logical to me that these rock markers might be actual chunks of the mission itself.

There happened to be one sitting on the counter when I went to buy my official souvenir refrigerator magnet so I asked the lady behind the counter if it was indeed a piece of the mission. She picked it up and studied it a moment. “I don’t know. These are made for us by the woman who does our crafts. I don’t know where she gets them.” She dropped it down beside the cash register. “It might be.”

When she picked it back up again, I saw that a nickel-sized chip had broken off. She saw that too and smiled. “Here.” She started to give it to me, then laughed and put the fragment in a little plastic jewelry bag. “Just in case.”

And THAT was just as cool as the dungeon.

Walking Through WeHo

1350bldg

So back in the day, my friends and I were all about going to Hollywood. It was kind of a wonderland to us, a little rundown, but fascinating and full of history. There were theaters that looked like Chinese palaces and Egyptian temples, there was a hot dog stand shaped like a hot dog, there was Famous Amos Cookies in its little A frame cabin with the giant airbrushed cookie on the front. Of course, there was Carney’s, a real train on a real track, and a restaurant that looked like a Russian cathedral.

And there was Tower Records, not shaped like anything really except a large rectangular box with a big lip hanging down from the eaves, literally shoved into the hillside. The Hollywood Hills rose right behind the dumpsters in the parking lot. The building itself was red and the large lip at the top was painted a bright yellow with the name Tower Records in red block italic letters that leaned left instead of right. On the roof and sides of the building were an ever-changing pantheon of the newest albums by the hottest bands, one of a kind artwork airbrushed onto huge canvases that could be seen the moment you rounded the curve on Sunset. You could find anything there. Old records, new records, records from across the sea. Celebrities shopped there too. We never saw anyone famous there though.

At least as far as we knew.

Anyway, when I read that there was going to be a walking tour of West Hollywood, I wanted to go. So much history packed into such a small amount of space and most of it I had just whizzed past in a car without appreciating what I saw. Now what you need to know about West Hollywood is that it is far and it is crowded.

Which led to me being late and having nowhere to park.

Spanish style
Spanish style
Blanche studies the tile outside of Clark Gable's
Blanche studies the tile outside of Clark Gable’s

I stashed my car in the big parking garage at the huge shopping plaza on Sunset and hurried to catch up with the small group making its way down Laurel Ave. There were about fifteen people and a white silkie chicken named Blanche. I’m not sure how much Blanche actually got out of the tour, but she seemed to be having a good time.

Our guide Roy led us up and down the neighborhood, into secret courtyards where Gable and Dietrich once lived, past Jim Morrison’s last LA address and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s upstairs apartment, pointing out architectural features unique to California, fine work by famous architects. A little gem here, another gem there. History you could touch.

Saved
Saved
Valentino Courtyard destined for destruction
Valentino Courtyard destined for destruction

But interspersed with the beautiful architecture and fun stories were little eulogies. Roy would point at some huge faceless apartment complex and say “This used to be a gorgeous little Craftsman home.” Or he would point at another building, still standing, but restored in a way that totally destroyed its original beauty. The saddest sight of all was a small L-shaped courtyard which had been built in the silent film era. Its days were numbered. The residents had already been evicted. The grass had been left to die. Soon it would become just another four story apartment building.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's apartment
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s apartment
Jim Morrison's place (note the photo of him in the lower right window)
Jim Morrison’s place (note the photo of him in the lower right window)

Now I get that property in this part of Southern California is hard to find. I know that businesses come and go and owners die or move away. I know that places change hands and the old owners have no say in what the new owners do to them. I get all that, but every time one of these little bits of history disappears, Hollywood loses a little bit of its soul. If everything that is unique about Hollywood disappears, it isn’t really Hollywood anymore. It becomes no different than anywhere else. And it was different. And it is still different here and there, if you know where to look.

Storybook Style
Storybook Style
Marlene Dietrich's balcony
Marlene Dietrich’s balcony

Hollywood architecture used to be like a wild, brightly colored Dentzel carousel, the kind of carousel where the traditional horses had been replaced by cats and bears and dragons with an occasional ornate bench for those who preferred not to ride. But as time went on and property values grew steeper, the exotic jumpers started to decline. You can fit more people on a bench than on a seahorse. So the seahorse was replaced by a bench. And then the stag and then the lion disappeared, each replacement bench becoming a little shoddier than the last. The day is coming when that last zebra will be replaced by a pair of lawn chairs zip-tied together and no one will remember what it was like to ride at all.

Cheers to the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance for trying to do something before that last zebra is gone.

On the way home, I drove past what used to be Tower Records. The building looked empty. The glowing yellow and red lip had been whitewashed out, the huge airbrushed albums were all gone. All that was left was an anonymous white box with the word “LIVE” written on the corner.

It was anything but.

Not the Website You Were Looking For

I want to publicly apologize to the two innocent schoolchildren who were hoping to find some information on the real Oregon Trail during the Wikipedia blackout yesterday and found themselves on my blog instead. I had two search engine hits. One for “where did the Oregon Trail end” (umm…I’m going to guess Oregon) and one for “Oregon trail death.”

I can see them trying to explain their research to their teacher. “But Mrs. Gardner, nobody died on the Oregon Trail. The website said that Trail Bucks were able to bring them back to life.”

Just for the record, the Oregon Trail did end in Oregon although many settlers fanned out from the original trail to go to other places like Utah and California, and, according to the real Wikipedia, no one knows the actual number of deaths along the trail, but they could run as high as 16,000.

Glad I could help.