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A Los Angeles Primer: Los Feliz

The homes of Hancock Park, while nostalgic, didn't set off Los Angeles' interest in architectural revival. Some builders looked backward here even as others looked most enthusiastically forward, and their collective effect on the environment remains in the hills of Los Feliz, five miles to the northeast. There you find examples of Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, Spanish, Mediterranean, Moderne, Mayanesque, Tudor, Italian Renaissance, Doric, Ionic, International, an odd kind of alpine Mitteleuropa, and much else besides, the most notable of which went up in the twenties, thirties, and forties. Where the higher elevations of Silver Lake provides the low-profile Los Angeles residential architecture tour, those of Los Feliz provide the high-profile one. The prepared architectural tourist will turn up ready to seek out such well-known residences, often photographed and sometimes used in movies, as Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House, Gregory Ain's Ernest and Edwards Houses, and Richard Neutra's Lovell Health House. They will, most likely, do it with a copy of David Gebhard and Robert Winter's "An Architectural Guide to Los Angeles" in hand.

Gebhard and Winter diligently map out Los Feliz's numerous homes of aesthetic interest in Los Feliz, then dismiss much of the neighborhood — namely the commercial and medical developments centered around Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard — with the unusual term "skulchpile." You'll find no more peaceful vantage point from which to view this skulchpile than Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolph Schindler's Barnsdall House, also known as the Hollyhock House, now known as the main set of structures in what has become Barnsdall Park, or Barnsdall Art Park, or Barnsdall Arts Park, depending on which sign you read. Despite those, and despite how unignorably the bold angularity of the house itself looms over Vermont, Barnsdall Park remains one of the strangely little-known assets of Los Feliz — indeed, of all Los Angeles. The first time someone told me to meet them there, I had to look the place up; now most friends, even those who've logged many more years in the city than I have, look surprised then I take them up there. Perhaps those who lift their gazes from the streets of Los Feliz get distracted by other sights: the Hollywood sign, for instance, or the Griffith Observatory, whose vast eponymous park people do tend to know something about.

"In size it is in the league of New York's Central Park, Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, or San Francisco's Golden Gate Park," write Gebhard and Winter. "But, for a variety of reasons, this great park functions not as an urban park but more like a distant regional park." They cite its relatively untamed landscape, its thin connection to the city, and certain long-standing desires to build in or through it, but if Griffith Park suffers one overall limitation, it has less to do with awareness than with accessibility. So often with the elements of Los Angeles most worthy of attention, you either don't know about them in the first place, or, if you do know about them, you may have a hard time making use of them. The city's defenders have long fallen back on — or even begun their arguments with — its heritage of illustrious residential architecture, both of the innovating and reviving varieties, but I've never quite summoned the same conviction. Some of these homes have undergone conversions to more open uses, the way Barnsdall Park has become home to a theater, a gallery, art classrooms, and so on. Most, though, permit entry only to those who actually live in them, or at least those who shoot in them, or those who snap up a ticket for the occasional tour.

Given that visiting friends already know to take a drive by the Lautners, the Neutras, and the Wrights of the city — and the far less noted but considerably weirder homes that lay between them — I tend to endorse the pleasures of the skulchpile. Los Feliz's lowlands have, in recent years, come to offer the stuff of high-end, low-risk hedonism: artisanal pizzas, intensively curated vintage shops, juiceries, old-fashioned foreign travel accessories, exotic coffees brewed by the cup. Rarely do my visits to the neighborhood not include at least a few minutes spent at the well-respected Skylight Books (or its art-music-film-architecture satellite just down the road), to whose world-literature shelf — a small one, but wholly dedicated and ever-changing — I always make a beeline. None of this comes cheap, of course, nor do the sort of meals people talk about: the latest in Thai fusion, new frontiers in vegan cuisine, elaborately re-engineered plates of unabashedly health-unconscious Americana. But the area also offers an abundance of less pricey options, starting with its fast-food chains, near-anonymous strip-mall eateries, and plain discount stores, none ever too far away.

I've found much more of interest just a step or two up the scale, where we have what I'll call Los Feliz's vintage eating and, especially, drinking culture. You'll find one part of it at Ye Rustic Inn on Hillhurst, as classically dim a watering hole as I've ever had occasion to enter. You'll find another part, and a large one, at the Dresden Room on Vermont, where the formidable lounge-musician couple Marty and Elayne, whose vinyl-only album belongs on at least as many Los Angeles shelves as does the "Architectural Guide", have performed from their seemingly limitless repertoire most weeknights for over thirty years. You'll find another of even longer standing at the Tiki-Ti down Sunset, which since 1961 has, in its tiny, still-smoky quarters, served drinks with names like Chief Lapu Lapu, Puka Puka, Ray's Mistake, and Missionary's Downfall. I have no reason to believe you won't find yet another one at the House of Pies, whose name makes a simple promise indeed. The highly crafted across from the throwaway, the once-glamorous alongside the unapologetically scuzzy, the world-famous landmark walking distance from attractions that feel almost secret: nobody who takes in this mixture could easily label it with anything more accurately descriptive than the name Los Feliz — but even that has its irregularity.

From "El Seh-GUN-do" to "San PEE-dro" to "Pal-is VER-dees", greater Los Angeles accommodates all manner of folk-accented versions of its countless Spanish-derived place names, the last audible artifacts of the great Midwestern migration that so inflated the region's population in the twentieth century. This phenomenon saddled Los Feliz with a particularly bizarre pronunciation, which I hear as something between "Loss FEE-lace" and "Los FEEL-us," and which I have yet to bring myself to use. Despite this mental block, I feel less comfortable speaking actual Spanish in Los Feliz than almost anywhere else in town, even when eating at one of the neighborhood's taco-burrito-hot dog-hamburger stands whose staff would certainly understand and maybe even welcome it, even when coming straight from Spanish class at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México branch downtown. When I watch my fellow non-Latinos place Spanish-language orders there, I feel faintly embarrassed for even those who do it well. (They don't all; a linguistics student could write their entire thesis on variety of ways Los Feliz residents say "cochinita pibil torta.") Then again, I suppose most of us unite ourselves in technically mispronouncing the name of Los Angeles itself as "Los AN-gel-us." Some, and not just Anjelica Huston in "The Grifters", have gone as far as "Los ANG-el-ees," whose only acceptable context involves a martini in hand and Marty and Elayne singing "Fly Me to the Moon", live or on the hi-fi.


Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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