Arrival Story: Michael Dawson

Arrival Story Michael Dawson.jpg

KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today, we hear from author and rare book and photography dealer Michael Dawson:

"My family members all came to Los Angeles and stayed.

"That is probably a refrain that you hear over and over again in these Arrival Stories: Families come, they put down roots, they become multi-generational.

"That belies the preconceived perception of Los Angeles as being rootless; as a place where no one stays very long; a place where people blow in and blow out and never really scratch the surface. Beyond this perception, there is a lot of long-term involvement in this city.

"My great-grandfather and his wife emigrated from England to Texas and then came to Los Angeles in the late 19th century. They spent a brief period of time here and then moved to San Luis Obispo."

Story continues below

My grandfather, Ernest Dawson, was one of eleven children. He got involved in the book business in San Luis Obispo while he was still a young person. He worked in a bookshop and stationery store. That got him really interested in that world and he eventually moved to Los Angeles and in 1905 opened his bookshop on Broadway. He started out selling anything he could but his heart was in rare and collectible books. He is credited with issuing the first rare book catalogue in Los Angeles in 1907.

"Later, my father and uncle were partners in Dawson's Bookshop for fifty years. [I ran the bookshop on Larchmont from 1995 until September 2010 and now operate as a private dealer and appraiser based in Echo Park.]

"My uncle, Glen Dawson, is 99-years-old. He was born in the family home on Mt. Washington. He had two sisters and a brother - my father, Muir Dawson. The siblings all grew up in the Highland Park area, near York Avenue. I've seen pictures of my grandmother and grandfather, as a young couple, in the Arroyo.

"My uncle has a great story of how as a young child - maybe he was six or seven years old - he made a book delivery with my grandfather to Charles Lummis' home. My uncle still remembers this old wizened guy who wanted to touch the face of this young boy because he couldn't see or hear very well. I always found it fascinating that he had a physical link to someone like Charles Lummis.

"In the 1920s, when my father was a young boy*, my grandfather moved the family out to the West Adams district. This at the time was the suburban fringe of Los Angeles.

"A generation later, my mother, Agnes Dawson - Agnes Cloud was her maiden name - came to Los Angeles, from Ohio, during World War II. My mother's brother was in the Navy and her family was otherwise dispersed.

"My mother came out on her own, she hitched a ride along with a neighbor family who were coming west. They would have traveled Route 66, the 'mother road,' as people say.

"My mother's family is Scottish - I think at some point the 'Mc' in their original name, 'McCloud,' was taken off and the family name became Cloud.

"Once my mother got here, she never left. She lived at first with this family who had a house in Santa Monica. It was the house where my parents would get married in 1948. A few years ago, the house was listed for sale for $2 or $3 million dollars - and this is just a place where a moderately invested family from the Midwest was able to acquire in the 1940s.

"I was born in Silver Lake. My parents built a house in the mid-1950s on the east side of the Lake. It's a Case Study House-type; it wasn't done by an architect who is well known.

"I have a series of photographs that Julius Schulman took of the house in, I guess,1957. I'm a baby being held in the picture - it's an elaborate sort of Schulman setup. My mother is sitting there and looking outside the glass entryway of the house and I'm being held in the arms of the architect.

"I always get a chuckle - I feel like my actual reality was part of this mythologizing of mid-century Modernism. But I was there, in the picture.

"Growing up, I went to Clifford Street Elementary School. That was back in the days when Beverly Mason was the principle at both Elysian Heights and Clifford Street - the whole Room 8 the cat phenomenon.

"I've lived in Echo Park since 1987 - I've never lived west of LaBrea. As a younger person, the main thing I think about the Westside is that it just wasn't so crowded. Now because of the traffic it's an adventure to go see clients over there.

"I did used to have a family member to the west. My grandfather on my mother's side was an ex-merchant marine. He lived in a series of these old resident hotels that were along the beach - they were dilapidated, cut-up Victorian buildings.

"Some of my earliest memories were visiting these hotels that were like something out of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. It wasn't the sort of Loews Hotel or the skyscrapers and condos-style beachfront of today.

"Before that, the beachfront was oil wells. When you see panoramas from the `20s and `30s, the whole beachfront pretty much from Venice south was just dotted with oil wells.

"I think one of the big things for people who love Los Angeles is the interface between the amenities of an urban and cultural environment and the ability to experience wilderness within your borders.

"When I was growing up, my father would tell me about trips he and his father took out into the desert. He would say, 'We would drive out to Palm Springs and it was a dirt road once you left the other side of East L.A.' and, 'We would drive out there and there would be nothing out there and we would sit in the hot springs and do this and that.'

"He'd also say, 'I would come into town to visit my father on the Pacific Electric car. And we used to go walk in the Baldwin Hills when there was nothing out there. You could just leave our house and there'd be nothing but marshland.'

"That kind of thing always stuck with me. Same with going to visit my grandmother who lived in an older Craftsman home - it was a retirement place in Sierra Madre and you could see all the old pepper trees.

"When I started learning more about the history of this place, it all sort of fit together. It wasn't this disparate, disconnected thing. I had some kind of connection to Craftsman architecture or mid-century Modernism because I actually experienced it growing up.

"The same is true with a lot of things. I remember Playa del Rey, which used to be a marshland. I remember Bunker Hill before it was leveled and became the location for a bunch of high-rise buildings for corporations.

"The last Downtown location for the bookstore was at Sixth and Figueroa. Some weekends, I'd go down there, when my father had something to do. He would give me a dime or a nickel and he'd say, 'Go walk around and take Angel's Flight and come back down.' I'd walk past the library and turn some corners and I'd go up. It was the mid `60s and it was still safe - you let your kids roam without any kind of feeling that there would be a problem. I still remember all of those old decaying Bunker Hill Victorian buildings.

"I'm constantly feeling like I live in the present and I live in the past."

-- Michael Dawson
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

  • Photo: Courtesy Michael Dawson

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