Figures in a Landscape: The Sphinxes of Los Angeles


Howard Carter's uncovering of the mislaid tomb of a minor Egyptian ruler in 1922 set off a burst of Eyptomania in Los Angeles that left behind a theater on Hollywood Boulevard, a handful of tomb-and-temple-theme apartment buildings, and a scatter of sphinxes.

Cathedral Guardian

My favorites -- for their truly spooky qualities -- are the pair in front of the Scottish Rite Cathedral at 145 Madison Street in Pasadena. Set up in 1925, the cathedral's guardian sphinxes are creepily leonine and humanoid, like the pair in Washington DC they're modeled after. Their expressions are ineffable.

Sphinxes crouch in other L.A. places -- a pair in front of what had been the Bekins Moving & Storage building in Long Beach, a band in low relief flanking the entrance to the former Elks Lodge at Westlake Park, two stair monitors in the Central Library downtown (weirdly top-hatted), and more recently, a single fiberglass sphinx in front of the West Hollywood Community Center. Its smile is the same old riddle.

The city's most iconic sphinxes were lost for nearly 90 years in the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, 165 miles northwest of downtown. Assembled from lath and plaster in Hollywood by prop artists working on Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 "Ten Commandments," 21 hermaphrodite sphinxes formed a ceremonial avenue leading to DeMille's titanic set (12 stories tall, 800 feet wide).

Although local lore said the entire set had been dynamited or bulldozed into a trench, archaeologists in 2012 found two of the sphinxes where they had been left when filming ended. Efforts to conserve and display their remains are underway.

Permanently lost is the one-room office of the Sphinx Realty Company, formerly at 537 Fairfax Avenue. It took the form of an Egyptish bust, not the chimerical blend of man and beast that is a true sphinx.

L: Sphinx Realty Company, 1920; R: Arrowhead Mountain | Photos from the author's collection | Creative Commons License

To see more sphinxes depends on your capacity for pareidolia -- the tendency to see faces and figures in ambiguous shapes in the environment. (Think the Man in the Moon or the "Face on Mars" or that sense you have of being watched when it's only a conjunction of shadows that appears to be a threatening figure.)

Pareidoliasts -- and roadside attraction promoters -- have seen figures in the landscape for as long as tourists have been around. In greater Los Angeles, two of the best known are Arrowhead Mountain, with its logo-ready arrow silhouette, and Eagle Rock. When the light is right, Eagle Rock shows an outline that looks to some like a great bird, wings outstretched. A little pre-Photoshop touching up in early color postcards made the eagle look almost about to fly.

Rim of the World Sphinx
Rim of the World Sphinx | Photo USC Digital Library

Tourists took the Rim of the World Highway in the 1920s to Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains. Along the way they saw a looming sphinx (which appeared in the 1917 film "The Eyes of the World") perched at the road's edge. Located near what is today the junction of Highway 18 and Highway 189, the sphinxish monolith still looks south and west. On a clear day, it sees Catalina Island on the horizon.

Chatsworth has a couple more big sphinxes. One apparently rose above a railroad cut. I'm not sure I can see it in this old postcard view. Can you?

Railroad Sphinx
Railroad Sphinx, | Photo USC Digital Library

Hikers still visit the other Chatsworth sphinx. Located in the 23-acre Garden of the Gods Park, a remnant of the former Iverson Movie Ranch, a sphinx-like rock stares across a narrow gap at another rock called Indian Head, looking not much like a Native American. Between the two stone buttes rode decades of actors in B movies and serials, although the sphinx and its companion did have brief parts in John Ford's well-regarded "Stagecoach."

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Some observers also want to see something sphinx-like in Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Crouched over a trench, the 340-ton boulder doesn't project any sort of human silhouette but it does have the enigmatic qualities that a good sphinx ought to project.

You can read a lot into the random effects of time or dynamite.

LACMA Sphinx
LACMA Sphinx, | Photo by vxla | Creative Commons License


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