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Urban Blossoms: Poetry and Architecture from L.A. to Long Beach

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Between the "Never Built: Los Angeles" exhibit opening at the A + D Museum and the opening of the National History Museum's "Becoming Los Angeles," there's a palpable fever in the air saluting the local built environment, history, and iconic architecture of Southern California. In honor of Los Angeles architecture, this week L.A. Letters highlights a longtime member of the L.A. Conservancy and a few important early L.A. architects that played influential roles creating the modern city.

Marvin B. Farber is a Santa Monica-based poet that worked as a Historic Downtown Walking tour docent for the L.A. Conservancy from 1986 until 2003. The L.A. Conservancy honored him in 2011 for 25 years of distinguished service. Now 91 years old, Farber recently published his book of poems, "I've Always Been A Dancer." The subtitle of the book, "poems written in my octogenarian years," explains more. Among the 52 poems, written between 2002 and 2012, is a seven poem cycle called, "The Poetry of Los Angeles." In the first poem of the volume, "Thirty-Nine and Three-Quarter Hours," Farber tells his arrival story from Chicago in a vibrant four-page poem. The first stanza starts from his departure in 1941:

Twenty years of age

(almost twenty-one)

I board the train

A bullet-speed streamliner

"City of Los Angeles" its name

A Union Pacific railroad wonder

transports me from Chicago

West to Los Angeles

in only

Thirty-nine and three-quarter hours.

Describing the trip to Union Station, his poem captures the excitement of coming to California. Farber's been here in Los Angeles for 72 years now and has been married to his wife Ruth for 60. After a successful career in business, Farber retired in the late 1980s and began volunteering all over the city. For over 15 years he delivered books to homebound readers under the Service-to-Shut-Ins program of the Santa Monica Public Library. He's also volunteered at the Ocean Park Community Center and served as a literacy tutor at Will Rogers Learning Community in Santa Monica. He started writing poetry after taking a set of writing classes at Santa Monica City College.

Richfield Building by Stiles O. Clements | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Richfield Building by Stiles O. Clements | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

One of his early poems from 2002, "Art Deco Los Angeles: The Rise & Fall of the Richfield Building," salutes art deco and tells the tragic narrative of the Richfield Building. Designed in 1928 by Stiles O. Clements from the famed Morgan, Walls & Clements firm, the structure retains holy-grail status in the pantheon of art deco and historic Los Angeles architecture. Farber's five stanza poem captures the 44-year lifespan of the tower, all the way up to its 1972 demolition. Here's the first stanza:

City of Angels

Nineteen Twenty-Eight -

An architect's art

With an artist's slate

Sculpted designs upward bound

Art Deco is the building.

Farber knows historic architecture, and his poems have the warmth of someone that knows and loves his subject. His elegy of the Richfield Building echoes the sentiments of historic preservationists everywhere, the poem's final lines especially: "Oil, power, greed forsake/beauty in lieu/of dark granite towers sixty stories high/Demolished is the building." Farber's L.A. poems also denounce McCarthyism and salute the Watts Towers, Simon Rodia, and Biddy Mason. His love of Los Angeles history and historic architecture oozes from the text.

Many of Farber's poems are odes and tributes, such as his piece about riding the bus across Los Angeles. His ode to Downtown L.A., "Urban Blossoms," moves from public art to historic architecture to Broadway's streetscape. Farber lists many of the iconic downtown sites. The final stanza is a great representation of the ethos of his work:

Seek me in shops of Santee Village

Seek me under waterfalls at California Plaza

Strolling festive Olvera Street

Entering the bowels of Skid Row

You will find me in every fabric

An electrifying metropolis -

City of Los Angeles, City of Angels

Ethnic humanity flowers

its bloom of urban blossoms.

Farber loves Los Angeles and all of its citizens. He gave me his book after hearing that I am a poet that gives walking tours of Downtown L.A. I also share his love of art deco and appreciate his poems about architecture. Last month, in the article "Windshield Perspective," I noted the architectural poems of Guy Bennett. Farber's poem about the Richfield Building has the same snapshot approach that Bennett's poems use. It makes sense that Farber has been affiliated with the L.A. Conservancy for so long; the Conservancy has been one of the most instrumental, if not the most instrumental, organization in preserving historic architecture in Southern California, dating back three plus decades now. That the preservationist movement that is going so strong now owes a lot to pioneering people and early members like Marvin Farber.

Farber is also a member of the Green Poets, a writing group that meets at Beyond Baroque several times a month. Their members range in age from the 30s into the 90s. Farber let me know that he wasn't even the oldest member of the group -- there is a 9-year old poet, another that is 96. Farber also loves listening to and reading other poets. His enthusiasm for the city and poetry is inspiring. His poem about the Richfield Building got me thinking about architects like Stiles O. Clements, and the legacy of architects in Southern California.

Wurlitzer Building by Walker & Eisen | Photo: David Blumenkrantz/Flickr/Creative Commons

Many of the early L.A. architectural giants, like Morgan, Walls & Clements, John Parkinson, Walker & Eisen, and Claud Beelman and Alexander Curlett, still have monumental footprints standing throughout the basin. Stiles O. Clements is known for his work like the Mayan, El Capitan and Wiltern. Morgan, Walls & Clements were one of the most active and important architectural firms in the city for several generations; many of their structures remain throughout the city almost a century later. The same can be said about City Hall's architect, John Parkinson and the firm Walker & Eisen. Parkinson did most of the banks along Spring Street. Walker & Eisen did the Fine Arts Building, Beverly Wilshire, Wurlitzer Building, and Breakers in Long Beach, among many others. There are other equally great firms as well, too many to mention.

One of my own longtime favorite L.A. buildings is the Eastern Columbia Building, designed by Claud Beelman and Alexander Curlett. Beelman and Curlett also designed the Park Plaza Hotel near MacArthur Park, and the building that is now the Downtown Standard. Equally epic to these building are three structures Beelman and Curlett did in Downtown Long Beach.

The Farmers & Merchants Bank and Tower on Third and Pine built in 1923 by Beelman and Curlett is in the Italian Renaissance Revival Style. Considered Long Beach's first skyscraper, the structure looks every bit as epic as the Eastern Columbia Building. The bank is not a officially designated landmark according to the city of Long Beach, but the building is in perfect condition because the same family has owned the Farmers & Merchants Bank for four generations.

They pay careful attention to the upkeep of its design and detail. The teller cages, desks and hardware are all original. The interior marble columns are shinier than ever. Directly north of the bank is the 10-story steel and terra-cotta office tower that maintains continuity with the bank in its sleek design. Perhaps best known of all is the iconic neon sign that crowns the roof of the tower. The structure remains one of the most iconic in Long Beach.

Two blocks south of the Farmers & Merchants Bank is another epic structure done by Beelman and Curlett, the Security Pacific National Bank. Now housing eateries on the ground floor, the brick and concrete building epitomized the image of rock-solid stability that the bank wanted to communicate. The use of marble and classic Corinthian columns at the front entrance emphasize the building's symmetry and stately grandeur. These two opulent buildings both reflect the Jazz Age decadence, and show how skilled Beelman and Curlett were with using classical architectural motifs. What's more is that both of these structures look better than ever almost 90 years later.

Farmers & Merchants Bank by Beelman & Curlett | Photo: Summer Bundy/Flickr/Creative Commons

A few blocks east of these two structures is the Cooper Arms on Ocean and Linden, a third building in Downtown Long Beach designed by Beelman and Curlett. Built in the Italian Renaissance Revival Style in 1924, the structure shares the similar level of detail as the two banks. Between these three buildings in Long Beach and their sites throughout L.A., Beelman and Curlett have left an impressive body of work, still standing stronger than ever a century later. I recently gave a walking tour of Downtown Long Beach for A + D. Some of the L.A. residents that came on the tour had no idea there was so much historic architecture in Long Beach.

For those that do not have the time to drive to Downtown Long Beach, see "Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis" by Cara Mullio and Jennifer M. Volland. Published by Hennessey & Ingalls, the book is an excellent blend of photos and text on the treasure trove of architectural gems throughout Long Beach. There's the midcentury work of Edward Killingsworth in Bixby Knolls and at Cal State Long Beach, as well as lots of unexpected surprises like the Morphosis-designed school on Locust Avenue. The book has a few excellent maps as well that will please any architecture and geography buff. Similar to Los Angeles, there's a rich built environment and no shortage of historic architecture in Long Beach.

The many art events and museum exhibits saluting Southern California architecture and design occurring this summer are more than apropos. Furthermore the legacy encompasses not only Los Angeles but Long Beach, Orange County, Palm Springs, San Diego.

All and all, the current attention on Southern California history and architecture is due to the groundwork laid by people like Marvin Farber. Farber's been giving walking tours of Historic Downtown L.A since the days of Mayor Tom Bradley. With poems like "Urban Blossoms," it's easy to see how his love for the city and poetry keeps him young. He's an important goodwill ambassador and reminder what it means to be engaged in civic duty. Salute to Farber, the L.A. Conservancy and the historic architects that helped create our city, they are the makers and caretakers of L.A. Letters.

Top: Richfield Building designed by Stiles O. Clements. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

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