There's an old, rambling mansion amidst the strip malls and gas stations on Broadway running through Lincoln Heights. If you're speeding down the street, you might not notice it. The house is set back a bit from the sidewalk and there are palm trees blocking a perfect view. Slow down and you can catch a glimpse of the mylar sign for HM157. That's Historical Monument #157, as designated on the California Landmark list. It's also known as the Horace P. Dibble house. "His most notable accomplishment was murder at work," says Charon Nogues. She briefly tells the story of the original owner, whose trial was marked by testimonies that he was less of a brute than the victim. It's only a footnote in early Los Angeles history.
The house dates back to around 1886 and is impressive primarily for its age and size. "It's not really architecturally relevant," Nogues says. "What is relevant is that it's still standing in this neighborhood that has become 99 Cent Stores, mainly, and chain stores." HM157 is a relic of one of L.A.'s oldest neighborhoods and continues to exist even when the world around it has drastically changed.
HM157 has gone through a lot of changes. It was once a residence. Much later, it was home to a real estate office. Now, it's the base for a collective of creative people who make their home a center for underground arts and entertainment. They've hosted salons, craft nights, film festivals, live music events and swap meets. They've created a platform for artists whose work might not fit into above-ground venues in the city.
Nogues is standing in the garden eating a peach when we meet. There's a fruitful tree in the front yard surrounded by rose bushes and other assorted plant life. The fruit trees were planted by Common Vision, a group that plants orchards at schools. They store their supplies at HM157 when they're in town. The garden is a work in progress, as is the house itself. Everyone who lives here devotes time to its upkeep. Nogues isn't actually a resident. She is, however, one of the co-founders of this old mansion-turned-underground art community and manages many of the activities here.
What started as a hunt for residential and retail space in Frogtown ended here in Lincoln Heights. Nogues had never ventured into the neighborhood before this fateful day in early 2008. The upper and lower levels of the house were intended to rent separately, but the landlord offered both for $3000 a month. "We basically dressed up super fancy and borrowed my husband's parents' brand new car," says Nogues. "That kind of helped with our credit check, quote-unquote." Nogues and co-founder Reid Maxwell began developing HM 157.
The building needed a lot of work. There were collapsed ceilings and phone chords running throughout the space. Nogues recalls colors like "chalky white" and beige and mustard. There was still a lot of furniture leftover from its days as a real estate office, including "1980s, imitation Victorian, roll-top desks." The collective hung on to one of those.
In the beginning, events weren't part of the plan. "We were going to keep it as our selfish art space," says Nogues. The HM157 co-founder is a performance herself. Much of her work has revolved around endangered species and cultures and repurposing old clothes and other odds and ends are part of her art. Things changed when one of the residents, a college student, started booking shows. "I got tired of indie bands, so I had to take over," says Nogues. She used to put together events in San Francisco in the early 1990s, cool arty parties like an Edward Gorey fashion show.
Their first big party was a "roller boogie hoedown." A skater/DJ who arrived in a powder blue truck. B-sides of old 45s were heard throughout the night. Jewel of Denial performed a traditional Balinese dance before go-go dancing. Her image was projected onto a wall. Nogues woke up at 6 a.m. in a bale of hay, her skates still on her feet. After that, many more events followed. Tuesday Night Vegan Dinner started at the venue, but eventually outgrew it. Triple Chicken Foot previously held many a squaredance here as well. Prince Poppycock played here before his star turn on America's Got Talent and has returned to the venue after he became a household name. They collaborated with Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council to turn HM 157 into "Haunted Mansion 157" one Halloween, which drew more than 1500 youngsters.
Michelle Carr was amongst the crowd that gravitated towards HM157. She's a longtime champion of underground entertainment and nightlife in Los Angeles. She spent a huge chunk of the 1990s running Jabberjaw, a coffee house/live venue that served as a major hub for local and touring indie bands of the era. She is also the founder of The Velvet Hammer, the performance group which helped usher in a new wave of burlesque performance. When she found out that the collective was looking for someone to live in an Airstream set up in the backyard, she jumped at the chance. "An Airstream and a haunted mansion, I need to have it all," says Carr of her response. "The 15-year-old Michelle would be so thrilled with me right now."
Carr is a partner at HM157. She handles the bi-monthly event Dadaismus, which is German for Dadaism. The events combine spoken word, dance, live music and other performance-based arts. In its few recent installments, the event has become a place where established performers try out new projects. Last month featured the debut of Sex Stains, featuring Allison Wolfe of the beloved Riot Grrrl-associated group Bratmobile. Prince Poppycock also introduced his new electronic act at the event.
HM 157 changes with its residents. Everybody who lives here contributes to the growth of the space. That's by design. The collective seeks out housemates who can fill specific functions. Recently, they brought in someone who can tend to the garden.
The goal for HM157 is to create a live/work space that is sustainable. That's not easy. Maxwell, a musician, runs his own electronics business out of the house when he's not working on events here. He has also been funding the venture. Nogoues works on call for a vintage boutique when she isn't working here. She also brought in her husband, artist Gaston Nogoues, to make the HM157 sign. Carr does some casting work for film and occasionally works on major events. Recently, she curated the opening festivities for ACE Hotel downtown. "We have to survive through outside jobs," says Carr. "Hopefully, it will get to the point where one day this will be our job."
Sustainability is the collective's big hurdle right now. "People naturally are inclined to give and give and give, but it's at their own detriment," says Nogues. "To become completely sustainable, we have to make people's time a job." To achieve this, HM157 has been working towards non-profit status. They are almost there. Paperwork has been filed. In January, they held a fundraiser, headlined by Anne Magnuson, to cover costs involved with the application process. The check has been sent. However, it's a long process and Nogues estimates that the deal won't be sealed until early next year.
In the meantime, HM157 is still sharing their space with the community. This month is the start of the collective's collaboration with Trade School Los Angeles, which offers classes based on a barter system. Classes will include acrylic painting and Spanish. Later in the month, they will be hosting a City of Butterflies event that will mix education about threats to butterflies with music and sock puppets.