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Romance by the L.A. River

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Wedding photo by Erin Hearts Court

Los Angeles, land of mystery draped in sunshine. You may think you know every inch of her terrain -- canyons, valleys and windswept sandy shores -- but you probably would be mistaken. Somewhere, there is still yet another facet of her left to be discovered, to be revealed only at the perfect time. In my case, another of those moments was about a month ago, when I first saw Natalie Montoya and Jeff Farrow's wedding photos.

Enveloped in pepper trees, fruit trees and flowers, Natalie and Jeff's nuptials seemed like a page out of a secret garden story, complete with an elegant hacienda background.
The setting was opulent, but also warm and appealing. All 200 of Natalie and Jeff's guests were basking under the warm afternoon glow and danced under the stars all night. It was perfect -- and it was all right here in Los Angeles.

"We live in Atwater Village," says Montoya, "We actually go walking along the L.A. River in the evenings, so we really wanted some place that would look like Los Angeles." The couple found it in the Los Angeles River Center, a hidden gem incongruously just around the corner from a Home Depot, a McDonald's and a Metrolink train yard, near the confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco.

It was only through sheer luck -- and Google -- that they stumbled on the River Center. "I think I typed into my phone, "beautiful outdoor venues in Los Angeles," says Montoya. "The River Center was the first place that popped up."

The venue turned out to be even better than the couple originally hoped. The center only hosts one major event per day, says Zenia McJimpson, facility manager at Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MCRA) who now manages the property. The River Center facilities are also booked for 12 hours at a time, saving couples a lot of stress and giving suppliers a generous amount of time to set up.

"It's great because people are not rushing. They're not sharing with anyone, which is a big deal for people. Even if we have this huge property, that's all we want to do, one event per day." What's more, unlike most venues, the River Center works with a dozen approved caterers, whose offerings range all economic scales and cuisines. Add these enticements to Old California-style picturesque grounds with a touch of history and you have an irresistible venue.

"A lot of people are really blown away with the beauty that we have here," says McJimpson, who lives only three miles away, "It's a little secret spot. The community loves the River Center. This is the only really pretty thing we have here in in the community."

L.A. River Center when it was known as Lawry's California Center, 1978. | Photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
L.A. River Center when it was known as Lawry's California Center, 1978. | Photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The center sits on a storied site once called Lawry's California Center in Cypress Park. Built in 1953 by Stiles Clements & Associates, then added onto by Arthur Lavagnino, in association with Buff, Straub & Hensman, it became a popular destination over the next thirty years.

With its bar, restaurant and gift shop (selling Lawry's spices and sauces, of course), the California Center was an no-brainer celebration venue. Yet despite the thousands that came through its doors the venue was never profitable.

It finally closed in 1992, during a company-wide consolidation effort by its then owner Thomas J. Lipton Co., who purchased the property from the Frank and Van de Kamp families in 1979. Fallow, the 17-acre site was cause for much speculation. Some saw it as a perfect Latino museum site, others wanted to demolish it to make way for condos or a Home Depot. But the community and environmentalists would have none of it. Their outspoken efforts led to efforts by state and local government officials who found $2 million in grants, loans and bond money from state, county and city governments.

The River Center is now home to environmental organizations, many of whom work to revitalize the river. Among them are the Friends of the Los Angeles River, North East Trees, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps' After School Programs. Cyclists would know is best as one of the stops during the annual Los Angeles River Ride (http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/lariver/confluence/river-notes/12th-annual-los-angeles-river-ride-adds-a-new-70-mile-reverse-ride.html).

The center is also a focal point for people in the community. Local meetings are held here free of charge, and during Las Posadas, the River Center erupts in holiday music and vibrancy in the form of piñatas and laughing children.

There are many things to love about this secret spot in Los Angeles, says Montoya, but perhaps its greatest appeal is that it's right there at the heart of it all. "I love the idea that when I drive home from work I actually pass by it. I love that it's part of our community. I grew up at Dodger Stadium going to all these sorts of games all the time and you can actually see the stadium from the River Center. I just love that it's actually part of Los Angeles proper." It's pure vintage Los Angeles.

Fountain at L.A. River Center | Photo by KCET Departures
Fountain at L.A. River Center | Photo by KCET Departures

Find out more about the Los Angeles River Center here. For any event inquiries, contact Zenia McJimpson at 323-221-9939 ext. 220 or email riverevents@mrca.ca.gov.

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