Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Topanga sunset

Back home. While we were gone, L.A. had an incredible, historic heat wave. Temperatures hit 113 degrees downtown.

Tonight, here in Topanga, this is the sunset sky.

Ten minutes after I took this photo, the sun had set, the sky was grey, and it began to thunder and rain.

I think the heat is breaking.

Hat 'N' Boots

In 1954 on the corner of East Marginal Way and Corson Street in South Seattle, a real estate developer got a hot idea to build a Western-themed shopping center called Frontier Village. I'm not sure how far he got, but he did build a gas station called "Premium Tex" that featured a giant cowboy hat as the canopy over the gas pumps, and a giant pair of cowboys boots that housed the restrooms. The Hat 'N' Boots, as it came to be called, were designed by a local artist named Lewis Nasmyth.

The smaller boot was the ladies' room

Seattle's beloved landmark, the Hat 'N' Boots was born. You can go read about the Hat 'N' Boots at this link to Roadside America or at History Link.

Such an attraction made the gas station a great success. There is an unsubstantiated rumor that it was featured in the move "It Happened at the World's Fair", starring Elvis Presley, who is filmed gassing up his Cadillac from beneath the Hat. It was an operating gas station until 1988, but then it fell on hard times. In the final indignity, skateboarders used the hat's brim as a challenge.

But Seattle likes its quirky, creative landmarks, and so in 2002 the Georgetown Community Council bought the Hat 'N' Boots for one dollar, and saved it, moving it a few blocks over to Oxbow Park, where it now resides, restored, in all its splendor. The park also houses a play structure and a P-patch for the neighborhood.

Seattle has a proud and kitchy heritage. The Hat 'N' Boots is among the many peculiar Northwest landmarks - some still around, some gone - including the Fremont Troll, the Twin Teepees, the Dog House, the Walker Rock Garden, and the Java Jive. For whatever reason, living up here in the land of rain, moss and fog spurs a fanciful creativity in human beings.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dogs and their owners

Click to "embiggen"

You know that old saying about dogs and their owners resembling one another? This woman and her dog are in sync, at the corner of First and Virginia in downtown Seattle.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Trains, planes and automobiles

I lived in Seattle for around 18 years, and when you live in a place that long, you figure you kind of know your way around. In the mid-1980s, I decided to buy my own house, and since I was single and didn't make a lot of money, the neighborhoods I could afford were unfamiliar to me. And these were not "neighborhoods in transition" where university students, theatre people, artists or bohemians sipped lattes from vintage-furnished cafes and shopped for organic vegetables at food co-ops. These neighborhoods were unimproved, run down, a bit dangerous, hard to get to and totally un-hip.

As un-hipness goes, though, some places were still more desirable than others. Which is why, in 18 years of living in Seattle, I never explored the tiny South Seattle neighborhood of Georgetown, wedged between Boeing Field to the south, the I-5 freeway to the east, the Duwamish River to the west and the railroad corridor to the north.

Now, years later, I'm sorry I didn't take that chance. Because Georgetown is a unique community, known for its mix of historic industrial and residential properties, housing for artists, and its adventurous somewhat edgy style.

We had dinner reservations at The Corson Building, a Georgetown restaurant that sounded just quirky enough to catch our attention. In their own words, they are "dedicated to food and its direct connection to celebration, community, and culture." Well. Were we up to that? Sure.

Our GPS guided us through unknown territory, skirting Boeing Field and turning west beneath the high curving overpass of the Michigan Street exit from I-5. Immediately facing the roadway was a small graveled area in front of a thick hedge. Set into the hedge, we found a wrought iron gate, welcoming us into a small brick-paved courtyard with a fountain.

The small building is classically pretty in a non-Seattle, Mediterranean way, and there's a reason for that, it turns out. The building, which dates back to 1910, was owned by an Italian stonemason who manufactured cast stone decoration for buildings. His work graces the doors and arched windows, and an amazing stone fireplace is set in the center of the main room.

The philosophy here is to create food with fresh, local ingredients, and you can't get any more local than to grow your own. The property includes a wonderful garden, with raised beds of vegetables and herbs, fruit trees and fruiting shrubs, and even its own chickens.

Inside, the large room was set with three long wooden tables, each set for ten with a long bench on the wall side and mismatched antique wooden chairs toward the center of the room. Linen, heavy flatware and generous glassware await the diners.

From the main room you can look through the doorway and a wide inner window to the kitchen where the chefs were working. It didn't look like a restaurant kitchen - it looked like the kitchen of someone's house, where cookbooks were stacked under one shelf, and platters and pots were cluttered about.

Thursdays and Fridays they serve from an a la carte menu. Each day's menu is created for that day. After we were seated at the foot of one table, a hand-written card was placed before us.

Four choices of starters was followed by two choices of main dishes. We ordered a glass of sparkling rose and made our choices. A seafood stew with smoked halibut and clams, served over squid-ink rice with garlic aioli was [The Man I Love]'s choice, while I went with a duck-leg confit served with chanterelles and roasted asian pears.

While we sat there, we listened as a small plane approached Boeing Field, buzzing right overhead. A few minutes later there came clanging bells and the deep thrum of a diesel engine, and we watched through over the chef's shoulder as a bright yellow Burlington Northern locomotive moved majestically and slowly along the tracks immediately outside the kitchen window. Throughout the meal, the traffic on the concrete ramp above us provided a constant susurrus, like waves.

My first course was a salad of lettuces from the garden outside, with a toasted croute smeared with a generous blob of Kurtwood Farms' Dinah's cheese, a cow's milk camembert-style cheese, and garnished with chunks of a sweet-sour pickled watermelon rind. The cheese was amazingly rich and creamy, and the pickle was a great foil.

[The Man I Love] had the late harvest tomatoes and pole beans with the anchovy dressing, which was subtle and flavorful.

A rose from the garden outside the dining room

Guests are seated together at a communal table, and are encouraged to converse, to interact, and to share. Halfway through our main course, another couple was seated beside us. Visiting from Yakima for the day, they had been given a gift certificate for dinner here. We learned they were winemakers - in fact, they had brought their own wine to the table and let us share a taste. They were third generation farmers, high school sweethearts, and now had three grown children, one of whom had returned to the family home to join the family business.

Later, another couple joined the table, this time a young woman from Hawaii and her Seattle boyfriend.

Around us, at other tables, newcomers were paired with seated diners and the buzz of conversation flowed. Sharing a meal together truly is about sharing. Our enjoyment in the delicious food was heightened by the chance to meet other folks.

It's not just a restaurant where you walk in and request a table, order from the menu and talk privately with your partner. One evening might be a private event for a large group of people. Another might be a celebration on a theme - like Bastille Day. Another evening might be a food workshop with a guest chef. Or a prix fixe family supper. In each situation, diners are encouraged to break out of the pattern of dining privately, and create community at the table.

Dinner at The Corson Building has been described as similar to joining a dinner party at the home of a friend who happens to be a great chef. And that notion extends further than you'd expect. When we finished our meal, the waitress invited us to step into the kitchen and meet the chef.

The chef is Matt Dillon, on the list of semifinalists for the James Beard Foundations Best Chef Northwest award. His work at his previous restaurant Sitka & Spruce, earned him Food and Wine Magazine's notice as one of the ten best new chefs of 2007. Here he is in the kitchen at The Corson Building, preparing another serving of that seafood stew.

What a great discovery - wonderful food and a whole new side of Seattle I didn't know about. Surrounded by trains, planes and automobiles!

Visit The Corson Building's website to learn more about the restaurant. If you live in Seattle, or if you travel there, it's worth checking out.

Read more about Georgetown's history at this article at HistoryLink.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fashion encounter

The other day in a small Seattle boutique, I stood with another customer at the full-length mirror. I was considering a tunic dress I had tried on. She was looking at a cardigan sweater.

She paid me a compliment on my choice, and I returned the favor. She DID look wonderful - she had a great orange tweedy jacket that looked wonderful against her dark skin, and a bright scarf at her throat. As I looked through the Sale rack, I overheard her conversation with the saleswoman.

No, she didn't have much time, she had a car waiting outside. She was on a book tour, had done a reading here and was on her way to the airport. I asked her the name of her book.

Here it is:

Now go get it. Because any woman who can dress as cool and be as nice as Terry McMillan is worth a read.

Meeting friends

Blurry picture, sorry!

One of the pleasures of the internet is the opportunity to connect with people who aren't in your immediate circle - and become friends. Within a few weeks after I started this blog, I found my way to Derfwad Manor, where the wonderful Mrs. G writes about life, kids (now grown!), women and the men we live with. She was kind enough to publish my writing on the collaborative blog The Women's Colony, which was a real creative boost for me.

So I was delighted to be able to meet her in person during out trip to Seattle. We arranged a lunch date at a small Tex-Mex restaurant in Madison Park. [The Man I Love] joined us.

We had margaritas, good food, and a great conversation. The three of us hit all the topical third rails you're not supposed to touch when you first meet someone - religion, politics - and found that our views were simpatico. We shared tales of our kids and our aging parents. We talked about the paths we traveled, and where we hope to go next.

Mrs. G with [The ManI Love]

Mrs. G - I'm so glad to have you as a friend! (and those glasses totally rock!)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Not a bad town

Click to "embiggen"

Seattle's not a bad town when the weather is nice. And when the mountain is out. This is the view from our hotel balcony.

Green, mossy and grey

There's something about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest that's so different from Los Angeles. You would think, since I lived in Seattle for almost 20 years, and in Los Angeles for 13, that this wouldn't be a surprise to me.

But here I am, back in Seattle for the first time in about five years, and the differences really strike me.

First of all, it's damp. It's so damp moss grows on things. And it's dark. I took a walk through the Washington Park arboretum beneath the trees, and the shade blotted out the weak light from the grey sky.

The trees are so tall and grow so close together. Douglas fir, spruce and giant arching sycamore - not our California riparian sycamore that sprawls over the riverbed, but a real tree with shade so deep it darkens First Avenue South here in Pioneer Square.

Things really grow. Even along the widest highway, the most industrial roadway, or the shabbiest city street, the verges of the pavement or untended patches of urban soil burgeons with bindweed and horsetail and that perennial Northwest weed, blackberries.

Cedar fences darken and the fiber of the wood softens in the damp climate. Trees overarch neighborhoods, plants tumble, foaming over the pavement of sidewalks.

The light is what's different from California. Golden there, here it's cool. A pearl-like grey some have called "oyster," the light fills the sky.

And as the city climbs up the hills and falls away into the valleys, the sky and the mountains seem always to be there.

Even above the city skyline, seen here looking north from First Avenue South near Safeco Field.

Here, the wilderness past seems very close at hand, despite the modern setting. Even from the high hotel balcony overlooking the international airport, looking past the planes and parking garages, the motels and fast food joints and traffic lights, you can see along the horizon the peaks of the Olympic mountains and the unbroken line of Douglas fir treetops, the same spiked, green-black horizon that must have sheltered the Duwamish people, and filled the dreams of the American settlers that came - so many trees that, try as they might, they could never cut them all down.

It's good to be back here again.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Travel day

Where the 10 meets the 405

A quick getaway! We're traveling to Seattle for the weekend. See you there!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tiny treasures

Sometimes the sweetest things in life are hidden right at your feet. Here, in a cobbled courtyard in Dijon, France, fraises des bois, tiny wild strawberries, grow between the stones.

You have to stop, look, and focus to find the tiny treasures in life.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stairs by the sea

Vintage postcard of the neighborhood from the Santa Monica Public Library
In 1924 or thereabouts, a couple of real estate developers started selling lots on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean north of Santa Monica. The beach here is narrow and rocky, with a large conical formation people called Castle Rock jutting out into the surf. The developers envisioned a Mediterranean seaside village, and called it Castellammare, meaning "Castle on the sea."

They named the streets that wound and switch-backed up the cliff after other Mediterranean cities, and there were rules that said all construction had to be in a style that imitated Italian Renaissance architecture.

Leon Kauffman's Villa

The first house in the new development was a huge villa built by wool magnate Leon Kauffman, who bought six lots to accommodate his dream house. It sat high above the ocean, its grounds landscaped and terraced, its gates overseen by statues of naked ladies. Other wealthy buyers followed, including film director Roland West, whose Castillo del Mar compound ranged up and down the hillside. Another Castellammare house was bought by actor John Barrymore - it was rumored to be the love-nest where he romanced Mary Astor.

A single commercial building with space for shops and a cafe was built at the entrance to the development from what was then called Roosevelt Highway, today's Pacific Coast Highway.

This WPA land use map from 1934 shows the series of walkways and promenades threading their way up the hills and down tot he beach. The yellow marks indicate houses, and the red marks indicate commercial establishments, including a real estate office and the cafe itself. At the cafe, an arched bridge allowed residents access to the beach without crossing the busy highway.

In the book "Secret Stairs - A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles" by Charles Fleming, Walk #40 takes us through the Castellammare neighborhood. We walked it on a recent foggy Sunday morning.

We parked on the side of the highway near the bridge, and crossed over. The bridge allowed a peek at balconies and hillside terraces off the upper floors of the cafe building, which now houses a Catholic film production company. They were clearly occupied, since furniture and cushions were arranged outside - so we didn't want to pry, but we were still curious, because this building has a mysterious history.

In August, 1934, actress Thelma Todd went into business with another film industry partner, director Roland West, and opened Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe in this building. She lived in one of these apartments above the cafe.

She was a cute blonde with a nasty ex-husband and a mobster for a boyfriend. She had a taste for wild life, drinking and - maybe - drugs. In December, 1935 she went to a party, stayed out too late, and was found dead two days later, slumped behind the wheel of her car which was parking in a garage up the hill. Despite a lot of contradictory evidence, her death was ruled a suicide by a Grand Jury.

The blue doors lead to the apartments above the Cafe

As we walked through the passage between the house and the neighboring property, we knew we might be retracing her steps on that fateful night. Todd's hired chauffeur had dropped her off that night. The official theory was that she found the door to her apartment locked, and so she climbed the hillside to the garage.

Perhaps it was this mysterious crime that inspired Raymond Chandler a few years later to set a scene from his novel "Farewell, My Lovely" in Castellammare.

Stairs rising from Castellammare Drive to Posetano Drive

When Phillip Marlowe goes to meet a mysterious client, he describes the scene like this:

Above the beach the highway ran under a wide concrete arch which was in fact a pedestrian bridge. From the inner end of this a bight of concrete steps with a galvanized handrail on one side ran straight as a ruler up the side of the mountain. Beyond the arch the sidewalk cafe...was bright and cheerful inside, but the iron-legged tile-topped tables outside under the striped awning were empty save for a single dark woman in slacks who smoked and stared moodily out to sea, with a bottle of beer in front of her. A fox terrier was using one of the iron chairs for a lamppost....

I...started up the steps. It was a nice walk if you liked grunting. There were two hundred and eighty steps up to Cabrillo Street. They were drifted over with windblown sand and the handrail was as cold and as wet as a toad's belly.

When I reached the top, the sparkle had gone from the the water and a seagull with a broken trailing leg was twisting against the offsea breeze. I sat down on the damp cold top step and shook the sand out of my shoes and waited for my pulse to come down into the low hundreds. I shook my shirt loose from my back and went along to the lighted house...
The first set of steps land on Castellammare Drive, and then you take a short jog to the left to the foot of the next set of steps. Jack had joined us on the walk. He used a lamppost as a lamppost, then we started up to Posetano Drive.

This hillside is unstable, and the neighborhood has been plagued with landslides since the beginning. In the 1950s a big slide brought the roads and the staircases down with the houses, so that just east of the sidewalk cafe, Castellammare, Posetano, and Revello drives all come to a dead end, cutting off access to the east side of the neighborhood.

Our walk takes us west, past a stairway that leads to nowhere - the system of promenades tumbled down the hill decades ago.

As we round the curve we can see ahead of us the high ridge of the mountain crowned with a large mansion cantilevered out on the cliff. Before we get there, another flight of steps on our left takes us back down to Castellammare again. Then we walk down Breve Drive to Porto Marina, which rises up from the cafe. Here on one side is a '20s era home with a tile plaque saying it was designed by noted architect Paul R. Williams.

Across the street, a broad flight of steps skirts a rambling pink house, down to the highway.

This vintage postcard from the Santa Monica Public Library shows the same flight when the promenades were new.

Back up Porto Marina past a home with wonderfully playful sculptures on the garage door and railings. Then another steep flight up to Castellammare again.

From here we get a dramatic example of the instability of the cliff, as we skirt beneath the mansion we saw from up on Revello. The cantilevered tennis courts and gardens are impossibly shored up with huge concrete caissons and steel plates.

It looks like the bulwarks of a medieval fortress. Despite the imposing structures, the slope around it is littered with twisted railings, chunks of concrete, and rusted pipes that - clearly - are the result of the earth's continued heaving.

We walk a little quickly past the whole thing, as though it could fall down upon us at any moment.

Continuing on Castellammare, the slope rises quite steeply from the street. Here the homes are modern, and the bolstering of the hillside is more creative.

The views from this place are fantastic - but I'd always worry about my basement falling away. On the downhill side you can see a flattened empty lot where a house once stood, beside another public staircase landing that emerges from the earth where it was buried. We rise past another empty hump that once held a house, fenced and signed against trespassers, and then we pass a safe and stable old Mediterranean house - safe from slides, that is.

It's alarming for us, though because two giant Bouvier des Flandres dogs have sensed Jack's presence, and have gone into a slavering, barking frenzy behind their fence.

Following the book, we turn left at the intersection of Porto Marina Way and go take a look a Leon Kauffman's incredible mansion - now undergoing extensive repairs to keep it from tumbling down onto the highway.

Beneath the Kauffman villa, Porto Marina Way curves back down to PCH

Then we turn uphill again, and take Porto Marina to Vicino Drive, and climb huffing and puffing to Tramonto Drive.

Here, the homes are mostly modern - either '60s vintage ranch houses, or '80s vintage modern structures. The road is wide and freshly paved, and the street up here has a different feel from the lower, narrow curves. Tramonto is the street that runs along the crest of the cliff. As it peaks, we are now facing the mansion cantilevered over huge cylindrical caissons.

This house, hidden behind a gated wall, is said to be the estate of the actor Joseph Cotten, who appeared in Orson Welles' films. The house is under renovation, with exposed tarpaper walls prepared for re-stuccoing.

After we pass it and a few more modest homes, we come to a place where the road is buttressed and railed, and you can see below another landslide site, a shattered foundation. You can also see the incredible view of the curving coast.

We continue on Tramonto to where it meets Revello, and take a hairpin turn that doubles back down the side of the cliff. Now the landslides are above us. The road narrows over a one-lane bridge. We go on until we see the next staircase going down - but just beyond it is the upper part of the large gray villa that once belonged to director Roland West and his actress wife, Jewel Carmen - Castillo del Mar.

This vintage photo from the California History Archive shows in the foreground the Castillo del Mar under construction. You can see the Villa Leon on the distant hill and the mansion on the ridge. Posetano Drive winds unbroken through the neighborhood, and a long staircase runs down the hill from Tramonto Drive.

The stairs from Revello feed down to the road in front of the Castillo, Posetano Drive.

The Castillo, with its rustic barred windows, rounded turret and high stucco wall, is a formidable structure. The main house is above, but the two-car garage opens onto the intersection of Posetano and Stretto Drive.

The Castillo belonged to Roland West and his wife, Carmen Jewel, but the Wests were estranged, so Roland stayed in an apartment down in the cafe building. This is the garage - the one on the right - where Thelma Todd, West's partner in the restaurant, kept her car, a chocolate brown 1934 Lincoln Phaeton. This is the garage where her maid, Mae, found her on Monday morning, dead behind the wheel.

Newspaper photo from the investigation into Todd's death

As we contemplated the forbidding facade of the building, a fierce but small dog wearing a red bandanna poked his head out of the window above the garage and barked at Jack. He was so adamant that we decided not to linger and contemplate the scene, but continued down the curving street.

Below on Castellammare, three lovely 1920's era homes cluster together. On the uphill side, a large golden yellow house is wedged into a tiny lot within the switchback of the street. This house, according to a real estate listing a couple years ago, once belonged to actor John Barrymore.

On the downhill side of the street, so far down the hill that from Castellammare Drive we were on level with its rooftops, is another old home, tile-roofed and embellished with wrought iron scrollwork, bracketed eaves, arched windows and fancy chimney pots. This house is fenced and gated, with alarming no-trespassing signs and even a security camera housed beneath a little tile-roofed post. It's more visible from the highway than here on the quiet street, although from here you can peek through an arched, locked gateway whose beauty is contradicted by the unwelcoming signs.

We walked past the signs to the end of the street, where the earth from decades-old slides has obliterated the road. A footpath winds through the scrub a short way to meet up with the western side of Castellammare Drive, and the steps that lead down to the footbridge. We've finished the walk.

It's amazing to see the effects of the earth's instability. In the early 90's a slide here destroyed almost a dozen homes. Yet these homes are valued - and sell - for millions of dollars. Beneath the monstrous earthworks holding up the mansion on Tramonto, a notice was posted announcing permits to build another house beneath it. The beautiful dream of living by the ocean still tempts people even in the face of potential disaster.

And what of Thelma Todd? We'll have to revisit her story later.