Portals of the Past

November 11, 2019
Portals of the Past Portals of the Past Portals of the Past

 

While wandering through Golden Gate Park on a particularly foggy afternoon, I stopped by Lloyd Lake to see one of the park’s more unusual features up close.

Although Portals of the Past looks like a sculpture — and in a way it is — originally it was something else entirely.

Some time ago while on a tour of Nob Hill, the guide mentioned the doorway to a California Street mansion was the only part of the building to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire. She then opened a binder and showed us a photo of Portals of the Past in Golden Gate Park. That doorway was donated and moved to the park shortly after 1906.

It’s pretty easy to find Portals of the Past on Google Maps. From the Music Concourse just walk on the sidewalk to the right of JFK Drive. After you see the waterfall on the right, follow the little creek until it ends at Lloyd Lake.

For more information, check out this Atlas Obscura article.

Haunted Ghost Tour from Wild SF Walking Tours

November 10, 2019

Over Halloween it occurred to me that I tend to gravitate toward “ghost tours” everywhere I go, but I’d never taken any traditional ghost tours at home here in San Francisco.

The tricky part it turned out was figuring out which one to go on — there’s a surprising number of such tours from different companies in different neighborhoods. I eventually decided on the Haunted San Francisco Ghost Tour from the relatively new Wild SF Walking Tours.

This tour is only offered after dark, beginning at Union Square and making a loop through the Tenderloin. The group I was in was maybe 15 people or so, led by a very entertaining drag queen performer who goes by “Mary Vice.”

As with a typical ghost tour format, it’s a mix of high profile murders and other deaths, morbid historical events, as well as reports of mysterious activities attributed to ghosts.

I never know how much to give away when reporting on a tour like this — I don’t want to say so much as to spoil it for anyone who’s interested, but I do have to mention a few key aspects to provide a taste of what’s involved. I’ll do my best here to provide a high level overview.

The tour includes:

  • San Francisco’s ban on new cemeteries and eventual relocation of all (known) buried human remains.
  • The Zodiac Killer and the time he was spotted committing a murder by multiple witnesses.
  • The rise of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple and the resulting Jonestown atrocities.
  • Several tales involving the 1906 earthquake and fire.

One of the more interesting traditional ghost stories is at the St. Francis Hotel, which have apparently freaked out guests on the top floor of the old wings of the building.

In general ghost tours are best led by theatrical minded guides and “Mary” was no exception. The tour has two other guides, or three if you include Mary’s alter ego.

On my way home after the tour I started thinking about all the subjects this tour didn’t cover. Most were well out of the tour area like the somewhat mysterious death of President Harding at the Palace Hotel, the double assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk at City Hall, as well as my personal favorite local ghost story — the Lady of Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park.

The only story I could think of that might fit the tour was the attempted assassination of President Ford outside the St. Francis Hotel. Then again it may not be noteworthy: it was the second time someone tried to kill him that very month. Besides, there’s already enough spooky stories at that hotel anyway.

 

My recommendation: With so many ghost tours in San Francisco I can say this one is absolutely worth considering. It’s reasonably priced, about the right length, and not too strenuous of a walk. There are stairs and the stories include subjects not suitable for younger children. If you’re interested it can be booked through their website or through Airbnb Experiences.

Haas-Lilienthal House

November 4, 2019
Haas-Lilienthal House

 

A block away from Lafayette Park in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood is the Haas-Lilienthal House, a well-preserved 19th century Queen Anne Victorian home.

Today the house is a museum of sorts. I took the tour earlier today. The only way to see the interior is on this tour, which takes around an hour.

The tour begins in the “basement” ballroom — really the first floor of the home — where the guide explains the history of the Haas family. The gist of it is two German Jewish immigrants, William Hass and Bertha Greenebaum, moved to San Francisco separately, met there, and got married. Mr. Hass worked his way up in the family’s food wholesale business. The couple built their home in 1886.

The Hass family had three children, and the house stayed in the family for three generations until the early 70’s when it was vacated and left to SF Heritage to use as a museum.

Surprisingly, the house went largely untouched over the years. The original furniture, wallpaper, and even children’s toys are still there.

To enter the house properly, we went outside and walked up the stairs to the main entrance from a tiled porch. The guide demonstrated how heavy sliding doors in front of the main entrance would have been closed in the Victorian era to indicate the family was not accepting pop-in visitors. In the days before phones it was common to meet friends and neighbors without advance plans, sort of like a professor’s office hours in a university.

 

Haas-Lilienthal House Haas-Lilienthal House Haas-Lilienthal House

 

Visitors accepted into the home would be first taken into a drawing room on the left. Here the adults in the family could chat with small groups and individual visitors for a few minutes.

Through the next set of doors is the dining room. According to the guide the table could be pulled out with removable leaves dropped in, supporting a party of up to 20 at a time.

This is easily the most ornate room on the tour, with hand-crafted redwood paneling, furniture, and decorations. At some point (I think it was in this room) our guide pointed at the chandelier and remarked that it had lights facing both up and down. The upward facing lights were gas lamps, whereas the downward facing lights were electric. An indoor light source that could be pointed downward was a novel concept at the time.

 

Haas-Lilienthal House

 

Behind the main dining room was a smaller and much more ordinary dining room where the servants would eat. The guide said the Haas family would sometimes use this room for breakfast as well.

The strangest part of this room is the window in the photo above — not only is it unusually large, it’s not a typical window. The entire thing including the wood panel below slides upward to provide a short but usable service entrance. This may have been used for moving furniture in and out of the house.

 

Haas-Lilienthal House Haas-Lilienthal House

 

Entering a doorway to the right leads to the first part of the kitchen area, the dish room where servants washed dishes and stored them in a large cabinet. A hidden cabinet in this room stores the leaves to extend the dining room table.

 

Haas-Lilienthal House Haas-Lilienthal House

 

The second part of the kitchen is where the chef would prepare food. It features a large Magic Chef oven/stove combo and a tiny refrigerator, both of which are new relative to the house, but still quite old considering the family lived here up until the 1970’s.

The small fridge was due to the fact that the backyard was originally intended for growing produce, and daily deliveries from the local butcher — sort of a proto-Instacart I guess — meant there wasn’t much need for cold storage on-site.

 

Haas-Lilienthal House

 

Next we were led upstairs to the “second” (really third) floor. Though the room is roped off to visitors, we could pop our heads in to see the baby room complete with an antique dollhouse.

Our guide explained that the dollhouse isn’t always present as the family’s descendants are still very much attached to it and borrow it from time to time.

 

Haas-Lilienthal House Haas-Lilienthal House Haas-Lilienthal House

 

In the front corner of this floor is a former bedroom the family later converted to a dining room. With the rise of the automobile, front-facing bedrooms were no longer desirable due to the noise.

Turning the corner we entered what would have been the original master bathroom. Not all of the plumbing looked original, though it certainly looks dated. The guide pointed out a large vanity mirror which had medicine cabinets on either side. The mirrored doors of the medicine cabinets were hinged on opposite sides so it could be easily transformed into a wrap-around mirror.

The next room is a small, fairly plain bedroom intended for the girls in the family.

The adults and some of the servants would have slept upstairs. Unfortunately we were not allowed up there as its currently the head offices of SF Heritage. But the guide did mention another upstairs room: the children’s playroom.

 

Haas-Lilienthal House

 

Heading back down into the “basement,” our guide ended the tour showing us part of the toy Lionel train set that at one time took up much of the playroom. He hit a switch and the lower train jumped into action, going around in a circle.

One strange coincidence: before I started writing this post I looked up the Haas family to learn more about them. The name seemed familiar since in Los Angeles I stayed in The Haas Building, but I assumed there was no relation. Turns out it was originally owned by William Hass’ brother Abraham. Small world.

 

My recommendation: Anyone interested in Victorian-era life and architecture in America should enjoy this tour. It’s the only museum of its kind in San Francisco, though it very much reminded me of the similar Driehaus Museum in Chicago. Be aware there are many stairs involved. For up to date tour information see the museum’s website.

The Broad

October 30, 2019
The Broad

 

My final stop on this trip to Los Angeles was The Broad (pronounced more like “The Brode”) a free modern art museum financed by the wealthy Broad family.

The museum’s main gallery is on the top and third floor, which unfortunately was the only part I had time to visit before heading to the airport. So take what I have to say next with a grain of salt.

 

The Broad The Broad The Broad

 

The main gallery is an almost paint-by-numbers collection focusing on most of the modern art superstars you probably have seen before: Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, etc. If you’ve never seen works from these artists by all means go to The Broad immediately and get up to speed on modern art. For the rest of us it’s largely comfort food.

One clever piece you’ll only see at The Broad is Under the Table by Robert Therrien. This is a giant table and chair set that seems to be a selfie-magnet, as though you’ve somehow been shrunken down after taking the pill that makes you smaller from Alice and Wonderland.

Another artist in the main collection I found particularly interesting was Robert Longo, who takes (or stages) photos, projects them, and then paints them with attention to movement and/or makes subtle differences to re-contextualize them in unusual and interesting ways.

One gallery focused on Ellsworth Kelly, who somehow turned canvases into art that I found physically painful to look at due to the bright contrasting colors. When I attempted to take photos I found some vindication as my iPhone camera had serious issues with autofocus when pointed at his pieces.

 

The Broad

 

What I did find particularly impressive about The Broad is the building itself. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro — the same firm that designed the Moscone West screen that never really worked — it looks like a white cheese grater on the outside, but on the inside it’s as though someone built an Apple Store inside of a hollowed-out cave.

I don’t mean to sound sarcastic, I just can’t think of any other way to describe the design without sounding like a crazy person.

 

My recommendation: To be clear I’ve only seen the main gallery on the third floor at The Broad. If you’re unfamiliar with modern art it’s a pretty solid introduction and the price is right — just make a free reservation online and go. Otherwise I’d suggest checking out the special exhibits instead. The friendly staff on the first floor will check in any bags and coats as needed.

Thought Experiments in F# Minor

Thought Experiments in F# Major Thought Experiments in F# Major Thought Experiments in F# Major

 

The Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry is the home of Los Angeles Philharmonic, aka “LA Phil.”

In the early afternoon on non-concert days several tours are available. Thought Experiments in F# Minor from artist duo Cardiff and Miller is an immersive video narrative piece that leads the audience around the labyrinth-like building as a story unfolds.

Best of all it’s completely free.

After checking in at a desk just to the left of the entrance, you hand in a photo ID in exchange for an iPad and a pair of headphones. The experience starts at a specific bench in the lobby.

I don’t want to give too much away here but the video begins with an adorable cat in a cardboard box before synchronizing with the current location, and begging you to walk around with it.

A seemingly detached narrator guides you to walk from place to place with the video as you follow two characters played by the wildly talented actress Jena Malone around the building.

The story is difficult to describe, but suffice it to say it involves life, death, the space in between — and Schrodinger’s Cat.

In real life, security guards stationed at key points open doors that would otherwise be off limits to the general public during the tour hours.

At one moment in the narration the audience is instructed to look at their reflection in a mirrored wall — if you ignore this and watch the video instead, you see the camera operator as he mimics the action, revealing himself in the reflection. I thought that was a clever Easter Egg, perhaps a nod to the impossible mirror scene in the film Contact (also featuring Jena Malone when she was a little girl.)

What really sets Thought Experiments apart from any immersive experience I’ve ever done are the musical performances from LA Philharmonic featured throughout. I’m not even a big classical music fan but I found these to be a treat.

In the final segment I found myself almost dancing as I followed the camera choreography in an empty room as the video veers through a small orchestra performing in the same space.

 

My recommendation: This is an unforgettable experience — I can’t think of a single criticism, it’s the most unique and well put together piece of immersive content I’ve ever seen. Be aware it involves stairs and escalators, and it’s only recommended for those 10 years old or over due to the content. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Angels Flight

 

For my last day in Los Angeles I was determined to cross a few items off my bucket list, and in order to get there I thought I’d cross off another: riding Angels Flight, the “world’s shortest railway.” It’s really a diagonal elevator with two cars that act as counterbalances.

On my previous visit to LA I went on a walking tour that included Angels Flight, but I didn’t read the fine print correctly. Although they promised a 50% discount off the $1 fare if you had a TAP card, they were not capable of charging the fare to a TAP card and required cash payment — which I didn’t have on me.

This time around I had plenty of quarters left over after going to a fancy new arcade and doing laundry, so I figured I’d give it another go. In the video above I’ve documented this quirky, jerky short railway in all its original 1901 glory.

Well… sort of. The history of Angels Flight isn’t quite what you might think. It was originally located at a different location, closed in 1969, and reopened in 1996 at the new space, only to close repeatedly over the years after a fatal accident. You can read all the details over at Wikipedia.

Armed with a pocket full of quarters I took the trip up the hill — only to find they now have a TAP card reader at the ticket booth at the top. Better late than never.

I also took a few photos of Angels Flight:

 

Angel's Flight Angel's Flight Angel's Flight

Santa Monica

October 29, 2019
Santa Monica Pier Santa Monica Pier Santa Monica Pier

 

After leaving the California Science Center I took the Metro Expo Line — soon to be renamed the E Line and combined with the Gold Line — all the way to the last stop in Santa Monica.

It stops a couple blocks from the beach right by the touristy Santa Monica Pier. Not having been to Santa Monica before I decided to wander around the pier just to see what’s there.

The pier has a few restaurants, a small amusement park with rides called Pacific Park, an arcade, a lot of buskers, and some very nice views. In a lot of ways it felt like a smaller version of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk but with much nicer weather.

It wasn’t particularly crowded when I went but that’s hardly surprising considering it was a Monday afternoon in October. I was more surprised the rides were running at all — there were no lines.

The beach around the pier is fairly pleasant. Lovely sand, lots of space to walk around, sun tan, or play volleyball. Probably best to stay away from the pier if you want to go out in the water though as they do allow fishing from certain parts of the pier.

Walking back up from the beach I wandered along the bike and pedestrian path next to the beach at street level. For whatever reason there’s a couple of old cannons placed there.

As I followed the signs to the nearby downtown area, I saw an older pale guy with long hair, sunglasses with small lenses, a cane, and a mumbling British accent who was having a friendly conversation with a storekeeper. If I didn’t know better — and to be clear I do not — I’d say that guy was Ozzy Osbourne. Then again Halloween’s coming up so who knows.

 

Downtown Santa Monica Downtown Santa Monica Downtown Santa Monica

 

The focus of downtown Santa Monica seems to be the Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian street with numerous restaurants, mall stores, two movie theaters, kiosks, and some very 1980’s water features with a dinosaur theme. Unlike most downtown areas these days there’s plenty of seats if you’d like to take a break.

Again, none of this was particularly busy on a Monday afternoon.

On the South end of Third Street there’s a more traditional mall with a Nordstrom. Walking through that mall leads right back to the end station of the Expo Line.

There’s quite a bit more to see in Santa Monica if you have the time of course. The nearby Cat Cafe Lounge would be at the top of my list.

Space Shuttle Endeavour

Space Shuttle Endeavour

 

Today I went to the California Science Center — a free Los Angeles museum mostly aimed at kids — to see something pretty amazing: a Space Shuttle that flew 25 missions in space.

Looking back it’s easy to see the Space Shuttle program as a weird quirk of space travel history, or at worst as a total flop. It was however the only part of the much more ambitious Space Transportation System (STS) program from the late 1960’s to actually get built and used, so it could also be argued it was a modest success from a certain vantage point of history.

Unfortunately two of the Space Shuttles didn’t make it — the Challenger blew up seconds after liftoff on its 10th mission in 1986, and the Columbia broke apart upon re-entry after its 28th mission in 2003.

The Endeavour was ordered in the wake of the Challenger disaster. In those days the Space Shuttle program was still in full swing and a replacement was needed — the Endeavour would be the last one ever built.

And yes, for the record it’s spelled “Endeavour,” not “Endeavor” despite the latter being the American English spelling of the word. It was named in honor of a ship sailed by Captain Cook in the 18th century, hence the British spelling.

The museum also has an external fuel tank outside. In the near future they plan to exhibit the Endeavour with the fuel tank and two mock solid rocket boosters, but the building for this is not complete.

Seeing it up close the Endeavour looks like an airplane, but of course that’s completely misleading, and a sign in the museum points this out: after taking off straight up strapped to rockets, the wings were only there so it could land like an airplane… kind of. In order to de-orbit it had to do a barrel roll, and as a safety measure that began with the Endeavour it also had a parachute pop out the back to add additional drag.

One interesting aspect of the exhibit is a short film that shows how the Endeavour as well as the fuel tank were delivered to the California Science Center. The Endeavour was strapped to the top of a 747 and flown in, as NASA used to do to in order to move the shuttles between launch pads. The fuel tank was put on a giant barge and shipped through the Panama Canal and up to Marina Del Rey. From there they both had to be placed on giant flatbed trucks and slowly towed in, which meant moving telephone cables, street lights, chopping down trees, and closing streets in order to clear enough space.

The film shows the Endeavor slowly inching along as curious onlookers gather to see this crazy historic event.

 

Space Shuttle Endeavour

 

In one corner there’s an engine on display. These are about the size of a small car, and each Space Shuttle had three of them. NASA had plenty of extras on hand and they were apparently relatively easy to swap out for maintenance.

These engines were one of the more successful parts of the Space Shuttle program and will likely be used again in the future.

 

Space Shuttle Endeavour

 

Although the above photo may look like a futuristic torture device, that’s actually a Space Shuttle toilet. According to the description there’s a very small hole for defecation, and a hose for urine. Light suction was used to make sure the cabin air was not contaminated.

It’s an interesting reminder that humans aren’t really meant for zero gravity environments.

 

Space Shuttle Endeavour

 

Around the interior of the building containing the Endeavour are photos of the crews of each STS mission with a short description of what happened and which Space Shuttle was used. The two disastrous missions show the deceased crew in black and white photos.

One aspect of this I hadn’t considered is the number of people onboard increased toward the end of the program, as the Space Shuttles were later used primarily for bringing people, supplies, and experiments to and from the International Space Station.

My one criticism of the exhibit as it currently stands is it doesn’t really touch on the International Space Station all that much, and yet it was clearly the most successful part of the entire Space Shuttle Program. Not only has it outlived the program, it got Russia and the US to cooperate on a major project. It’s a shame we don’t do that more here on the ground.

I got to see Neil Hamburger live at a small venue in LA

Neil Hamburger live

 

On Sunday night I went to see Neil Hamburger (with special guests) live at The Satellite, a small venue in LA’s Silverlake neighborhood.

For those unfamiliar with Neil Hamburger he requires a little explanation: he’s not a “real” person but a comedian character played by Gregg Turkington. Neil is a sad sack, third rate comic who appears to be a relic from a forgotten era. On stage he wears large glasses, an ill-fitting suit that looks like he probably woke up wearing it, and his damp hair is swept over his forehead. He frequently whimpers and coughs directly into the mic and constantly spills the many drinks he has cradled in his elbow.

The genius of the character is that he subverts the audience expectations of this seemingly cranky old man by telling dirty knock knock jokes, jokes in the form of questions with tasteless punchlines, and/or intentionally bombing with an idiotic punchline after a long and convoluted set up.

Most of his jokes come at the expense of celebrities — especially musicians. A few examples:

  • Why does Eric Clapton close his eyes during his guitar solos? Well, because his audience is so ugly.
  • What do you get when you cross the members of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers with an octopus? Junkies with eight arms to shoot up into.
  • What does the movie Oceans 13 have in common with rapper Tupac Shakur? Both were shot in Vegas.

Neil also has recorded a few music albums over the years. My personal favorite song of his is “The Recycle Bin,” in which he angrily denounces people who put non-recyclable stuff into recycle bins.

The evening began with Todd Glass. His set ran a little long, but his overall message was about how comedy should be inclusive rather than punching down, and making fun of comedians who can’t wrap their heads around the concept of improving themselves. He was joined by a band on stage.

The Puterbaugh Sisters arrived on stage next as “conjoined twin” ghosts. Halloween is a serious thing in LA and they used it to their advantage. Most of their material covered the problems they were having dating, being dead conjoined twins and all.

Jamie Loftus had a quirky set about eating eggs that included a PowerPoint presentation. She brought a brave member of the audience to play her dad in an embarrassing sketch.

Second to last, Natalie Palamides had a Halloween themed comedy set where she was dressed as a witch. She cast some “spells” and stole the soul of one member of the audience, only to return it after deciding he was too boring.

An unbilled performer whose name I can’t recall came out to test out a short routine he was preparing for an upcoming episode of Conan. It needed work, but that’s obviously why he was testing it on a small audience.

Finally it was time for Neil Hamburger to hit the stage. He started out with some new material, some seemingly improved jokes complaining about the Halloween decorations behind him, finally followed by a set of his classic material — mostly making fun of The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Neil’s set seemed on the shorter side, although to be fair I wasn’t exactly checking my watch or anything, and the show did unfortunately get off to a late start.

This show seems to be a monthly thing at The Satellite as there’s another show scheduled in November. For all upcoming Neil Hamburger shows, visit his “unofficial” website, AmericasFunnyman.com.

The Triforium

October 27, 2019
Triforium

 

Easily the strangest thing in downtown LA is the Triforium, a concrete sculpture covered in colorful glass prisms in a public plaza, surrounded by government buildings.

The obvious question — what is this thing? — doesn’t have a simple answer.

Artist Joseph Young built the Triforium for the plaza. Originally the plan was for it to have a computer controlled system of lights to illuminate the prisms, to rhythmically illuminate it in sync with a carillon.

Oh, and it was supposed to be topped with a laser that projected straight up into space.

There was one problem: it was 1975, and the technology was too primitive to realize this vision successfully. Also, the laser was never installed as it was already over budget. LA Weekly has more details on its history.

The public apparently didn’t care for the Triforium much after a while, the sound was disabled, and as attention to LA’s urban core shifted outward, the Triforium was not only ignored, but the reflection pool under it was drained and replaced with plants.

Now that downtown LA has become a much more vibrant place again, with it is renewed interest in the sculpture. Twice over the past few decades there have been restoration efforts, adding a new sound system, a modern computer, and LED lights to illuminate the prisms.

 

Triforium at night

 

Unfortunately it’s still not always on, even at night. I took the photo on Saturday well after sundown at around 8 PM and it wasn’t doing anything. I suspect it’s only activated for special events.

Fortunately Curbed LA has several short videos of the Triforium back in action. I just wish I had the chance to see it working in person.