All winter long, in the shade of towering, ancient oaks, camellias bloom red, pink, and white in California’s Descanso Gardens. This enchanting garden has a painful origin, one tied to World War II. It is also a story of a beam of light in the darkness, an act of friendship amidst the anguish of many people.
This KCET video tells the story in less than twelve minutes, starting at the nine-minute mark, but you may want to watch the entire episode. Descanso Gardens is located in the city of La Canada (can-YA-da) Flintridge, only thirteen miles from downtown Los Angeles.
This video should start at about 9:00 minutes. Watch to 20:24. The last minute tells of the construction of Japanese Garden at Descanso Gardens, completing the story of what is now the largest camellia collection in North America.
E. Manchester Boddy saw a business opportunity, Brown says, but also had “deep compassion” for his friends and paid a fair price for the camellias.
The camellias I’ve seen in California are pink, white or red or a combination, such as red and white stripes. I hunt for “sports.” These are single plants with two different colors of blooms. For example, a camellia shrub with red blooms might have a section with white ones. Those branches have a natural mutation, so its blooms are different.
The trailer for the episode shows the gardens at Descanso.
Camellias at Descanso bloom from early autumn to spring, with the most dazzling floral display in winter, from January through February. Other gardens at Descanso make it beautiful year-round.
“Welcome, Modernists!” read the banners in Palm Springs, California. I hadn’t thought of myself as being modern, but this is Midcentury Modern, with a focus on the 1950s and 1960s. It might be as cool now as it was back then. I went to the fall preview of Modernism Week, an annual February event billed as the ultimate celebration of Midcentury architecture, design and culture.
Frank Sinatra’s Home
My first stop was Twin Palms. Designed by E. Stewart Williams, this house will forever be known as Sinatra’s house, although he lived here only ten years.
He and his first wife, Nancy, moved into their brand new home and threw a New Year’s Eve bash to usher in 1948.
Yes, his bedroom was open for the tour! This is the view from the bed.
A preservationist who spoke to our tour said the pool, which is in the front yard, was not built to look like a piano, although its shape reminds people of one. The walkway’s pergola often casts shadows which look like piano keys.
Sinatra left his wife for actress Ava Gardner. In 1951, they married, but the marriage was stormy. The master bathroom sink is still cracked from the time Sinatra reportedly threw a bottle of champagne during one of their fights. They divorced in 1957, but became lifelong friends.
There is a lot of sandstone inside and out. A microphone was found embedded in it. The preservationist said Sinatra did that because he wanted to hear what people said about him after he left.
Fireplaces in the Sinatra home. On the left, the sandstone one in his bedroom.
Sinatra could record from the property. An antenna extends up from the stone feature in the middle of the photo below. It sent his home recordings to his studio.
His living room had sound and recording equipment built in.
We saw many houses in a few days, but one stood out. We forgot the official name–the Morse residence–and called it, “The James Bond House.”
The James Bond House (But Not Really)
In 1961, Mr. and Mrs. Morse commissioned architect Hal Levitt to remodel their tract home. They liked to entertain and wanted to bring a pool into their living room.
A framed photo in the home showed one of their parties in the 1960s, with Mrs. Morse dancing to a band.
When the party’s over, partitions are pulled out of the walls, and the living room is separated from the outdoor pool.
The party continues. Even if you can’t go, see photos with sunshine and style at Modernism Week.
This was my first taste of Midcentury Modern, and now I really appreciate it.
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It’s still a New Year celebration in Pasadena. The 100th Rose Queen reigned over the Rose Parade yesterday, and the Pasadena Museum of History has remarkable photos, fashions, crowns, and more on display.
Fashions have changed, and fashion reflects history. This is the 1971 Rose Queen and Royal Court.
A hundred years ago, chariot races were the post-parade sporting event instead of football.
Mr. D. M. Linnard raced chariots in this toga around 1905.
The early Rose Queens had to come up with their own costumes (they were given five or ten dollars to defray the cost), and also the roses to decorate their carriage.
Before 1935, selection of the queen and princesses was informal. Early Pasadena royals included actresses. Usually, the women of the royal court were chosen because they were popular, excellent students, accomplished in other ways, or friends and family of Rose Parade volunteers.
There were even two men. In 1913 and 1914, there were Rose Kings as well as Rose Queens, similar to Homecoming Kings and Queens at high schools and colleges.
On January 1, 1942, the parade was cancelled due to the war, but the queen and her court put on their gowns and drove a car with a giant V for victory.
The 1951 Rose Queen–in white, as always–and Rose Princesses. Contrast this fashion with the royal wardrobe twenty-one years later, when many women wanted to join the workforce and see the Equal Rights Amendment made part of the Constitution. Ready for business.
The royals are ambassadors for the city of Pasadena, with well over 100 appearances in the few months before each New Years Day. Despite a hectic schedule which includes school, their wardrobes are coordinated with each other. Here’s their secret.
The exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of History includes many gowns. Some Rose Queens got married in theirs. There were two longtime designers for the Tournament of Roses. William Cahill of Beverly Hills, a noted designer of wedding gowns, supplied gowns from 1953 through the early 1970s.
1950s Rose Queen and Rose Princess gowns by William Cahill
1970, left, and 1971, both by William Cahill
Since 1993, almost all gowns have been created by designer Tadashi Shoji. These are from 2005 and 2004. Queens wear white, and this one is made of satin ribbons with rhinestone trim.
A bold entrepreneur and scientist, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe (1832-1913) made fortunes and lost them. It is almost the due date for filing 2016 income taxes, so some of us are taking a hard look at our saving and spending. The story of Professor Lowe’s fortunes is a cautionary tale.
He was a scientist with little formal education. Because he ran away from home as a boy, his schooling ended with the fourth grade. Nonetheless, people called him Professor Lowe. The title Professor was not reserved for those who taught in colleges or had advanced degrees. Professor Thaddeus Lowe held over 200 patents.
A Chemist Becomes Rich and Suffers Losses
Lowe made one of his fortunes after pressurizing ammonia to make refrigerated railway cars and steamships. His first refrigerated steamship was a financial success. He invested in more ships, but some were too large to enter shallow-water ports. Lowe’s personal losses totaled $87,000, a huge sum in the late 1800s.
The Lowe Water-Gas Process improved gas and made it more affordable. Gas was used to light homes as well as heat them. Lowe made a fortune producing and selling water gas and manufacturing appliances. These included stoves, heaters and fireplaces. The gas company he owned, however, was a financial failure. Same with a hotel he owned that showcased water gas.
A discouraged Lowe came to California and, too energetic to retire, founded a bank and invested in real estate. He lived in a mansion on Pasadena’s Millionaires’ Row, at 955 South Orange Grove Avenue. It was reported to be the largest residence in the country at the time and sat on fifteen acres.
The mansion even had a four-story observatory. Lowe lived there with his wife and younger children (they had ten in all), looked out at the steep mountains, and dreamed big.
Lowe’s Railway to the Clouds
The Mount Lowe Railway was an engineering challenge because of steep grades and crumbling surface rock, but Lowe would not take “no” for an answer. The railway was built by D.J. Macpherson with Lowe as the financial backer. Visitors enjoyed the thrilling ride and ate and stayed at hotels Lowe built on the mountain. He also built an observatory near the top of the railway.
Although the railway and hotels were popular, it lost money at a time when Professor Lowe had other financial problems. It opened in 1893, at the start of a recession that would last years.
By 1898, Professor Lowe’s debts totaled over $200,000, and he had to declare bankruptcy. By then, Lowe’s huge mansion was owned by his neighbor Adolphus Busch, the beer magnate. The railroad was acquired by Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric Railway and operated for decades.
Although he lost this fortune, Lowe counted his blessings. He explained that his Mount Lowe Railway was ten years ahead of its time. He said that he was glad he had a mountain named in his honor, something that money couldn’t buy.
Back to the lab. Professor Lowe developed a method to convert crude oil to gas and coke. He put it in production, but he did not charge enough to make and sustain profits.
The good professor died nearly penniless in his daughter’s Pasadena home. At the time, he was planning a gas-powered luxury airship.
Lowe’s Early Career: Balloonist and Lincoln’s Chief Aeronaut
From the time he was young, Lowe was a balloonist. When the Civil War broke out, he offered to help the Union. President Lincoln wrote a note to General Scott to “see Lowe once more about his balloon.” Lowe acquired the note and treasured it for the rest of his life. Lowe became Chief Aeronaut of the Union Forces, a civilian position.
Lowe ascended in a balloon and looked down upon Confederate troops in the distance. He observed their movements and telegraphed this intelligence information to Union soldiers below. A wire connected the telegraph in the balloon to the one on the ground.
Special thanks to the Mount Lowe Preservation Society Inc. and the Pasadena Museum of History.
I’ll post on the first of the month starting June 1.
A ghost town is the home of the stories of its past residents.
[This post was written by reader Brigid Amos. Maybe you have seen her comments here. She is the author of a new book, A Fence Around Her. I’ll let her continue…]
There is something bittersweet about a collection of abandoned homes, businesses, churches and civic buildings, all decaying slowly in a remote location. A visit to such a place always seems to evoke the dashed hopes and bitter disappointments of those who once walked its now-lonely streets, and this is true even if the ghost town is well-maintained and heavily visited, as is Bodie, California, a prosperous gold and silver mining district in the Eastern Sierra that boomed in the 1880s. Of all the stories I’ve read or heard about Bodie, the one that always gets to me is that of Lottie Johl. I find her story so sad and touching that I loosely based a major character in my novel A Fence Around Her on this real-life Bodie resident.
Lottie was a sweet, good-natured woman who found herself, through unfortunate life circumstances and limited employment opportunities, working in a house of ill repute in Bodie’s red-light district. There she met a hard-working German immigrant named Eli Johl. Although he was quite successful as a butcher, he was a lonely bachelor, perhaps due to his limited English skills, and he seemed to be searching for someone to share his life. The woman he found was Lottie, and much to the horror of the respectable people of Bodie, he took her as his legal wife. He built her a comfortable house and furnished it in the best style he could afford. Lottie showed an interest in painting, and Eli bought her an easel, a palette, and brushes, and he kept her well-supplied with oil paints and canvases. Isolated in her opulent parlor, Lottie painted fantastical landscapes. Eli had them elaborately framed in red velvet and gilt and displayed them on the parlor walls, although no one came to their house to look at the paintings, because Lottie was still shunned by society.
Finally, Eli hatched a plan to almost force Lottie upon Bodie society. A masquerade ball was to be held at the Miners Union Hall, and Eli sent Lottie to the event alone, dressed in a white satin gown covered in fake diamonds and pearls, with a matching crown perched on her blond curls. All the men wanted to dance with the lovely lady in the diamond and pearl-encrusted dress, and all the women envied her. The committee assigned to give out the costume awards decided to give the mysterious lady the first prize. But when midnight struck and everyone took off their masks, poor Lottie was abandoned by her dance partner. A member of the committee discreetly asked her to leave, and she went home in humiliation.
And if the events of Lottie Johl’s life weren’t sad enough, her death and burial are truly heartbreaking. Lottie felt sick one day (though probably not sick enough to die), and a doctor wrote a prescription. The druggist filled it, and Lottie took the medicine. She was dead by next morning. Instead of the prescribed medicine, the druggist had given her a deadly dose of a toxic substance. It was probably a mistake, but I have to wonder if the druggist took less care in filling the prescription when he saw that it was for Lottie Johl, someone he considered of little importance.
Eli was not allowed to bury his beloved wife inside the fence of the cemetery with the “respectable dead,” so he erected an ornate wrought-iron fence around her grave. He was determined that she would have a much finer fence than the one around the cemetery, so that people would see what a fine woman she was. I think it’s ironic that so many of the people who made Lottie’s life miserable are completely forgotten, while the memory of Lottie Johl lives on.
I felt that it was important to honor the real-life inspiration for Lilly Conoboy, the mother of fourteen-year-old Ruthie Conoboy, the protagonist of my novel A Fence Around Her. I want to make it clear that Lilly is not Lottie. While Lottie was an innocent victim, Lilly brings on her own tragedy. While Lottie seems like someone I might seek out as a friend, Lilly is someone I would avoid if I could do so. But that is what we historical fiction writers do. We take history and turn it into fiction, and the two are not the same. I will always feel gratitude to the historical Lottie Johl for being who she was and leaving behind her story.
Pamela: You can read an excerpt of A Fence Around Her, Young Adult Historical Fiction published by Clean Reads, and purchase at the links below.
These are called cigarette cards. Not much bigger than a modern business card, these trade cards were a bonus in a pack of cigarettes. They came in a series, usually twenty-five or fifty, with a similar theme.
Many were aimed at male smokers: airplanes, sports and cars. These cars were modern at the time.
Cigarette companies wanted brand loyalty from consumers, so they gave them tiny works of art.
Another good way to get customers to keep buying from their company, and not from a competitor, was to display numbers on the cards.
Or even letters of the alphabet.
The cards above and below are part of a 1910 series, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.
Some were embroidered silk. Recently, a quilt made of many of these was on display at the Pasadena Museum of History.
I came across all of these, and many more, by accident, at a hotel near Yosemite, the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal. All of the ones there were from Great Britain, from 1890 to 1939. The cigarette cards below of British military uniforms were issued in 1939, when the country was fighting for its survival in World War II. I like to imagine people in a bleak time appreciating the small, patriotic works of art.
From black and white to color: the invention of printing by lithography brought beauty to people’s daily lives through mass production. If you are old enough to remember when color TV was new, you remember the first time you saw a show in color. I was amazed. It was so much more lifelike and vibrant than shades of gray.
In the late 1800s, lithography brought an explosion of items printed in color. People were handed trade cards like these, picked them up in the store, and pulled them from their mailboxes. Some women and children pasted them into albums.
Handbills distributed on the street for events, illustrations in books, free promotional posters you could tack on your wall–suddenly color was everywhere.
Recognize this painting from my last post? The Crimson Rambler, named after the wildly popular rose.
Here’s one way that rose got so popular: trade cards.
Technology also brought colorful clothes. At this time, in the last half of the 1800s, synthetic dyes were introduced and suddenly people could wear rich colors. Here are two silk dresses from the 1890s. These are from the Pasadena Museum of History.
Technology brought the excitement of color. “The Color Explosion” was an exhibit at the Huntington showcasing part of their Jay T. Last Collection of lithographed items. Click on that link to see some examples that really took advantage of color, and read how it changed the world.