Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mulholland Drive - From Hollywood to The Valley

Skyline of Downtown Los Angeles, viewed from the Hollywood Bowl Overlook on Mulholland Drive - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Mulholland Drive - From Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley

During our driving tour of Hollywood, Carrie McCoy and I had already experienced several adventures. First, we had viewed a LACoFD training exercise at the Hollywood Bowl. For lunch, we stopped at Legendary Paul Pink’s Hot Dogs on La Brea Ave. After lunch, we drove toward Mount Lee to take pictures of the Hollywood Sign. Then, we departed Hollywood, via the Yellow Brick Road, better known as Mulholland Drive.

In its first mile, Mulholland Drive climbs from Cahuenga Pass to the crest of the Hollywood Hills. A quick series of switchbacks and hairpin curves introduces the neophyte motorist to the full Mulholland Drive experience. As Jim Morrison once sang in Roadhouse Blues, "Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel." If you do not, you could easily leave the roadway or mix with oncoming traffic. Until you pull over to let them pass, many drivers will tailgate you there at any speed. Over the decades, auto and motorcycle racing on Mulholland Drive has cost many lives. Since we were on a sightseeing tour, I pulled aside often, thus allowing traffic to clear.

Architect Harry Gesner's 1975 "Paraglider House", atop the Hollywood Hills on Macapa Drive. To many, this mysterious structure above Mulholland Drive and the Hollywood Bowl Overlook was a dubious addition to the contemporary Los Angeles skyline - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Our first stop was at the Hollywood Bowl Overlook. Although the view down-canyon to the Hollywood Bowl was disappointing, the view east to Hollywood and Downtown Los Angeles was classic. In the foreground were the Hollywood Freeway and the Capitol Records Building. Seven miles east was the Emerald City, better known as the skyline of Downtown Los Angeles. From the overlook, on that clear day, we could see the LA Basin in all of its glory.

With tour buses often crowding the small lot, Hollywood Bowl Overlook parking is limited. Just west of the overlook, there is adequate, if crumbling street-side parking. From there, however, one must cross through traffic to see the views. Like many places with limited parking and extraordinary views, people tend to linger. For them, it is like owning the view without having to pay for it. I walked in, looked around, took my pictures and returned to my vehicle.

While walking back to my car, I looked up to see an infamous, yet iconic single family home. Designed by architect Harry Gesner, the "Haynes House", as it was originally known, came to roost on its prominent hillside location in 1975. Although another of Gesner’s houses inspired the Sydney Opera House, the Gesner house at 7000 Macapa Drive has inspired more scorn than praise.

Single family residence at 7000 Macapa Drive, under reconstruction in January 2012 -= Click for alternative image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)With its Gesner-signature roof design, what I call the "Paraglider House" is the antithesis of Frank Lloyd Wright's “organic architecture”. According to FLW, building atop the crest of a hill destroys the hill. Viewed from the Hollywood Freeway below, the structure looks like an overgrown beach shack, silently screaming, “Look at me. Look at me”. I would prefer a house above the Hollywood Bowl Overlook that could project itself into group consciousness with less blatancy.

The public record on the Paraglider House is mixed. In early 2010, the owner had listed it for $2,695,000, or almost exactly one thousand dollars per square foot. Apparently, it sold later that year for $2.0 million. Even that was expensive for a thirty-five year old, three-bedroom, three-bath house encompassing 2,698 square feet. In essence, someone bought the view, not the house. In October 2011, a Google Street View showed the house stripped to the studs and under reconstruction. As of this writing, construction was ongoing.

Mt. Lee, with the "H" in the Hollywood sign visible on the right side of the image - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As one might experience anywhere on Mulholland Drive, our sojourn west included many tight turns and a few confusing street signs. Needing a rest, we stopped at one of many turnouts provided along the road by the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy. By then we were well away from Hollywood and approaching the San Fernando Valley. Having grown up in Burbank, California, I knew how hazy the sky could be in The Valley. From our perch atop the Hollywood Hills, we marveled at the clear sky and long views.

To our right, we could see Mt. Lee, famed for its Hollywood Sign and named for early Los Angeles car dealer and broadcaster Don Lee. At the top of Mt. Lee stands a communications tower that dates back to at least 1941. In the late 1930s, the first Los Angeles television broadcasts emanated from that tower. During my high school days in the 1960s, you could still drive to the top of Mt. Lee and enjoy a 360-degree view of Los Angeles and the Valley. Today, a gate far below prevents traffic from surmounting Mt. Lee. From our vantage that day, we could see an end-on view of the Hollywood sign, clinging to the far-right slope of the mountain. My father's memories of Los Angeles television history follow below.

Traditional RCA Indian Head Test Pattern Card - Click for larger, HD version of the image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Dr. Loron N. McGillis: “The call letters for the first Los Angeles television station were W6XAO. They transmitted from the communication tower atop Mt. Lee. When the station came on in the early evening, we watched on our 7" Motorola TV. During the day, they broadcast the traditional Indian Head test pattern, with emanating black and white bars. There was also a news tape running across the bottom of the screen. In 1948, the station became KTSL and in 1951, they changed again, to KNXT. In the 1980s, they changed again to the current KCBS TV.”

Panning my camera to the left, Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy appeared in my rangefinder. With lush vegetation behind her and a smile on her face, I could not resist taking yet another picture of the original “Valley Girl”, from Burbank, California. “Look”, Carrie said, “From here, you can see Universal City and Warner Bros. Studios”.

Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy at the Universal City Overlook on Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As I looked down from a curve on Mulholland Drive, the most prominent building in view had a huge sign that read, “NBCUniversal", with no separation between those two iconic names. In a not-so-subtly way, the resident media giants NBC and Universal Studios had melded into one. It reminded me of the dark days in the 1970s, when executives briefly renamed Warner Bros. Studios, “The Burbank Studios”. When the next intergalactic mega-media firm takes over NBCUniversal, that prominent office tower will display yet another in a long list of corporate logos.

Even in Los Angeles, few people remember who built what we now call the NBCUniversal Building in Universal City. In the 1970s, at the height of his wealth and fame, oilman J. Paul Getty commissioned the building as the Getty Oil Company headquarters. Although the building looks rectangular to the casual observer, its narrow lot and adjacency to the Hollywood Freeway dictated a trapezoidal shape. Although any form other than rectilinear creates triangular offices and wasted space, Getty and his oil company had money to burn. To make the edifice look more impressive, Getty specified an exterior clad in Italian marble. In 1976, prior to completion of the building, J. Paul Getty died.

Over the top of Universal Studios, the iconic Warner Bros. Studios sound stages and water tower dominate the scene - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In 1984, when giant Texaco Oil purchased Getty Oil, the building became the Texaco Building. In 1985, when Texaco lost in court to Pennzoil, that smaller company became sole owner of both Getty Oil and the Getty Building. If there was ever a Texaco sign at the top of that building, it did not last for long. As with media companies, Old Energy oil companies come and they go. Only their buildings remain to hint at their former glory. Exactly how the Getty Building morphed into the NBCUniversal Building, I cannot say. If history foretells anything, that building will not be the NBCUniversal Building forever.

Panning to the right of the Getty/Texaco/Pennzoil/NBCUniversal Building, I realized that I was looking down upon both Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Studios. In the 1960s, Universal Studios was a relatively small affair, with a concentration of buildings and activities on Lankershim Blvd., in North Hollywood. With the advent of the Universal Amphitheater, the Universal Studios Tour and Universal City Walk, most of the “back lot” succumbed to development. For reasons unknown, there is only one exception to that over-development.

The "NBCUniversal" logo sign atop the old Getty Oil Headquarters Building at Universal City, Los Angeles, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On a hillside lot, overlooking the corner of Barham Blvd. and Buddy Holly Drive, a haunted house once stood. Having sneaked up to the house with my high school friends, I know that it was haunted. At night, we could see a dim light glowing inside the house. As we approached from below, I tripped over a half buried headstone and fell headlong down a muddy slope. Using a flashlight, we read the names and dates of death on several tilting headstones. After determining that one grave was that of a child, we scrambled back to our car, never to return. That haunted house is gone now, but remnants of the circular driveway are still visible on Google Earth.

All good ghost stories and all good Hollywood auto tours must end. Carrie and I still had one last stop to make at the intersection of Mulholland Drive and Interstate I-405. There, we planned to visit with Coney the Traffic Cone, where he stood guard over the missing bridge lane at Mulholland Drive in Sepulveda Pass.