A Day In Downtown Los Angeles, 27 July 2010
The Sistine Chapel Of Los Angeles - La Casa Del Mexicano, Beautiful Downtown Architecture, and Grand Central Market


We live in Los Angeles, but are so busy rushing to get from one place to another that we don't explore its gems.  I'm as guilty of this as anyone.  I'll travel the world, yet not see what's nearby.  On a cool summer Monday, I aimed to change that, if only a little.

The first stop was La Casa Del Mexicano in Boyle Heights, tucked away on a small cul de sac off Euclid Ave, located in a building over 106 years old.


Martha Soriano, president of the Comite de Beneficencia Mexicana, the nonprofit group that oversees Casa del Mexicano, offered artist Hugo Martínez Tecoatl an opportunity to paint, telling him, "We don't have money, but we can give you all the paint you want and a place to live."  Tecoatl accepted on the condition that he could paint what he wanted,a nd Soriano accepted, provided that he paint about the Mexican people.

Tecoatl has filled the formerly ramshackle space with vibrant 30-40 ft. high murals of Aztec gods, Pancho Villa, Benito Juarez, Emilio Zapata, deer, serpents, all using bold colors.  "I like to use opposites.  Blue with pink, hot with cold. More contrast," Hugo told me.  The interior is so beautiful, it made my chest swell with pride to be Mexican, quite a feat since I'm Chinese.


Photo on left:  Tecoatl being interviewed by Univision, his first television interview, behind one of his murals that reflects an ongoing struggle for justice.

Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint some of his great works.  But this painter works in obscurity, waking up at 3-4 am each day to paint, preferring the peace and quiet while he is working.  Originally, Soriano hired him to paint only part of the walls near the arches.  After seeing the beautiful paintings, she encouraged him to keep going, and so he did, never with an intention to finish all the walls.  But that's exactly what has happened, nearing completion after a year of painting. 

Except for the cupola. 

If the center can find some scaffolding that reaches the cupola, he will paint this too.  After this, La Casa Del Mexicano will throw a large party in celebration.  And I hope that I will be there.

Hugo lives in the center, in a small room behind the main stage.  He told me that he moved here eight years ago from Mexico.  According to the LA Times, he moved from a posh neighborhood, giving up his home, his truck, his job at the gallery because they discouraged him from painting politically charged pieces.  He began painting murals along the river, on buildings, in exhibitions, living with friends or even in a truck until coming to La Casa Del Mexicano.

And here, he is able to paint what he wants.  His paintings are about the Mexican people - their spirit, their history, their struggles, their politics, their thoughts, their religion, their heroes.  It's about gangs and violence too.  "We have a large gang problem here.  The paintings are for them, to give them something to think about, something else to do.  That is what art, paintings, music are for."

He also mentioned that someday he would love to meet a beautiful Chinese lady.  Hugo, wouldn't we all...

Photo:  The muralista interviewed by Univision, his first television interview.

The paints of muralist Hugo Martínez Tecoatl.

According to the LA Times, in the 1950s, La Casa Del Mexicano was a cultural standout, attracting stars from Spain, wealthy Mexican donors, famous actors, and many donations.  In the 1960s, the President of Mexico cited La Casa Del Mexicano as one of the premiere places to visit in Los Angeles.  Unfortunately, some eight or so years ago, the center fell into disrepair. 

Now, though, La Casa Del Mexicano is coming slowly back to life.  It's programs, including sports, theater, English classes, beauty pageants and relief to the needy, are growing.  The center has new floors.  And, of course, it has the gorgeous paintings of muralist Hugo Martínez Tecoatl.

At work, painting more of his vivid mural masterpieces, turning La Casa Del Mexicano into the Sistine Chapel of Los Angeles.  I found the murals bold and stunning, simultaneously rooted in tradition while creating something wholly original, one of the true gems of Los Angeles.

Hugo, Martha, and Ruben, her husband (he also did some of the translating and explaining) were warm, gracious hosts, and I vowed to return soon.

"Un muralista estrecha los vínculos de los mexicanos con sus raíces" - Chicagonoticias.com

After eating noodle soup at a Japanese restaurant, I drove downtown to Spring and 8th and parked. Armed with my trusty camera, Art Deco Architecture book from last week's Art Deco tour, and sun tan lotion, I was ready to start walking.

But where?  To the Eastern Columbia Building.  I wanted to see some of the building that I had not seen during last week's Art Deco tour.  The Wednesday sunset tour, put on by the LA Conservancy, had been an abbreviated tour from their usual Saturday tour.


Left:  The entrance to the Eastern Columbia Building, with its terra cotta sunburst above the doorway.


The Eastern Columbia Building was gorgeous, probably the most beautiful of the Art Deco Buildings I had seen here in Los Angeles, with its deep blue and gold terra cotta and gold leafing. 

Another view of the spectacular entrance to the Eastern Columbia Building on 949 S. Broadway near 9th.  The building was built in just nine months and opened in 1930.

I didn't have to go far for the aptly named Ninth and Broadway Building, just across the street from the Eastern Columbia.  This is the entrance, with tan-colored terra cotta, textured to resemble stone.

I could not enter either building, as they were off-limits to the public.

A small cafe area reminiscent of Europe.

I returned briefly to Cicada, located in the beautiful Oviatt Building on 617 S. Olive.  We had toured this building during the Art Deco Tour the previous week, going up to the penthouse.

I couldn't resist entering the Biltmore Hotel, located a block from Pershing Square on 506 South Grand Avenue.

Upon its opening in 1923, the Biltmore became the largest hotel west of the Mississippi, and easily one of the most luxurious, with movie stars and heads of states among its guests.

Someone approached me.  "Who are you taking these photos for?"


"You're not with a magazine?"

"No.  I'm taking these just for me."

"Okay.  It's just that you look so professional with your camera, I didn't know."

With my professional appearance in tow, I walked up to Broadway between 3rd and 4th.  It was time to photograph the Grand Central Market, which has been located here since 1911.

I rounded the corner, and began photographing these chilis.  This red hot chili pepper man asked me if I were Korean.  Normally, this is not an unusual question.  No, what made it unusual is that he asked in Spanish.

I answered back in Spanish, saying that I was Chinese.

"I want to go to China.  It is very beautiful, no?  How many millions of people live there?" he asked.  "Too many."  He laughed. 

Apparently he never thought it strange that someone from China would speak Spanish with an American accent.

Across the street from the Grand Central Market is the Bradbury Building.  Beautiful cast iron railings and posts.  and hydraulic elevators (that still work!), all within this beautiful naturally-lit atrium.  We had come here ten years ago to take our band photo as Nectar.  And before that, Harrison Ford ran around doing battle in "Blade Runner." 

The interior of the naturally-lit Bradbury Building, an office building designed by architect George Wyman, built in 1893.

Ghost story:

Doesn't everyone love a good ghost story?  There's one here too.  Mining millionaire Lewis Bradbury tapped George Wyman to design the building.  Wyman first refused.  However, after a ghostly "talk" with in which his deceased brother encouraged him to take the job, Wyman consented.

Wyman was influenced by a book by Edward Bellamy entitled "Looking Backward" in which an office building in a utopian society was described as a "vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above ... The walls and ceiling were frescoed in mellow tints, calculated to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior."

Above:  Nectarphonic band photo from 2000, taken in the Bradbury Building, taken by Nigel Lizaranzu, the first band photo shoot taken near the time the band first formed.

A look at the path of the hydraulic elevator, built in 1893 and still in operation today.

The Southern California Edison Co. Building on 5th and Grand, with its large frescoes depicting forms of energy, this one hydroelectric energy above the octagonal entrance.

The United Artists Theatre at 933 South Broadway was opened in 1927 by its founders Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford; who needed the massive Spanish Gothic style movie palace as a venue for world premieres of their movies, but was close earlier as a theatre.  It now serves as the home for Gene Scott's Los Angeles University Cathedral.  The exterior of the building has many sculptures and reliefs, such as this one here.

Up the street from the United Artists Theatre, also located in the Theatre District, os the Orpheum Theatre, built in 1926, and serving as a popular venue for the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, Jack Benny, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald.  The restored Orpheum Theatre is now a venue for live concerts, movie premieres and location shoots.

After wandering downtown for over three hours, it was time to get a torta (Julio's on Broadway has chewy carne asada and cannot be recommended) and then head on over to my friends' flat in the nearby Chapman Building at Broadway and 8th for a fun evening of hanging out and listening to music.

A Day In Downtown Los Angeles, 27 July 2010

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