Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Conjurer's Guide to Lost Los Angeles

Bank of Italy lobby, 1923
When writing The Kept Girl, I drew on historic photographs and postcards as source material for many locations that couldn't easily be visited. For the old Red Sandstone Courthouse is long demolished, as is the Goodfellow's Grotto seafood house and the saltwater plunge on the Ventura shore.  

For the scenes set in the 1923 Bank of Italy building, where Raymond Chandler worked as an oil company executive in the Dabney Syndicate, I consulted vintage photos as well as effusive trade journal descriptions of the myriad gorgeous details included in the lobby and offices.

While the building itself survives at the corner of 7th and Olive Streets in Downtown Los Angeles, it has long been in the possession of a landlord who sees historic landmarks not as gems to be polished, but as undervalued assets to be hoarded until the market swings just so. 

And so I could stand on the sidewalk outside the tightly locked hulk, peering up at the elegant marble columns and massive bronze doors -- both with big chunks missing -- trying to ignore the stench of human urine and pigeon guano, imagining how beautiful it all once was. 

But the location of the stairs and the elevators, the sound of footsteps across the double-height lobby, the colors of the polychromed metalwork--these all had to be invented. And that is what I did.

From Chapter Two of The Kept Girl

     At Seventh Street he swung right, through massive columns framing the tall bronze doors of the Bank of Italy. The lobby was cool and dark, suffused with the clean smell of capital. Tellers stood behind wrought iron screens, their edges burnished with gold leaf and flashes of red, green and blue. Above, deep recesses in the wooden ceiling glowed with pigment. The bank was busy, but as if in deference to the chapel-like space, no customer raised his voice above a whisper. 
  A signpost reading LADIES BANKING—MEZZANINE stood near the wide stair. At the back of the room, a stand of four ornate elevators waited to ferry patrons to the business suites above. Tom stepped into the only open one. 
  “Your destination, officer?” The dapper attendant was a cripple, perched on his stool beside the big wheel. He was an old man with youthful skin that rarely saw daylight, and the patient demeanor of one whose journey never varied. 
  “12th floor, Dabney Oil.” 
  If he found anything unusual in a rumpled beat cop asking for a ride to the top, the attendant gave no sign. With two smooth motions he closed the cage and sent the capsule rolling smoothly upward. They passed a moment in discrete silence before Tom was ushered gracefully into a long hall. Each of the wooden office doors led to some division of the Dabney Oil Syndicate; between them glowered portraits of anonymous burghers who’d made their fortunes centuries before, on wheat, slaves, silk or hardwood. The hall was quiet, and he instinctively tried to hush his steps over the rose pink marble path. 
Room 1208 was labeled in crisp golden letters: South Basin Oil Co. / R.T. Chandler—Vice President. Muriel ushered him in before his second rap. Ray looked up from behind his desk with a grin. 
“Tom! Summer morning in Los Angeles is absolutely glorious. Why didn’t anyone tell me? Sit, sit. Muriel, bring tea!”
*  *  *

So how wonderful it was to read in today's Los Angeles Times that the building has finally been sold, to a hotel developer with a track record of bringing neglected old buildings back into the light. It will be a few years yet, but some day, I'll walk right through those magnificent doors and up to the bar, where I'll order a proper gin gimlet, in honor of Mr. Raymond Chandler. 

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