Six Neat Books about Los Angeles

Things to Do, Travel Tips — By Noah Albert on December 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm

The following list is not meant to identify the most grandest and greatest Los Angeles books ever. A list like that would include tomes like Kenneth Anger’s  muck-racking masterpiece Hollywood Babylon and Mike Davis’ slightly dated but still indispensable City of Quartz. Instead, the task I have set my self here is much humbler and idiosyncratic–this list is a wander through the books I have recently been checking out and have found to be interesting and useful resources. This more casual task also allows me to skip classics that everyone already know anyways and identify some more oddball works. Before I begin, I want to acknowledge John Chase, whose book Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving re-invigorated my Los Angeles book fever; the annotated bibliography in that volume also led me to some of the titles below.

Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles by Charles Fleming (2010)

I recently skimmed a host of walking guides to Los Angeles (a blogger’s work never ends, right). Out of the lot, this is the one that really stood out. To start with, the structure is clear and the maps are decent. However what really drew me was a sense that the writer, Charles Fleming, really knows his Los Angeles history. His brief notes on the buildings and historic sites along the walks  have above average content and depth and they really drew me in. This vibes with the author’s bio–Mr. Fleming started reporting on the entertainment industry in 1987 and wrote for a host of major publications (Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, New York Times, Los Angeles Times etc). He now teaches journalism at USC. Charles Fleming is, in short, a very good writer. This little book is an affordable and very handy guide to Los Angeles walks.

Canyon of Dreams: the Magic and Music of Laurel Canyon by Harvey Kubernik (2009)

This is a scrapbook chronicling the lives of musicians in Laurel Canyon, especially during the golden age of the 60s. The cast of characters includes Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, the Mama and Papas, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, the Eagles and many more famous rock musicians. Interspersed with the photos and memorabilia are selections from interviews with people who were there back in the day. It is a little disorganized but you really get a sense of the place and time none-the-less. The writer, Harvey Kubernik, has been involved in the music industry as a journalist and producer since the early ’70s. The book is printed on matte paper rather than the normal glossy; it is not the most high quality matte printing but it’s still an improvement over the norm!

The Dream Palaces of Hollywood’s Golden Age by David Wallace (2006)

This book is a collection of views of fabulous Los Angeles houses, many of them which were built or lived-in by celebrities from the Southland’s star-studded past. Forget about the spartan economies of modern design, what we have here are a lot of examples of period revival architecture and sumptuous interior decoration.  Larger than life patios and interiors are the point of this book. The text mixes in some Hollywood history with the commentary and pictures of the various buildings. If this sort of thing floats your boat, it is defiitely worth looking for the more slightly expensive and harder to find (used only) The Hollywood Style by Arthur Knight (1969). This older book has much better photos and over-all a nicer feel; it is especially notable for including the celebrities in the photos (Natalie Wood featured in a number of shots!).

California Crazy and Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture by Jim Heimann (2001)

This affordable and widely available book is a top-knotch history and picture book of buildings with shapes that express their economic purpose. Included are ice cream stands in the form of cones, ice cream makers and glaciers, flower shops shaped like flower pots, hot dog stands shaped like hot dogs and just plain dogs and generally a whole world of roadside vernacular architecture like this. Historically Southern California has been a hot-spot for this type of stuff. In the late 1800’s, this was due to the popularity of over-the-top revival architecture here, and also the general free-wheeling California attitude. Once the automobile came in the picture in the 20th century, this type of architecture was useful as stores tried to attract the attention of motorists, leading to a golden age of roadside vernacular in the late 20’s and early 30’s. This book covers that era and more and features a great collection of photos. Also, check out to find sites that are still out there today.

California: Views by Robert Adams of the Los Angeles Basin 1978-83 by Robert Adams (2000)

Robert Adams is my favorite landscape photographer. He lived in the Los Angeles area in the late ’70s and early ’80s, which is when the pictures in this book were taken. These photographs are not for everyone, Adam’s work can border on the banal. To use another weary “b” word, the pictures are also beautiful.  The sites that he focuses on are the areas beside the highway, or a stretch of a deserted dirt road, or an urban no-man’s-land covered with trash, or even a common suburban neighborhood vista. He is quoted in the text at the end of the book saying: “The operating principle that seems to work best is to go to the landscape that frightens you the most and take pictures until you are not scared anymore.” He captures these places in the midst of transition from the wilderness they once were to the cookie-cutter neighborhoods they have become today. This is a meditative book that asks you to fully consider our contemporary built environment. Some of his photos of the Southland have also been published previously in “Los Angeles Spring” (from 1984) and various collections. This “California” book was published relatively recently and has the twice as many pages as the “Los Angeles Spring” volume; the photos are from the same time period.

Views of Los Angeles by Gernot Kuehn (1978)

This book is out of print and only available used. It is constructed of pairs of black and white photos: a historic photo of a cityscape is matched with a current (1978) photo of the same place. The result is a really interesting visual record of the changes the city has gone through. Kuehn has done an excellent job of trying to match up the scenes, I love how he often has to stand on top of his car to get the right perspective. Another (much more widely available) book that is a treasure trove of historical photos of Los Angeles is Picturing Los Angeles by Jon and Nancy Wilkman (2006). Another cool (and affordable book) similar these other two is Yesterday’s Los Angeles by Norman Dash. All these books bring Los Angeles history alive through the medium of photography.

[Photo of Lafayette Park in 1945 courtesy of army.arch]

Tags: Architecture, books, guide books, history, Hollywood, photography, Roadside architecture, walks

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