December 10th, 2009

When (past) life imitates (current) art

Pursuant to a brief mention on my Facebook account...

My second novel, The Castle of Los Angeles (which will be my first published novel in about a month), began life as a collision of two different interests: 1) the traditional Gothic novel; and 2) the Los Angeles artists' community known as The Brewery. In the first instance, I wanted to conduct a kind of literary experiment: to find out if all the tropes of the genuine Gothic novel could work in a contemporary tale. In the second, I had some theater buddies who'd opened a small theater in The Brewery, and I was fascinated by the idea that a theater could also be where you lived. Since Walpole's The Castle of Otranto is generally considered to be the first real Gothic novel, it seemed only fitting to call my book The Castle of Los Angeles. The Brewery became my Castle, and I unabashedly stole bits of history from both The Brewery and another famed Southern California edifice, Pasadena's old Vista del Arroyo Hotel (now the U.S. Court of Appeals). The novel was completed in 2007.

This week I discovered a book called Bunker Hill by famed Southern California illustrator Leo Politi. The book was a lovely recollection of some famed Los Angeles buildings of the past. Imagine my astonishment when, upon flipping it open, I came across a building called The Castle.

I read Politi's brief description of The Castle, then immediately searched online and found several amazing sites that provided more history and more photos. This real Castle (unlike mine) was originally constructed as a residence, albeit a massive one, with 20 rooms; built in the 19th century, it stood on Bunker Hill in downtown L.A. until 1968, when it was nearly demolished, but saved and moved to a new location...where it unfortunately stood for only a few months before being destroyed by arson.

But beyond those differences, I was amazed to find out how much this real Castle of Los Angeles had in common with its fictitious counterpart (there is a character in The Castle of Los Angeles who has chronicled the building's extensive history, and provides some of it to our heroine). Here's a comparison table I made up:

Built in mid 1880sBuilt in 1885
May have been built by the Armour meat packing familyWas built to function partly as meat packing plant
Changed ownership a lot up until 1919Changed ownership a lot in the 1920s
Eventually converted to a boarding houseEventually converted to artists' lofts
Was famous for its Victorian architecture and prompted appearances in books and articlesWas famous for its Victorian architecture and prompted postcards and articles
Was reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of several suicidesIs reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of several victims of accidental death
Was slated for renovation by the city in 1968Was slated for renovation partly by the city in 1989

(Here, by the way, is one excellent page on the real Castle, and here's another which even includes a glorious photo of Politi sketching the Castle.)

I'm sorry I never got to see the real Castle. In the '60s my family was happily ensconced in the sunny suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, and we would probably have had no reason to head into the Bunker Hill area of downtown (although we did often go to the downtown Chinatown - can you see the formation of another lifelong obsession there?).

And now, of course, I live in dread of some local history expert pointing a finger at me and saying, "You molested the memory of our beautiful Castle!" To which my response could only be, "No, really - it's the Brewery I set out to destroy."