Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

Cottage Grove, Oregon

October 18, 2012


During the six and a half years that I lived in Oregon, I always saw this sign along the I-5 whenever I was driving from Eugene to Cottage Grove. I’ve wondered if anyone ever satisfied this man’s tremendous need for fill dirt.

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I had to delay my move to Los Angeles for a few days, so I decided to drive to Umpqua National Forest, which I had never been to before. It is a gorgeous wilderness that extends from the Willamette Valley up into the Cascade Mountains. I walked along a hiking trail that went alongside a creek. The forest was extremely dense. There were thick clumps of moss growing all over the tree branches. It was all a bit gloomy, albeit in a beautiful way. I kept thinking this place would make a good setting for an H.P. Lovecraft story.

On my way back home, I decided to swing by the funky little town of Cottage Grove. This place is most famous for the fact that Buster Keaton’s The General was filmed here. (Animal House was also filmed here, although, not surprisingly, nobody feels proud about that.) The town has an annual Buster Keaton Day. It also has a mural of Keaton located on its Main Street.

Keaton is not the only person honored by a mural in Cottage Grove. Another is Opal Whiteley, who is the most famous person to ever come from this town. In the early twentieth century, Whiteley published what she claimed was a diary that she kept as a child growing up in a lumber camp near Cottage Grove. In it, she claims, among other things, that animals could talk to her, and that she sometimes met “little people” in the woods. She also wrote a nature book titled The Fairyland Around Us. The title of this work is meant to be taken literally. It is a curious mixture of scientific facts, poetry, and just plain fruitiness. I’m told that only five copies of the first edition still exist. One of them is at the University of Oregon (which Opal attended for a couple of years, though she didn’t graduate). It is kept in a locked vacuum chamber that is surrounded by armed guards. Although I would like to think that this indicates a firm commitment to preserving Oregon’s literary history, I have, however, a dreadful foreboding that the university will one day sell it in order to pay for more uniforms for the football team. (Okay, I’m kidding about the armed guards. However, I’m not kidding about the uniforms.)


Opal Whiteley prominently featured in a mural honoring Cottage Grove.

I find it a bit ironic that Cottage Grove has chosen to honor Whiteley in this way, considering that Whiteley disdained her Oregon background and upbringing. She devoted a large amount of time and energy to claiming that she was the daughter of a French aristocrat, Henri, Prince of Orléans, and that she had been sent away to be raised in a lumber camp in Oregon. (I guess that this sort of thing happens all the time to the daughters of the French aristocracy.) She spent the last fifty years of her life in a nursing home in London, where the staff referred to her as “the Princess”. She was buried under the name, Françoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans. One of the reasons for the ongoing fascination with Opal’s life is that it is not clear whether or not she was a fraud. My guess is that she was probably suffering from a mild form of schizophrenia.


Mount David

Located near Main Street is a long narrow hill that Cottage Groveans (I don’t know what else to call them) call Mount David. This is the most striking physical feature of the area, and I assumed they would have made it into a public park. However, I was surprised to learn several years ago that there were plans to build houses on the hill. This struck me as a bad idea, because, among other things, the sides of Mount David are extremely steep and are almost like cliffs in some places. I once climbed this hill, and even though it’s not that tall, it was only with a great deal of effort that I managed to make it to the top. I was sweating profusely when I got there, even though the hill is not especially high. These plans have apparently been abandoned, which may have something to do with the fact that local residents formed a “Friends of Mt. David” society to preserve the hill. (I suspect that the recession may have been another factor.)

Mt.David is interesting in a number of ways. There is a pioneer cemetery at the foot of the hill. There were cougar sightings on the hill last year. And, according to this reputable website, the hill is haunted:

    Said to be a some kind [sic] of spirit that will chase you off of the hill at night time. Around the graveyards there are said to be many apperinces [sic] of the ghostly kind. Beware of the thing that will chase you off the mountain at night time.

When I climbed the hill, I did go back down at sunset, although I am not aware that I was being chased by anyone or anything. Besides, I think I would be more frightened to run into a mountain lion than into a ghost. One thing I did notice as I was walking along the ridge was an almost perfectly circular impression in the ground, about twenty feet across. I have since learned that there used to be an oil well on top of the hill, which perhaps explains that odd formation.


Another fine mural.


Another mural on a similar theme.


There used to be a gun store at this location. This is progress.


If I lived in Cottage Grove, I would definitely go to this place for all my automotive needs.


Public art, or a bench? You decide.


The Bohemia Mining Museum may be closed, but this would-be capitalist is determined to follow that fine old American tradition of trying to get rich quick and failing at it.


This sign is on a building which used to be Cottage Grove’s City Hall, but which now houses a ballet school and some small businesses. I used to see signs like this all over the place when I was growing up. Yes, this actually gave me a twinge of nostalgia for the Cold War. Does that make me a bad person?

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Leaving Oregon

October 9, 2012


Puck, a kestrel at the Cascades Raptor Center.

If everything goes right in the next few days, I will be in California. There are various reasons why I am moving. One of them is that there are a lot more opportunities there for the type of work I do. I have lived in Oregon for six and a half years. One of my deepest regrets in life is that I didn’t have more opportunities to explore this beautiful state. Lately, I’ve been exploring the hills south of Eugene.

My first stop was the Cascades Raptor Center. This place has an amazing collection of predatory birds. It is not a zoo, however. The actual purpose of this organization is to rehabilitate birds that have been injured (often as a result of human activities), and to return them to the wild. This is a worthy cause, because raptors play an important role in nature. They mostly prey upon small mammals that would otherwise rapidly overpopulate. (Foxes play a similar role, yet they are inexplicably hunted in an aggressive manner in some parts of the U.S.)
However, some of the birds that the center acquires can never be returned to the wild, because they would have zero chance of survival, either because their injuries are too severe, or because people have kept them as pets. These birds make up their permanent collection. They have bald eagles, golden eagles, a kestrel, kites, merlins, ospreys, a gyrfalcon, a red-tailed hawk, a Swainson’s hawk (who was Swainson, and how did he get his own species of hawk?), a peregrine falcon, and harriers. They also have owls: great horned owls, barn owls, spotted owls, barred owls, screech owls, burrow owls, a snowy owl, a long-eared owl, a short-eared owl, a Eurasian eagle owl, and a saw whet owl.

In one enclosure, there were two turkey vultures. These are extremely common in Oregon. During the summertime, it seems as though hardly a day goes by without seeing at least one of these funereal creatures gliding overhead. There were signs plastered all over the cage at knee level warning people to not stick their fingers through the bars because these birds BITE HARD. I had felt a twinge of sadness as I thought that they must have put these signs up because at least one child must have learned this the hard way.

At one point I saw one of the magnificent great horned owls, one who had been raised as a pet, pushing his face against the wire of his enclosure. This, too, made me feel a bit sad.

They had a few birds that are not raptors. There was a magpie, a type of bird I have never seen before. It had striking black, white, and blue plumage. These are said to be among the most intelligent birds. They are among the few animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror. As I walked around his enclosure, which he shared with an enormous raven, he followed me around. I like to think that he took a liking to me, although he was probably just hoping I would give him food.

After leaving the CRC, I drove through an area known as Fox Hollow. It is a pretty place, surrounded by hills and dotted with farms. (One of these is called the Knee Deep Cattle Company. Who says Oregonians don’t have a sense of humor?) From there I drove into the farming community of Lorane. The countryside here was a little flatter, but still pretty. I noticed a couple of bed & breakfast places here. This seemed to me to be a nice place to spend a few days.

I then drove over densely wooded hills, on the other side of which I came across the 38 highway which took me into the charming little town of Drain. That’s not a joke, that’s actually the town’s name. It was founded by a man named Charles Drain. (Some things can’t be helped, I guess.) At the edge of town was an enormous sign proclaiming: DRAIN, OREGON: GATEWAY TO THE PACIFIC. You see, to get to the Pacific, you must pass through Drain. (There’s a joke in there somewhere. I just have to figure out what is.) The town’s chief landmark is a Queen Anne style house known as the Hansard House.


The Hansard House.


Downtown Drain.


I tried to take a picture of the building from a different angle, but the people inside started making faces at me. I guess I must have had “tourist” written all over me.


Functional architecture at its finest.

As I drove through the side streets of Drain, I saw a cat sitting in the middle of the road ahead of me. I pulled up and stopped in from of him, expecting him to run away. He just looked at me. Finally, I had to drive around him. As I drove away, I looked at him in the rear view mirror. He had turned his head and was still looking at me.

A few miles from Drain is the even smaller town of Yoncalla. It is known for its annual rodeo. The streets were almost completely empty, except for some rowdy kids. A town like Yoncalla may seem charming to an outsider like me, but I can see how growing up here could be a bit dull.


Welcome to Yoncalla. (Since when is “chiropract” a verb?)


Downtown Yoncalla early on a Sunday evening.The What Now Bar & Grille sometimes has live music. They were advertising an upcoming appearance by the Bad Boys of Seduction.

The Ambassador Hotel

September 17, 2009

As I was writing my recent post on the Kennedys, I was reminded of an experience I once had involving the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. This historic structure in Los Angeles was torn down in 2005, to make room for new schools. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I know that the schools in L.A. are badly overcrowded (and they will be even more so when Schwarzenegger’s budget cuts come into effect). On the other hand, the Ambassador was a striking example of a Spanish/Art Deco style of architecture that I have only ever seen in Southern California. (Union Station near downtown Los Angeles, is a good example of this type of building. If you’re ever planning to visit the Big Orange, I recommend checking this place out.)

The Ambassador was built in 1921. Over the years many famous people stayed there, including Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Anna May Wong, and Frank Sinatra. (The wikipedia article gives a lengthy list of names.) You can find pictures of the place here.

The Ambassador Hotel was closed to guests in 1989. However, during the 1990’s, it was frequently used as a location for film shoots. This is where my story begins. I spent a brief period of my life working as a movie extra. (The politically correct term is “background artist”. This was a weird experience that I will have to write about in more detail in a future post.) My agent instructed me to go to the Ambassador Hotel in the late afternoon to work on a night-time shoot. Now, the building and its grounds occupied a sprawling expanse off Wilshire Boulevard. (I must have driven past there a hundred times previously, without even being aware of the place.) I wandered around for a while, not quite sure that I was even supposed to be there, since the property was surrounded by a chain-link fence with KEEP OUT signs on it. I eventually stumbled across a film crew shooting a movie. I thought this must be the place I was supposed to be. I stood around for a while, with people busily brushing past me, until I managed to get the attention of a production assistant. This woman was unusually polite for a PA. When I told her the instructions that my agent gave me, she told me I was at the wrong shoot, that the one I was supposed to be at was right around the corner of the building. I was a bit incredulous at this, but I followed her directions, walking a path lined by overgrown trellises. Sure enough, right around the corner there was a film crew shooting another movie. I think this experience gave me some idea of what Hollywood must have been like during the 1920’s, when film crews were shooting all over the place, sometimes side by side.

They were making a cop film starring Burt Reynolds. I can’t remember the name of it (I’m not sure anyone bothered to tell it to me), but it probably wasn’t very good if it had BR in it. We were shooting a scene right in front of the main entrance to the hotel, and it was possible to walk into the building when the PA’s weren’t looking. It was dark inside, but there was enough light coming in through the windows that one could make out details. There was an an enormous carpeted hallway that sloped upward. To the left, a large doorway led into what had clearly been a bar. I felt a strong urge to go exploring. However, the PA’s sternly warned me and the other extras – um, I mean background artists – not to go wandering around in the place. They said the structure was in disrepair and therefore possibly dangerous. I figured this was probably true. More importantly, I was afraid of getting fired. (I needed the money.) Nevertheless, I still sometimes feel a twinge of regret that I didn’t give in to my impulse for adventure. To explore the rooms of a huge, dark, abandoned building; what could be more fun? Who knows, I might have been in a room that Marlene Dietrich once stayed in. Oh, well.

One other thing I remember is that there were dozens of feral cats roaming around on the grounds. I wonder what happened to them.

This brings me to the Bobby Kennedy connection. There was a story going around among the extras – er, I mean background artists – that there was a pool of water on the exact spot where Kennedy was shot. I remember people saying this to one another in hushed tones, as if it had some profound significance to it. Since the kitchen where Kennedy was shot was off limits to us, it was impossible to confirm or deny this story. (And who the hell would have have known the exact spot where he was shot?) Supposing this story was true, wouldn’t it have just indicated that the place had leaky pipes?

Myths, legends, folktales, superstitions, etc. have always fascinated me. There seems to be some fundamental human impulse to make these things up. It’s not clear to me why. Perhaps it all starts with somebody bullshitting other people. Once I had a friend who liked to pull other people’s legs. One day he decided, just for the hell of it, that he was going to make people believe that he took part in the invasion of Grenada. He invented this elaborately detailed story. (“There was a body on the ground in front of me. I stepped over it and kept on moving forward…”) I remember hearing him telling this story at parties. Finally, he admitted to me that he had made the whole thing up. For years afterwards, whenever I mentioned his name to people, they would say, “You mean the guy who was in Grenada?”