Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Soldiers by the Sea

A keen eye might notice the Spanish-style building moored against the eastern palisades just north of the western terminus of Sunset Boulevard. It was there, in a garage above the property, that the comedienne Thelma Todd was found slumped dead on the seat of her car.

Todd's December 16, 1935 death was and remains a mystery.

When I first moved to Southern California in the late eighties, I lived just down the road from this Castellammare architectural curiousity. To my northern eye, the building looked like the relic of a silent-film set, somewhere with a lungful of aphonic history whispered only on high Santa Ana winds.

The building is as much tethered to the history of Malibu as it is to the tectonic geography. May Knight Rindge's stronghold on the last unified Spanish rancho impeded retail and residential development until 1926, when Rindge released her grip in order to pay legal bills accrued during long battles with Los Angeles County over the building of roads and railways.

Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe, as the structure was known 72 years ago, is something you zip by on your way to Ventura County or, in the other direction, Santa Monica. It is no more unusual than the rest of the fantasy polyglot architecture of Los Angeles, except that it has been impervious to the strip mining and redevelopment that occurs most everywhere else in the drive-thru empire.

17575 Pacific Coast Highway hulks out there like a fortress frozen in time, waiting for its lost soldiers, unaware that they are not returning. It waits, shouldering history, while history moves by without a nod in its direction except for that of the odd archivist of places and things who keeps a record of addresses and events. And of course the itinerant admirer born a half-century too late: Todd was a dame who liked rogues, turf warriors battling for a piece of the larger Hollywood parcel. Todd died shortly after Lucky Luciano tried to muscle gambling into the cafe she owned.

Constructed in 1928, the building had a short run as a seafood restaurant before Todd and business partner Roland West bought it and rebranded the location as a steakhouse. For 1935, this was out of town, a retreat from the kliegs and the all-seeing eyes of Buron Fitts, the Los Angeles District Attorney. On this slab of former oceanfront farmland, politicians, mobsters, playboys and a comedic actress made a fashion of survival.

Like much of cobbled-together Los Angeles, the building rests in a pocket of architectural multiculturalism, the bluffs above containing modern residences each with an anxious eye towards the western ocean vista. Todd's restaurant mutely hugs the cliff below the encroaching armies, stoic in its defense of Hollywood narrative.


susie_bubble said...

I want to see 'your' LA.... ! I can only imagine it's heaps different from the LA I've seen in the past...

Suzanna Mars said...

Susie, I'll try to do some more pieces in the future. I'm quite interested in the history of the local architecture, among other things.

Also have an interview forthcoming that may be of interest!

Thanks for stopping by!

a. said...

love your blog - i'm sure you know already, but you are a REALLY great writer! and i love this post in particular - i'm originally from L.A. (now i'm up in northern CA). there's definitely a lot more to L.A. than meets the eye. looking forward to more posts...!

Suzanna Mars said...

Welcome, a., lovely to have you stop by and comment.

I come and go from Northern CA as well for work; completely different vibe, don't you think?

Please feel free to interact more! I plan on doing some more LA-centric pieces in the near future; as I said to Susie I'm quite attracted to architecture and cultural custom.

a. said...

oh yes, it's quite different up here. sometimes good, sometimes bad.... i definitely need to get in an over-the-top-wacky LAX fix every so often. :-)

oh - and an added little bit of trivia related to the story you recount in this post: the rindge family is originally from cambridge, m.a., where their name is remembered in cambridge rindge and latin HS and rindge avenue. they owned a ton of land in malibu, and in the SF valley as well (where i'm from).

i discovered this information while researching SFV history - specifically, i was reading pretty much the only book on the history of the SFV while sitting in the cambridge public library, which is located next door to said HS on land donated to the city by frederick rindge. it was a very funny little historical moment for me, having basically gone in the opposite direction as the rindges. :-)