From the birth of Los Angeles to today, the city’s structures serve Angelenos in shifting and sometimes surprising ways. This week in 1929, Bullocks Wilshire Department Store opened in the stunning Art Deco building that currently houses Southwestern Law School. ICW celebrates this anniversary with Southwestern and Dean Susan Westerberg Prager, who provided a brief history about this Wilshire Boulevard landmark.
By Peter Westwick
125 years ago, on September 24, 1892, Thaddeus Lowe led a party of local residents on horseback up Oak Mountain, about four miles west of Mount Wilson. When they reached the summit the party decided to celebrate by renaming the peak in honor of their guide. Lowe went on to build an inclined railway up his eponymous mountain, ending at a resort near the top; for four decades it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in Southern California, with over three million people riding the railway until fire and floods wiped it out in the 1930s.
Having a whole mountain named after you seems a pretty good way to get people to remember your name. But Lowe might have left a more substantial if less familiar legacy in Southern California’s aviation and aerospace industry. A New Hampshire Yankee, self-taught polymath, and a pioneering balloonist, Lowe built several balloons during the Civil War to spy on the Confederate Army, winning him official appointment by President Lincoln as Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army and the unofficial title of the most shot-at man in the Civil War. In 1890 Lowe retired to Pasadena, where he built a giant mansion on Millionaire’s Row and started a bank, a gas works, and an ice supplier—and planted the seed of flight. His friend and protégé, Roy Knabenshue, popularized balloon and dirigible flights in the area and also helped organize the 1910 L.A. Air Meet, a key catalyst for Southern California aviation.
Thanks to his service in the Union Army Lowe was sometimes called the grandfather of the U.S. Air Force. He was also the grandfather of Florence Lowe, whom he took to the 1910 air meet when she was nine years old. The spectacle of flight entranced the young girl, and she went on to acquire fame as “Pancho” Barnes, a pioneer barnstormer, Hollywood stunt pilot, industry test pilot, and later owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the celebrated watering hole at what became Edwards Air Force Base in the “Right Stuff” era. Lowe didn’t live to see it, having passed away in 1913, but he might have taken pleasure in knowing that many of the remarkable achievements of aviation and aerospace in the century to follow were conceived and built within sight of Mount Lowe.
Peter Westwick is director of ICW’s Aerospace History Project and adjunct professor of History, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science. He has published several books on the history of the Space Age, Southern California’s aerospace industry and surfing.
By Kevin Waite
When California was admitted to the Union as a free state on September 9, 1850, its troubles with slavery had, paradoxically, only just begun. Over the next decade, slaveholders would advance several schemes to settle their human property on the Pacific Coast. Meanwhile, Southern-born emigres quickly seized the reins of power within the state, giving California politics a distinctly proslavery cast. Among other initiatives, they opened legal loopholes that effectively suspended the free soil clause of the state’s constitution. To be sure, slave-based plantation agriculture similar to that in the American South took shallow root in California’s soil. But through their electoral and legislative maneuvering during the 1850s, slaveholders transformed the state into a political appendage of the cotton South.
As an Assistant Professor in American history at Durham University, Kevin Waite researches slavery and the Civil War in the American West. Waite recently published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times titled “The struggle over slavery was not confined to the South, L.A. has a Confederate memorial problem too.”
This 1854 map of California is courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.
By Chris Freeman
Christopher Isherwood was born on August 26, 1904. His was a Victorian childhood, a story he told in his 1971 memoir about his parents, Kathleen and Frank. By the end of that long book he realized that the whole thing was “chiefly about Christopher.” That childhood ended, as the Victorian era did, with World War I. Frank Isherwood was an early casualty in that global crisis, the inauguration of modernism and of the twentieth century.
In 1999, James Berg and I published the first ever collection of essays about Isherwood, which we titled The Isherwood Century. The title was in part a response to a classic study of his best literary friend Wystan Auden (Samuel Hynes’s The Auden Generation). Auden died in the early 1970s but was one of the key voices of the Thirties Generation. Significantly, Isherwood lived another dozen years, and his whole twentieth-century life was a life of engagement, one in which he always seemed to be where things were happening: in Berlin in 1930, at the crossroads of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich; in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s, working with friends like Aldous Huxley in the studio system and socializing with everyone from Greta Garbo to Charlie Chaplin; in the 60s and 70s, he wrote “openly gay” material, including his great Los Angeles novel A Single Man and Christopher and His Kind, a sort of gay autobiographical retelling of his Berlin and European peregrinations from 1929-39. That memoir and its publicity—he was somewhat famous because of the success of “Cabaret,” which was based on his “Berlin Stories”—made him a pioneering hero of the nascent gay liberation movement. And he lived long enough to comment about the AIDS crisis.
His long life was one of creativity, passion, and love. In 1952, he met a young man, Don Bachardy, at the beach and the two men built a life together. Bachardy, who was thirty years younger his partner, has now outlived Isherwood’s 81 years, and it makes him uneasy. He once told me that he knew what would happen up until that age; now he has no guide, but he too flourishes, in part because of the love and lessons learned from Isherwood.
A cryptic diary comment in Isherwood’s 1981 birthday entry illustrates his often tentative self-knowledge: “I have to admit that I felt curiously scared on my birthday yesterday, to realize I was seventy-seven. Why, I don’t know. The number must have some occult significance for me.” He was superstitious about numbers and dates, and I don’t think he expected to live so long. His mentor E.M. Forster made it to his nineties; Isherwood made it to eighty-one, a fulfilled, accomplished, and much loved man.
Chris Freeman teaches English and Gender Studies at USC. He is co-editor, most recently, of The American Isherwood and is finishing work on the forthcoming “Isherwood in Transit,” both with James Berg.
In connection with ICW’s “What Does California Mean?” conference in April 2008, then USC student Anna-Marie McLemore wrote a prize-winning essay, “Orange Country.” ICW reached out to Anna-Marie for her current thoughts on California and an update on her work. Below is McLemore’s update that mentions her third novel, Wild Beauty, due in October followed by an excerpt from her original essay from 2008.
By Anna-Marie McLemore
California became my family’s country. It became our home even when it broke our hearts. Even when it was drought-scarred. Even when wildfires turned the sun red. Even when I learned that growing up Mexican-American meant this country was both my home and a place I may never truly be welcome.
Wild Beauty is the story of women making a home on land they know may turn on them. It’s a story of women whose hands make gardens and whose hearts can be poison. Maybe it’s in my blood, the parts of Mexico my family came from. Maybe it’s from growing up a Latina girl in California. But the idea of home, the landscape of it, is both beauty and fear. It’s the understanding that anything can happen, and how that truth is both wonderful and terrifying.
Excerpt from “Orange Country” by Anna-Marie McLemore (2008)
California is the only place I know where the sky, just before the sun vanishes, flashes to the pink-red of the jamaica my great-grandmother made from hibiscuses and rose petals, but that my cousins and I mixed from packets we bought in the same grocery aisle as Kool-Aid and powdered lemonade. California is the only country I know that my great-grandmother could have built from the magazines she found in her older sister’s dresser drawers, and that my father could have fallen in love with through the creased paper of citrus crate labels. Those born in California – my mother, my brothers, me – find their heartbeat here. But everyday the air between the clouds and the earth trills and vibrates with the life of thousands who, like my roommate, are finding their center of gravity in the current of the Santa Ana winds.
For all my enchantment with this country called California, I have never looked at an orange as though it held a teaspoon of stardust. Maybe because I was born here, I am less likely to notice how oleander flowers, set in their dark leaves, move like clouds in the night sky, or how spring comes on so fast and warm that apricot trees blossom all at once, for only a few days.
By Bill Deverell
The field of western American history lost a true talent and a wonderful human being with the recent death of Louise Pubols. Trained as an historian at the University of Wisconsin, Louise had been the historian at the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West and, following that, was Chief Curator of the History Department of the Oakland Museum of California. Funny, smart, kind, unflappable, and ever so curious about the history of early California, Louise was a shining member of our community of scholars, as clever as she was kind. ICW was privileged to publish her superb, award-winning book – The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California – as the inaugural contribution to our Western Histories Series. We recently had Louise join us to talk about new research, tracing the mysterious arc of a mysterious woman in early 19th century California, and we will cherish the experience of being with her as she expressed her fascination with the elusive seductions of history. So many people in the academy and aligned worlds of archives and museums have been touched by Louise, her warmth and her scholarship, and she will be missed terribly.
By Michelle Nickerson
When Darren Dochuk and I convened the Sunbelt Rising conference in 2008, it was because we thought that the Bush-era political economic climate and recent scholarly developments demanded that we bring people together to rethink the importance of the Sunbelt as a twentieth- and twenty-first century region. In fact, the success of the conservative movement and our own research on the American right originally inspired a conference on “Sunbelt Conservatism,” but the burgeoning research on growth liberalism, civil rights reform, and the Global South caused us to expand the political scope while reaching intentionally towards economic themes. For the same reasons it made sense to be interdisciplinary, so four of our thirteen writers are political scientists: Sylvia Manzano, Daniel HoSang, Lyman Kellstedt, and James Guth.
For the presentations (which would ultimately be published) we wanted work that represented much needed updates on the region, so we chose authors who addressed the following: expansion of prisons and state power, the Latinoization of politics and economic life, the advancement of private and commercial property interests, migration of people and capital across the borderlands, growth of the energy sector and its impact on the Navajo, frostbelt to sunbelt migration, and the nexus of evangelical Christianity and capitalism.
We had two gatherings that year—at the Huntington in the Fall of 2008 and at Southern Methodist University in the Spring of 2009. In addition to generous funding and hospitality from ICW, we were part of an annual conference series sponsored by the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at SMU that develops presentations into essay volumes.
Our first meeting on that Friday in September assembled us into one of the Huntington’s Ahmanson classrooms for the first round of workshopping. Having read the first draft of each other’s essays in preparation for the event, we subjected them to sustained forty-five minute critiques. On Saturday, the scholars gave presentations to a lively audience in the Overseers’ Room. I have memories of a fantastic crowd—professors and students from the region sharing space with the curious public that often turns out for Huntington scholarly events. Our plan was to keep the presentations short, with four in one panel, which turned out to be perfect since it invited substantial audience participation. There were great discussions; and we left Pasadena energized and brimming with notes for our revisions.
Seven months later we reconvened in Dallas for the repeat conference at SMU. Looking back, I realize that Darren and I demanded a lot from our scholars to make them meet twice, but the intensity of our September Huntington meeting made the Texas work session fun. I remember watching presentations by historians, bleary-eyed from margaritas the late night before. The multiple drafts forced by these gatherings, moreover, pushed our project swiftly along its schedule.
We are very proud of the volume it generated, ultimately published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2011, called Sunbelt Rising: The Politics of Place, Space, and Region.
Michelle Nickerson is an Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago.