Collecting Greater Los Angeles History With Photographer Gary Leonard

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead collects artifacts having mainly to do with greater Los Angeles (however that may be defined) during the 1830-1930 period and seeks to do so broadly to interpret compelling cross-sections of regional life.  Photographs, broadsides, newspapers, maps, and three-dimensional artifacts, among others, are part of the palette of material from which to paint varied pictures of how people in the area lived during that century.

It was interesting and illuminating, then, to venture to downtown Los Angeles yesterday morning to visit, with my wife and my colleague, Alexandra Rasic, the storefront location in the 1923 William May Garland Building of photographer Gary Leonard, who has not only been visually documenting events and people in the area for decades, but is also an artist with his camera and a historian with his approach, appreciation and aims with his work.  For years, thanks to his friendship with Alex, Gary has been an official photographer of the Homestead’s festivals.

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This and the next several photos are a portion of the amazing collection of photos and ephemera assembled by Gary Leonard, a photographer whose keen insights into history are a significant part of how he has developed the collection.

It was telling that Gary, who was raised in Encino, spent a considerable amount of time talking about his high school graduation photograph, not just as a document of his life, but of that of his time AND added a bit of aesthetic and perceptual mischief.  Recognizing that the photographer had to pan across the large number of seniors carefully arranged for the moment, he stood at the far left end of the assemblage and then surreptitiously scooted along the back of the group, where he couldn’t be detected, and popped up next to a friend who’d left space for him at the center right, just in time to be documented twice in the photo.

That sense of awareness of space, time and history has animated much of Gary’s remarkable and diverse work since the 1970s as both a press and freelance photographer.  He may be best known for his work documenting the emerging punk rock scene in Los Angeles in the late Seventies and early Eighties (in fact, the members of a very popular rock band signed the guest book in the shop just above where we left our names).

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But, Gary’s work, as evidenced by just a few samples at his shop, ranges widely through many facets of Los Angeles-area life.  Hollywood stars, the homeless, civic events, the preservation of historic structures and the building of new ones, athletes and sporting events, and myriad examples of the mundane and everyday mix in surprising ways.

This is especially true when Gary talks about why he took a given photo, saved a sample of a historic site, or preserved a piece of memorabilia from an event and shares an awareness of history, the power of pop culture, delicious irony or any number of attitudes and approaches that explain why he collects what he does.

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He mentioned, for example, a photograph of Pia Zadora, an actress and singer perhaps most notorious for her razing of Pickfair (allegedly because it was haunted), the mansion of silent film royalty Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, with Grandmaster Flash, a founding figure of hip-hop and that the unlikely combination appealed to him.  Or, when, though he wasn’t supposed to, he convinced the famed comedian George Burns, who stood at one end of a room at an event, to join legendary actress Bette Davis, who was at the the other, for a photo.

Yet, there are also many images that are deeply affecting as reflections and documents of the darker side of Los Angeles.  This is encapsulated as powerfully as any of the photos I saw by a well-known photo of a nude homeless man sitting on a sidewalk in the aftermath of the 1987 Whittier earthquake.  It is difficult to look at the image because of what it depicts directly, but also what it means in the context of a natural disaster and the unnatural tragedy of homelessness, especially given how much more rampant it is three decades later.

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Much of what is discussed above is relevant to recent experience, but there were also some objects in Gary’s collection that reach back to the time period interpreted by the Homestead.  For example, he had samples of bricks from several local structures, including the zanja madre, the mother ditch that supplied water to Los Angeles in its earliest days or from the Chamber of Commerce building at Fourth and Broadway on which site a new development is now rising.

He also has a fragment of sandstone from the City Hall that was on Broadway from 1889 to 1928 and, on another table, is a souvenir booklet from the opening of the current civic headquarters from ninety years ago.  On the same plastic tote box as the City Hall relic are steel and cement pieces from the Sixth Street bridge, which was razed several years ago to make way for a modern one now in construction.

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These are now sitting in an environment with an early Walkman, a pair of socks from a civic event, a photo of and cheap paperback autobiography by Rudy Vallee (a 1920s pop singer of enormous popularity), photos of punk musicians and athletes, and a full box of cookies from the lone edition of a downtown Grand Prix car race.

It all seems disparate and disjoined on first glance, but, when talking to the creator and the collector, these varied artifacts come together as part of a broader story of Los Angeles, a sprawling collection in a microcosm of a sprawling megalopolis.  Unorthodox and perhaps unruly in assemblage, it is something of a mirror and a homage to the place.

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Gary is in the very earliest stages of discussions with local institutions about his collection and he expresses the alternating excitement and foreboding of what this means.  He recognizes, as a historian, the value the material can have to researchers, but is fearful of losing what has been an essential aspect of his being for so many decades.  This is natural and like so many processes, it is going to be one of pendulum swings of emotion and intellect.  He knows in his mind that having the collection go to an educational institution is the right thing to do, but, in his heart, a sense of loss pervades the process in its formative development.

Of course, it is hardly as if he can hit a switch and turn off his collecting habit.  Henry E. Huntington once said “a man may quit cigarets or cocktails, or money making, or anything else he likes, except collecting.”  J. Paul Getty is said to have observed, “I am an apparently incurable art-collecting addict,” with the key word being the one that couldn’t quite own up to the habit.

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Just a block northeast of Gary’s shop are two 1920s commercial buildings developed by Walter P. Temple, then owner of the Homestead, and a syndicate of investors.  This is the National City Bank Building, recently renovated for retail and loft space, and located on the southeast corner of Spring and 8th streets.

Not to equate Gary with these powerful tycoons of industry, but there is something relatable in the idea that, once the collecting bug is introduced, it is highly unlikely that it can be “cured.”  As he finds a worthy home for his amazing materials, he’ll keep on collecting and applying the highly personalized approach to it.  It’ll be interesting to see what that next collection takes in and looks upon in the years to come.

I took the opportunity, because of the proximity, to drag my wife to several historic areas within the city as part of the excursion.  For example, just a block north and east is where Walter P. Temple and associates jumped on the bandwagon of development in downtown and built the National City Bank and Great Republic Life buildings on Spring Street at 8th Street.

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Across 8th from the National City Bank Building is the Great Republic Life Building, designed like the former by well-known architects Walker and Eisen.  From 1924 to 1927, when the Edison Buildings was finished in Alhambra, Temple had the offices of his several companies located in this structure.  It is also home to retail stores and lofts.

One of the many streams of conversations we had at Gary’s place was about the rejuvenation and gentrification of downtown in recent years, and these buildings are an example, as they have been repurposed as retail and loft space.  On one hand, these elegant early 1920s structures have been saved, redesigned and made useful.  On the other, there is a growing concern about what market rates will mean for the affordability of housing and the livability of the area.

We also quickly walked down St. Vincent Place, a curious alley that was something of a courtyard for the Bullock’s department store, a key part of the shopping district on 7th Street a century or so ago.  This was also the location of St. Vincent’s College, the first institution of higher learning in Los Angeles and which morphed into today’s Loyola Marymount University.

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This is one section of a timeline wall at the Biddy Mason Memorial Park between Broadway and Spring Street and 3rd and 4th streets.

After a delicious Italian lunch on Broadway near 3rd, we walked around the back of the restaurant to view the remarkable memorial to an amazing woman, Bridget “Biddy” Mason, brought to Los Angeles by a slave master in the early 1850s.  Securing her freedom, Mason worked as a midwife, but also began acquiring land in that area where the memorial is situated and became the possessor of a significant amount of property.  She was also an important community builder among black residents of her time and, though long under-remembered, she has now received the attention due to her.

Then, in an adjacent corner is the stunning Bradbury Building, erected by Lewis Bradbury, for whom the tony residential enclave in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains is named, in 1893.  The Homestead has, in its collection, an 1890s register of real estate owned by the mining magnate, including his San Gabriel Valley ranch land, the opulent family home on Bunker Hill, and the Bradbury Building.  While Bradbury initially hired well-known architect Sumner Hunt, he brought in George H. Wyman to oversee the construction.

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The dazzling interior of the Bradbury Building on the southeast corner of Broadway and 3rd.  It was largely a cloudy day, but the sun shone brightly just as we entered the landmark structure.

Wyman’s family suggested that he changed the design to include the iconic interior that was most famously featured in the early 1980s futurist dystopian film, Blade Runner, though there is no solid evidence to suggest that Hunt’s work was altered.  In any case, the awesome interior court with a massive skylight, open-cage elevators, gorgeous iron railings, and beautiful use of marble stamps the Bradbury as one of the city’s most remarkable buildings.

From there, it was a rapid walk to Union Station to catch the Metrolink back to the City of Industry and the Homestead, but the morning was a notable historical excursion of many interesting dimensions and layers.

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