Sex, death and architecture: an L.A. noir tour

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There are 8 million stories in the naked city, and nearly as many tours -- especially when it comes to Hollywood, architecture and crime. In fact, tour operators such as Dearly Departed: The Tragical History Tour and Esotouric, which features such bus adventures as ‘The Real Black Dahlia,’ ‘The Birth of Noir’ and ‘Blood & Dumplings,’ have made a cottage industry of combining these timeless topics.

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Conservancy gets into the act with ‘L.A. Noir-chitecture: A Hard-Boiled Tour Through the Historic City,’ which has already sold out (sorry, pal -- Culture Monster must have been slipped a Mickey Finn and spent some time in ‘Hangover Square’ while all 700 tickets quickly went). Still, C.M. likes to take our vicarious thrills where we can get them, so we got on the blower with Trudi Sandmeier, the brains behind ‘Noir-chitecture’ and the conservancy’s director of education, for the dope.

Turns out, L.A. city’s Department of Cultural Affairs approached the conservancy to construct a tour connected with the department’s celebration of Dashiell Hammett’s novel ‘The Maltese Falcon’ this month. Quite ‘a challenge,’ Sandmeier said, ‘considering that ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is a book set in San Francisco.’ Still, this dame was game. As a result, ticket-holders who paid $25 to $30 a pop will be able to visit seven locales from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday; docents will explain the lore and literature associated with the locations, which are all in a fairly tight radius to keep the tour manageable. ‘We would love to have included Walter Moseley, but that would have taken people too far afield, to downtown and more South L.A.,’ Sandmeier said. (And if there’s one thing we know from noir fiction, we don’t want to ‘take a trip downtown.’)

Some sites are admittedly a bit of a stretch both in an architectural and literary sense. Take the Formosa Cafe, which is not exactly a triumph of design. It is boxy, its main feature being a repurposed rail car, and is painted a garish red; the original structure was built in 1925, its architect unknown. Nor is the West Hollywood hangout for the famous and the infamous directly referenced in James Ellroy’s novel ‘L.A. Confidential.’


But who can forget the scene from Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film adaptation, in which Guy Pearce’s Detective Ed Exley confronts gangster Johnny Stompanato and his female companion in a booth at the Formosa? The woman asks Exley to stop bothering them and leave; thinking she’s just another prostitute who’s had plastic surgery to look like a movie star, Exley attempts to quiet her by saying, “Shut up! A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker.” One problem: She is Lana Turner. ‘Sometimes, a building is significant, not because of its architecture, but because of its history in reality and our imagination,’ Sandmeier said, explaining the Formosa’s inclusion. ‘Its ramshackle architecture is one of its most charming elements.’

The remainder of the tour is an appropriately murky mix of noir literature and film. To find out how this potboiler ends, click on through.

The next stop on the tour has a stronger architectural pedigree: the Villa Primavera, built in 1923 and designed by the husband-and-wife team of Arthur and Nina Zwebell. The Spanish Revival courtyard of the WeHo apartment complex proved the perfect location for the 1950 adaptation of the 1947 Dorothy B. Hughes novel ‘In a Lonely Place.’ The movie features this bit of dialogue between creepy screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) and his fetching neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Graham) about the layout of their apartments:

Steele: You know, Ms. Gray, you’re one up on me -- you can see into my apartment, but I can’t see into yours. Gray: I promise you, I won’t take advantage of it. Steele: I would, if it were the other way around.

Another 1923 complex, the Parva-Sed-Apta Apartments on Ivar Avenue designed by C.B. Rolyer, is the erstwhile home of Nathanael West, who researched his 1939 work ‘The Day of the Locust’ while living there. Sandmeier calls the Tudor Revival-style building ‘charming,’ albeit ‘not something you’d put in Architectural Digest.’ West had a slightly different take, at least fictionally speaking: The novel’s Chateau Mirabella, inspired by the Parva-Sed and where protagonist Tod Hackett lives, ‘was mainly inhabited by hustlers, their agents, trainers and advance agents. In the mornings its halls reeked of antiseptic.’ Unfortunately, tour-goers won’t be able to enter the actual apartment used by West, since it’s occupied by a tenant, Sandmeier said. But they’ll visit the one across the hall, a mirror image of the real deal.

Maybe the most interesting stop, architecturally and cinematically speaking, is the Glendale Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, a Spanish Colonial Revival (or Mission Revival, take your pick) structure by MacDonald and Couchot from 1924. It was used in a key scene of ‘Double Indemnity,’ the 1944 film adaptation of the James M. Cain novella starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck as two murderous insurance schemers. The location has been used for many films, including as a stand-in for the fictional Clayton College in the 1927 Buster Keaton film ‘College.’

Rounding out the L.A. Conservancy tour are the Security Trust & Savings Building (office to Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe), the Mulholland Dam (featured in Michael Connolly’s 2007 book ‘The Overlook’) and the ‘New York Street’ set on the Warner Bros. Studios lot.

Why include a movie set on an architectural tour? Because that’s where ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ starring Bogart, was shot. And after all, to steal a line from Sam Spade himself, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

--Scott Sandell

Credits: Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in ‘Double Indemnity,’ Associated Press; ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ Estate of Dashiell Hammett; Curtis Hanson outside the Formosa Cafe in 1997, Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times; Villa Primavera, Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times; Nathanael West, file photo; Glendale train station, Los Angeles Times