Whether It’s Kitsch or Art Is Up to Beholders : From Giant Doughnuts to Castles to Lady Liberty, Man-Made Landmarks Do Catch the Public’s Fancy
Some people enjoy them simply for what they are, while some criticize them for lacking aesthetic or artistic value.
The diplomatic say they are offbeat. Others sneer that they are nothing if not kitsch. But they definitely elicit a response.
While some of the man-made landmarks that dot the San Gabriel Valley are widely known, others go unnoticed by many. Still others are but memories, having disappeared over the years.
In La Puente, architectural enthusiasts as well as those in search of a morning snack are well aware of the Donut Hole, a drive-in doughnut shop that resembles two gigantic chocolate doughnuts stuck together by a baker’s box.
Each of the fiberglass doughnuts is 26 feet in diameter and hollow. The entire eatery measures 46 feet, doughnut-to-doughnut. The unusual structure on the corner of Elliot Avenue and Amar Road was built in 1946 as part of a chain but is now the only one of its kind, say Gilbert and Lorraine Lopez, who have owned the dual doughnuts for about a decade.
“Everybody’s interested in it,” Lorraine Lopez said. “We get people from all around who drive through. (People from) West Covina, Baldwin Park, La Verne--all over.”
So many people took notice of the structure that the Lopezes prepared a Donut Hole fact sheet that says visitors have come from as far as Australia, China, England, Germany and Japan.
In recent years the shop has become something of a media darling. It was featured in the movie “Dragnet,” has appeared in a German rock group’s video and has been trumpeted in numerous books and architectural magazines for its unique architectural and cultural value.
While owning a landmark has been a boon for the Lopezes, it has been something of a bust for Michael Rubel, who lives in a gargantuan castle in Glendora.
For years, Rubel lived a peaceful existence on 2 1/2 acres at the foot of the San Gabriels on Live Oak Avenue.
But Rubel says that a recent mention in New Yorker magazine has put his suburban neighborhood under siege.
“It’s getting to be a neighborhood problem,” Rubel said. “It would be like you having a house on a neighborhood street and having a lot of people all the time looking through the windows.”
But Mike Neu, who lives on the outskirts of Rubelia, says he’s unconcerned.
“I have no problem,” Neu said. “If people are looking for my house, I just tell them to look for Rubel Farms. I enjoy it, and it’s kind of unique in the neighborhood.
Until the recent spate of publicity, Rubel, safely sequestered behind 6-foot cinder block walls topped with barbed wire, enjoyed a Bohemian life style, constructing the 22,000-square-foot palace of stream-rolled rocks. The fortress boasts canons, parapets and a 74-foot clock tower that chimes the hour.
In an interview with The Times in 1974, when construction was half done, Rubel explained that his castle was an extension of his adolescent addiction for building forts.
The “Kingdom of Rubelia” took final form in 1985. But its walls weren’t tall enough to separate the castle from the outside world.
Rubel said that since his home was mentioned in the New Yorker in October, a sporadic stream of gawkers has appeared. The article on the dangers of living and building in the San Gabriel Valley mentioned Rubel’s castle and its building blocks as a side note.
“The castle’s for me to enjoy. It’s not for me to suffer in,” declared an exasperated Rubel. Fearing more gawkers, he declined further comment.
At the mouth of San Gabriel Canyon stands what’s left of Azusa Mayor Eugene F. Moses’ dream for a Knott’s Berry Farm-type Western theme park. But Canyon City Ghost Town--about 15 cabins, stores and shacks arranged tightly in a loose approximation of an Old West town--died before it ever really had a chance to live.
The town was officially dedicated in 1970, and building progressed on the 2 1/2 acres until about 1984. But work stalled when a past City Council rezoned acreage directly across from Moses’ property on San Gabriel Canyon Highway for a condominium project. Moses says he bought the property with the understanding the area would continue to be used for recreation.
“It killed me,” Moses said of the decision. “How can I have an amusement park across the street from a residential area?”
Today, all that is left of Moses’ ghost town is an odd assemblage of mostly authentic Western relics--from saddles to spittoons--salvaged from as far away as Montana, Utah and South Carolina. Most of the town’s artifacts were salvaged from places where they were neglected or in the way, Moses said. A few were bought.
A Western history buff since he was 12, Moses said the town fit into Azusa’s rustic past, when the city was a jump-off point for gold miners venturing into the canyon.
Moses, curator of his own memorabilia collection, speaks fondly about the value of his historical items--in both the monetary and sentimental sense.
A complete blacksmith shop with anvil and bellows is valued by Moses at $15,000. A horse-drawn fire wagon, bought at a movie studio auction, is worth $50,000, he said. The town’s cemetery contains tombstones Moses imported from the Mojave desert.
Moses said he doesn’t know how much the project has cost him over the years, but he is proud to say that he provided most of the labor.
“Some people will call this junk,” Moses said in disbelief. “Others call it history and see the beauty of it.”
The town used to be open for charity benefits and youth organizations, but the practice was discontinued as the condition of the ghost town deteriorated.
“It’s gotten dirty over the years,” acknowledged Moses, looking at the decaying surroundings.
The town will soon have to find a new home because the land it sits on has been sold to a developer. The new owner will have to get a zoning change from the council before anything else goes up, but it’s unlikely the buyer will share Moses’ passion for the old West.
Moses said he will try to move his buildings and artifacts to an as-yet undetermined site. “I’m working on it,” he said. “There’s too much here to let it go.”
A couple of other San Gabriel Valley landmarks have ended up as mere memories for residents.
The stolen treasure of Sierra Madre didn’t have anything to do with the 1948 John Huston film, but was a statue of a violin spider--a deadly South American arachnid whose infestation plagued the city in the late 1960s. In September, 1969, as a joke an artist donated to the city a 5-foot statue of the spider, an intimidating mass of sheet metal and steel rods.
A month later the spider was missing from Memorial Park, where it had been placed. To date, no further sightings of either the live or metal arachnid have been reported.
“The statue originally was something done in jest,” recalls Mayor Clem Bartolai. “I think it was such a unique thing for pranksters, it would be something fun to have.
“But I don’t know where someone would store it.”
In Bassett, a giant frontiersman adorned the Rotary Air Compressor Co.’s building on Valley Boulevard for 20 years. But Kit Carson had to move west when the shop expanded in 1986. It was given to a restaurant in Sylmar.
The giant, clad in coonskin cap and buckskin, was written about in “L.A.,” a 1984 book by Robert Miles Parker that lists architectural greatness and kitsch in Southern California.
“When people found out we were going to get rid of it, the next day we came to work and it had two arrows in it,” said Diane Marin, co-owner of the Bassett firm. “A lot of people seem to miss the giant.”
While driving past El Monte City Hall on Valley Boulevard, motorists would be hard-pressed to miss the city’s statue of liberty, one of the area’s most talked-about landmarks.
The Lady, a 23-foot, 1-ton replica of New York Harbor’s most famous resident, was donated to the city on July 4, 1986, by Dr. Jiing T. Wang, a Taiwanese immigrant who wanted to show his appreciation to the city.
After much hair-pulling and a year of the statue gathering dust in a city public works yard, the statue was placed in front of El Monte City Hall on Valley Boulevard. It’s a decision both revered and reviled.
“I have patients and friends who pass by the statue and feel good about it,” said Wang, who opened his medical practice in the city in 1979. “They feel it’s a good place to have it. They say, ‘Doctor, I saw your Statue of Liberty over there. It’s very good.’ ”
For some, it’s not so good.
“I still get a lot of people who call me and say, ‘Did you have anything to do with that?’ ” said Councilman Jeff Marrone, who cast the lone dissenting vote against the statue’s placement.
The resting place outside City Hall was found only after other cities, having read about El Monte’s dilemma, reportedly offered to take it off the city’s hands.
Critics say the $50,000 statue is not quite a duplicate of the original, suggesting that the El Monte version should lose weight.
Marrone said that he’s come to accept the statue in its current setting but will probably never like it.
“Even if it was a perfect replica, I wouldn’t want it there,” he said. “It’s not so much that it’s a chubbier version, but it doesn’t belong. If we’re going to have statuary out there, we need some pink flamingos.
“We all just have different tastes.”
Taste aside, Lady Liberty has become an integral part of El Monte.
Although none of the monuments that remain are as readily recognized as the Gamble House in Pasadena, the San Gabriel Mission or Santa Anita race track in Arcadia, they do add something to the local identity.
As in the case of Lady Liberty in El Monte, the final value of a landmark is the significance it holds for the community. Just ask El Monte Mayor Don McMillen about Lady Liberty.
“It’s not just a landmark,” declared McMillen, “It’s a tourist attraction.”
The mayor said he has seen buses of tourists unloading at City Hall to view the statue. What it lacks in universal appreciation, McMillen notes, the statue makes up for in uniqueness.
“There’s very few things like it, and it’s getting more famous all the time,” he said. “It is a little bit different, but I still think it adds a lot to the area.”
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