Many an Angeleno will tell you that the only time they ever truly love Los Angeles is right after a good scrubbing. Dana Hollister isn't one of them. And even after a night of unusually theatrical winds, she isn't blown away so much by the here-to-Catalina view from her hilltop Silver Lake home as she is by the details: what got dislodged, what took a tumble--trees, walls, fences--and because of it, what odd, unexpected juxtapositions have been created, what has suddenly been pushed into plain sight.
In other words, Hollister doesn't need high winds or any other sort of weather event to really see Los Angeles. What draws her eye is not official "postcard L.A." She's much more interested in the city's rough edges, its sun-faded soul, the neighborhoods that until recent years existed just outof frame. Places she can doll up with a club or a restaurant or a hotel. "It's just a dream city," she says. "But it is asleep."
For more than a decade, Hollister has been buying up properties, remnants in and around Silver Lake in much the same way she used to scavenge for vintage fabrics to make luxe pillows and opulent draperies or rescued old sofas from sidewalks to reupholster and resuscitate and retail at her erstwhile Beverly Boulevard boutique, Odalisque. "They were beautiful, beautiful things!" she says with the enthusiasm of a new mother. "Carved bottom trims, feet. The frames were beautiful. They were just beat up some--but really, nothing was wrong with them."
The same holds true for her home, the Paramour, a long-neglected idyll now invigorated and verdant. When she first took up residence with her sleeping bag, dog and sawed-off shotgun, it was in need of some good loving--a mess of broken windows, a leaky ballroom ceiling and musty, long-closed rooms. "But," she says, "I knew even then she had beautiful bones."
When Hollister arrived in L.A. from Chicago, fresh out of the Art Institute in 1985, she was set on becoming either a photographer or film director. "Instead," she says, "I became a designer." But really, those previous aspirations can be seen in the nightspots--the 4100 Bar, Cliff's Edge, the Brite Spot (which she owns and operates with her boyfriend and business partner, Jim Venetos)--that she's planted along the eastern curve of Sunset, one of Silver Lake's busiest, still-blossoming business stretches. They are artful collages of mood and time, stripped-down spaces layered with stained-glass windows from, say, an Echo Park church, or perhaps stately wrought-iron gates from a cemetery in the Valley. It's not just what L.A. is now that she sees, but what it was and what it could be.
To be sure, Hollister's Los Angeles isn't what most of us would even give a second glance to as we drive high above it on transition roads or sit stalled so long in gridlock that we begin to look right past if not through it: the concrete boxes and bad stucco jobs, the chain-link and razor wire. It's not simply X-ray vision that Hollister possesses, but a manner of seeing that combines imagination and a brass-tacks business sense, not to mention prescient timing.
To call her "visionary" would put too high a gloss on a process that is much more intuitive and spontaneous. "I'd say I'm less guided by my brain than my heart," she says. In an attempt to parse her process, she offers a glimpse of Los Angeles--her Los Angeles--through her roving eye.
These days she's looking east, the new west--the unrediscovered, the still wild. Says Hollister: "I'm going to take you to the river."
We coast down the hill, past the streets with names of flowers--Carnation, Dahlia--to begin our tour at Hollister's "ground zero," the site of her early Silver Lake years. Hyperion slides over to Sunset. Streets converge at odd angles, stop and abruptly start again, like a disjointed club conversation. We pass the 4100 Bar, which used to be the Detour--dive-y and essentially last-century Silver Lake. "Its parking lot, back then, was a needle park," Hollister recalls. But it's a brand-new day. "Silver Lake. I'm incredibly proud of it. Talk about a bunch of street urchins starting businesses," she says, edging past Sunset Junction, with its hi-lo boho assortment of businesses--Cafe Stella, the Silver Lake Conservatory of Music, the Cheese Store of Silver Lake. Just across Sunset there's new construction, condos from the looks of it, one complex with a retro/Deco feel. "I think that this is an exciting stretch of Silver Lake because it's all about infill--infill architecture--and you look at something like this, this really beautiful thing, and then you see something kinda goony, like the stuff I'm part of obviously, and you think: 'OK, what's going to happen?' . . .
"When I first arrived in Silver Lake there wasn't much to work with," she says. "The only thing that moved in exactly the same day was Cafe Stella. And then about a year or two later, Eat Well came in." She unspools the history as we continue down Sunset, past the faded murals and the new furniture shops, toward its eastern end. "There we have Millie's [diner], and then you have nothing. Not that it's nothing--but it's nothing really. I mean, you've got your dry cleaner, you've got your printer here, you had the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic, which was wonderful but definitely in disarray at that point, and now it's pretty sparkly. This is still pretty much what old Silver Lake looked like. Now it's become something very, very valuable."
Taking the curve across Alvarado and into Echo Park proper you see a not-so-subtle segue--overpriced apparel stores and coffeehouses next to what's left of the pawnshops and cheap electronics stores. You'd think the opposite would be true. Echo Park has long been so distinct, so vibrant, with a much more serrated edge and squared-shoulder attitude. And for the most part, it still looks and sounds like Echo Park--the Spanish signage, the fresh-fruit carts, the blast of brass that occasionally pours out of an open screen door. "But it's precious," says Hollister. "Untouchable. They aren't making new land. Echo Park," she announces, "is over." It's no longer the new next thing.
We pass the Brite Spot, which serves pancakes and vegan dishes into the wee hours to help soak up a night of 7&7s at the Echo or the Short Stop, and then there's a glimpse of Aimee Semple McPherson's domed Angelus Temple and, of course, the shimmer of Echo Park Lake. "The whole thing bleeds into downtown," says Hollister. "So my next stop was to get out of Silver Lake--well, not get out of Silver Lake, but do some significant things--but then I fall in love with my boyfriend and my career becomes our career, and then I get interested in Echo Park. Then Echo Park turns into downtown--because, well, it's right next door, because it's all in the same zone, you know. My biggest rule of thumb is to make sure that I can get to any one of my businesses within seven or eight minutes. Really, I don't see myself going outside of that radius. Not to say that Glendale isn't terrific, but I'm more of a kind of city girl. Serious urban."
Though downtown had its own romantic pull, she didn't end up there in the first wave. "I've always loved the artist district, those buildings over there, they're kinda vibe-y," she says as we idle at the hectic corner of Cesar Chavez and Alameda. But that thought is interrupted by the sight of the Terminal Annex post office, with its Spanish Colonial Revival influences, looming on the northeast corner. "Ahhhh! I wonder what it would be like to live up there in those cupolas, the light coming through!" She glances back even as we cross the intersection, considering. "When I moved here in the '80s I was like anybody else: I wanted to live in a loft. But that was long before any of those loft conversions were happening, and it was like, 'OK, but where am I going to take a shower?'"
Maneuvering away from the busy Alameda Corridor, Hollister takes a less traveled road, south now, along the concrete edge of the Los Angeles River. "People always ask me, 'Why don't we go through the nice part of town?' But this is so cool! It's still not there, but it's gettin' there."
Hollister's definition of "cool," she knows, shades a bit differently than others'. "I like the river district because it's not quite as dressy as the main part of the city, it doesn't really have the significant architecture. [But] it has the warehouses, it has the vandalism, it has the ability for you to embellish on it. You know, a perfect example is SCI-Arc"--the Southern California Institute of Architecture, housed in a sleek, blocks-long structure that was once a Santa Fe freight depot. "Look at what a genius thing it is! Look how glamorous it is!"
She's already put down stakes here--helping a friend, Elizabeth Peterson, with the interior of Royal Claytons, a watering hole at the edge of the Arts District, as well as opening Bordello, a club in the old Little Pedro's space on 1st Street. And she and Venetos are working on Bridge Tavern, a new bar that will open in May on Palmetto. "Obviously," says Hollister, "a city always starts out with 'Where are you going to eat? Where are you going to drink?' Because that's what's going to bring people to this side of town. As my friend Elizabeth says, 'Night life is what makes the shadows disappear.'"
All this, says Hollister, "is the edge of the wild, wild West"--or wild east, as the case may be. "What's next is here. This is going to be the next wave." It's industrial and raw. She swoons over the big empty warehouses, the little three-story brick buildings ("already retrofitted," she points out), an elaborate curlicue of railing on an old factory, the elegant yet mysterious husks of things. That one there, the one with the fancy tile work and walled-up windows, she says with an appraiser's eye, "that could have been a bank. It has a sort of bank-y kind of feel to it. Or it could have been a significant store."
As we cross 7th, the streetscape shifts--more liquor stores and more men leaning against them, occupied and unoccupied cardboard boxes scattered along the sidewalk, buildings that look as if they haven't been opened for at least half a century. Hollister just pushes forward--deeper. "It's not that it's bad or violent. Just sketchy. It's just not the same caliber--and it's not even a block away. But look at what's here: It's still significant, still amazing, and it's still about to be ready, you know?"
We go deeper, up a side street webbed with ancient train tracks and even more ancient, it seems, wooden railroad crossing signs. She stops in the center of the road and stares in awe at a block-long, industrial-green, multi-unit building that looks rather nondescript. That is, until you're startled by the dramatic river view, its backward glance at downtown Los Angeles in golden light. She had a tip on this one, and picks up her cellphone as she coasts around the parking lot--slowly, slowly--trying to find a phone number, or at the very least a property owner's name.
"Oh yeah, I'm callin' on this one. It's a killer view of the city and it's beautiful. You've got parking, safe parking. I wonder what they're asking for this? This is a magnificent building! And look at this--how great are those bridges with all of that tagging all over? How beautiful would this be to live in? You feel like you're in Brooklyn. And look over there"--she gestures at the concrete spires--"look how beautiful. I see apartment buildings under the bridges! At the base. I mean, think of the view. How pretty is this? It would be like living under the Golden Gate Bridge. How cool would that be?"
This is the next level and beyond, says Hollister, as we ride over torn-up asphalt and pause at faded stop signs. "It's over the bridges, it's into Boyle Heights." This part of the city still looks like those vintage linen postcards, or snapshots out of fraying albums--big California Craftsmans with ample lawns for Easter egg hunts or generational family photos. Out of the corner of her eye she spies what looks to be a small hotel, rambling hacienda-style, with stained-glass windows and a gurgling fountain in front. "Oh, whoa, I wonder what this was?" She hesitates for less than 30 seconds before she just drives on in. "Well, some of my favorite memories are going into buildings that I wasn't invited into. Just being in them in the middle of the night."
In a rear parking lot, a woman in a nurse's uniform gets out of her car, and Hollister stops her with a bright smile and greeting. "Excuse me, I'm a little bit lost. Is this a hospital?"
The woman looks up. "Aye. A convalescent home," she says in a lilting West Indian accent.
"Ohhhhh. It's the most beautiful place on earth!"
The woman lifts a brow, then just laughs and moves on.
Out of the lot and back on the road, we pass Craftsmans painted in shades of tangerine and Pepto-Bismol-pink gingerbread houses, their fences full of magenta bougainvillea. It's stop-and-go down 1st Street, back toward the bridge, crossing Breed and State and all of the new arteries that will be opening up, connecting, once the Gold Line stations are up and running. "I guarantee in 15 years you won't be able to touch any of this. Because good architecture is hard to find, and people are going to come and find these. You've got some charm and you've got affordability, which is a major factor."
Yet for all of the inevitable changes, the act of re-imagining the city, there has to be a balance, says Hollister. She describes it as "gentle gentrification."
"You have to be sensitive . . . because, really, your neighbors are your business partners. They are what allow you to exist. So if you're not aware of their needs and are not addressing what has come before you, then you're not going to fit in. And you are actually going to become extinct. So 'gentle gentrification' is realizing where you're appropriate. It's not about just plunking something down because there is an opportunity. Is it an educated opportunity? Is it an enlightened kind of business? And sometimes it's not ready."
She goes back and forth on this, as she has with a property on Sunset Boulevard that she and Venetos have been working on--the beleaguered Sunset Pacific Motel, which in evocative neighborhood parlance is known as "the Bates Motel." The idea, she says, is to clean it up, turn it into a boutique hotel. "But you're forced to think about whether or not it can survive its past reputation as a crack hotel. Can a place get beyond its ghosts?"
Sometimes, she admits, even her hunches have hunches--or she just gets it wrong. It's like what happened with the Paramour, a five-acre, seen-better-days estate built in 1923 for oil heiress Daisy Canfield Danziger that had most recently been a nunnery. Hollister had hoped to convert it into a hotel or spa or both. Many of her neighbors, however, were vehemently opposed, concerned about parties, noise, traffic. Nine years later, Hollister has tossed the hotel plan but is still dreaming: "I'm trying to sit tight now--live in it, listen to it. Sort out what's best." What would Daisy do?
We thread back up Sunset, to her neighborhood. There's one last stop, an antique store in Echo Park, to pick up an old-timey pub sign she bought for the new Bridge Tavern--another piece of history forgotten but not lost. "Manhattan forgot it had Harlem, and we forgot we had our downtown," she says. "I mean, populations have amnesia based on trends of the time. And then the next generation comes in and it's as if, 'Oh my God, how could all of this be just sitting here?' They see it in a way that we could never see it. They will see it with brand-new eyes."
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Dana's 5 Top Finds
19th century Catholic Church altar from East India, in back of the bar at Bordello. From Singh Imports, Culver City.
1920 Art Deco bar back, at Cliff's Edge. From Pasadena Architectural Salvage.
A Gothic church window and a machinist's table that cranks up from dining table to bar size, at Royal Claytons. From Big Daddy's Antiques, Los Angeles.
Taxidermy birds. "The craziest of my new obsessions, a strange collection of extinct birds. There are some barn owls too." From T.L. Gurley Antiques, Pasadena.
Purgatory. "My very, very favorite piece is a very large painting that hangs in the ballroom in my home. It's a painting of a girl reaching up to heaven. You see St. Michael the Archangel and his sword reaching down, and then at the bottom you see the landscape of hell and the devil reaching up to grab her." From Blackman Cruz, Los Angeles.