The invitation was cryptic. A small piece of wood with a laser-burned message that read, “June 30, 2015. Please join us for tea and wishes overlooking the city. Sunrise, Griffith Park."
The only other instructions directed recipients to meet at the Griffith Observatory parking lot at dawn and “follow the lights.”
So at 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a time when the freeways are largely empty and the sky is still the color of ink, I find myself at the Observatory parking lot with nearly three dozen other people, all responding to the same invitation.
Our destination is the Griffith Park Teahouse, a diminutive wood structure, loosely inspired by Japanese architecture, which did not exist until Monday night when it was surreptitiously installed by a loose collective of artists.
Tuesday morning’s mission was to inaugurate the pavilion — which offers breathtaking views of the Verdugos and the San Gabriels, not to mention the 5 Freeway — with an informal tea ceremony and a performance by an opera singer. Invited to the event were friends and acquaintances of the artists (who rarely get permission from official channels to do their work and prefer to remain anonymous).
Around 5:15 a.m., as the blackness of the sky gave way to steely grays streaked with bits of orange, the group ascended the mountain, past the Hollywood sign and the blinking lights of Los Angeles, up a narrow horse trail, to the teahouse, an 80-square-foot structure made from singed pieces of wood reclaimed from trees burned in the devastating 2007 Griffith Park fire.
Three at a time, people entered the teahouse, where they were served green tea and almond cookies, and where an attached bell was occasionally rung. In the distance, just out of sight, the opera singer arpeggioed.
“It’s just lovely,” says Ghassan Sarkis, a math professor at Pomona College who attended the ceremony draped in a web of LED lights. “It jolts you out of the grooves of daily life.”
Williams, left, pours tea for Stacey Abarbanel, Karin Huebner and Michele Raitano, seated left to right. The teahouse was designed with the aid of experienced woodworkers and bolted to an abandoned foundation inside Griffith Park.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The invitation to the opening of the Griffith Park Teahouse, a Japanese style structure surreptitiously installed in Griffith Park by an anonymous collective of artists, came in the form of this laser-burned piece of wood.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Per the instructions, guests gathered in the parking lot of the Griffith Observatory, where they were given small ceramic cups bearing LED candles. A participant begins the 30-minute hike up the trail to the site of the teahouse.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Guests gathered for the happening at dawn and made their way up the trail as the sun began to edge over the San Gabriel Mountains. About three dozen people participated in the inaugural ceremony.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Participants were given small vellum maps upon arrival. But the trail was clearly marked with bark arrows.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The hike led to a ridge near Mt. Bell, where tea expert Tiffany Williams dispensed sencha green tea from within a Japanese-style structure.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Three at a time, the crowd was served tea and cookies. In this image, the Teafaerie, Jenny Klein and Max Geldman wait as their tea brews.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
A message carved into the wood outside the teahouse explains its purpose. The artists hope that the city will accept it as a gift.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The artists left behind small wooden cards where visitors can write a wish, a memory or a love letter to Los Angeles.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Once messages are written on the wooden cards, they are placed on pegs inside the teahouse and left behind as tokens.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The teahouse is decorated with a hand-carved image of a mythological griffin. In honor of Los Angeles, it is part red-tailed hawk (common to the area) and part mountain lion (like P-22, the famous mountain lion spotted in the area). The creature is shown wearing a tracking collar.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Jonathan Reilly hugs the Teafaerie, right, as Lauren DeAngelus, left, takes in the sunrise. For a brief moment, a motley crew of Angelenos was brought together by art and tea.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The ceremony is over, but the Griffith Park Teahouse remains ... for now. Perched on a ridge, within view of several mountain ranges, the artists have left it behind as “a gift” to Los Angeles — one they hope the city will accept.
“Part of the experiment is seeing how the park and the public reacts,” says one of the core artists who masterminded the plan — a young woman who has worked on installation design at various Southern California museums. “There’s something interesting about observing what will happen.”
Certainly, this is no flimsy structure. The teahouse was made with the help of professional wood craftsmen who helped develop the building’s design and engineering. The entire thing was slipped into the park in pre-fabricated pieces and bolted to an old foundation that at one point likely belonged to a utility shack, but had since been reduced to an exposed wedge of concrete and rebar.
“I saw it about six years ago,” explains the collective’s ringleader, whose day job is in the film industry. “I come to the park to run a lot — and I would just see it and I kept thinking we could do something with it.”
This isn’t the first time the group has staged a guerrilla act in a public space. They once held a tea party for friends on a traffic island in downtown L.A. and installed a vending machine full of scented chip bags on a street in Silver Lake.
“The idea of a teahouse rose to the fore early on,” he adds. “I’m a big fan of tea ... and I’d looked at teahouse design books and I happened to visit Japan during this time, where I spent a lot of time looking at temples.”
The pair roped in a friend, a woodworking apprentice who had, quite coincidentally, helped design a wooden teahouse in Washington state. He helped connect them to a professional woodworker in the Glendale area who helped refine the group’s initial design concept.
Six months ago, they got to work. The idea was to build their teahouse entirely out of reclaimed wood: trees that were killed in the 2007 blaze (many of which the group harvested from the area around the Greek Theatre), as well as felled redwoods that were destined to be mulched at the park’s composting facility. (The park has removed redwoods in recent years since they are not native to the area and require a lot of water.)
“The entire design came from the amount of wood we had,” says the woodworking apprentice. “Decisions were entirely based on the availability of the materials.”
Adds the ringleader: “We didn’t cut anything down. We only took what was already dead and on the ground.”
The resulting structure features a slat roof inspired by Japanese lines, as well as strategically placed windows that frame views of the city and the mountains. A bell, attached to the structure, can be rung ceremoniously (or just for fun).
And in the eaves, they put a quirky finishing touch: a bas relief carving of a griffin, the supernatural bird-lion creature of ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern mythology. In this case, the griffin is rendered as part red-tailed hawk (since the park has a lot of these) and part P-22, the famous Griffith Park mountain lion. The carving even shows the griffin with a tracking collar around its neck.
The young woodworker says he was incredibly moved to see the finished product sitting on top of the mountain.
“Walking up here and seeing the morning light on it,” he says in a hushed tone, “it was sooo beautiful.”
For the inaugural ceremony, tea expert Tiffany Williams of Claremont greeted hikers with freshly brewed first-flush sencha tea.
“When they contacted me, they told me they had a teahouse and they wanted a ceremony,” she says with a laugh. “Then I was picked up in the middle of the night by a Lyft and ended up in the Hollywood Hills, and then I walked up this hill to this teahouse. I didn’t ask too many questions!”
But she says the space nonetheless evokes a true teahouse, like the ones she visited when she lived in Japan.
“It reminds me of some of the ones used by ancient Japanese tea masters,” she adds. “They liked to keep things very simple, very rustic.”
The sky grew bright as the ceremony wrapped up. A jogger trotted through. And invited guests began to say their goodbyes and make their way back down the mountain.
I asked the collective’s ringleader how long he thought the teahouse might last.
“Until tomorrow would be great,” he laughed. But then he grew more thoughtful.
“I guess there’s a fantasy that other citizens will come along and add to it,” he explained. “But really, this whole thing, it’s about just letting go.”