Friday, August 24, 2007

Ma, He's Painting on the Walls Again!

The artist at work

Our most prolific outdoor muralist is at it again. On the backside of the Arkley Centre for the Performing Arts, artist Duane Flatmo is crafting an heroic, old-world, trompe-l’oeil painted monument to the arts. The arch was inspired and designed from architectural photos he took on a trip to Paris (France). When the building’s backdrop of sky is the right shade of blue, it adds even more to the illusion that you are seeing through it.

The dancer and musical figures reflect the performance aspect of the building, with musicians’ faces pulled from the pages of a jazz magazine.

When I first moved to town, the building was home to the State movie theatre – a grand old girl in the grand old style – soaring spaces with upstairs and downstairs seating, one screen, one movie at a time. With the advent of modern multiplex theatres, the old theatres wasted away. This one became part of Daly’s Department Store, a busy retail store in the heyday of downtown merchants – when they dominated city business, politics and society. Along came the mall and downtown changed again.

Vacant and in disrepair, the building was finally rescued, rehabbed, restored, and refurbished by our local billionaire benefactor, and reincarnated as an elegant performance theatre. The other remaining portion of the Daly’s store had already been redone and was operating as a new local bank.

Downtown is gradually coming back. Businesses still come and go, but there is slow, steady improvement. Old Town facades are Victorian jewels, housing a variety of shops, galleries, offices, restaurants – some thriving, some hanging on. The waterfront is our sometime vision of loveliness, and visionaries have big plans. Oh, they do have plans.

Old building in downtown

New artsy-tecture building in downtown

We are, of course, courted regularly by the Big Boxes who hope that we will fall for their lines and be seduced into letting them in. We try to hold them off, fearing date rape.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bars and Brothels and Ghosts, Oh My

The second ghostly experience I’ll relate was in a brothel - a used-to-be brothel in Eureka’s “Old Town” area. This part of downtown, especially Two Street, used to be a hive of bars and brothels, and the prime destination for loggers coming in out of the woods. It was rough and ready and alcoholic, with brawls and stabbings a common occurrence, and characters like Muzzie, playing piano and singing in her own very popular bar.

The heyday of these bars was finally winding down in the 1970s and 80s, and now there are only a few of the old ones left – much tamer now, and on the fringes of a slightly more civilized area.

They've been around for a while

A friend of mine talks of delivering newspapers to Old Town brothels in the early 1950s, but they’re gone now too. Now there are apartments over top of the neighbourhood businesses, and today, the “girls” loiter on street corners, and in doorways, or stake out their bit of turf over by the library.

I walked through an empty brothel-that-was, before it was converted. There was a small, square foyer and a long, broad, wooden staircase leading up into a dimly lit hallway. Our footsteps were loud and hollow-sounding as we climbed the stairs, and our voices bounced off the walls and echoed, even when we whispered.

At the top of the stairs, we turned to face down the hall of many doorways. The doors were all either open or missing - don’t remember which, but we could see into all of the rooms with their bits and pieces of debris. The dust smelled like old alcohol and sweat, and it seemed as if we could hear faint sounds from the far end of the hall – murmurs, moans, soft laughter, the clinking of glasses and rustle of fabric. There was, of course, no one in the rooms – not when we looked straight in. It was only out of the corners of our eyes that we could catch soft, furtive, shadowy movements.

I don’t remember too much of what it actually looked like, other than dark, musty, dilapidated, because the back of my mind was too busy picturing reds and purples, velvet draperies, flocked wallpaper, plush carpets, mahogany furniture. It may never have been that elegant. Reality was probably booze, vomit, and pee-stained, with torn curtains.

Leaving, we hurried along the hall and almost ran back down the stairs, sure that we were being watched by ghostly eyes from behind and above. When we were out on the sidewalk again, we took a deep breath as we locked the door securely behind us.

That was then, this is now

Bad juju

The abandoned building site reminded me of a couple of experiences I’ve had here in town. One was in a restaurant/nightclub that had been financed by the bank where I worked. The business had gone belly up and was now ours to dispose of. We went to inspect our new property.

We let ourselves in the back alley door, stumbled through a dark entryway and found a light switch. The scene in front of us was total carnage – the wreckage of a food and drink orgy. Every table was still set with the remains of a meal – plates dotted with mouldering bits of food, utensils at all angles, water glasses half-full, liquor glasses empty, napkins crumpled and smeared. There were empty bottles everywhere – standing on the tables, lying on the floor. It was as if the party had been going at full steam and in an instant had just stopped. As if the last person had taken a last bite and tossed off a last drink and that was the signal for everyone to immediately stand and walk out. Or as if they had suddenly been zapped and turned to instant dust and they were all now lying on the floor under their chairs next to the bottles. If we sprinkled them with liquor, would they reconstitute themselves to carry on where they left off?

In the kitchen area all the pots and pans, cooking and serving utensils, were still sitting where they had been used. Spills congealed on the stove and countertops. There was a large dead black bird – a crow or raven – lying on the counter next to an even larger butcher’s knife.

It was like a scene from the movie “The Shining” - walking down a deserted hallway, and peering into an empty room that I expected to see suddenly fill with strange, frenzied life.

The building's next incarnation included Chippendale dancers.


Old ruins are redolent of their long history. Stonehenge, Macchu Picchu, Mesa Verde, crumbling old castles and churches, are filled with the ghosts of all of the people that have passed through them throughout all of the centuries that have passed by. Broken walls radiate inward all of the pain and sorrow and laughter they have held; they are impregnated with all of the human fluids that have stained them. Stand in the center of any of these places and close your eyes. You will hear whispers, sighs, screams and laughter in the breeze, and feel the brush of thousands of ghostly bodies moving around you as they go about their old business. What we think of as deserted and empty is filled to the brim.

Newer abandoned structures are the same, except that the ghosts’ clothing would be more modern. There is still that sense of unseen occupancy, as if those still in residence are engaging you in an eerie game of hide-and-seek. A friend found this site of photos of abandoned buildings – homes, businesses, even whole towns – most in the United States, but some around the world. Some you can understand, some you wonder what on earth could have happened to them – like the village in northern Italy.

Take a peek; see if you can catch someone watching you from around a corner.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Beauty and The Beast

Reclaiming our Crowning Glory

The Eureka Inn is the crown jewel of our little semi-Victorian bayside burg. It was built in 1922 - a half-timbered Tudor edifice, occupying an entire elevated city block near the centre of town – and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Owned by the Barnum family until the death of the family matriarch, it was sold, only to suffer management problems under the new owners which led to its closing in 2003.

While it was open and thriving, it was a mecca for tourists, and a centre for community activities. There were 104 guest rooms, a swimming pool area (closed over), 8000 square feet of meeting space, a café, a fine dining restaurant, two bars – one with a fireplace and conversation circles of comfortably upholstered high-backed chairs.

The lobby is spacious in area and height, and was elegantly carpeted and furnished around a large fireplace. At Christmas time, the place was always decorated to the nines, with a giant revolving tree overlooking a month-long parade of musical performances. Now under new ownership once again, the exterior has been repainted and interior construction, refurbishing and maintenance are ongoing. It was to be reopened for business last year…this year…maybe next year.

The Seat of the County

If the Inn is the bling of this old dame city, the courthouse is the boil on her butt (or County seat, if you will). The two original adjoining gray institutional boxes housed county offices, courtrooms and two floors of County jail. Overflowing and bursting at its concrete seams, the building was scheduled for a mandated earthquake retrofit, and a new jail addition was planned for the same time.

When construction was completed, the newly vacant top floors of the old structure were remodeled into deluxe new offices with spectacular views of the Bay and the city. The windows of our ground-floor office were boarded over on the outside with dirty scratched green board, hiding the new wall half a foot away, and effectively jailing us from 8 to 5 every day. What is the difference between work and prison? About 6 inches, I would guess. At least we did partially solve our window problem by creating a mural on the inside glass.

The front façade of two tall tower areas in the new jail were striped with rows of brick – very cheery, like square barber poles. The entire front half of the addition was finished off in baby poop yellow, the back half in the rosy blush of a salmon in heat.

To complement the new addition, the original boxes were repainted in the ever tasteful, blend-into-the-fog decorator tones of beige, greige, and bluege. The whole of this cobbled-together building range is a monument to design by dueling committees, and is a viable contender for ugliest building on the continent. There was a second addition planned for the other side of the jail that was meant to house all of the courtrooms and court offices, but we ran out of money, and it is now a much-needed parking lot. The court attachment would have been a lovely turreted Victorian, blending in nicely with the over-all structure.