Those who live in Orange County are accustomed to the rate of urban development to be found here. Freshly painted condominiums with faux shutters and trick balconies done in a scaled-up or scaled-down Tuscan treatment are being hastily built across every square mile without exception, and yet, there are shadowed marks on the landscape that speak of an untouched history, left behind out of frustration or legal conflict. In Southern California, where every section of land that can be developed has been, it is particularly odd to have a structure or plot stand empty or abandoned.
To have such prime real estate fall to waste points without a doubt to something troubling or conflict-ridden in the property’s history, (which is something to ponder when visiting these sites). We level the land and build our houses in a manner that reflects our hopes and dreams of security and a happy future. However, there lies an interesting psychology that reveals itself not in the building of new structures but in the abandonment of the old. The thought being that what we create, no matter how idyllic our intentions, will always be susceptible to decay.
Hangover House or The Richard Halliburton House, Laguna Beach, CA
Designed and built by American architect William Alexander Levy (1909–1997) for his friend, adventure and travel writer Richard Halliburton (1900 – 1939 in the Pacific Ocean), this beautiful 1930’s modern home looms out from the rock overlooking the Aliso Creek golf course with incredible views of the ocean. Sitting abandoned for years due to legal issues, the house was once approachable from the outside where one could peer into its stained and rust-lined windows to see the interior almost untouched (complete with made beds and loaded bookshelves). The concrete exterior and flat roof design outfitted with multiple terraces and stairs made it an especially fun place to explore although a bit dangerous to visit at the wrong time of day, especially if you were unaware of the property – drops to the canyon below were unmarked and you definitely needed to watch your step.
Writer Ayn Rand once visited the home, at the time a virtual unknown and close friend of Halliburton. It is said that she based the “Heller House” in The Fountainhead on the Hangover House.
The house on the sketches had been designed not by Roark, but by the cliff on which it stood. It was as if the cliff had grown and completed itself and proclaimed the purpose for which it had been waiting. The house was broken into many levels, following the ledges of the rock, rising as it rose, in gradual masses, in planes flowing together up into one consummate harmony. The walls, of the same granite as the rock, continued its vertical lines upward; the wide, projected terraces of concrete, silver as the sea, followed the line of the waves, of the straight horizon.
The loneliness of the house as it stood all those years abandoned is also eerily foreshadowed by Rand in The Fountainhead through the design philosophy of fictional architect Howard Roark:
A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve it own single purpose.
Hangover House is currently in the hands of private owners that are working to restore the home but are reportedly receiving some pushback from local historic property activists who are concerned that the renovations will alter Levy’s masterpiece. Nothing could have altered the property more however than years and years of neglect. To see the house when it stood empty was to experience the strange power of abandoned places. You cannot imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to rescue such a gorgeous structure.
Image above: Scans were made in 2011 by Anne Frymark, from photographs in a photo album from the Richard Halliburton Collection at Rhodes College. More images can be found HERE
Black Star Canyon Falls, Black Star Canyon
Formed by the combination of natural rock and the abandoned remains of an old mine shaft, this waterfall is a rare and beautiful site and a great destination with elements of the abandoned visible along the hiking trail that leads to it. Until recently you could clearly see the remains of a school bus and quite a few dilapidated wooden structures as well as remains from the mining work. Slowly but surely the abandoned structures are being removed and each hike out has revealed less and less. Regardless, Black Star Canyon is an area of mystery and always will be. With urban legends ranging from secret military experiments to cult groups, the KKK, ghosts and a mining disaster, the depth of interest and rumor is beautiful in its rarity. Much like an abandoned structure, Black Star Canyon has an air of stillness, even loneliness that is attributed to its odd geography but can also be attributed to its strange past and present. All legends aside, the canyon is still not a great place to explore without a plan and always with a partner or in a group. The road leading up to the canyon is technically accessible by the County but is for all intents and purposes private property.
Photo Credit: Joel Robinson
Chateau Relaxo, 1000 Steps Beach, Laguna Beach
This house is a private residence that stands empty much to the annoyance of the neighboring inhabitants of this semi-private beach in South Laguna. The beach itself is secluded and small, accessible only by walking down a somewhat steep line of concrete stairs that average out at around 200 steps. Although the city of Laguna announced publicly that it would be working with the owner of the house to tear it down, it still stands without change outside of the addition of another work of graffiti. Recently a teenager was arrested for trespassing, which is evidence that it is being watched more closely than in years past.
The El Toro Marine Base, Irvine
The El Toro Marine Base in its heyday was the most sought-after assignment in the United States. Located minutes from Laguna Beach and offering a more laid-back community, life on base became known as ‘Swing with the Wing‘ referring to the almost civilian-style manner of living. When the base closed in 1999 it wasn’t readily apparent as to the reason, outside of the widely known presence of high levels of toxic waste caused by years and years of wrongly disposed-of TCE or Trichloroethylene which is a chemical used to clean out jet fighters and C-130’s. TCE is only one of many chemical contaminants seeped into the land located in the middle of Irvine and surrounded by miles and miles of suburban housing developments. Gallons upon gallons of Benzene, a component of jet fuel, have been spilled during the half-century that the base was operational.
It now stands abandoned and is even whispered to be a legitimate “ghost town” with sightings of Marine guards who walk through the property in plain sight of witnesses only to disappear behind the rubble of an old barrack never to be seen again. Still approachable by Irvine Blvd and then through the back roads of the recently created “Great Park.” The old Marine barracks are still standing, gutted, marked and surrounded by chain-linked fencing. If ghosts do indeed linger there they are the manifestations of events connected to this piece of land that has been shrouded in mystery for one reason or another for decades. Like most abandoned places, it is a section of once inhabited space rendered uninhabitable through misuse, legal battles or concealed facts that lend to a deep air of mystery and concern that is sensed by all that come across it.
Photo above was taken when I visited the El Toro site a few months ago.
This article was written for RAWR magazine published October 10, 2012.