October 1, 1999



by Mark Frauenfelder


You couldn't make an uglier building if you tried. Los Angeles is full of dingbats -- boxy two-story apartments supported by stilts, with open stalls below for parking. (Their name is likely to have been coined by architect Francis Ventre while he was lecturing at UCLA in the early '70s.)Thousands of the inexpensive 16-unit structures were built in the late '50s and early '60s to accommodate the huge number of people moving to Southern California. Forty years later, the smog-stained, sagging dingbats are still here, and have become as much a part of the LA landscape as medfly traps and on-ramp pistachio vendors.


At the corner of Alcott and Livonia, you'll find a cluster of typical dingbats. Vegetation is scarce; the area looks as if the water supply ended at Pico. One dingbat here has two old-fashioned lamps that have become partially unbolted so that they tilt toward each other, like lovers handcuffed on opposite ends of the building. A nearby dingbat sports two spherical acrylic lamps hanging from rusty poles, tanned to a crackly brown. The third sphere is missing, revealing an empty socket. Some of the buildings have bricks that sparkle. (Is there any reason to doubt that the cottage-cheese ceilings inside sparkle, too?) Flimsy decks are covered in Astroturf worn down to the nub. The few dingbats with courtyards have swimming pools as inviting as metal-plating baths.


I used to hate dingbats. I trained myself put them out of my mind. They became invisible to me, in the same way power poles have. But no longer. I've learned to look at dingbats the same way other people look at orchids.


My first lesson in dingbat appreciation arrived in the mailbox about five years ago. A graphic designer (whose name I forgot) sent me a self-published booklet of photographs of the atomic-age ornamental "doodads" -- metallic starbursts, crowns, spirals, diamonds, and bubbles -- that grace some dingbats' outer walls. Like beauty marks on boxcars, these brass-plated doodads were low-cost attempts to capture the swooping parabolic joy of the Googie-style architecture of the era. In contrast to the background of drab stucco, the symbols take on a peculiarly awesome significance. An elongated asterisk mounted on the lower-left-hand corner of a building becomes a robot from another planet, transmitting mind-altering rays through its antennae. A mint-blue star becomes a pulsing quasar, promising secret knowledge to those willing to pay attention. A doodad on the corner of Pickford and Bedford in West LA looks like a large bicycle bell with four spikes and four spears radiating from the center. Even the thick coat of paint can't block the strange emanations radiating from its eight protuberances. Just as you can't have an exotic mushroom without a mound of manure, you can't have a doodad without a dingbat. I lost that wonderful little booklet somehow during my last move, but I never lost the door to dingbat perception that it had opened.


Recently, my interest in dingbats swelled even more after becoming exposed to the contagious enthusiasm of Lesley M. Siegel, an LA artist who has photographed over 2,000 of the signs that are sometimes attached to the outside of dingbats. With names like The Belvan, The Hayworth House, The Riveria Palms, The South Pacific, The Unique, and The UnXled, these painted, jigsaw-cut wood signs have been a source of fascination for Siegel even before she started photographing them in 1990. Spelled out in loopy script or whimsical lettering, the names provide look-alike dingbats with a sense of individuality. More importantly, like incense, they mask the acrid tang of life in an oversized shoebox with an air of relaxed, tropical, exotic, or well-heeled splendor.


I wouldn't have guessed that Siegel is the world's greatest authority on dingbat signs, not from looking at the building she lives in -- an Olympic boulevard 1920s castle-courtyard building. But once I walked into her living room and saw the dozens of hand-tinted photographs of dingbat signs, and actual signs that had been removed from abandoned dingbats, I sensed that I was in the presence of the preeminent dingbat defender.


"Dingbats are a surface for advertising themselves or a feeling," says Siegel. The different sections of her living room walls contain different dingbat themes. There's a Rogers & Hammerstein collection, with pictures of dingbats named The Flower Drum, Oklahoma, The South Pacific, etc. The collection of Polynesian-named dingbats -- The Tropika, The Tahiti, Glenlani Tiki, The Polynesian, Tiki, Luau Apartments, Aloha Gardens, and Trade Winds -- is featured in a new Australian book called Taboo: The Art of Tiki (published by Martin McIntosh). Another wall contains Siegel's dingbat docuhistories, with stories and artifacts that tell the stories of different dingbats. For example, after tracking down the former owner of The Pagai, Siegel learned that the name came from his daughters, Pam and Gail. The dingbat called Loren Lane was named after the baby son of the owners.


Dingbats are being demolished by the dozen to make way for multi-story complexes with underground parking. "It's sad," says Siegel. "They're vanishing." Meanwhile, like an ethnobotanist hurriedly attempting to catalogue as many plant species as she can before the rain forests are ruined, Siegel is snapping pictures of dingbats as fast as she can. "I discover new ones all the time. I turn down the street and there's one hiding, waiting for me."