Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A River Runs Through It

Strange architecture? Usually I thrive on it. Usually. I grew up in Disneyland, which even in its pre-Toon Town days was a festival of forced perspective oddities and culture-cleaving juxtapositions. And when we weren't going to Mickey M's, we were heading out to Vegas, which had architects with names like Frenchy, Lucky, and Bugsy.

So I grew up with buildings that made no sense. When I was on my own I found myself seeking out these oddities, for I find curious solace amongst creative chaos. We are all dreamers, but these are the cathedrals of can-do, the stately ruins of the Do-it-yourself ethos. "Why does the window face the wall? Because I say it does, that's why."

·        Hearst Castle? Proof that America is too young to have any culture of its own yet, and buying up everybody else's doesn't count.
·        The Madonna Inn? When the tacky motel owners of the world have their yearly convention, this is where they stay.
·        That Stuckeys on the way out to Vegas? Somebody had a vision to build a huge log cabin in the middle of the Mojave Desert, and damnit, I'll buy some dried pineapple rings to support their dream.
·        The Winchester Mystery House? Hey, who doesn't have a nutty old relative stashed away somewhere? And if ours received $5,000 a day and had 12 million in the bank (at 1890 rates), they'd probably build something like this too.
·        Chinatown in San Francisco has almost nothing to do with Chinese architecture. After the 1906 quake it was deliberately designed by the Celestial residents to be what white people thought China looked like. And if you go there today you will still get an excellent meal, which has almost no relation to what a meal in China is like. 

And when I settled down I chose Santa Cruz, in part because of its parade of bizarre buildings.

·        The octagon-shaped houses in the Seabright neighborhood and the one downtown, are the result of a turn of the century fad that lasted for oh, about 20 minutes.
·        The structures at 519 Fair St. over on the Westside are some of the most joyously weird creations to have ever popped out of one man's crazed imagination. You know the place; it's that weird lot with all the brown, seashell encrusted towers as you drive down to Natural Bridges. It is only when somebody unstable is left alone for several decades that Art such as this is created. A picture of this structure is included in the Santa Cruz Historic Building Survey, but it is in the back, unindexed, between the conclusions and the appendices, with no accompanying text. No greater testament could be conceived, says I.
·        On the way down to Moss Landing you will pass the Mobile Home Manor, where once again some zany loner received blueprints from his toaster and has turned his double wide into Sleeping Beauty's Castle.
·        And, of course, there is the Mystery Spot, which, given my past, I breezed out of with no more thought than: "I don't remember that bumper sticker being there...."

So I thought that I would be prepared for the Brookdale Lodge. But no, I was woefully wrong. A dinner, a night in the motel and a stroll around the grounds the next morning and I was reenacting the last scene from Poltergeist, dropping the car keys, burning rubber out of the parking lot, and gibbering "The Horror...the horror..."

A dining room with a creek running through it? Sure, sign me up. Can't be any nuttier than the Blue Bayou restaurant in Disneyland, which has the Pirates of the Caribbean ride skirting the dining room. The 'Brook Room' is indeed a wonder, and given the 8:15pm seating for our 7:30pm reservation, we had plenty of time to take it all in. But hey, it was graduation weekend and our two-person table had somehow morphed into a four-person reservation, but we were cool. Plus the food was excellent and Leddy, our waitperson, was a delight as she struggled with both her English and her very first night taking orders.

The Brookroom charmingly violates one of the laws of Thermodynamics; the one that says two different energies can't be in the same place at the same time. It has been redecorated at least four times in the 80-odd years (and 15 owners) of its existence, and contrary to the laws of Newton, not to mention Martha Stewart, all of the previous decor is still very much in evidence.

So the original lumbermill is there, the Santa's Village theme is there, the classy Awahanee lodge is there, the gangster chic is there, the Hansel & Gretel extra helpings of gingerbread remain, and the modern Band-Aids and code solutions are on display as well. Tree trunks meets wrought iron meets 'tanglewood gingerbread' meets clapboard clearance sale meets gigantic, butt-ugly air conditioners, with extension cords and glaring white safety strips on the stairs to boot. And, lest we forget, 70ft. of creek gurgling down the middle.

But while we were waiting we began to realize that something, wasn't, quite, right. Or rather, wasn't quite LEVEL. We did some exploring and discovered that every room in this rambling building is a subtle trapezoid, has steps leading into it, and doors off of it that don't seem to go anywhere anymore.

Spend anytime at all wandering around here, and it becomes apparent that this place wasn't so much built as it was added on to. It's like a succession of once-were-porches that have been rooms now for 50 years or more. We found an unused bar with a pool window, so you can nurse your beer and watch topless mermaids? Nope, probably just a lot of fat, white tourist flesh. But it also looked like the pool hadn't been cleaned since the Hansel & Gretel design phase, so you'd probably be spared even that.

After dinner we retired to our room to recover from all of the oddities that we had encountered. But no, new bafflements were there waiting for us. The standard room is large, with a king-size bed and a sizable balcony. Also, it was meticulously clean - even the tops of the frames were dust free. But there were three desks in the room, and a total of six chairs. Why? The bathroom had a perfect little alcove for either one of those nifty foldout suitcase racks, or a bar across with hangers. It sported neither of these though, and led us to speculate: Fishing pole storage? Surfboard? Bodies to be buried later under the floorboards? There was a closet, which, of course, had been added on later, but it was way too wide and almost cuts off the light switch.

The info sheet on the back of the door warned that there were no telephones in the room and also that there were only four broadcast channels available. I tried to tell my partner this, but she was busy talking on the phone and watching Sportscenter on cable.

So I had plenty of free time to indulge in my favorite motel activity ­ well, second favorite at least: rooting through the drawers for freebies. And guess what? Not a thing. Not a stationary set, postcard, or even a phone list (remember: no phones.) There was not even a Gideon Bible! The only things in the 18-odd desk drawers were two handles that had broken off of two of the drawers. So I was left with nothing to do but stare at the wall, but that didn¹t last long because the wall appeared to be covered in a faux, textured, primered, blue and green blotter monstrosity: mermaid vomit.

Time to turn out the lights and let the blessed, sensible blackness settle in. Things would look more rational in the morning. Wouldn’t they?

Not a chance. While my partner slept in on the comfy mattress and soft pillows I went looking for answers, or at least a plumb line. If you stand in the parking lot and look at the Brookdale Lodge you will see only the difference between the turn of the century Naturalism of the main lobby on your right and the mid-century 'Artificial Is Good For You!' sensibility of the motel wing on your left. Fair enough; there are plenty of cinderblock bunker motels in the West.

But walk along the backside of the property and you are struck by Nature -­ sometimes literally if a branch snaps back on you. Beautiful redwoods and pines crowd in on all sides of the motel, and yet all of the balconies face the parking lot. Unbelievable.

I continued ambling around the lot until I arrived back at the original log cabin that served as the lobby for many decades. This serves as the wedding chapel now. Outside of this, on a small rise, is a perfect fairy ring of young redwoods, the center of which has been cemented over. Ouch. This is where the ceremonies take place, but unfortunately the dumb trees just had to grow right next to Highway 9. If the bride happens to fall off of her shoes she could land on top of a southbound logging truck (a plot twist that would certainly be worthy of this multi-storied property).

Remembering our difficulty in finding the front entrance the night before I decided to count the choices. I got up to 6 before I got around to the kitchen doors. But one of these led to the smallest room in the world ­ a room that would not even house the door that fronts it. Another will never open again because there is a bridge blocking it. Did I mention the bridge? It spans Clear Creek of course, but years ago there were stairs leading down to the waters edge and stepping stones across it. Very charming. But when they decided to build a proper bridge they just plunked one end down on top of the staircase, leaving the rest of it uselessly intact. Very disturbing.

I was starting to lose it. Is the Brookdale Lodge a well cared-for monstrosity? A manicured abomination? A carefully cleaned closet of Chaos? The sheer incomprehensibility of the place just wears you down after awhile. Consider:

That morning the main, grand entrance to the place was closed and locked. There was no one on duty at the front desk at 9am on a Sunday morning; primo checkout time. There was a sign though directing people interested in a room to the bartender, again, at 9am on a Sunday morning. Huh?

I took another walk through the place, up two stairs, down three, empty bar blasting Snoop Dogg, windows in the walls, up 1 step, mermaid bar with a ketchup bottle on a table, three bird cages with finches, two covers for the three cages, down four steps, fish tank with one lonely fish, up two steps, full buffet set up and not a soul around, and everything clean, dusted and a new coat of paint. Painted over doors, dumb waiters, air ducts and roof beams that stop half way across a room. There is a legend of a ghost of a little girl that cries by the side of the creek. But it¹s not because she drowned in the dining room; she cries because she lost her Carpenters level.

I counted a dozen video games in three different locales. Four of these were plugged in, including an original Super Mario Bros. which could pay for another redecorating all by itself. There were more video games by the pool, right beside the pool in fact, but this was closed on a weekend in summer. On the door to the Brookdale Plunge are two signs that sum up the incongruous nature of this place. On the right is a thumbtacked piece of paper that listed the pool hours. On the left is a sign that is large, metal and screwed into the door. It says: "No Trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted."

I had to get out of there. And no, we¹re not waiting for the buffet to open. The Brookdale Lodge is a craftsman bungalow mansion crossed with a miniature golf course. And my capacity to reconcile those two extremes is finite. Let’s go to the Mystery Spot and recover from this place in peace.

Angus McMahan

P.S. I originally wrote this piece in 2003. Two years later a fire erupted in the back of the main building where apartments for the 25-30 employees are. Damage was heavy. Four years later, in 2009, another fire broke out in the SAME AREA. The write up in the local paper contains this telling sentence: “The damage of the 2005 fire hadn't been repaired before this latest blaze.” Charming.

The same story also mentions that the employees could easily re-locate temporarily to rooms in the motel wing, as "…we only had a couple of guests staying here." Which begs the question: What kind of business offers indefinite housing for “25-30” employees but has only a couple of paying customers?

Brookdale Lodge, thy mystery only increaseth.

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