Sunday, October 4, 2015

Crazy Crafty: Le Chat Noir

I'm seriously considering changing the name of this blog to "True Confessions" - mostly because I have spent the last two months cleaning out the family garage.  You read that correctly - the last two months!  After nine donations to the thrift store, ten oversized trash barrels filled, four truckloads hauled away by a scrap metal company, a large hazardous-waste removal (paint, car fluids, chemicals, etc.), three take-what-you-want days for family and friends, and two illegal visit to a commercial dumpster, the garage could still appear as the "before" reel on an episode of Hoarders (a necessary preamble so as to set the scene for one of the most frightening experiences of my life).  Warning: It's about to get all American Horror Story up in here.

Many years ago, around Halloween time, I was working on a term paper for an Ethics class.  As I am wont to do, I put off the paper until the last minute, foolishly believing that the time constraint would inspire genius.  Distracted by the many wonders of a ceiling fan, I lollygagged in our spare room (a room that happens to share a wall with the garage) waiting for inspiration to strike.  As the fan circulated the air, it also began circulating a faint-but-foul odor throughout the four walls of my paper-writing prison.  Recognizing the importance of gazing endlessly into the void of Microsoft Word, I decided that the odor would be another problem for another day.  The following day, the temperatures rose in direct correlation to the threat level of the odor.  But papers must be written!  I vainly hoped that somebody else in the house would notice the smell first, allowing me to coyly bat my eyes and innocently respond, "What smell?" when they inquired if I had also picked up on the scent (because, you know, ethics).  Unfortunately, I was to learn later that I was up against champion contestants in the I-Smell-Nothing Game.  By the third day, neither the term paper nor the the smell were improving.

Now unlike the garage, the spare room is rather tidy with very few places for a lingering odor to hide out.  So, after a cursory inspection of my surroundings, I plodded outside to the garage.  The roll-up door retracted only an inch before I knew that the call was coming from INSIDE THE GARAGE!!!  Faced by mountains of boxes, a piano, surfboards, Christmas decorations, guitar parts, thrift store treasures, power tools, garden gnomes, and long-forgotten furniture pieces, I knew that the better part of my afternoon would be dedicated to ferreting out the unholy odor.  It became a real game of cat-and-mouse as nose-blindness set in.  Gingerly shifting the contents of the garage, I grew increasingly panicky as I waded deeper into the abyss.  Next to a tumbled tote of my Halloween decor, I found a few realistic ravens, some plastic spiders, and one of those hissing, black cats with the glaring eyes and bared teeth.  It wasn't until I leaned over to return it to the bin with the rest of the decorations that I remembered I didn't have a Halloween Cat!  Neighbors gathered after they heard the scream.

The call to Animal Control went something like this:

"Hi, um, [sniff] we have a cat in our garage...but it's not our cat.  Actually, I'm allergic to cats so we couldn't have a cat even if we wanted one.  Oh yeah, [sniff, sniff] and this cat is dead.  But we didn't kill it.  It's just dead.  And my sister and her husband moved to Hawaii and left half their stuff, so the garage is really full, so the cat is kinda hidden and I'm afraid of cats because I'm allergic to them.  So do you guys come and get cats?  Because we don't want it.  And also, we're not hoarders [sniff]."

Convincing, no?

Inspired by the Halloween season and a desire to fill the serious feline void I discovered in our holiday decor, I set out to make a proper, odor-free, Halloween Cat with materials found only in my fabric stash.

Et voilĂ !  Le Chat Noir
I was forced to dress it in a jaunty, little Halloween outfit...just
so I could tell it from all the other dead cats in the garage.

I never think of myself as the type of person to sit around making precious little 
outfits for dolls but I guess Halloween is a time for many a cruel discovery.

The jacket is a few scraps of my favorite Marimekko print and the pants are made
of an autumnal-plaid remnant that will be featured in a forthcoming Sew What?! post.

Having used the faux fur for a few different projects, I didn't realize until the cat was near
completion that it was quite so shaggy.  At one point I could have continued making
the cat or gone all the way and made a replica of Eddie Munster's beloved Woof-Woof.
Instead, I held the course, choosing to give it a little haircut along the way.

The "eyes" have it!
The face went through many iterations; in the end, I decided that simple was best.
The crescent-shaped eyes are made of vintage buttons and vinyl.

I thought I was done, but looking over the cat, I decided that it needed a finishing touch - a hat.
Believe it or not, I just happened to have a miniature, coral-orange, conical hat in stock that I
trimmed with rickrack and a black pompom.

By the time I finished Le Chat Noir, I was reminded that as hard as I try, I will never be a "cat person."

The closest I might come would be this rather literal interpretation of "cat person."
As if I wasn't already questioning my decision to make a stuffed cat, I now realize it
could have been worse; I could be the crazy cat stuffed into the cat's pajamas!!!

Epilogue:  Just in case you were wondering, the Animal Control technician assured us that the cat was elderly and had died of natural causes.  He explained that often times cats, aware that the end of their ninth life is drawing nigh, will seek out a comfortable place to expire.  I was placated by his attestations of our innocence...but not by the fact that the cat's "comfortable place" was the cushion of the vintage sofa given to me by my grandmother.  Undoubtedly you've heard of the remarkable images imprinted on the Shroud of Turin; well, imagine the shroud is threadbare upholstery and instead of the vestigial visage of Christ our Lord, the shadowed simulacrum of a former feline.  Yep, I am definitely not a cat person.

"The Great Cat Family" (1956)


Mr. Tiny

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Mysterious Chinese Castle of Jacumba: Episode II: Secrets Revealed!

Continued from "The Mysterious Chinese Castle of Jacumba: Episode I"...

Motoring down the old highway into Jacumba, Mary instructed me to close my eyes; with a vague memory of the Chinese Castle's location, it was her idea to helm the wheel so I could be surprised.  Clutching the disk loaded with our family history and riding the imaginary brake, the real surprise for me was going to be if we made it out alive...and if the castle was still a castle.  As we came to the crest of a hill, she instructed me to open my eyes; what a pleasant surprise to see that not only was the castle still standing, it was looking rather glorious.  Perched above the town, the Chinese Castle is difficult to miss, not leastwise because of its fresh coat of blood-red paint.  With a firm belief that no one could deny our history-packed ambush, we drove confidently up to the castle gates.  Unfortunately, the gates were securely locked.

Chinese Castle wacky tacky
We considered storming the castle but there was a skull...a glow-in-the-dark skull.

With no one in sight and no gong to bong, we decided our best bet was faith in small-town stereotypes; Jacumba exudes that everybody-knows-everybody atmosphere.  Striking out with the first few folks with whom we inquired, we knew we were on the right track when we found our Jacumba heroes, Bill & Richard.  

Mary & Richard

Longtime residents of the area, Bill & Richard are semi-retired pals and Jacumba's unofficial goodwill ambassadors.  It didn't take more than their friendly wave as they made their regular rounds to get us to stalk them down (it's nice to make new best friends considering we were so new in town).  After telling them our story, they not only gave us the name and phone number of the new Empress of the Chinese Castle, they lent us their cell phones when we realized that we didn't have cell service in the area.  Leaving a detailed message when we couldn't get through, Mary and I accepted the guys' offer to show us the renovated hot springs and the community center (both offering plenty of historical insight).  As we chatted, we learned that Richard was very familiar with the castle, having updated much of the plumbing.  Touring the community center, Richard's phone rang; we were ecstatic to hear that Cherry, the castle's owner, was finishing up a meeting and was happily driving the thirty miles from her home to meet us at the castle for a private tour!!!  Cherry, an historian and writer, does not live in Jacumba; she bought the Chinese Castle for the love of history and the masochistic delight of a back-breaking restoration.

Meeting us at the gate, Cherry was prepared with more information about our ancestors than we were.  With about an hour to spare, she started right in on the tour, complete with historical facts and figures.  Corroborating Velma's essay, Cherry explained that the house was built sometime in the '20s by a man named Frank Battles.  It was said that he had a wife of Chinese descent but there is no documentation and no photographs of the original owners.  Changing hands many times throughout its history, the castle came with the innovative handiwork and collected furnishings of every new owner; because of its distinctive design, it also came with decades of myths and legend, including secret tunnels, illegal gambling, and even murder.  Anxious to uncover the real story, we were itching to get inside.

Follow the leader!!!

With its hip-and-gable roofline supported by scrolling beams, the main house consists of two asian-inspired buildings connected by a central breezeway.  Ancillary outbuildings include the garage, a guest cottage, a chapel, and an outhouse.  While the house (stripped bare and in pitiful shape when acquired by Cherry) is still very much in the middle of renovations, we invite you to come along on the wacky tacky tour of the Chinese Castle - before and after!


Quite ingeniously, the kitchen is housed in a separate building.  Cooking on an early-20th Century stove in the middle of the desert would have been an uncomfortable affair, particularly in the hottest months.  Consequently, the Chinese Castle has a year-round summer kitchen with a large portion of the ceiling recessed, allowing the heat to rise.

The photo is as informative as it is blurry.  It shows that as late as the '70s, the original stove
was still in use and the breakfast bar had been removed in favor of centering the dining table.

The kitchen door and the original corner cabinet (given gorgeous 
makeover with a chinoiserie motif) are unbelievably cool.

Aunt Velma in the "dome" that bathed her eggs in a lavender hue.

With the purchase of the castle, Cherry discovered that both the purple-hued panes of glass and the crystal chandelier were long gone.  A stained-glass artist herself, she promptly replaced the kitchen's clerestory windows (along with many other windows in the castle) with pieces of her own design.

The first of the myths surrounding the Chinese Castle originates in the kitchen.  Blended into the kitchen's floorboards is a trapdoor, rumored to be the hatch to a secret tunnel that crossed beneath the California-Mexico border to transport illicit goods and undocumented Chinese laborers.

In actual fact, it is a shallow root cellar.
As awesome as a secret international passageway would have been, I don't think the 
rumor mill considered the realities of tunneling through solid granite on a hilltop.


The breezeway separates the main house (left) from the kitchen (right).
The raised sun porch is characteristic of the castle's many areas of retreat.

The breezeway remains largely unchanged, save for the addition of the "Chinese Castle" sign (found on the
grounds and refurbished) and the replacement of open wooden steps (seen above) with heartier stone stairs. 


Before its most-recent purchase, the castle was so badly ransacked that essentially no traces of the home's collections or fixtures remained; even the staircase to the second story had been completely demolished.  In a way, it left a blank slate for Cherry and her husband to re-imagine and put their own stamp on the Chinese Castle.

The original stairs were almost like a ship's ladder; descending them would have
been rather precarious with only a decorative room-divider in place of a banister.

Based on this later photo, the old staircase (upper right) appears to have been enclosed at 
some point; the current staircase was cleverly rebuilt with closeted storage underneath.

One of the few things that did manage to survive (but just barely) is 
the filigreed, Asian lantern that continues to light the living room. 

The uneven floor of solid granite was covered with a series of sisal rugs.  Uncovered, there are signs of "morteros," 
divots in the stone created by Native Americans for grinding grains (seen below to the left of the fireplace).

The scrolled moldings were added to the windows and doors along with the beautiful, two-tone jade color scheme.
According to Cherry, the castle's original name was "Lao An," which translates very loosely to "wisdom" and "tranquility."

The back door, with its double-dragon hardware, leads out to a beautiful
view of the valley and the walking paths that surround the castle.

It is said that the wise man built his house upon the rock...but that doesn't mean the
rock took it lying down.  One corner of the living room is dominated by a rock that
just wouldn't be blasted away.  With the addition of some cunning stonework, it was 
transformed into a naturally-occurring knick-knack shelf!


Just beyond the stairs and the stony etagere, is a doorway that leads to the first-floor bathroom.

The photo album did not yield any "before" pictures of the bathroom but Velma's write-up described it thusly: "The bathroom wall of selected curiously formed rocks has more than thirty faces of men and animals to contemplate."

Upon reflection, I believe she was either speaking metaphorically, or
she spent so long in there that her contemplating turned to hallucinating.

The shower stall is a thing of beauty, fit for service at wacky tacky mecca, 
The Madonna Inn.  All of that glorious, green tile work is a recent redo.


Sure, the picture of the main bedroom is unclear, but there is no mistaking the theme.
In its heyday, the Chinese Castle was decked out in full Chinese regalia.

Technically, the castle has two bedrooms, accessed by the new, and rather steep, staircase.
Although, I would classify the second as an enclosed sleeping porch (to get to it, one must
pass through the loft-style bedroom). 

I believe this is a photo of the secondary bedroom, used as a sitting room and studio.

Foolishly, I got distracted and failed to take pictures of the upstairs (two smallish, square rooms).  It was probably because the main bedroom opens onto a spacious rooftop deck and a sweeping vista of the town below.

Cherry and Mary discuss Jacumbian history on the deck.  As mentioned in the previous post, the deck
was once surrounded by torii-style railings; I believe the plan is to reproduce them in a similar fashion.


To our wacky tacky eyes, the most amazing sight in the Chinese Castle is the INDOOR POOL!

Directly across from the bathroom, sunken into the natural rock formations is a petite pool, perfect for escaping the blazing heat.  Filled by a shower-style spigot branching off from exposed plumbing, the pool is just big enough for a 
few people to splash around. 

This photo leads me to believe that it might have once been used as a water
garden or koi pond, but the only other references we have to it, call it a pool,

Can you say DREAM HOUSE?!?!!
Sealed in that perfectly-unnatural shade of aquamarine, the pool is a truly unexpected feature of the
Chinese Castle.  I'm kind of hoping that when it is filled, Cherry invites us back for a pool party!


Bobcat Manor, so named for the two families of bobcats that were found living on the property, is one of the guest cottages referred to in the very first photo of the castle I found.  It was built in the 1940s out of local stone and railroad ties and is also getting the full-treatment makeover.

The entrance to Bobcat Manor was reconfigured so as to make the space more livable.
The front door was moved so guests enter directly into the sitting room.
What was once a cramped foyer can now be transformed
into a  powder room or a kitchenette.

The walls are beautiful, hand-hewn railroad ties (cleaned and stained), featuring photos of the manor's namesakes.

The painted-tin ceilings are a recent addition.

Where once stood the chimney pipe to a wood-burning buck stove, now glows 
a light fixture, repurposed from one of the castle's original vent registers.

Bobcat Manor has five distinct rooms; the newly-refurbished bedroom is cozy but clean.


Viewed from the sun-protection of the garage's covered carport, the chapel was once a two-room guesthouse.  As the second room was little more than a dilapidated lean-to, it was removed as a safety precaution before the decorative stonework was applied.

It was in this area that the castle's second major myth was born.  One of the owners kept a lucky slot machine on the premises; in an act of good-natured superstition, it is said that he pulled the one-armed bandit every time he drove away from the house - not quite the den of illegal gaming the castle is purported to have been. 

The non-denominational chapel now serves as a sanctuary for all faiths.

The chapel's only pew is a bench original to the property.

The bench can be seen on the left side of this photo at the top of the stairs.

Just outside the custom-built chapel door is a patio for entertaining guests.

The castle's original stove has been incorporated into the hardscape as a repurposed barbecue!


The fully-plumbed outhouse was original to the 1920s structure; technically, it 
has received a make-under, being transformed into a proper, old-timey 
outhouse, replete with more of Cherry's stained-glass handiwork.  


One thing that is not a mystery here is that, between the rocky terrain and endless series of stairs, it is a
hike to get to the Chinese Castle!  Once at the top though, one is richly rewarded with breathtaking
scenery viewed from the castle's official throne (pictured atop the large boulder next to the house).

The "Queen's Chair" was purposely constructed out of ergonomically-
contoured rocks for yet another quiet place to relax and enjoy the view.

This picture of Velma (and unidentified friends) features one of her favorite objets de jardin,
the sun dial in the foreground.  Sadly, it too was a casualty of war on the Chinese Castle.

In a move so spectacularly wacky tacky, the negative space left by the sun dial was filled by the menacing artwork of metal sculptor, Ricardo Breceda.  Famous all over Southern California, Breceda's best-known work includes the large-scale, roadside pieces dotting the highway through the Anza-Borrego desert (documented here). 

The torii gates that once marked the trail to the castle were either
missing or damaged beyond repair when Cherry bought the property.

What a great sight it was to see them rebuilt, guiding
the next generations of visitors to the wonders within. 

Not only were the gates replaced, but probably a mile-worth of concrete trails as well.  One of the best aspects of the castle is that there are so many places to go; the many meandering trails lead to secret niches, granite gardens, and wildlife hideouts. 

Originating along the boulder-ridden pathways, is the castle's third myth.  Legend has it that in a fit of jealousy, an enraged husband murdered his philandering wife on the castle grounds.  The truth of the matter is that a woman did perish here, but at the hands of fate rather than fury; attempting to climb the granite boulders, the woman slipped and fell to her death.

To be on the safe side, the trails (still slightly treacherous) are now reinforced by sturdy stone walls and railings. 

In true trash-castle tradition, the walls are studded with myriad
minerals, found objects, seashells, slag glass, and even vintage dinnerware.

Whether manmade or naturally occurring, every little nook and cranny is a thematic still life.
Built into, around, and under the boulders are many more storage spaces, niches, and hiding places.
What I wouldn't give for a death-defying game of hide-and-go-seek at the Chinese Castle! 

wacky tacky blog
As mentioned in the previous post, the castle's focal point has always been the antique, Chinese wind chime
made of graduated, multi-colored metal drums.  At least forty-percent of the album's photos feature the chime,
no doubt pilfered from some ancient palace in the East.

You can imagine how thrilled I was to see that stalwart sentinel, continuing to hang
 faithfully from the covered porch just outside the kitchen.  I should have been
mildly chagrinned when Cherry casually disclosed that the chime was neither
Chinese nor a true antique.  Instead, I was was kind of amused to learn that, like
much of the castle's building materials, the chime is made out of old railroad parts.

The final mystery of the Chinese Castle was answered by the iconic stripes of the chimney. 

Chinese Castle wacky tacky
The earliest photos we have of the Chinese Castle picture the distinctive paint job.

In keeping with tradition, Cherry risked life and limb to restore the chimney's
stripes, still unsure of the exact date the tradition started.  As she dangled from the
rooftop, she noticed that the chimney cap was dated.  As the records for the owner-
built manse are hazy, Cherry was able to prove that the castle was constructed
in 1926, right in the midst of America's craze for Orientalism! 

Visiting the mysterious Chinese Castle of Jacumba was a thrilling opportunity.  Not only because we got to play Nancy Drew/The Hardy Boys for a day, but also because we, descendants of the former emperor and empress, came out of it learning that we are pretty much Chinese royalty.  Now all we have to do is write a letter to Xi Jinping and see what he intends to do about it.

King of the castle???

It seems odd somehow to feel so connected to a house I had never before visited, owned by relatives whose acquaintance was peripheral at best.  Nevertheless, I am so grateful for all of the renovation, restoration, and conservation that Cherry and and her husband are doing for the Chinese Castle.  What was but a footnote in my family history, has quickly become a major point of genealogical pride.  It is perhaps a tad premature for me to feel a sense of ownership, but wouldn't it be amazing one day to find a way to reclaim the throne?!!  Hopefully, when Cherry is ready to sell, Mr. Tiny will be financially responsible enough to buy!  What a joy it would be to wake up in the Far East and still be way out West!

"Chinatown, My Chinatown" - Red Nichols & His Five Pennies (1929)


Mr. Emperor Tiny