Twenty-six miles across the sea
Santa Catalina is the place for me
Santa Catalina, the island of Romance
–“26 Miles,” The Four Preps
What is it about old hotels?
According to my dream dictionary, a hotel is symbol for a transitory state of mind. But hotels have taken up permanent residence in my psyche and nothing I do will dislodge them.
The structure pictured on the right may or may not exist.
Some years ago the hospital where I work undertook a beautification campaign, and original paintings—one of this hotel among them–began appearing on corridor walls. At least, I think it’s a hotel. This is what I mean about permanent residence.
I think art is always a good idea, especially in a house of the sick. Art, real art, nudges medicine toward healing. Still, none of the paintings that showed up in our hospital did much for me, except this one. It was hidden in a corner alcove near the auditorium, where I’m sure no patients passed by.
I came to look at it again and again. The canvas is small, maybe eight by ten inches. That’s just right. Larger would assume too much. Small, you have to go looking for it.
It has to be a hotel, don’t you think? What else could it be, surrounded by forest under a mountain backdrop? What happens in such a place? Maybe your parents spent their wedding night there. Or mine.
Change, says a hotel, is the only constant.
THE ST. CATHERINE
Some day I will set a novel in this hotel. I’ve explored the island of Catalina on foot, bicycle, car, canoe, boat and airplane, but I never saw the fabled St. Catherine, which burned down after World War II.
To the left, the Casino seen from Descanso Beach, where the Hotel was.
If you’ve seen the film Chinatown, you’ve seen the Casino. It’s where Noah Cross, played by John Huston, is visited by Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson. If you haven’t seen Chinatown, you should.
What’s the appeal of the St. Catherine? That it was a secret island hideaway? That Bogie slept there? That it was beautiful and it’s lost?
All I know is that when I need a hotel for a dreamscape, I rent the mythical St. Catherine and bring my psychic crew there.
I’m always on the beach, looking through foliage at glowing lanterns hung from the windows. The people going back and forth whisper of steamy, unsavory doings on the third or fourth floor. But I never make it off the beach.
The Arrowhead Springs Hotel in San Bernardino still stands, despite many fires. It’s owned now by a religious organization, so its glory days are over. Its glory days were over a long time ago.
Unlike the hotel in the hospital painting and the St. Catherine, I actually visited the Arrowhead Springs Hotel, with my parents and two sisters. I was very young and don’t remember much. There was a large lobby where my father and I played checkers. The lobby also had a TV you could watch, the only one in the establishment.
There was a forest fire. Everyone huddled in the lobby, looking out out the huge glass windows at the flames and smoke. I remember not being afraid, not connecting the dots. The next day the grounds were a shambles. The pool was filled with outdoor furniture the staff had dumped there to keep from burning.
We went home and never came back.
There were steam baths at the hotel. My father showed them to me before the fire–cavernous, black caves where people sat in white vapor.
In later years, I thought I had imagined the caves, but others remembered as well. A local TV reporter visited the site and filmed it. The steam building is gone, but the foundations remain. The exact catacombs where my father sat.
I found photographs of movie stars at Arrowhead Springs. Elizabeth Taylor, married at 17, spending the night in the honeymoon suite with Nicky Hilton. Bogart by the pool, the same pool they threw the furniture in.
I like the photo from Life Magazine best—some un-famous people posing in the mysterious steam caves.
Steam, apparently, made you beautiful.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
Tour the Arrowhead Springs Hotel. See the magnificent lobby! How I wish there were a tour of the St. Catherine as well.
Speak to me of hotels. Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
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