Sunday, August 6, 2017

Tustin's Tahitian Terrace

Pool house at the Tahitian Terrace, Tusin, 2017
Sometimes the best way to do urban archaeology is just to find a spot that interests you and start digging. This is one of those times. I'll get the ball rolling, and perhaps someone else will jump in with additional information or new leads to follow.

Years ago, an apartment complex (now called Waterstone Garden Apartments), at the north corner of Red Hill Ave. and Walnut St. in Tustin, California, caught my eye for it's mid-century Tiki design. Recently I stumbled across a couple photos of the place when it was only four years old, and I was inspired to not only drive over and photograph the place anew, but also to spend a bit of time looking for more of its story.  Here's what I've found so far,...
The Tahitian Terrace apartments in 1967
Waterstone Garden was once two separate developments with complementary Polynesian themes. The first, situated right on the corner at 14441 Red Hill, was the Tahitian Terrace complex.
The Tahitian Terrace was built in 1963 -- just a year after Stouffer's Tahitian Terrace restaurant opened at nearby Disneyland -- and began renting units that same summer.
It's one of a relatively small handful of Orange County complexes that have made it to 2017 with much of their original Tiki style still in place. One must assume that a good deal of Tiki decor has disappeared, including the pitched A-frame entryway which has now been replaced with a conventional awning. But much of the original vibe remains.
Aerial photo from 1963 courtesy the Orange County Archives.
The aerial photo below shows the Tahitian Terrace under construction (on the left and center), with another complex next door, the Whispering Woods, still only in the process of being graded (on the right). Notice that both complexes were -- like so much local development at that time -- simply carved out of the orange groves.
Some newspaper ads for Tahitian Terrace promoted "island luxury."
The second complex now folded into "Waterstone Garden" was the thirty-unit Whispering Woods, at 14421 Red Hill Ave. This second complex was built for real estate investment wiz James T. Bakos of Rossmoor by the Valencia Construction Co. The landscaping was designed by Hugh Paulsen. Although grading began while Tahitian Terrace was still under construction, Whispering Woods was still unfinished as late as spring of 1964. Once finished, no children or pets were allowed, and like its neighbor, it bragged about being "all-electric."
The Whispering Woods, 2017
Unfortunately, much less is known about the origins of the Tahitian Terrace, except that the land was surveyed in 1957 by then-owners Mr. & Mrs. Albert Nieblas, who seemed to be movers-and-shakers in the Tustin business and social scene at the time.

In its first years, newspaper ads promoted Tahitian Terrace as featuring "Island Luxury," which sort of sounds like an oxymoron. (I'm picturing Thurston and Lovey Howell driving around in a pedal-powered Mercedes made of bamboo.)
The Whispering Woods, 2017
Although taking a less-than South Seas-inspirted name, the Whispering Woods' lava rock chimneys and planters, A-frame pool house, nautical wormwood facades, tropical landscaping and other details reflect a faux-Polynesian influence, even today. Was it intentional?
Aerial photo of the Tahitian Terrace apartments, late 2010s
Eventually, the Tahitian Terrace and the Whispering Woods were brought together under the flavorless yet Flintstones-like moniker, "Waterstone Garden Apartments." Of the two, the Tahitian Terrace half offers the most reward for today's Tiki-appreciating urban archaeologist.
Even the carports behind the Tahitian Terrace have South Seas rooflines.
One suspects that there was more of decorative element to some of the buildings once, especially the two-story buildings that now seem so bland once you get below their Tiki rooflines. So many of these kinds of places lost a great deal in being de-Tiki-fied, and it seems like that happened here as well. Still, the rooflines, the outrigger beams, the lush tropical landscaping, and the wonderful pool house make the Tahitian Terrace worth a stop.
Inside the Tahitian Terrace courtyard, 2017.
The Whispering Woods seems to continue with its identity crisis: Is it or was it Polynesian themed, or did its rustic version of 1960s architecture combined with tropical landscaping and lava walls just give that impression? Perhaps more information will come to light on both complexes in the future. In fact, part of why I'm posting this is in the hope that those who know the story of this corner of Tustin will come forward and share what they know.
The Tahitian Terrace apartments in 1967

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Photos from "Tiki In Orange County"

Many photos from my Tiki In Orange County exhibit at Chapman University are now posted in an album on my Flickr account. If you took more photos, let me know and I'll post them, too! The exhibit remains up through late August.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tiki on KUCI

Ellen Bell, host of "Vintage Orange"
I’ll be talking about my new “Tiki In Orange County” exhibit and all things Polynesian Pop on Ellen Bell’s Vintage Orange radio show on KUCI, 88.9 FM on Wed., Feb. 21, 2017, from 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Podcast version should be posted to her blog sometime later in the week.

Visiting with Ellen is always great fun, and I’m looking forward to the interview!

I’ll also be giving a little tour of the exhibit to Chapman University staff and faculty on Thursday at 4:00 p.m. This will be the little sneak preview sampler platter version, and not the big opening event, which will be on March 4th, which anyone can attend (if they RSVP).

Monday, February 13, 2017

"Tiki In Orange County" exhibit

I'm curating an exhibit at Chapman University called "Tiki In Orange County," which through August 25. The big kick-off event/reception/program is March 4th, and I hope to see you there! (Bring your friends and family, but please click through and RSVP so we know how many little paper umbrellas we're gonna need.)

Quoth the promotional blurb,...
Chris Jepsen, Guest Curator, presents Tiki in Orange County, on display in the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives. From architecture, décor and music to literature, theme parks and backyard luaus, the South Seas was a wildly popular theme throughout mid-twentieth century America. Artifacts, photographs, documents and music, offer a look at the origins of Tiki in the South Pacific, its interpretation in mid-century Orange County (and Southern California), and how both have inspired today’s Tiki revival.

Opening Reception: Saturday, March 4, 2017, 4:30 - 6:30 p.m.

Location: Special Collections and Archives, 4th Floor

Exhibit hours are Monday through Friday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Visitor parking is available with purchase of a temporary permit. For parking fees, maps & directions, visit:
Thanks not only to my gracious aforementioned hosts at Chapman, but also to the amazing folks who loaned, installed, or helped me create parts of this exhibit, including Stephanie George, Carlota Haider, Kevin Kidney, Jody Daily, Ben and Vicki Bassham, Bob Van Oosting and Leroy Schmaltz of Oceanic Arts, Scott Schell, Dylan Almendral, Sven Kirsten, Jason Schultz, Gail Griswold, Eric Callero, Laurie Gates Cussalli, David Eppen, Patrick Jenkins, the Orange County Archives, the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society, the American Heritage Museum, and Jane Newell and Patricia Grimm of the Anaheim Heritage Center. It's an honor to know these people and I apologize in advance if I've forgotten anyone.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Word On Home Tiki Bars...

Hawaiian Airlines' in-flight magazine just did a photospread about home Tiki bars. Of course, I love to see the photos, but what really grabbed me was this quote, courtesy the always-insightful Humuhumu Trott. See her review of the article -- from whence I stole the image above -- at

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Royal Hawaiian Rides Again?

Just before Christmas, I was walking through downtown Laguna Beach, California and stopped to photograph the old Royal Hawaiian (331 N. Coast Highway) through the windows. The landmark restaurant closed in 2012, after 65 years in business, and has been vacant ever since. Francis Cabang originally opened the place in 1947, and it was amazing. It was like walking into a native village deep amid the jungles of a South Seas island. There were Tikis, puffer fish lamps, bamboo, tropical gardens, thatched huts to dine under, "wiki wiki platters," and a delicious signature Lapu-Lapu so big it gave the waitresses carpal tunnel syndrome. Prices were low, portions were ample, and it was a favorite both of locals and out-of-town visitors.

But the  Cabang family sold the place in 2006, and the new owners did a major remodel. The amazing decor was mostly removed, their prices went up, their Lapu-Lapu shrank (a common problem when reaching age 65), and Hawaiian music was replaced with live rock in the evenings. Although this half-assed Royal Hawaiian was better than no Royal Hawaiian, few were surprised when it closed in 2012.
Flash forward again to this past December. As I was shooting photos through the Royal Hawaiian's windows, a man came up and asked what I was doing. I explained about being a historian. He introduced himself as Mo, the restaurant's new owner, and that he planned to re-open the Royal Hawaiian. He also very kindly offered to let me go inside to take better photos. He was waiting for other people to join him there for a meeting. I shot a whole bunch of photos inside, some of which I'm posting here. (More of my Royal Hawaiian photos, past and present, are posted on my Flickr account.)

While snapping photos, I tried to sound Mo out on his thoughts re Polyensian Pop and Tiki, but he didn't have much to say one way or the other. I suggested he research the subject  if he was going to reopen this iconic Tiki establishment. I told him a little about the Tiki revival and suggested he read Sven Kirsten's books, visit the Tiki swapmeets, wander the aisles at Oceanic Arts, etc. He was polite, but I wasn't sure if I was connecting or not. He did say that he wanted to reflect the kind of atmosphere one sees in today's better restaurants on the Hawaiian islands.
So today I saw this article entitled "Royal Hawaiian Reopens in Laguna Beach" in the online version of Locale Magazine (May 31, 2016). It reads, in part,...
"Today, it is owned by Mohammad Honarkar, and he and his hospitality team—Eric Bostwick, Carlos Godinez, Hasty Honarkar, Dylan Marsh and Brian Smith—are dedicated to bringing this historic restaurant back to life with a new and improved twist. 
"...The Royal Hawaiian will feature décor that will only be slightly updated from the previous renovations. Classic tiki vibes will be present, but will be combined with a new age feel that will ...make Laguna feel as though it has become a modern version of Hawaii. The Royal Hawaiian’s return will feature a menu that is filled with classic Hawaiian dishes made more unique with creative twists and many colorful handcrafted cocktails. Returning customers will also see the homecoming of the famous Royal Hawaiian Ribs and the popular cocktail dubbed the Lapu Lapu."
I'll start by thanking these folks for reopening what was once among the last great vintage Tiki establishments. I wish them luck and I'll definitely come try it shortly after it opens. And if it's good, I will certainly be a repeat customer. But here's my two cents:

First, they need to roll back the misguided changes made by the last owners, not double-down on them with more modernization. It's time to hire "Bamboo Ben" Bassham or Daniel "Tiki Diablo" Gallardo to re-tikify the interior, and hire someone who knows vintage Tiki cocktails to get the bar off to a good re-start. And yes, the menu needs some amusingly non-authentic favorites, like the old "Pele Goddess of Fire" (a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a flaming sugar cube in the middle).

When you buy a restaurant like the Royal Hawaiian, nostalgia is your biggest asset. You get a built-in audience and a line at your door on opening night. But that same nostalgia requires a certain willingness to commit. Let's hope the new folks "get it." There's nothing worse than disappointing an enthusiastic built-in audience. (Just ask George "Stinky Prequels" Lucas.) On the other hand, play your cards right and you'll be the most popular place in town. Again!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Hoola Boola

Thanks to our pal Sven Kirsten for drawing my attention to "Hoola Boola" (1941), a wonderful South-Seas-themed "Puppetoon" stop-motion feature from the studios of George Pal.

Some of the stop-motion animation was done by the famed Ray Harryhausen. If IMDb is to be believed, the voice actors included Rex Ingram, Victor Jory, Patrick McGeehan, Eloise Rawitzer, Sam Edwards, and (providing the voices of the cannibals) Mel BlancDorothy Lamour provided the inspiration for island girl Sarong Sarong.

Sections of this short were re-cycled into Pal's "The Little Broadcast" Puppetoon in 1943. Pal was an animator and film maker known for such sci-fi flicks as "When Worlds Collide," "The War of the Worlds" (1953), "The Time Machine" (1960), and (in collaboration with Robert Heinlein) "Destination Moon" (1950). Happy New Year, everyone!