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Caruso Shrugged, Part 1
The Art, Iconography, and History of The Americana at Brand
I. Cerca Trova
Riding the escalator down from the parking structure at Glendale’s Americana at Brand, the Leasing Office on the third floor reminds me that people actually live here. The open-air mall contains 242 luxury apartments, boasting amenities like “Lush pool & spa deck,” “One-Call Concierge® Services,” and “Close to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.” It’s not cheap to live at the mall, starting at $3,550 per month for a studio apartment, up to the 777 square foot “Marc Penthouse” for $4,600 per month.1 The under-1,000-square-foot luxury penthouse is named for the brother of California mega-developer and recently failed Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, the man behind the Americana. Only a little over $55,000 a year to live in an upscale studio apartment named after currently practicing Los Angeles music industry attorney Marc Caruso.
Taking the escalator down to the next floor, I find a grey locker with a touchscreen, bearing sans-serif instruction: “Order at Amazon, pick up here.” At the upper-right corner, the lockbox introduces itself with an LED screen that reads, in all lower-case, “hello, my name is gland.” It’s an attempt to make the martial hunk seem friendly, but the machine learning misfire at bestowing it with a human-like name makes it even more off-putting. I accept the greeting, welcoming me to the absurd world of the Americana at Brand.
I lean over the railing and see the exterior of the elevator, housed in a lattice of exposed I-Beams. Affixed high on its side is gold and blue art deco signage, bearing neon text in three different fonts down its long body, “The” in cursive, “Americana” vertically down the center, “At Brand” small across a small blue ribbon at the bottom. The open beams and the movie-house sign inform the theme: artificial 1920s industrial age constructed in Disneyland artifice, right in the heart of Glendale. Plastic I-Beams, meant as permanent exterior, painted with fake rust. Rhapsody in Bluescreen.
Beyond the girders, I catch a bird’s-eye view of the main courtyard of the Americana. Thin spouts of water shoot skyward from the 80-foot diameter marble-enclosed fountain—created by WET, all caps, the same company who designed the fountains outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The grassy area beyond, imaginatively dubbed The Green, is surrounded by shops and restaurants and is technically a Glendale public park. The centerpiece is a glimmering Adonis rising from the south edge of the fountain, arched like a dolphin mid-leap, hands aloft, head with rockabilly coif lifted to the clouds. This is the Spirit of the American Youth. It’s a replica of a World War II era statue created by American sculptor Donald De Lue. The original, cast in dark bronze, is found at the Normandy American Cemetery in France, and faces west toward the graves of nearly 10,000 military dead who lost their lives in the D-Day landings. The Americana replica is cast in glimmering gold and faces north toward the Apple Store.
This upward-springing golden nude boy is the icon of the Americana. A silhouette of the Spirit hovers over the mixed-font text in the mall’s ubiquitous official logo.
Down two more sets of escalators, past the floor-to-ceiling posters of a gauzy, golden Charlize Theron advertising Dior’s Parfum D’eau, I reach the Grand Lobby of the parking structure. The Grand Chandelier, the 12-foot high, 10-foot diameter fixture made from Czechoslovakian crystals and finished with clear auto coat hangs over the marble floors. A grand piano behind velvet rope plays unmanned, keys depressing themselves. It’s unclear whether the music is coming from the piano or a hidden speaker.
Floor-to-ceiling silk drapes hang, framing the fourteen-by-ten-foot murals on the west and east walls. Like so much of the artwork at the Americana, the murals are designed to be barely glanced at. Placed directly at the entrance and exit of the escalators, spend too much time looking at them and you’re likely to be tumbled over by rushing shoppers. On the west wall, the framed piece features a topographical map of California within a gold border and under gold lettering with the name of the state. To its left are golden clouds encircling a crescent moon surrounded by a smattering of 13 stars, all embossed in gold. At the bottom of the clouds is the mall’s logo accompanied, as always, by the golden nude boy. Scattered within the clouds randomly, like a swarm of bees, are perplexing gold-embossed logos—the USC Trojan, an LAPD badge, the LADWP logo. The parallelogram clamped around the word “Dollar” that is the Dollar Rent-A-Car logo. A bronze plaque affixed to the frame below is engraved:
SEEK AND YE SHALL FIND
The phrase “Cerca trova” is also found inscribed on a flag in the Battle of Marciano, a fresco painted on the walls of the Hall of the Five Hundred in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, created by Georgio Vasari in 1565 for a member of the Medici family. It also plays a large role in the novel Inferno by Dan Brown, the fourth book in the Da Vinci Code series2. I have my suspicions as to where the Americana developer first learned the phrase.
I emerge beyond the elevator and its I-Beams into the town square of the Americana. To my right is Sprinkles Cupcakes, where you can choose to buy your $5 single cupcake either from an employee behind the space-age curved glass window, or from the self-serve “Cupcake ATM” on its outside wall. Hang a right, and I would find H&M and the newly opened Amazon Style, which advertises “A New Way To Shop” that is really not more convenient but does allow the retailer to more efficiently track which purchases you consider. Beyond, across Central Avenue, is the Glendale Galleria, the long-standing indoor mega-mall established in 1976, which has its own Apple Store for those who prefer to buy the latest iPhone without stepping outdoors. But I continue onward past Sprinkles, toward the central square, and I am faced with the feather in the Americana’s cap. Under a dome of artificial verdigris, al fresco diners pick at the iconic brown bread rolls. The logo affixed at the head of the marble façade bears the restaurant’s name: “The Cheesecake Factory.”
A rival developer attempted to blunt the Americana in its nascent days by extorting The Cheesecake Factory. In 2003, the restaurant chain signed a letter of intent to open the Americana location but did not formally sign their lease until 2007. It was found that during that time they were put under pressure by the then-owners of the Glendale Galleria, General Growth Properties. The real estate development company which then owned 200 shopping centers was accused by Caruso of trying to thwart the Cheesecake Factory’s Americana lease by blocking the chain’s deals at its other malls. After an extensive lawsuit, a jury ruled in favor of Caruso’s claims, awarding the developer $72.4 million in compensatory damages. The ruling lowered General Growth’s 2007 third-quarter earnings from 9 cents a share to a loss of 4 cents a share.3
Cheesecake Factory extortion was not the sum of General Growth Properties’ muscular attempts at legal pressure to block the construction of Caruso’s Americana. General Growth brought a legal contest attempting to grant landmark status to two buildings that would be demolished for the Americana—Fire Station 21 and the Pacific Bell building. Though Caruso said the buildings “have no historical value,” there is some evidence that at least some locals agreed with General Growth.4 The determination of non-historic status for Fire Station 21 was based on the assumption that the original art deco façade of the 75-year-old building was destroyed, but some said it still existed beneath the concrete exterior added in its 1958 renovation, and a 1996 city-certified report declared the building a historic resource.5 Regardless, General Growth eventually waved the white flag on this strategy, abandoning its legal contest at the end of 2004, the demolition of the contested buildings shortly to follow.6 The art deco façade that may have laid behind the concrete of Fire Station 21 was razed so that the Americana’s nu-art deco could be raised.
The battle between Caruso and General Growth feels like witnessing a bout in the sky between two Gods as we little people have scant stake in the outcome. Two deities of capital each with hooded acolytes chanting legal incantations to defeat their rival God. A battle on Glendale’s Mount Olympus between centuries, the 20th century and its neon-drenched air-conditioned indoor ecosystems locked in combat against the upstart 21st century and its open-air citadels of capital.
Caruso ascendent, General Growth Properties was defeated utterly. The firm declared bankruptcy in 2009, at the time the biggest real estate failure in U.S. history.7
The 2009 recession left the retail strip on Brand Boulevard on shaky ground, and city officials turned in supplication to their new developer-God. The City Council made an offering, naming a street running into the complex after Caruso. The Americana was Brand’s last hope, in the shadow of vacant storefronts like Tower Records.8
Online retail has now turned physical retail absurd as brick-and-mortar shops contort themselves unnaturally to survive. On the first floor of the Americana’s sprawling three-story Barnes & Noble, past the table of Colleen Hoover paperbacks under “#BookTok” signage, I find the bookstore contains what is essentially a mini–Tower Records. First the DVD stores got gobbled up by the music mega-chains, then the music mega-chains died and got gobbled up by the bookstore mega-chains that killed all the independent book shops. Now, the only bookstores left devote much of their floor space to Blu-Rays, CDs, records, and toys. The Americana Barnes & Noble has shelves of Criterion Blu-Rays, next to a floating kiosk of Friends merchandise. If I reach my arms far enough in both directions, I can snag a copy of The Bicycle Thief and a Chandler Funko Pop.
The exterior of the Barnes & Noble is ludicrously ornate, resembling the façade of an early 20th-century train station. The store’s name appears three times, for good measure, one directly above the entrance, then again vertically on a pole affixed to the upper-right of the building, and in gold across the building’s curved top, just below an American flag high atop a pole, billowing in the wind. Above the highest Barnes & Noble logo is a small fixture, embossed with the silhouette of the Spirit centered between engraved text that reads “1717.”
Adjacent to the Barnes & Noble is a Sephora, Beetlejuice-striped in black and white, anxiety-triggering club music thumping from inside, advertising in the window with the tagline “Clean Meets Clinical.” Across from the DVD/bookstore, encroaching The Green, is the outdoor seating area for upscale restaurant Ombra, chained off next to a kiosk called Urban Hats that sells fuzzy bucket hats and Pikachu-shaped beanies. A bronze plaque outside Ombra informs that that the restaurant does not permit children after 5PM.
The coffee shop attached to Nordstrom, eBar, lies under a stack of overhanging residential balconies. At the zenith is a golden dome, topped by another replica of a Donald De Lue sculpture found originally at the Normandy American Cemetery. Simply called “America,” it portrays a robed figure with a stern expression, his left hand clutching an olive branch, and his right resting on the eagle helm of a wide great sword half his height. In Normandy, the statue is carved in granite and is accompanied by another statue representing France. In Glendale, America is soaked in gold and France is nowhere to be found. Under the statue, across the curved roof of the apartments, gold lettering reads “CERCA TROVA.” The Americana is peppered throughout with its strange, repeating iconography. Noticing all the repeating themes and wondering at their hidden meaning makes one begin to feel a bit like adventurer-symbologist Robert Langdon. “Seek and ye shall find.”
Frank Sinatra lounge standards pump out of the speakers hidden at the base of the streetlamps. I make my way toward the city council-renamed Caruso Avenue. An arch is engraved across its top with “THE MARC, EST. 2008.” I cross under the arch named in honor of the music lawyer and find it leads to what appears to be residential parking and a loading dock. A guy in an Outback Steakhouse T-shirt wanders from a backroom on a smoke break and valets in black vests scramble down the ramp to the parking lot. I step back out into the valet drop-off area, pausing near a red Ferrari. A couple of nearby teenagers gawk at the car and take pictures, asking me, “Hi, is this yours?” “No,” I reply. A janitor sweeps detritus from the street into a dustbin, emptying it into one of the Americana’s bronze-rimmed trash cans. His band-collared blue uniform shirt is embroidered across the breast with Rick Caruso’s signature.
I continue to Brand Boulevard and walk northward to Americana Way, where I follow rail lines embedded in the asphalt. They terminate at a barred gate, under bronze letters reading “TROLLEY 1717 DEPOT.” Past the bars, there is a disused red electric trolley, a name painted across its front.
II. Special—To Oblivion
Florence Inferno, “a blog about the mysteries, symbols and places mentioned in Dan Brown’s […] Inferno, with an emphasis on the city of Florence,” florenceinferno.com
Los Angeles Times, 10 November 2007.
Los Angeles Times, 11 November 2004.
Glendale News-Press, 8 September 2004; Glendale News-Press, 18 May 2004.
Los Angeles Times, 6 December 2004.
Reuters, 16 April 2009.
Los Angeles Times, 1 April 2008.