Well-kept secret shines with unique treasures

Where can you find a virtual replica of an arctic area, an antique theater and a getaway garden?

Past the vast stretch of dining options on Figueroa Street near campus resides this hidden gem, which is worth exploring because of its ability to take visitors completely out of their element.

Secret garden · The Velaslavasay Panorama and Union Theatre features a hidden garden, a relaxing retreat full of exotic natural life. - Eva Recinos | Daily Trojan

Within the walls of the Velaslavasay Panorama Garden and Grounds, you’ll be removed from the concrete madness of Los Angeles and find yourself ensconced in a mysterious little world of its own.

With only a large sign that says “UNION” and a smaller one welcoming you inside, the building on 24th Street doesn’t seem too enticing.

The casual passerby might figure it’s just an old theater or perhaps another museum ridden with dusty bookshelves and boring glass displays.

And though the locale steeps itself in its 18th- and 19th-century history, its many surprises can supply any modern-day visitor with plenty of diversion.

Entrance is free unless you want to make a donation. If you are adventurous enough, you’ll forgo any introduction and step right in. As you walk in you’ll come across a small, dimly lit stairway. Once you get closer, you’ll see a small boat in a glass case. Now you can’t help but walk up the steps and what happens next proves to be fascinating and historically interesting.

The upstairs room reveals a 360-degree panorama of an arctic landscape. “Effulgence of the North” sets you right in an arctic setting complete with dim lights and arctic-like sounds drifting throughout. The detailed panorama uses the right colors and shading to make you feel as though you’re not inside a small room in Los Angeles but somewhere in a vast, cold landscape.

Only a few of these works still exist and they recall a time when people couldn’t indulge in the technology of movies as they can today; instead, they relied on the panoramas, first patented as far back as 1787, to virtually transport them to another place or time.

But even today’s CGI-audience can appreciate the artistic finesse of the works and the utter surprise of finding such a gem amid the ever-busy city. A sitting area in front of the panorama lets you take in every detail and use the spot as a get-away from the outside city if you so wish.

The city didn’t always have this gem. As events coordinator Bettina Escauriza said, the locale boasts a complex history.

“Originally we had a panorama off Hollywood and that building was called the Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda and it was a Chinese building that was originally a restaurant and eventually, it became the home of the Velaslavasay panorama that became The Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes,” Escauriza said. “That building was torn down, so we moved here and the Union Theatre was vacant.”

But the panorama is not the only attraction the location offers.

Once you walk downstairs and explore the rest of the locale, the surprises keep coming. The locale was, after all, at one point, a theater. A few seats from that era are still present, along with a stage and a few antique, retro instruments.

Despite feeling anachronistic, the theater still hosts a plethora of events of presentations and performances.

The building had many other uses, from an acting school run by famous femme fatale actress Louise Glaum to screenings for a USC after-hours film series in the 1970s. Each occupation brought changes to the locale but today, some of the original features still remain.

“There were originally 400 seats but now there are only 17, [which are] the only ones [boltered] to the ground,” Escauriza said.

And even if you don’t know all of this history or don’t care for it, the gardens outside offer a retreat that is all its own.

Venture outside and you’ll stumble upon an impressive amount of natural life, with plants originating everywhere from Australia to Africa. There are plenty of places to sit, and melted candlewax and discarded cigarette butts give the place an aura of mystery.

As if that’s not enough, the locale includes an Ancillary Salon that features changing art exhibitions. Events throughout the week keep the locale abuzz and merge the history of the place with events in the arts world today.

The best part of the locale is that it lends itself to be whatever a visitor might want: an alternative study space or a spot for just spicing up any given afternoon. The sign on the outside of the theater might not indicate very much about the surprises inside but in the end, that’s the best part of it all.

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The Velaslavasay Panorama/Union Theatre is located at 1122 West 24th St.


Eva Recinos is a junior majoring in English. Her column “Nook & Cranny” runs Mondays.