Since driving by houses in Los Angeles is the equivalent of making the rounds of museums and monuments in other cities, I decided to begin my morning by passing by some of the canyon’s more notable addresses. Continuing a mile or so up to Lookout Mountain Avenue, I glanced to my right at the ruins of a mansion where Houdini is said to have been summoned with séances by his grief-stricken wife; then I turned uphill and drove past the site of Mann’s roadhouse tavern, which not long after it was built in 1916 was bought by silent-screen star Tom Mix and, in 1968, was briefly but memorably rented by Zappa. With an 80-foot living room, a bowling alley, and an enchanted garden, this oversize log cabin “raged as a rock-and-roll salon and Dionysian playground,” as Michael Walker, the canyon’s chronicler, sums it up in Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood, his book on the era. The scene moved on, the house burned down, but the place retains a charge: The bones of its garden, still discernible from the street, tell you that Something Happened Here.
On Wonderland Avenue, I went looking for No. 8945, the largely subterranean seven-story bunker-like building that, from 1947 to 1969, housed Lookout Mountain Studios, the top-secret movie studio behind 6,500 documentaries chronicling the U.S. government’s nuclear-weapons testing program. Seeing an older man raking leaves at the front gate, I pulled over and asked him what went on today in those now privately owned, and still gargantuan, 100,000 square feet. “People live here,” he answered. Could he tell me who? “No,” he said. “It’s not permitted.” All right, then.
Onward to the top of the hill, where views open up to the jam-packed bowl of L.A. with, on a clear day, a ribbon of ocean hovering on the horizon. Appian Way—a rare flat street at the summit—took me to Lookout, and Lookout back to Wonderland (it’s all about loops here) and Wonderland to Wonderland Park, where I stopped to view Pierre Koenig’s 1958 Case Study House No. 21, at No. 9038. A glass and post-and-beam jewel that stands in its own framework of reflecting pools, this house is the Modernist canyon at its most utopian (and pricey: Wright auction house sold the property three years ago for $3.2 million).