I've been chatting with Nikki Kreuzer for 20 minutes at Bar Stella in Silver Lake when she likens herself to Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Appearances alone support the simile. Kreuzer, who sticks fast to the custom of not sharing her age, has platinum blond hair and blunt-cut bangs. She’s also wearing a black-and-white checkerboard T-shirt this evening; the pattern conjures up images of the tiled landscape John Tenniel illustrated for Carroll’s work nearly 150 years ago.
Kreuzer’s nostalgic look suits her — she likes to model for kitschy, vintage pin-up photos. But she’s also a mosaic artist, a writer (including for L.A. Weekly), a bass player, a radio show host, an actress and a photographer. It was her job on the HBO show Enlightened — she was Laura Dern’s stand-in — that led her to start photographing iconic Los Angeles signage and architecture in 2012.
“We worked about 70 hours a week all around Los Angeles for Enlightened,” she said. “I had no life, and I itched to do something creative. I needed it. We were going to so many different locations. When I found something I loved, I’d document it, then dig for a little history.”
Old signage on the Sony lot was part of her initial inspiration — signs for the W.C. Fields and Joan Crawford buildings, for example — but off-lot shooting highlighted other cool spots. She would photograph unique and still-operational points of interest — restaurants such as the Bear Pit, running in Mission Hills since the late 1940s — and research them a bit, either via the web or old newspapers at the library. Her aim became to create an encyclopedia of sorts for others to reference. There wasn’t anything out there like it, she said. As a means of sharing her findings, Kreuzer launched the blog Offbeat L.A. in 2013.
Photos she snapped were posted to Instagram and, with the help of FourSquare, Kreuzer compiled a digital list of shared possible shoot locations. She’d go on “field trips” on her off time, taking long drives in L.A., Riverside or Orange counties to snap exterior and interior photographs.
“The architecture that I grew up with was very 19th-century,” she said, “and the homes I grew up in were built in the late 1800s, too. [When I first got to L.A.] all I could see were the strip malls. Then I started looking deeper, at the gorgeous Googie architecture, the 1950s and 1960s signs.”
Over the years, Kreuzer has connected with like-minded people; she has about 4,500 followers on Instagram, and she’s part of a group dubbed the Sign Geeks. The collective travels all over — Kreuzer has gone with them to Reno and California’s Central Valley — to take photos of vintage signs. They all have their own fetishes, ranging from neon or plastic marquees to “ghost” signs — the fading remains of signs painted on brick building exteriors. The group even put on a show the Neon Museum of Art in Glendale last year.
As for Kreuzer, she’ll shoot any architectural point of interest that debuted prior to 1979 (with some exceptions). Her boundaries are the ocean to the west, San Bernardino to the east, the southern edge of Orange Country and Santa Clarita to the north. Favorite recorded spots include James Restaurant in San Fernandob La Paloma in La Verne (she loves its original 1960s neon sign) and Tom Bergen’s Public House, which, she’s quick to explain, holds the second-oldest liquor license in L.A. County.
Though Kreuzer will occasionally sit down for a meal at some of the restaurants she photographs, she says it’s not really about the food. Rather, it’s the history and the vibe of the place the matters most.
“I’m actually vegetarian, but I love steakhouses like Pacific Dining Car and Taylor's Steak House,” she said. “It’s like you’re walking into 1950s L.A., and you can feel that and imagine what’s transpired between those walls. I don’t care if I can’t eat much; I’ll order a baked potato or creamed spinach, if it means I can have that feeling.”
Out of 405 recorded restaurants on her FourSquare list, Kreuzer has 70 left to shoot, but she doesn’t foresee being done anytime soon.
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“I find this a never-ending project,” she said. “I keep discovering more, and I keep expanding within the list. Initially I limited photo captions to two sentences, for example, but I’ve been expanding to several paragraphs, digging deeper and finding more. I don’t see an end in sight.”
As of today, her list of L.A.’s oldest surviving restaurants has received more than 1 million hits — a testament, Kreuzer says, to the fact that others are drawn to local history as she is.
“We’re losing these places,” she said. “The city’s changing, but we need to cling to our history. What I do is advocacy. I create something for people to care about. I want to be an inspiration — for people to open their eyes and say, ‘We need to care.’”