CA back stairs-horz.jpg

The back staircase of the current-day Taoist Temple Museum is shown. 

I’ve spent the last month or so thinking a lot about stairs. I’ve read that even the words we use to talk about stairs are symbolic — ascent, descent, climb, step, level — and we associate these words with journeys, progress, and growth, not just in the physical sense but in emotional and spiritual contexts as well. Dreaming of stairs is said to be a strong sign of personal growth. But what does it suggest when you can’t climb up or down stairs in your dreams or in real life?

Before I mull over the response to that question, I’d like to write about the history of the Taoist Temple Museum front and rear staircases.

Prior to May 12 of this year, if one stood in China Alley, facing the Museum, one would see the green iron doors covering the entrance to the first floor. To the right of these doors are four steps upward to a sliding door. Behind this door is the main stairway up to the second floor of the Museum, a stairway that has led hundreds of thousands of individuals to the main room of the Taoist Temple. But the stairway wasn’t always there.

When the Taoist Temple was built in the 1880s, the only stairs to the second floor were located outside in the rear of the building. Old photographs show that the sliding door/staircase was originally a window. I am trying to confirm the date, but it is believed that around 1910 the window area was converted into a staircase creating a China Alley entrance to the Taoist Temple’s second story. The back door of the Temple building opened onto the street.

In 1957 my family began the construction of the Imperial Dynasty, building the restaurant out of the structures to the west of the Temple. A wall was extended along the rear of the structures. It was decided to protect the rear entrance to the Temple by building a north and east brick wall around the Temple, creating a courtyard. A metal door for access into the courtyard was built into the east wall. The stairs that led to the second floor had long since tumbled down, the result of aging and weathering. Eventually trees volunteered in the space, creating a shady garden.

In 1980, after the China Alley Preservation Society (then known as the Taoist Temple Preservation Society) restored the Taoist Temple Museum, a group who became known as the “China Alley Weavers,” brought their looms onto the first floor where they worked on their art on a weekly basis.

lamb soup

Lamb and pearl barley soup is shown. 

Marvel Akin, one of the China Alley Weavers, and also a member of the Hanford Garden Club, suggested that the club take on the landscaping of the garden area as their project. They did so, planting podacarpus, bougainvillea, and a camellia tree. In 1981, a wooden cover was built by Robert Leibold to cover the stairwell in the garden that led to the basement.

In 1990, the China Alley Preservation Society built a new stairway from the Museum’s second story to the garden. The new stairs kept the look of the original stairway, but in the process destroyed the landscape, leaving only a few hardy plants surviving.

A few years later, Chas Rhoads, AIA, served on the Preservation Society’s board redid the landscaping, adding bamboo, baby tears, ferns, and a bamboo water fountain.

Staircases. Front and rear. Now there’s only the rear. The Museum’s May 12 fire began when the alleged arsonist — currently in the court system — sat on the front staircase, lit clothing on fire then shoved it under the sliding door. The resulting fire destroyed the staircase, as well as precious and historic artifacts. Now, the only way we can get up to the second floor, where most of the damage occurred, is through the garden and up the rear staircase.

Those stairs are showing their age and wear and tear. Before Mom died, she designated that as her next project, having those rear stairs replaced. In order to build a new staircase, the current one would have to be removed. In the interim, we and the conservators need to get up to the second story to do our work.

As an immediate remedy, we had the current rear staircase shored up. A new one will be constructed as we continue with restoration and the front staircase is rebuilt. Our rear staircase is not as wiggle wobbly as it was, and the platform feels more secure, but I just can’t do it. Shaky stairs impede my upward mobility, and of course there are dovetailing issues for me.

Since the arson it has been difficult for me to go into the Museum at all, then couple of months ago I was upstairs, preparing to descend the stairs, and I froze after my initial steps. I felt as though I was coming down from the Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza, finally, I had to come down the Museum stairway the same way I did from the Mayan ruins, on my bottom.

Those stairs haunt me. In my dreams and in waking life. I look forward to seeing a restored Taoist Temple Museum, complete with front and rear stairways. That day can’t happen soon enough.

So, these days I’m looking for calming and comforting food. Being in the kitchen has a soothing effect on me and so does the recipe I’m sharing this week. I had some leftover leg of lamb and made this ultimate comfort food, lamb and pearl barley soup. Enjoy!

Arianne Wing is the co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots,” and co-owner of the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She may be reached at ariannewing@gmail.com

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