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L.A. is pretty much one big guidebook, and you feel like you know it all. Where did the cowboys tie up their horses in the old days? Gower Gulch, of course. What was the Hollywood sign built for? To sell the “Hollywoodland” real estate development.

But even we were surprised to discover some of these blink-and-you’ll-miss-em hidden spots around the city, from a folk art garden to the site of a nuclear meltdown rivaling Three Mile Island.

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A Bubble House in Pasadena

In the ’30s, architect Wallace Neff designed mansions sought after by movie stars (Reese Witherspoon and Madonna have since lived in them). But he was most proud of his “bubble homes,” a low-cost-housing design built around a balloon. His own (charmingly lumpen) home is the last one standing in the U.S.

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A Jazz-Era subway in DTLA

The Belmont Tunnel was the home to the one-mile-long Hollywood-Glendale-Valley Subway, which went through none of those places but linked to the streetcars that did. By the end of WWII, suburban flight and the private auto craze doomed the project. The terminus, though, was lately cleaned up as part of the private park for the Belmont Station Apartments.

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The Nuclear Meltdown in Simi Valley

Just 30 miles northwest of downtown, Santa Susana Field Laboratory is a 2,688-acre tract used to test rockets and nuclear reactors from 1949 to 2006. In 1959, an experimental nuclear reactor experienced a core meltdown thought to release more radioactivity than the Three Mile Island disaster. Boeing later bought the land, is reintroducing wildlife and will take you on a tour.

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Outsider Art in a Beachwood Garden

Up Beachwood Canyon Drive and left on Ledgewood, you’ll come upon the Garden of Oz, which looks like a retaining wall that’s dropped acid. The landowner covered a block’s worth of terraces with mosaics covered with tile, Hot Wheels cars and other ephemera, then erected a gate and handed out the keys to neighborhood children. It’s open Thursdays, 10 a.m. to noon, and so worth it.

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Pre-moving-pictures-style entertainment in University Park

Before the days of moving pictures, one popular public entertainment had masses of people shuffling around 360-degree panorama paintings of nature scenes (think: a polar landscape), accompanied by recorded sounds of wildlife. Sara Velas has revived the custom in the old theatre she owns called the Velaslavasay Panorama.

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A proto drive-in grocer in Koreatown

In 1929, you just drove the Duesenberg through an archway off Sixth Street, parked along the circle drive in a courtyard at Chapman Market and had the unheard-of convenience of shopping from the butcher, dry goods shop and vegetables all in the same stop. Today, it’s a Korean food court that you can walk in and see the flapper's version of a 7-11.

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A towering dam in Malibu

The Rindge Dam was built in the ’30s to provide water for a ranch that’s now been incorporated into Malibu State Park. The 100-foot concrete wall is off-limits for dives, but we can’t resist hiking down from the park's Piuma parking lot to have a look.

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