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Glory Days Are Long Past for Warehouse 1 : White Elephant on the Waterfront

March 23, 1986|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

The Taj Mahal, it isn't.

Gracing the seaward entrance to Los Angeles Harbor, the giant, square building known as Warehouse 1 has all the subtle beauty of a slag heap.

It is a block of concrete six stories tall and longer than a football field. If the exterior isn't drab enough--broad gray walls, narrow balconies and a scattering of gargoyles--the inside is a veritable horror chamber: long, dank corridors; vast, empty, nearly lightless rooms; elevators with plywood walls and wire-covered light bulbs.

"It's eerie . . . I hate to go in there," said Julie Nagano, a harbor spokesman. "I won't even go in those elevators."

Nearly 70 years after Warehouse 1 was completed as part of a $3-million harbor improvement project, the building remains the largest at the port and one of the largest storage buildings in Los Angeles. But these days, a less flattering distinction has befallen the monolithic structure: It may be the biggest white elephant in town.

"It's a horse and buggy . . . a concrete bunker," Ron Kennedy, the port's director of property management, said of the outdated edifice. "It's certainly not the . . . best use" for the property.

At a time when the harbor is embarking on a five-year, $500-million redevelopment plan to build new facilities and handle increasing West Coast trade, Warehouse 1 sits two-thirds empty. Harbor officials say the time is long past for multistory warehouses in which cargo must be moved up and down elevators; and that is not the extent of the warehouse's problems.

The elevators in Warehouse 1 are particularly slow, workmen said. On most floors, the ceilings are only 9 1/2 feet high, too low for large, efficient stacks of cargo. Cavernous rooms and corridors, reminiscent of mine shafts, are patrolled by forklifts that find their way with headlights.

Those forklifts must dodge scores of concrete pillars that further obstruct the handling and storage of cargo, Kennedy said.

The building's one dubious virtue: It's rock solid. The concrete walls and ceilings are up to nine inches thick.

"There's a column every 20 feet," Kennedy said. "You can't change it. You can't raise the ceilings, and you can't change the pillars."

Harbor officials may someday have trouble just getting rid of it.

"Somebody said it would probably cost $1 million to tear it down," Kennedy said.

Revenue from storage fees is equally split between the harbor and the Crescent Warehouse Co., a San Pedro firm that operates the warehouse. Although harbor officials declined to release the building's earnings, one warehouse worker said the port's total share is well under $100,000 a year.

Nearly Vacant

The structure's upper floors are nearly vacant. On lower floors, the cargo sits in scattered mounds--boxes of auto hoods from Taiwan; drums of liquid marked "flammable"; Franciscan earthenware; metal scraps; cases of wine; bundles of towels in boxes marked "Hotel 6 . . . bath towels, hand towels, 100% cotton."

"We have a little bit of everything in here," said Ralph Vomero, a warehouse manager.

The merchandise is scattered throughout 48 large rooms totaling 266,848 square feet, according to Nagano of the Harbor Department. The empty sixth floor--an "ace in the hole" in case the warehouse ever becomes active again, according to Vomero--contains a chain-link animal pen dating back to the building's glory years.

More than 10 years ago, the building was a quarantine post for exotic animals shipped through Los Angeles Harbor to a variety of destinations in California, including the now-defunct Jungleland animal park in Thousand Oaks.

Animal Pen

Camels, arriving 60 or 70 at a time, would be strapped into harnesses, dipped into enormous vats of insecticide to kill disease-carrying pests, and then hauled up the big elevators to the animal pen, recalled George Miller, who worked for 40 years at the warehouse before retiring as Crescent's general manager in 1981.

"They used to come through about once a year there--mostly camels, but also horses and I think some sheep from Australia one time," Miller said. "They had an awful time getting them up and down the elevator."

Miller remembered one occasion when an elevator stuck, and the Harbor Department had to rescue a shipment of camels. During their 30-day quarantine, Jungleland imports were watched over by a man from the park who lived in a detached camper shell located on the sixth floor, he said.

The man would feed the animals and change the straw, enduring the noise, the darkness and the smell.

"It got kind of raunchy," Miller recalled.

Enclosed Facilities

These days, imported animals don't even give a passing nod to the old warehouse; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees live-animal quarantines, channels the arrivals through a pair of enclosed facilities near Los Angeles International Airport.

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