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JACK SMITH

Off the Pedestal : Los Angeles Doesn't Have Many Statues. And Now One of Them Is AWOL.

August 24, 1986|JACK SMITH

One of our statues is missing.

This is especially embarrassing in a year when the Statue of Liberty celebration has dramatized the symbolic power of public monuments.

Los Angeles has never had a wealth of statues, and they tend to disappear.

The other day I took a little tour of the central area to see if my old favorites were still in place.

As I circled Pershing Square, I saw the familiar figure of Beethoven striding in full tempest, hands folded behind him; the Spanish-American War soldier at the center, and to the south a doughboy of World War I, the latter two with pigeons on their heads.

Circling the courthouse, I saw that U.S. Sen. Stephen M. White still stood at the corner of 1st and Hill, pointing toward Disneyland; and around the block, on Grand Avenue, in a business suit, stood feisty Joseph Scott--fervent Irishman, Catholic and lawyer; died in 1958.

At MacArthur Park, the general stood stiffly in his jacket and famous field cap above a dry pool of concrete blobs representing the Pacific islands of his conquest; at Wilshire and Park View, the flamboyant triad of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, a newsboy and a Spanish-American War soldier were still in action.

A few blocks west, in Lafayette Park, the marquis himself smiled insouciantly at the pigeons on his hat and shoulder.

I'm sure there are others, but those are the ones I know.

The missing statue is of a man who was neither a soldier nor a politician. He was an oilman.

Mericos H. Whittier, known to his friends as Max.

A bronze statue of Whittier was unveiled in front of the Museum of Science and Industry, in Exposition Park, on March 11, 1929.

It must have been a tedious ceremony. From photographs we know that many distinguished citizens were present, sitting in chairs in a semicircle about the statue, and from the program we know that at least seven gentlemen made speeches, including the invocation.

The sculpted figure was of a tall, portly man of late-middle years in a business suit with vest and necktie. His right hand was in his trouser pocket.

Max Whittier was born on his father's potato farm in Maine. He read Western novels as a boy, and in his early 20s he started west with nothing but a suit, a train ticket and $25. He got into the oil industry near Santa Paula as a roughneck at $1 a day.

E. L. Doheny soon struck oil in a well a mile from the Los Angeles Civic Center, and oil fever was in the air.

Whittier was hard-working, thrifty, ambitious and evidently not stupid. With a moneyed partner, Burton Green, he bought some Kern River land and struck oil. Resisting tempting offers for the land, he held on to it and became one of the biggest independent oil producers in the nation.

He and Green founded the Associated Oil Co., and the Belridge Oil Co., which was sold for $3.6 billion in 1979, 54 years after Whittier's death .

Meanwhile, he bought some foothill property, but its wells produced nothing but water, so he laid out some tracts and called it Beverly Hills.

Being a devoted family man, with a wife and four children, in 1915 he began construction of an Italian villa on Sunset Boulevard that achieved some notoriety a few years back when it was bought by a Saudi Arabian sheik. It later burned down.

Setting an example for all decent oil-rich men, Whittier got into philanthropy, assisting the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, the YMCA and YWCA, and the McKinley School for Boys, among other good causes.

He died of a heart attack in 1925, and four years later the statue was unveiled on its stone pedestal, most likely in gratitude for some gift he had made the museum.

But the statue has been gone for years, and no one on the museum's present staff has any idea what happened to it.

The question arose recently when a granddaughter of Whittier asked whether the museum could tell her where it was.

Gina Conner, the museum's administrative development officer, has been trying to find out ever since.

She has searched for clues among old records in the basement; she has asked every "old-timer" she could think of. Nobody remembers what happened to the statue. One man thinks he saw it last in 1947. Conner isn't sure exactly where it stood and what caused it to be taken down.

But it was not something that you would likely put in the trash. It was bigger than life, and cast in bronze.

It probably resides in some junkyard, long forgotten among the other relics. It might have been melted down and recast in some other person's image. If so, where is it?

The Whittier family wants to know.

The museum wants to know.

And I want to know.

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