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Lunch at the Grotto : Where Bears Once Cavorted, Picnickers Will Now Frolic

November 26, 1986|LARRY GORDON | Times Staff Writer

Ever feel "hungry as a bear?"

If so, you'll soon have an appropriate al fresco dining spot in Griffith Park to satisfy your appetite.

After 20 years as a spooky hangout for teen-agers who liked to party in its abandoned cages, the previous site of the Los Angeles Zoo is being converted into an unusual picnic area. Twenty of the ivy-filled, rusty cages are being kept in place as historical mementoes and four high-walled grottoes that were once home to bears now have picnic tables in them, with barbecue stoves soon to follow.

Recently demolished were about a dozen dilapidated but evocative structures, including the seal pond, the monkey cages and the elephant house. They have been replaced by tables and trees on sloping lawns.

"We've left what wasn't dangerous. We wanted to save a lot more, but it was just too much of a hazard," said Kathleen Chan, the Department of Recreation and Park's manager for the $1.1-million project, which is being financed by city and federal money.

Part of the area, including the bear grottoes, is scheduled to open to the public in January and officials are expecting crowds. "This is going to be another tourist attraction," said Monica Martinez, a deputy ranger in the park. The old zoo site covers 12 acres in a secluded canyon just north of the carrousel and west of the Wilson golf course; it is about three-quarters of a mile south of the current zoo, which opened 20 years ago this week.

The rejuvenation of what was the second of three sites in the history of the zoo is being welcomed by park activists hungry for more open space. But there are some regrets that a mysterious spot of Los Angeles is disappearing.

For many years, the old zoo was supposed to be off limits to the public, and people who snuck over its fences recall that the experience was like walking into a ghostly animal kingdom where someone with an overactive imagination could hear the haunted howls of monkeys and the roars of tigers. "It was magical," one longtime Los Feliz resident said. "It was just a great place to go."

As a result of that atmosphere, the old zoo became a favorite location for shooting films and rock videos. However, it also was a hangout for teen-agers and gang members, whose graffiti and vandalism still scar remaining walls and cages.

"Word kind of spread around the younger generation to go up to the bear pits and have a few beers there," park ranger Al Gonzalez recalled. With its dark caves, winding staircases, and steep rock formations, the bear grottoes were an easy spot to hide in, he said.

Under the renovation, the doors to the remaining cages were welded shut and chain-link fences cover the entrances to the caves at the rear of the bear grottoes. The 15-foot-deep pits that separated the bears from the public were filled in, but the steep walls of concrete made to look like mountain boulders were kept for a combination of nostalgia and economy.

"It was more cost-effective to leave them in place instead of demolishing them," said John Barrett, project engineer for Moulder Brothers, the Glendale-based contractor handling the job. The same was true, he said, for what was the reptile house and the long stretch of big cat cages.

Royce Neuschatz, a planning professor who is a member of the Griffith Park Advisory Committee, a park protection group, described the project as "fairly sensitive in trying to preserve some of that old zoo atmosphere, to let people know it was not just another canyon."

"I think it is really important for us to be in touch with our history," she said.

The first municipal zoo in Los Angeles opened in the late 1890s in what is now Lincoln Park. In 1912, it moved to the canyon in Griffith Park and was greatly expanded in the 1930s under the New Deal's Works Progress Administration. But the animal collection soon outgrew the site and, after many years of controversy over a new location and financing, the zoo moved to its current spot in the northeast corner of the park. For about a year, the old zoo was used to hold sick animals and those unable to get along with cage mates.

At its peak, the old zoo in Griffith Park held as many as 1,000 animals, about half the number in the new zoo, according to animal curator Edmund Alonso. During the recent construction, crews discovered an underground concrete culvert that carried runoff from the hills. That has been opened up. In the second phase of work, scheduled for the spring, officials hope to build little pedestrian bridges over what will be a stream.

The only other big discovery was a Volkswagen dumped into a bear pit--perhaps a leftover from a movie scene. There were no animal skeletons.

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