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Tower of Tranquility : Unusual Sherman Oaks Landmark Provides a Refuge From Turmoil

February 15, 1988|RICHARD SIMON | Times Staff Writer

Daniel Van Meter's Sherman Oaks back yard is unusual, to say the least.

Behind half a dozen junked cars, an old bus, washing machines, water heaters, an old outhouse and even a turret from a battleship stands Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 184--The Tower of Wooden Pallets.

Constructed by Van Meter in 1951, the 22-foot-tall tower consists of about 2,000 wooden pallets that were tossed out by a brewery. The pallets are placed in a 22-foot-wide circle and stacked on top of each other in brick-like fashion. Inside the structure is the grave of a child buried in 1869.

In 1977, the Fire Department declared the tower "an illegally stacked lumber pile" and a fire hazard.

A year later, it was named a landmark by the city Cultural Heritage Commission, joining such other historic-cultural monuments as the Watts Towers, the Hollywood sign, the Venice canals, a 1,000-year-old oak tree in Encino and the S.S. Catalina.

"Maybe we were drunk," a former commissioner joked when asked why the tower was designated a landmark.

'One of the Stranger Things'

The Tower of Pallets, as it is known on the official record of city landmarks, is one of the lesser-known and, in the words of another former cultural heritage commissioner, "one of the stranger things" that the commission has declared a historic-cultural monument during its 25-year existence.

But to its creator, 74-year-old Van Meter, the tower is a special place to get away from the turmoil of urban society.

"I have a place where it is quiet, despite the apartments, the noise of the boulevard and the hum and screeches of the rat race on the freeway 200 feet away," he said.

At night, Van Meter said, he climbs to the top of the tower and looks at the moon and the stars. "To me, this is a spiritual place."

Tucked away at the end of Magnolia Boulevard, a few feet from the San Diego Freeway, is Van Meter's house. The house and 2 1/2 acres--where Van Meter has lived since 1947--is the only single-family residential property left on the block, which has been developed with a condominium complex, a fire station, an office building and a private school.

A visit to Van Meter's house finds cats, dogs, chickens, turtles and a raccoon. "This morning, I had 300 pigeons," Van Meter said in a recent interview. "They were the wild ones that come to visit me every morning." He feeds the pigeons each day.

Van Meter's property is filled--some might say littered--with historical memorabilia.

There are wooden wagons that date to 1912, rusty old cars, washing machines, water heaters, a boat, a kitchen sink, an old outhouse and sheds full of other dusty stuff. A red gasoline pump, advertising gas for 24.9 cents a gallon, stands beside a 1938 city bus.

Many of the items he owns are crumbling with age and the beating they have taken from many years of exposure to the elements. But that doesn't seem to dampen Van Meter's enthusiasm in showing off the items to a visitor.

With every item, Van Meter tells a story.

'First Road'

"That was used to build the first road from Los Angeles into the Valley," he said, pointing to an old wagon.

Asked about the turret, Van Meter said that, to his knowledge, it has no historical value. He said he found it in an Army-Navy surplus store. "There it was, and I hated to see it hauled to the dump. I just said, 'I'll take that home, and I'll find something to do with it.' " He stores old papers and other things in the turret.

"I also had two nice street cars," Van Meter said proudly, adding, however, that "I sold those when they were still down in the yard. I had no way of getting them out here."

Van Meter, who said he is a descendant of President John Quincy Adams, has been interested in history since he began picking up coins and artifacts as a child.

A founder of the American Independent Party and supporter of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace's 1972 presidential campaign, Van Meter loves to talk politics. In an interview, he complained about President Franklin D. Roosevelt taking the country off the gold standard and contended that the federal income tax is illegal.

Lifelong Bachelor

But his first love appears to be collecting historical memorabilia. A lifelong bachelor who has held odd jobs, Van Meter once was called as a witness in a murder trial because he found the victim's remains while rummaging through a trash bin in search of cardboard boxes.

"If there weren't crazy people like me, there wouldn't be any museums," he said.

Clearly, the most unusual item in Van Meter's collection is the tower.

Van Meter got the pallets as a result of a labor dispute at the Schlitz Brewing Co. Union workers at the brewery refused to repair the pallets, which were slightly damaged. They wanted the company to hire workers from another union to make the repairs. The company stacked the pallets outside the brewery until the dispute could be settled.

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