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For a Collector, His Is an Odd Pallet

February 19, 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 is made up 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. Underneath the structure is the grave of 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 cruise ship Catalina.

"Maybe we were drunk," joked a former commissioner when asked why the Tower of Pallets, as it is known officially, was designated a landmark.

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.

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.

With every item, Van Meter tells a story. "That was used to build the first road from Los Angeles into the Valley," he said, pointing to an old wagon.

Van Meter, who says he is a descendant of 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. But his first love appears to be collecting historical memorabilia.

A life-long 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 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.

"Then they got word that some big shots from back East were coming to inspect the brewery," Van Meter said. He said the supervisor at the plant wanted to get rid of the pallets before the executives arrived. Van Meter said he offered to take "a few" off the company's hands.

When five truckloads of the pallets arrived at his door, "I decided I had to do something with them," Van Meter said. He decided to build the tower because he wanted a place to look out across the Valley.

He placed the flat, 3-foot-wide, 6-inch-thick pallets in a 22-foot circle at the base and piled them on top of each other to a height of 22 feet. He said it took him only a couple of weeks to build the tower.

Of the grave below, he said he has never been able to find out more about the child who was 3 years old when buried there.

"This structure means much to me, has been a pleasure to all who have seen it and has never been a bother or a hurt to anyone except land-hungry developers who have exerted every type of pressure and misused public agencies in an attempt to divorce me from my land," Van Meter said in a letter to the cultural commission in 1978.

"In a few years, this piece of the good earth may be covered by apartments for the storing of surplus people," he said in the letter. "In the meantime, pray let this strange structure be, let it continue to be a haven of rest for an individual--that endangered species--who once knew how sweet was our Valley."

Robert W. Winter, a former commissioner who voted for the designation, broke out laughing when asked about the tower.

"That, I think, is the funniest thing we ever did."

Added Winter: "It's interesting that we also declared the Hollywood sign to be a monument because no other city would do that. We kind of like to reward eccentricity."

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