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Curious 'Eyesore,' Once Site of Wave Lab, Will Be Razed

June 18, 1989|CRAIG QUINTANA | Times Staff Writer

AZUSA — Kathy Garcia always wondered about the huge, partially dilapidated hangar in front of her home. She considered trespassing to see what the battered walls barely concealed, but never worked up the nerve.

This week, Garcia and her inquisitive neighbors should have their curiosity satisfied. Workers are scheduled to begin demolition of the structure, a Caltech laboratory containing a 3,000-gallon pool once used for ground-breaking wave experiments.

Since late last year the city has been pressuring the university to raze the structure or meet building standards.

"It's kind of an eyesore," Garcia said. "I guess everybody's been curious about it. But I don't think it will be missed."

Valuable Data

In the late 1940s, the wave pool provided valuable data on the building of harbors. Twenty years later, the pool and a companion wave simulation tank were used to study proposed nuclear reactors along the California coast.

Work continued into the mid-1980s, when research was moved to a smaller facility on the Caltech campus.

Caltech Prof. Fredric Raichlen said the lab, which has only been used for storage in recent years, was not worth the trouble or cost to repair. Caltech officials said it will cost about $75,000 to raze the building or $700,000 to repair it, said David E. Rudisel, the city's community improvement manager.

Rudisel said the building, located behind Zacatecas Park on Virginia Avenue, lacks adequate landscaping, sidewalks or a paved parking lot and needs various other exterior improvements. It has become a depository for the university's odds and ends, including discarded experiments and equipment and rock core samples from geologic surveys in Greenland, Rudisel said.

Although there are problems with vandals, thieves and children breaking into the unsecured building, the city acted as part of a get-tough policy on building code violators.

Land-Use Problem

"It's simply a land-use problem. Either they had to bring it up to snuff or get rid of it," Rudisel said.

The hangar, which Raichlen conservatively estimates to be 20,000 square feet or more, was donated by the U.S. Navy for experiments by Caltech's Robert Knapp and Vito A. Vanoni near the end of World War II. The prefabricated corrugated-metal-and-glass structure resembles a large Quonset hut.

Knapp and Vanoni were commissioned to design a breakwater to shield Apra Harbor in Guam from the Pacific's often-turbulent waters.

In such wave studies, bigger is generally better for getting realistic data from a model wave pool, said Raichlen, a civil engineer specializing in hydraulics. The original wave pool was 132 feet long, 88 feet wide and 2 feet deep, and had a molded bottom to represent the ocean floor.

"If you generate waves in the laboratory, then you can see how they go into a harbor and cause problems," he said. "It's somewhat unique. I think this was probably one of the largest wave tanks at the time it was built."

Lack of Land on Campus

Raichlen guessed that the 11-acre site in Azusa was selected because of the lack of available land on campus and the price of property in Pasadena.

When active, engineers would crank up wave machines at one side of the pool to view the effect on the miniature harbor and coastline on the opposite side. Water could be extracted and then forced violently back to create storms and typhoons.

Today, most harbor studies are conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a lab in Virginia, Raichlen said.

In 1966, Vanoni and Raichlen conducted a similar studies for a nuclear reactor off Bolsa Chica State Beach in Orange County. That research was aimed at a combination power and water desalination plant proposed for the coast by the Metropolitan Water District that would provide electricity and freshwater.

"This was before the problems of environmental concerns," he recalled. "You had a good source of saltwater and a good source of electricity."

As envisioned, the plant was to be located on a man-made "Bolsa Island" just off the coast. Raichlen and Vanoni built a 9-by-7-foot island in the middle of the pool for the miniature breakers to batter.

The project later died amid escalating costs, he said.

Studied Power Plant

In the 1970s, Raichlen and Vanoni studied a proposed coastal power plant in Mendocino County. That project, for Northern California's Pacific Gas & Electric Co., was killed by the utility primarily because of environmental concerns posed by earthquakes.

For the later studies, a smaller wave tank was added to create miniature breakers. The tank was 120 feet long, and 3 feet deep and wide. It has since been dismantled and stored, Raichlen said.

The lack of big research projects and the hangar's distance from campus eventually led to the wave lab's decline, Raichlen said. As the years went by, the number of break-ins and vandalism increased, Raichlen said.

Caltech continues to do wave research in a smaller tank on campus. "If this site was on campus we would have not stopped using it," he said.

Raichlen said the lab provided many valuable discoveries concerning wave diffraction, the manner in which waves break up upon encountering barriers.

University spokesman Hall P. Daily said Caltech has no immediate plans for the site but wants to hold onto the land.

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