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Portraits of Time : Society Works to Preserve Long-Neglected Collection of Photos, Negatives

October 19, 1989|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On quiet afternoons at the Charles F. Lummis Home, when the phones stop ringing, Tom Andrews sometimes slips into a musty, low-ceilinged adobe on the grounds and looks through thousands of pictures that take him back in time.

Andrews is director of the Historical Society of Southern California, which is based in the 106-year-old house on Avenue 43 in Highland Park. His cache is a rich but badly neglected collection of about 10,000 photographs and negatives depicting more than a century of California life.

Now the collection is about to get the attention it sorely needs. The Historical Society has received $7,500 from a Pasadena organization called Associated Foundations and more than $10,000 in contributions from members of the historical society.

The money will help pay for the preservation of the photographs and negatives, and enable the society to establish staffed public hours for use of the collection.

The collection encompasses thousands of pictures dating from 1870 to just a few years ago. It includes images of prospectors searching for gold, of postmen on their rounds in the small towns that made up Los Angeles, of buildings that were later destroyed and of some of Los Angeles' most distinctive buildings as they were being built.

"As an historian, I enjoy coming in here, closing the door behind me and quietly getting a chance to observe a different era, in a sense, and just study it," Andrews said.

The collection was built slowly and almost by chance from a series of donations to the Historical Society over the years, Andrews said.

But the society has never had an archivist working full time to categorize or preserve the photos, and until recently the donated pictures were simply tucked away haphazardly in file cabinets and rarely viewed.

As a result, some of the prints are decaying. Others, covered with dust and grime, have become home to worms. Hundreds of negatives are yellowed or so tightly packed that they are cracking and tearing, Andrews said.

Three years ago, Jack Moore, a volunteer with the organization, began doing his best to organize the collection.

Moore has single-handedly organized thousands of the prints by subject matter.

He began transferring them from their disintegrating brown paper wrappings to acid-free storage envelopes, and he has matched about 40% of the photographs in the collection with their negatives.

Moore discovered among the photographs thousands taken by a U. S. Postal Service employee named Charles Puck between 1915 and the late 1950s.

Puck took pictures as a hobby, Moore said, traveling throughout the city and the state capturing everything from the damage after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake to post offices in small towns across California.

"He took some absolutely terrific photographs, real gems," said Moore, 65. "He took pictures of things that I can remember from my youth. Looking through his pictures, I feel I'm really doing something for posterity. I'm doing my little bit to preserve the history of Southern California."

Moore says that what he has done so far is just a drop in the bucket.

The grant will fund the most expensive part of his task--photographically reproducing on modern safety film the thousands of negatives in the collection that are on highly flammable nitrate film stock. That process costs an average of $5 a negative, Andrews said.

With the grant money, officials of the historical society also intend to buy modern storage containers for the collection of about 100 large, panoramic photographs, some measuring three feet long, that make up a sizable portion of the photo archives.

On a recent day, Andrews showed off some of the panoramas, unfurling the photographs from their places in an old, metal file cabinet to reveal sweeping images captured on film.

There was, for instance, a panoramic photograph of the Rose Bowl taken the day USC played Stanford in 1924.

It shows a partially finished stadium and a crowd of thousands--all wearing hats.

And there is the panorama of the Armistice Day Parade at the Rose Bowl 1931, attended by perhaps a quarter as many people, all bareheaded.

"So sometime between 1924 and 1931, the hat industry took a dive," Andrews concluded triumphantly and with a grin.

For years, the archives have been informally open to whoever expressed interest in using them.

And a few people--from television and movie studios and from historical organizations and museums--have taken advantage of the materials there.

But the visitors to the 8-by-12 room where the archives are kept are few and far between, Andrews said.

It is no wonder, he said, when there is no way for visitors to know what's where.

"It makes no sense to have an archive just there and not know what is in it or how to find what you want," Andrews said. "We'd like to make it much more readily available to people."

Andrews said he would like to establish a photographic lending library as a way of bringing in cash and notice for the society.

His plans for the archives are part of a series of ambitious restoration plans that Andrews has coordinated at the turn-of-the-century home that the organization uses for its headquarters.

Andrews said he would eventually like to donate the archives to another museum or historical society that already has a collection of historic photographs.

He said he has discussed such a plan with the Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino and the Southwest Museum in Highland Park. But that possibility is years down the road, he said.

For now, Andrews said he hopes that the money the society has received will make it possible for others to share his occasional afternoon dips into the past.

"You can come in here and just let history sweep over you," he said.

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