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Getting a Line on History : Redevelopment: Culver City preserves a dilapidated Red Car power substation by converting it into a community center.


CULVER CITY — In his youth, Ralph Larkin didn't find the vast trolley system that crisscrossed the Westside the least bit romantic.

"You didn't ride the trolley because you wanted to enjoy a rail trip," the Culver City resident said. "You rode it because you wanted to go someplace. . . . In those days, that was the only way to get around."

But today, Larkin, 81, hungers for every shred of physical evidence left of the railway era. His latest focus: the newly renovated Ivy Substation at Venice and Culver boulevards.

"I'm glad to see they left a lot of the old features," he said, referring to the care workers took to preserve the building's historical format. Larkin plans to volunteer his services at what will become Culver City's newest community center.

Built in 1907, the Mission Revival-style building once housed a huge power converter, which provided electricity for the Red Cars of the Pacific Electric Railway Co.

The Red Cars were eclipsed by the automobile in the early '50s; the substation closed in 1953 and began its long decline. For decades, it was a burned-out shell of brick and mortar, plagued by decay, graffiti, and trash fires set by transients. Adjacent Media Park was brown and dry.

Both the building and the park are just on the Los Angeles side of the Los Angeles-Culver City border. But they are situated at a gateway to Culver City, right next to a downtown district the smaller city has been trying for years to revive. Over the years, as Culver City officials glared across the border in frustration at the eyesore properties, it became clear that the substation and the park were far down the list of urgent projects for Los Angeles.

The Culver City officials decided that it was up to them to make something happen. In 1987, the city signed a 40-year lease with Los Angeles and took over the properties.

A $1.9-million renovation project for the substation and park, supervised by the Culver City Redevelopment Agency, finally got started in 1991. The substation opens officially with a weeklong festival starting Friday.

Sidney Montz, substation supervisor and events coordinator, envisions a bustling facility that celebrates cultural diversity and preserves railway heritage. He also wants it to be fun.

"Because of its location as the gateway to Culver City, I want it to be the pulse beat of Culver City," he said. "It should always be alive with events, from wedding receptions to performances to fine arts."

The site will be available for rent by community, commercial and private groups. The price: from $45 to $90 per hour, depending on the group. A custodial fee is also charged.

Already, though there has been no advertising, the place is popular. It has been the site of a party that followed a debutante ball and a summit meeting of officials from five Westside cities. Weekends are heavily booked through June, Montz said.

Each day, Montz, whose office is in the substation, receives a dozen calls and visits from curious people wondering what is going on.

"They are usually wonderful local people who have been here a long time and feel this building is a part of their lives," he said. "I guess because they have watched it for so long."

Culver City Councilman Mike Balkman attended the summit and was impressed by the station's atmosphere.

"It's a fabulous place," he said. "It's Old World."

The building consists of a 3,500-square-foot, multipurpose room with tall, arched windows. There are two long rows of skylights in the high ceiling. To the side, there is a food preparation room, storerooms, and a second-story mezzanine that will be used for rotating exhibits, Montz said.

The building has a fashionably industrial feel, but is craftsman-like at the same time. Interior brickwork is exposed. Large ceramic insulators, which once held power lines, are still embedded in walls. Fake power lines feed into the stuccoed exterior from fake power poles. Outside, there is even a copy of the metal fountain that recirculated water used to cool the machines inside.

"The architect was required to be true to the original building's character," said Redevelopment Agency Project Manager Susan Berg, who oversaw the renovation project.

Renovation work included asbestos removal and seismic reinforcement. Air conditioning and heat, stage lighting and a sound system were added.

Workers found installing an elevator especially challenging. One had to be designed to fit in a small space, and not be visible from outside, Berg said. The building meets federal accessibility standards for the disabled.

Saving the curved walls on each end of the building was also difficult, Berg said. Workers drilled deep, narrow holes in the delicate structures and drove rods through them. Luckily, they didn't break.

The park has been landscaped. Flower-lined sidewalks lead through an overhead trellis to a gazebo.

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