HUNTINGTON BEACH — It looks like an ancient pyramid half buried in the sands of time.
A huge concrete structure with 16-foot-thick ceilings and 6-foot-thick walls, it has stood as a massive gray monument to a bygone era. Now in the process of being demolished, it is yielding archeological treasures just as any real pyramid would. Instead of hieroglyphics, however, modern-day archeologists have been trekking here every day to study . . . graffiti .
"I think every 14-year-old in Huntington Beach has been inside this thing," said Larry Brose, vice president of the Koll Real Estate Group, which owns the property upon which the Huntington Beach bunker sits.
Built in 1944 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the 600-foot by 175-foot bunker--along with a smaller one nearby--was part of an elaborate defense system planned to protect the California coast from a Japanese attack during World War II. The bunker, designed to hold large gun emplacements at either end, contained huge storage areas for live ammunition as well as a latrine and sleeping quarters for its intended crew.
Before the facility could be armed and the finishing touches put in place, however, the war ended. Later the Koll Co. purchased the land, a 1,100-acre site including the Bolsa Chica Wetlands just south of Warner Avenue along Pacific Coast Highway. And for nearly 50 years, the huge empty bunkers have stood as almost irresistible challenges to generations of local teen-agers bent on defying the rules of their elders to enter a place of privacy, darkness and calm.
"They had to work to get in," said Brose, whose company routinely welded the bunkers' huge steel doors shut, further sealed the entryways with chunks of concrete and maintained a chain-link fence.
Nothing worked. The intruders simply removed the concrete, broke open the doors and dug their way in. "It's been a constant problem," Brose said. "We've been out there regularly closing them up, but these were the most popular nuisances in Huntington Beach."
Three years ago, the company began applying for permits to demolish the two bunkers in the first visible step toward realization of a planned--and highly controversial--400-acre housing development at the site, which would include a restored wetland. During the application process, researchers say, county and state officials determined that the Bolsa Chica bunkers had no significant historical value.
"The point was that there is a sufficient number of these things spread around the state to depict the World War II era and that the examples on the Bolsa Chica property were not the best because they never were finished," said Nancy Whitney-Desautels, an independent, state-licensed archeologist contracted by Koll to study the site.
In fact, she said, the Huntington Beach bunkers were among 104 constructed in the United States, 30 of them on the West Coast, and only 64 completely armed and manned. "For sites such as this to qualify," she said, "the bunkers would have to be the best of their kind, be unique, display special structural techniques or be the best-preserved examples. Obviously these were not."
One feature of the bunkers, however, absolutely fascinated Whitney-Desautels and almost everyone else who saw them. Specifically, it was the graffiti that literally plastered the bunkers' dark inner walls, the layer upon layer of youthful art placed there over the years by succeeding generations of exuberant intruders.
"I think it's really interesting," said Whitney-Desautels, who spent years excavating caves in Italy and Greece. "It's very similar to the pyramids or American Indian cave paintings. If you ignore the concrete walls and look at the rock art, it's almost like stepping back in time and watching somebody put a message on the wall just like the early Indian people here in the United States. It feels very similar, only this is from a modern period."
Intrigued, Whitney-Desautels decided to document the wall paintings by assigning a photographer to snap a picture of each one during the demolition process, which began two months ago.
The subjects range from a series of simple white brush strokes dated Sept. 1, 1958, which form the names Jeff Arnold and Pete Williams along with the names of their high schools (Millikan and Lakewood), to elaborate, spray-painted, multicolored panels dated this year, which depict current cartoon characters with slogans such as "Rap Man Was Here."
Other drawings include the admonition to "Be Happy," along with band names, love messages and an American flag drawn in chalk near a group of dancing monsterlike figures.
"What we hope to document is when people were here, who they were and how social issues affected what they drew," said David Hocking, the photographer documenting the drawings. The bulk of the graffiti, he said, is from the 1990s. "These are people who went to a lot of trouble to put some graffiti here."