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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

February 07, 1994|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

First came the flood, then came the fire.

The warning was sounded at 11:15 a.m.--by a man named Revere, the caretaker of the massive Baldwin Hills Dam.

It was Dec. 14, 1963, and people were still talking about President John F. Kennedy's assassination three weeks before. Residents were preparing for the holidays, and Revere G. Wells was on his rounds when he heard water gurgling through a leak somewhere in the Baldwin Hills Reservoir, which supplied water for 100,000 to 500,000 residents from mid-Los Angeles to the airport.

He searched, discovering a crack in the 12-year-old dam about the width of a pencil.

Within three hours, as residents were frantically evacuated from the water's likely path, the crack had become a 75-foot-wide hole, unleashing 292 million gallons of water that gushed from the base of the dam at Cloverdale Avenue, and slammed into homes in its path. Most residents were alerted to the evacuation by the police or through news broadcasts.


The water roared onward, moving down steep hills in a fan-shaped path of destruction, to Rodeo Road between La Cienega Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.

When the flood stopped 77 minutes later, five people had drowned, 8,000 people had been driven from their homes, 65 houses had been destroyed, more than 210 other apartments and houses had been seriously damaged and $12 million in damage had been racked up.

The hillside community had first become a household word in 1932, when it was the site of the Olympic Games' first-ever Olympic Village. But the dam tragedy, and another disaster in 1985, left the public with a different memory of the place.

On July 2, 1985, only blocks from the dam disaster, tragedy struck Baldwin Hills again. Flames roared up the hillside from road flares an arsonist had laid on a weed-filled hillside near La Brea Avenue just north of Stocker Street.

The blaze ripped through seven streets of the Baldwin Hills community, consuming 48 homes, damaging 18 others, causing $16 million in damage and leaving three people dead, including the mother of a firefighter who lived there.


The name of both the area and the dam that served it date to the 19th Century, to a man named Elias Jackson (Lucky) Baldwin, a colorful entrepreneur who lived with an opulent disregard for Victorian conventions, and was said to have survived two murder attempts by jilted lovers.

Before Baldwin bought the property, it had been part of the 4,000-acre Rancho La Cienega, owned by Vicente Sanchez, the alcalde, or mayor, of Los Angeles in 1830.

When Sanchez died, the property was taken over by an heir, Tomas A. Sanchez, the sheriff of Los Angeles County for nearly 10 years. Sanchez sold the ranch and it eventually was purchased by Baldwin--who died in 1909, thinking that the ranch was a white elephant.

He couldn't have been more wrong.

In 1932, Olympic planners found the empty land an ideal site on which to build the Olympic Village, home base for 2,000 visiting athletes. Not only was it less than four miles from the Coliseum, but its hillside location made it 10 degrees cooler than the city below.

Five miles of streets were wrapped around the hills, and alongside them 500 trim, pink-and-white prefabricated cottages were erected. The Olympic village innovation grew partly out of Depression-era concerns that some nations would be forced to pass up the Olympics because they could not afford to house their athletes during the games.

After the games, the cottages were knocked down. The Baldwin estate was eventually subdivided and developed with costly houses that by the late 1940s were making Baldwin Hills a well-to-do enclave.


Today, the area bears little evidence of the torrents that once swept it, or of the fire that ravaged it years after.

No cause was ever found for the reservoir rupture. But like the fire, it created a lasting legal legacy:

The city claimed that oil drilling had weakened the dam's substructure over several years. Oil company engineers blamed the deluge on a shift of the Newport-Inglewood Fault.

The city and oil companies finally settled with the property owners out of court for $13 million in 1970. Most of the houses were rebuilt and roads repaired. But the reservoir was left empty.

In the 1985 fire, investigators found the remains of several road flares that an arsonist used to ignite the 10-acre firestorm on a weed-filled hill then owned by Pepperdine University. A $35,000 reward was offered by the city and state for information leading to a conviction, but the crime remains unsolved.

In court, homeowners and Pepperdine blamed each other for negligence in not keeping the land cleared of brush. Some of the 90 lawsuits were finally combined and resolved, and others were dismissed.

Today, what was once the 19-acre reservoir has been partially filled in with earth, grass and trees to extend the 300-acre park named after the area's retired county supervisor, Kenneth Hahn.

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