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Among the Ruins : Castoffs From L.A.'s Industrial Core Make a Home-Come-True for TV Host Huell Howser

July 20, 1996|KATHLEEN O'STEEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LOS ANGELES — To Huell Howser, robbing the graveyards of industrial L.A. to furnish an apartment makes perfect sense. In the right setting, ordinary objects take on a kind of wild beauty, he says.

"That's basically what I do in my job," says the congenial host of KCET's "California's Gold" and "Visiting . . . With Huell Howser." "I take people who would never be considered TV material, whose stories have never been gleaned or spotlighted before," he explains. "And often we find that their stories are fascinating. But it wasn't me who made their stories fascinating. . . . I was just the conduit."

Howser gives the same treatment to what the unenlightened might call junk. While some view his collection of found art as nothing more than a Mad Max-ian landscape, he sees the twisted metal, hunks of stone and dead trees as precious artifacts. Green-tinted coolant pipes, industrial lamps, steel grates and gigantic copper pots have been tweaked into postmodern versions of a coffee table, mood lighting, mantel decor and dining room table, respectively.

"This is the stuff that helped make L.A. what it is today," Howser says, fingering a bluish metal grate from a defunct shoe factory. "It was all designed to have function. None of it was gratuitous stuff. Sure, it's far, far away from what I grew up with in terms of furniture design, but it's not a centimeter away from what I grew up with as far as perceiving the world."

Howser has a low tolerance for frivolity; he prefers historical biographies to novels and spends vacations exploring rather than sitting around a pool. His says his attraction to salvaged art began shortly after his parents died. Howser put most of the antiques from their antebellum home in Tennessee on a truck bound for California. But once he got the furniture into his Hollywood apartment, he couldn't reconcile the heavy woods of his childhood--the mahoganies, maples and cherry woods--with his life here. So he emptied much of the three-bedroom flat on the sixth floor of the historic El Royale building and began to think about how to refill it.

One day, while driving through one of Los Angeles' industrial zones, he spotted a 6-foot piece of rusted pipe leaning on a fence. Its long stem branched off into seven short spokes. "It struck me that I really liked the design, so I picked it up and brought it home," he says.

His quest for companion pieces became progressively entrepreneurial. He hauled a chunk of stone from the Church of the Open Door in downtown L.A. as a demolition team razed the building. "I had a hole drilled in it and put the [eight-sided] pipe into it." Backlighted and pushed up against the entryway wall, the assemblage helps prepare guests for the oddities within, including a grouping of dead trees from Newhall.

Howser's career helped feed his growing habit. After several years as a reporter at KNXT (now KCBS), doing two-minute features tagged onto the end of news broadcasts, he wanted a change.

In 1986, he offered his talents to the public television station KCET. The "Videolog" series, chronicling odd little human-interest stories, spun off "Visiting . . . With Huell Howser" and in 1990, he started roaming the state for his "California's Gold" segments.

"I was going out and finding objects that most people pass by or don't think are important," he says. "As it turned out, I did the same thing with my shows."

Howser's cameraman, Luis Fuerte, recalls pulling off the road more than once to throw something something into the back of his colleague's Ford Explorer. "It can be a rock or a piece of a rusty can," Fuerte says. "I'll say, 'What is that?' And he'll say, 'It's a piece of art.' "

It got to the point where Howser had rescued so many objets of a rusty, toxic nature that he had to clear pathways to get from one end of the apartment to the other. "I never had anybody over during that time because I was afraid people would think I had lost it," he admits. "You know, like one of those little old ladies with 30 cats and newspapers stacked to the ceiling. That's sort of what it looked like, it was very unorganized."

When he could no longer stand the mess, Howser began to think about what to create: Should he hang the rusted coolant piping from the ceiling? Or convert it into a coffee table? Another trip downtown helped him decide. "I found some guys who do metal work," he says. "I paid them to help me build a base for this piece of coolant." Topped with a piece of rejected glass and positioned in front of a sofa, it became more than just a place where coasters hang out.

With each discovery, Howser got more adventurous. He headed out in the dead of night, crowbar in hand. "They were tearing down the old Sunset Plaza apartments," he explains. "That used to be a great hangout for movie stars in the 1930s and 1940s.

"Supposedly this came out of the apartment where Carole Lombard once lived," he says of the mantelpiece he pried off a wall.

Really?

"Well, you know you can let your imagination go kind of wild here," he says. "I don't know what a lot of these pieces were originally used for. But that makes them all the more interesting. You wonder, was this cooling system in Clark Cable's house? Or was it used in an elementary school in East L.A.? Was it in Koreatown in the first Korean American grocery store opened in 1950-something? I don't know, but what we do know is that it functioned and it's part of the history of this city."

Living among these ruins gives Howser, now in his 40s, great energy, he says. "You know, we often spend our whole lives searching for something that's often in front of our faces," he says. "We go to Morocco and never see the Mojave desert. We travel to London, Rome and Paris and never see Northern California. We search for answers in books, through psychiatrists and priests, when in truth the answers are in our own hearts and in our families."

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