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City Smart

A Hard Tradition to Break

Names and Dates Stamped in Sidewalks by Long-Forgotten Builders Reveal History of Subdivisions That Shaped L.A.'s Growth

February 14, 1997|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Will F. Peck, H.V. Gentry and T.T. Roach certainly knew how to cement their place in Los Angeles history.

The pioneer sidewalk builders proudly stamped their names on the city's walkways and street curbs when the concrete was being poured 70 years ago in Woodland Hills, Mar Vista and Echo Park.

A million footsteps later, their handiwork endures. So does a bit of the history of the subdivisions that have shaped Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs.

Thanks to J.A. Thompson, Lakewood resident Phillip Payan, 14, and his 13-year-old friend Jake Bush know that the homes along Pennswood Avenue were built in 1950, at the height of the post-World War II building boom.

Because of contractors like W.F. Crawford and the Oswald brothers, Larry Martinez knows that his Mar Vista neighborhood was created in 1927 in a pre-Depression construction flurry.

"Ever since I was a child I've noticed these things on the sidewalk and been curious about them," said Martinez, 30. "They tell you a lot about a neighborhood."

Martinez is a retail shop manager who passes over the stamped names and dates each day as he roller skates down Bonapart, Walsh and other neighborhood streets on his way to work.

As if to illustrate Los Angeles' fragile economy of the late 1920s, some of the sidewalks that he crosses over daily were started by one contractor and finished by several others. H.V. Gentry and W.F. Crawford shared the work along one block of Gilmore Avenue, for example.

The city's first neighborhood sidewalks were built in the late 1890s.

"Strolling was popular in the late Victorian period," historian Greg Fischer, an expert on early Los Angeles neighborhood development, explained Thursday.

"By 1905, sidewalks were advertised items. The space between your lot and the street was known as 'concrete parkings' and their width often indicated an area's amount of prestige," said Fischer, of Westwood.

Sidewalk construction helped make two of the city's earliest concrete contractors, Daniel Murphy and Carl Leonardt, wealthy men. Both lived in mansions in the upscale--and sidewalk-lined--West Adams district.

Contractors' practice of stamping their names on concrete streets, alleys and sidewalks curbs apparently started in Los Angeles' post-World War I building frenzy.

For most builders, it was free advertising. But imprints were required of contractors handling federal WPA sidewalk projects in the 1930s. That allowed officials to verify their work, according to Les Henderson, a city street engineer.

Repaving projects have long ago obliterated most street imprints. But many sidewalk identification stamps have survived.

That means Panorama City resident Fernando Orellana is reminded that his neighborhood was developed in 1948 each time he goes for walks with his 2 1/2-year-old son, Brandon, along Rayen Street. J.A. Thompson & Son built the sidewalk and city inspector J.B. Carnal put his stamp of approval in the wet cement in October of that year.

In South Pasadena, sidewalks carry the 1927 imprints of such contractors as Robert Young and the Hall Johnson Co. At intersections, concrete workers even stamped street names and the outline of pointing fingers to show which street is which.

In the Angeleno Heights area near Los Angeles' Echo Park, sidewalks display dates ranging from 1924 to--oddly--1994. The older concrete was poured by C.W. Kargus on Kellam Avenue. The more recent cement was placed next to Carroll Street by the Southern California Gas Co., according to its imprint.

Sidewalk dates are not always true indicators of when the neighborhood was built, however. Carroll Street, for instance, was originally a cobblestone lane first laid out in about 1885, according to Bill Suiter, who lives there in an 1886 Victorian house.

Woodland Hills' miles of 1926 sidewalks and curbs were built by developer Victor Giraud--whose 2,900-acre subdivision went defunct five years later. A few of his tract's 6,000 lots remain undeveloped to this day.

The practice of stamping names and dates on new sidewalks disappeared by the mid-1960s, according to city officials. But sidewalk builders can still get permits to autograph their work--provided the imprint is made from a mold that is three-eighths of an inch wide and a maximum of a half-inch deep, according to Steve Chen, also a city engineer.

Modern sidewalk construction specifications are basically unchanged from the early days, however. The concrete must be three inches thick, except at residential driveways, where four inches is required. Sidewalks crossing commercial driveways must be six inches thick.

No steel reinforcing material is used in sidewalks. The scoring lines that appear every three feet or so are used to accommodate expansion of the soil beneath the walkway; the lines also allow easy replacement of cracked concrete sections.

Frank Bonoff, a supervising engineer for the city, said he has suggested that the city sell advertising space in cement to help pay for repairs to Los Angeles' estimated 10,000 miles of sidewalks.

"Every third square could be imprinted with 'Coca-Cola,' for instance," he said.

For now, Bonoff would settle for a simple "No Chewing Gum" logo stamped on sidewalks.

"We hate gum. We can get it up, but it leaves a stain--it makes dirt sink right into the concrete," he said. "It's awful."

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