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The Beauty and Decay of L.A.'s Industrial Life

Architecture: A Sunday tour will offer an unusual glimpse of the city's underbelly of factories, warehouses and power plants.

October 03, 1997|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For safety reasons, outsiders rarely are allowed to enter the Vernon Light and Power plant. Even Hollywood directors, dreaming of chase scenes atop its five enormous generators or in its Art Deco control room, are denied permission to film in the 1932 plant.

This Sunday, however, a caravan of tourists will descend on the East 50th Street facility and many other industrial sites in Los Angeles County--an unusual experience for both the visitors and the visited.

The Los Angeles Conservancy, which has led previous tours of historic houses, landmark movie palaces and grand civic structures, is sponsoring Sunday's survey of meatpacking plants, produce warehouses and factories.

Organizers for the preservation society plan to point out examples of architectural beauty--and sad decay--in the often-gritty landscape within a few miles of the Los Angeles River, from Eagle Rock to Commerce. They also hope to promote understanding of how important a vibrant industrial sector is to the entire Los Angeles region.

"This is long overdue," said Pete Moruzzi, a conservancy activist who is chairing the tour. "The industrial backbone of Los Angeles is what made all the rest possible. So we want to look at where people work, how they work and what are the buildings they work in."

The tour route of "Cruising Industrial Los Angeles" is diverse.

In some spots, factories and warehouses are vibrant enterprises, filled with employees sewing, welding, driving forklifts or sorting vegetables. In other spots, abandoned and vandalized buildings symbolize Southern California's alarming loss of heavy manufacturing jobs in the past two decades. In yet other locations, restored and recycled structures display new life: the old Pabst beer brewery in Lincoln Heights turned into an artists' colony, the Assyrian-style Uniroyal tire factory in Commerce that is now the Citadel shopping center.

Unless they work or have business there, most Angelenos see the factory and warehouse zone as nothing more than a blur of bricks from the Golden State Freeway, said professor Greg Hise of the USC School of Urban Planning and Development. "These are just blank spots in people's mental maps of the city," said Hise, who has studied the industrial development of Los Angeles.

Even people who frequent those neighborhoods don't always pay attention to their surroundings, said Frank Escher, an architect who is one of the editors of the industrial tour's guidebook.

"You can see these buildings every day, but you may not realize it's incredibly interesting until you get some history and stop and really look at them," Escher said.

Participants on Sunday, who must drive the route in their own vehicles, will be given a copy of the 46-page guide spotlighting 100 bridges, factories, bakeries and railroad yards. In addition, docents will lead walking tours at five of the locations: the Sparkletts Bottling Plant in Eagle Rock, built to resemble a mosque in a desert oasis; the former Edison Electric Building at the Brewery in Lincoln Heights; the ship-like Coca-Cola bottling plant on Central Avenue downtown, considered a triumph of Streamline Moderne; the Citadel, whose massive walls bring a touch of the ancient world to freeway vistas; and Vernon Light and Power.

From its pale blue exterior, the Vernon utility building seems an attractive enough remnant of the Art Deco era in a neighborhood crisscrossed by railroad tracks. But its real gems are hidden inside.

There, beneath 55-foot high ceilings, in a room nearly as long as a football field, the five original diesel engines are stunning in their giant scale and muscular authenticity.

"The look on every person's face when they see those engines is memorable," said plant superintendent James Siegert, who has been maintaining those 250-ton, 6,850 horsepower machines through a difficult era of pollution controls. Like an old locomotive, the generators still have manual throttles and open-faced dials.

The generators were once crucial to the independence of Vernon, a five-square-mile city with a daytime work population of 55,000 and a residential census of about 250. Because Vernon now buys much of its power from other sources, the engines are used these days to produce electricity only for peak demand. Yet it is significant that they and their shiny black metal and glass control boards remain operational, Siegert said.

"Here we are 65 years later and these are still functioning in a day when new things are thrown out," he said. "The way they built things then was phenomenal. Should we slow down and make things better today?"

Beyond their function and history, such machines and factories offer surprising beauty, tour chairman Moruzzi stressed as he drove a reporter on a preview. "To me," he said, "a lot of the stuff is on the order of abstract art. They have these wonderful shapes and colors."

The aesthetics of "Industrial Los Angeles" are, of course, in the eyes of the beholders. Some people may recoil at the broken glass, graffiti and waste barrels along portions of the tour path. For example, the vacant Van de Kamp Dutch Bakery on San Fernando Road in the Glassell Park area, designed to resemble an Amsterdam townhouse, is now a shambles and awaiting demolition.

But the tour is a positive sign, according to author Lewis MacAdams, who contributed a chapter on the Los Angeles River and Taylor railroad yards to the guidebook. "By doing this, the conservancy is taking a first step in grappling with the future of these industrial areas in an information age," he said. "I think it's great."

Starting times for "Cruising Industrial Los Angeles" are between 10 a.m. and 1:40 p.m. Sunday. Tickets for the approximately four-hour tour are limited and cost $10 per person for conservancy members and $15 for non-members. For information and reservations, call (213) 623-2489.

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