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City Hall Beacon to Shine Again

L. A. THEN AND NOW

September 09, 2001|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dark and motionless for almost 60 years, the so-called Lindbergh beacon that once projected a revolving light for miles from atop Los Angeles City Hall was restored Saturday to its historic perch.

In a victory for style and nostalgia over hard-nosed utility, the powerful light was lowered by helicopter and secured once again as the luminous jewel in City Hall's architectural crown.

Installation of the beacon caps a three-year, $299-million face lift and earthquake-safety retrofit for City Hall, one of the city's most recognizable and most photographed buildings. The beacon will be formally relighted for the first time on Sept. 22 as part of the celebration of the reopening of the 73-year-old civic landmark.

The beacon, once visible from as far away as Pomona and Santa Monica, not only will relight the night sky on special civic occasions but also metaphorically illuminate the architectural and cultural history of Los Angeles and its fourth modern City Hall.

Like the Hollywood sign several miles to the west, City Hall has played roles in the real and fictional life of Los Angeles. Historians and preservationists view the restoration of the Lindbergh beacon as the latest effort to celebrate the history of a city that has been accused of forgetting its past.

As the blossoming city of Los Angeles sought a way to cap its new City Hall in 1928, it turned to Charles Lindbergh, the celebrated aviator who a year earlier had crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Lindbergh had been showered with gifts, from a pony to a motorcycle, and he requested that Los Angeles leaders, in lieu of a gift, make a donation toward the advancement of aviation.

Pioneer photographer George Watson suggested the 1,000-watt light to help pilots identify the city as a destination and also mark the 27-story building as a potential flying hazard. The beam swept in a full circle six times every minute.

When City Hall opened in spring 1928, it was to a three-day fete produced by movie theater tycoon Sid Grauman. More than 30,000 marchers paraded in celebration. Irving Berlin sang. President Calvin Coolidge pressed a key in the White House to light the Lindbergh beacon atop City Hall's pyramidal tower. And Lindbergh watched over the proceedings.

Just a few years after the party, though, shortcomings of the bright light became apparent. And it was Lindbergh, ironically, who helped make the problems clear. As the famous aviator was approaching L.A. from the sky, he was drawn to the light, expecting to find a landing strip.

"Instead, all I saw were rooftops and gas tanks," Lindbergh said. He had to turn to find a safe landing place and ended up in Long Beach.

In 1931, after complaints from other pilots, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which then monitored air traffic, ruled that the white light was too bright and that its color must be changed to red.

Then-Mayor John Clinton Porter was horrified at what he saw as the tawdry symbolism. "We will not have a red light atop City Hall," Porter said indignantly.

Less concerned with the mayor's sensitivity than with pilots' safety, the government prevailed and the beacon went red.

The presence of the beacon again became problematic with the outbreak of World War II, when many lights were extinguished and windows shrouded for fear of attracting enemy bombers. The beacon was briefly relighted after the war, in 1947, before it was taken down and forgotten for decades.

In the 1990s, it was rescued from the City Hall basement and displayed at LAX in the Tom Bradley International Terminal's departure area. It was relighted in 1992, "a welcoming symbol to the millions of visitors and immigrants who come to L.A."

Given its checkered reception with aviators in the past, however, the restored light will only be lighted now on special occasions. Approval will have to be obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration each time the light is turned on. And city officials have not yet determined how many such requests they will make.

Aficionados say attention to historic niceties looms particularly important for City Hall, since its several predecessors have sadly disappeared from the landscape.

When L.A. incorporated in 1850, it had 1,160 residents, 28 square miles--and not a single public building. The city operated first from a hotel and several leased buildings before purchasing an adobe house on Spring Street (across from present day City Hall). It was there, in 1868, that former Mayor Damien Marchessault shot himself after losing his fortune and his reputation in a scandal over the city's faulty wooden water pipes.

After occupying space in the county courthouse, City Hall moved in 1884 to a two-story brick building on 2nd Street, where the Los Angeles Times now stands. Four years later, a $300,000 bond measure built the third City Hall, next to the city's first synagogue. The red sandstone showcase on Broadway served until the late 1920s, when it was dismantled and auctioned off, piece by piece.

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