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The Bell That Keeps on Ringing

History: More than 100 years old, it will help Baptist church celebrate 50 years in West Hollywood.

April 07, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a ring of truth to Tom Stringfellow's warning that "this is all kind of hard to believe."

The West Hollywood pastor is talking about the 113-year odyssey of the bell outside his Baptist church, the one that will be rung 50 times today in a salute to resiliency--and to Los Angeles' past.

The 324-pound bell has been saved numerous times by Los Angeles County firefighters. And each new rescue has been more unlikely than the last.

Banged and battered, the bell was a not-so-silent sentinel over the Westside of Los Angeles from the first day it was hauled in 1890 into the tiny enclave then called Sherman.

A salesman from the McShane Bell Foundry outside Baltimore had shipped the bell west by train in hopes of selling it.

He found a buyer with the Pacific Electric Railway trolley system's Sherman terminal in what is now West Hollywood.

For decades, the huge bell clanged ear-splitting salutes to rail passengers arriving and departing from the station, where the Pacific Design Center now stands.

When the Red Car system fell on hard times in 1920, the bell was sold to the West Hollywood Community Church.

At its sanctuary on what is now the corner of San Vicente Avenue and Cynthia Street, Community Church leaders used the bell to ring in Sunday services and to peal mournful farewells when locals died. It was joyously clanged to celebrate national holidays. It sounded urgent warnings during times of community emergencies.

But the Community Church burned in 1940. The only thing county firemen from the nearby one-truck Fire Station 7 could salvage from the smoking ruins was the bronze bell. When a replacement church was built, it was polished and hung in a newly built bell tower.

According to Stringfellow, things started to get interesting after that.

As the tiny town grew, newcomers began complaining about noise from the huge bell. Church workers reluctantly sealed off the belfry in the 1950s, turning the bell tower into a signpost. In 1993, he says, the Community Church disbanded and its building was boarded up.

A short time later, county fire department officials purchased the abandoned Community Church property as the site for a new Fire Station 7--one big enough to hold six fire trucks.

Workers razing the abandoned church to make way for the firehouse discovered the bell hidden in the sign. County fire officials again rescued the bell--this time lugging it out of the way of bulldozers to a corner of the station's construction site.

When their new $6-million station was finished, firefighters set out to preserve the bell that sat rusting out back. They wanted to install it on its own decorative tower at their new home. But financial problems and red tape repeatedly stalled their plans.

In late 2000, meanwhile, Stringfellow underwent surgery and developed an infection. Paramedics and firefighters from the new Station 7 were called to the church parsonage to assist him. As he was rolled on a gurney to the ambulance, a firefighter recognized the pastor and started talking about the orphaned bell at their station.

"When I got out of the hospital and was strong enough to walk, I went over to the fire station to thank the paramedics and asked to see the bell," Stringfellow said. "I told them that bell belongs in a church. They said they'd deliver it, and they did--in a firetruck with its red lights flashing."

Back at his church, which despite its location is called the First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, Stringfellow decided to incorporate the bell into a remodeling project he was planning that would make the church sanctuary accessible to disabled members.

Founded in 1952 in a Beverly Hills real estate office, the Baptist church moved shortly thereafter to West Hollywood, where it became a fixture in the community. In fact, city officials have installed official directional street signs around town that point to it at 9025 Cynthia St.

Grammy-winning Nashville country music writer and performer Marty Stuart was in town to score a movie when he spied one of the signs and decided to visit the church the Sunday morning that Stringfellow was discussing the planned remodeling. Stuart, who is president of the Country Music Foundation, immediately underwrote about half of the $100,000 project, according to church officials.

In its newest home, the bell is mounted in a flower planter at the side of the Baptist church. To the relief of neighboring condominium and apartment dwellers, it is locked so it cannot be rung, except on special occasions.

Today's planned bell-ringing will be plenty special, according to the church's 100 members.

The Baptist congregation's 50th anniversary celebration will start with an 11 a.m. service. At 12:45 p.m., the bell will be pealed by 89-year-old Myrtle Belland.

"That's my real name," says Belland, a West Los Angeles resident whose late husband, Stanley Belland, was once a pastor of the Community Church. And it was her first husband who rebuilt the church bell tower after it burned in 1940. His name was Burnell Little.

Stringfellow predicted that much of West Hollywood will hear today's bell-ringing. Among invited guests will be the crew from Fire Station 7. For them, it's all going to have a familiar ring to it.

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