Who knew that streetlights could be beautiful? Who knew that the Bureau of Street Lighting had a museum dedicated to them? (OK, and who knew that Los Angeles even had a Bureau of Street Lighting?) Granted, the museum is the size of a large closet and not actually open to the public. But thanks to a new exhibition at the Museum of Neon Art, "Light Up the Night: Streetlights of Los Angeles" provides a proper setting to get a look at some of the brighter lights of our big city.
"Many neighborhoods of Los Angeles were identified by their own special streetlight design," explains Mary Rodriguez, the show's curator. "As developers were building Los Angeles, they enticed buyers by advertising the style of streetlights that would be installed in their neighborhoods. And they all tried to outdo each other."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Streetlights exhibit -- A article in the Sept. 25 Calendar Weekend incorrectly credited the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting with having installed a 25-lamp exhibit at the northeast corner of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. The project, titled "Vermonica," was the work of artist Sheila Klein.
The different lights signified each area's uniqueness. The lights on display were first in use from 1915 to the '40s. A few can still be found from downtown to the Valley, if you look hard.
The idea for the show took a circuitous route. Rodriguez recalled a community meeting two years ago, when the need for better street lighting was discussed. She credits Councilman Tom LaBonge for mentioning the museum and suggesting that it be opened to the public. That brought about a one-day show at the bureau, which Rodriguez attended. The variety and beauty of the designs blew her away.
A year later, when she became a trustee at MONA, she came up with the idea of a larger exhibition.
Thanks to a generous donation by the bureau and partial funding from a grant by the Cultural Affairs Department, Rodriguez was able to thoroughly research and examine the bureau's collection. She chose over a dozen luminaries (the lantern portion of the streetlight) for the MONA show, which began Wednesday.
In addition to helping supply the show, the bureau has also put up a small exhibit at the northeast corner of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, appropriately named Vermonica. A variety of streetlights adorn a small grassy strip in an otherwise nondescript parking lot.
Designs can easily be overlooked when sitting 15 to 25 feet overhead, so MONA brings everything to eye level. Textured glass, beautiful ironwork and delicate sculptures give visitors a rare close-up and a sense of what it must have been like to live in a time when even something as ordinary as a streetlight was made with extraordinary care.
Most of the lights are identified by their manufacturers. Thus some of the most beautiful pieces are saddled with such unwieldy names as "Westinghouse paragon senior with brass ring" and "Utilitarian steel mast arm, unknown open-type series with radial wave bowl." One 7-foot lantern with a squared-off shape has the snazzier moniker of "Wilshire Special" and in its heyday could be found along Wilshire Boulevard from Figueroa Street to Fairfax Avenue. "That would have been incredible to see all the way through the Miracle Mile, with all those Art Deco buildings," Rodriguez said. "Now you can still find it around MacArthur Park."
Also on display are enlargements of historical photographs, showing different areas in L.A. where various streetlights stood or in some cases still stand. The pictures are a treat, showing old Bunker Hill and Venice in its days as an oil field. Rodriguez even found a vintage postcard of the Hollywood Brown Derby, which stood on Vine Street. "The streetlights are prominent in the photo, and the arms and double lanterns are displayed, standing about 7 feet tall," she said. "We also have the actual Brown Derby neon sign that sat on the restaurant's rooftop," which ties the show in nicely with the museum's neon displays.
Rodriguez hopes the show can give visitors a little perspective. "Sometimes you're going down a street, stuck in traffic, angry, just want to get home," she said. "Take a look around. There's beauty everywhere; you just have to see it."
Museum of Neon Art
"Light Up the Night Streetlights of Los Angeles"
Where: Museum of Neon Art, Olympic Boulevard at Hope Street, downtown
When: Through March 21. Opening reception, Oct. 4, 7:30-10:30 p.m. Museum hours: Wednesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, noon-5 p.m.; second Thursdays of each month, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Cost: $5; students with ID, $3.50; children younger than 12, free
Info: (213) 489-9918 or www.neonmona.org