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From Dingy Dungeon to Space-Age Nap Room

A TV makeover show turns a defunct lockup into a bunk area and lounge for weary cops.

August 03, 2004|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

The problem was this: Deputies who needed sleep between extended shifts at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's station in Compton had no fit place to lay their heads.

Many slept, or tried to, in the abandoned jail cells at the rear of the place, which once housed the defunct Compton Police Department's lockup. The public address system constantly broke their slumber. There were no toilets nearby. It was cold and airless back there.

Many slept instead in their cars in the parking lot, where only trains roaring down the track across the street troubled their rest. Others hazarded long, exhausting drives home to Lancaster, Riverside and Temecula to get three or four hours of uninterrupted sleep before heading back to work.

In times of lean budgets, there was no money for improvements. But one night, facing a 48-mile drive home after a 14-hour overtime shift, Deputy A.J. Rotella had an idea. Wouldn't it be great if the makeover television show "Monster House" agreed to redo the bleak old place, free of charge?

Rotella talked it over with two supervisors who also were fans of the Discovery Channel program. In April, he cold-called the show's producers.

Soon, producer Jeanne Dresp visited the station. Yes, she said, "Monster House" would conduct one of their episodes at the site.

In fact, the project would be one of three "local hero builds" the producers decided to conduct (the others were the kitchen and eating area of Los Angeles City Fire Department Station No. 37 in Westwood, and the teachers' lounge at Sherman Oaks Elementary School).

In the burgeoning genre of home-construction shows, "Monster House" operates on a premise that seems to thrive on chaos: Throw together a team of builders who are strangers to each other, and give the group five days to execute a design for reconstructing a house or other structure.

What's more, the designs are kept secret from the buildings' owners, and tend to be, in the words of stand-up comedian/builder/host Steve Watson, "a little crazy -- a lot crazy."

Owners see only the final result at what producers call "the reveal," the following Monday. Should they hate it, a construction crew will return the structure to its previous state.

Earlier this summer, "Monster House" already had completed projects at the firehouse and school. At the former, improvements include a dining table in shaped as a firetruck that can be used indoors or rolled outside, and a barbecue pit that resembles a burning house.

At the sheriff's station, the radically futuristic design called for converting a warren of small jail cells and other rooms (including the station's erstwhile drunk tank) into a lounge and a bunkroom.

Producers selected seven builders -- six men (including an electrician and a cabinetmaker) from California, and one woman (a welder) from North Carolina.

Beginning July 26, the dingy space began to shift shape for an episode of the show scheduled to run Oct.18. Panels of heavy iron bars faded away. Ganglia of new wiring blossomed from exposed ceilings. Walls sprang up where there had been none.

From the first day, however, the workers faced the difficulties of reworking such a bleak, confined, idiosyncratic space.

One challenge: removing a shelf of solid concrete, which had served as a bench in the old drunk tank. The slab, 2 feet thick, 2 feet high and 10 feet long, took five workers, wielding a jackhammer, two sledgehammers and two rotary hammers eight hours to demolish.

Two days later, the builders found a post in the new lounge area that didn't appear in the blueprints. "We took it out," said Watson, who functioned as a kind of general construction overseer, "and the ceiling fell seven inches. It turned out to be structural."

Then on Friday, with the midnight deadline looming, the crew's sole cabinetmaker fell ill and had to work around bouts of nausea. Progress on the bunk room, moreover, was way behind schedule. "The wheels have fallen off," mourned Watson.

The builders' workdays stretched from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and beyond, and their activities inevitably disrupted those of deputies and other staffers at the station. Jackhammers drowned out other sound throughout the station, requiring dispatchers to crank up the volume on their telephones to make sure they got accurate details about reported crimes. Twice workers inadvertently cut power to the station.

No sheriff's personnel except Rotella, who acted as coordinator with the producers, knew what the finished product was going to look like. Not even station commander Capt. Erik Hamilton, who'd been briefed about the project only in the most general terms, was allowed into the job site.

Exhausted but determined, all seven builders concentrated their final effort on making the fold-up table in the new lounge work. And at midnight Friday, they were finished. All that remained was for decorators to furnish and beautify the place over the weekend.

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