It's unclear how serious members of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission were back in 1978 when they designated Daniel Van Meter's "Tower of Wooden Pallets" a historic monument.
Commission member Bob Winter later joked that "maybe we were drunk" when they recognized the 22-foot stack of crumbling, termite-infested Schlitz beer pallets. Winter called it "the funniest thing we ever did."
Van Meter's creation became Monument No. 184, taking its place on the same registry as the Hollywood sign, Union Station and the Pantages Theatre.
In 2000, Van Meter died at age 87, and his family took over the lot on Magnolia Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. Now his heirs, who never liked the tower and were often at odds with its eccentric creator, want to clear the land of feral cats, strange plants and the tower itself so a developer can put up 98 apartments.
Van Meter's relatives stand to make millions from the sale of the 1.43-acre lot. But the tower is in their way. Knocking down a monument, even one that may be about to topple on its own, requires layers of bureaucratic process, including public hearings and detailed reports.
So for more than a year, the question of what to do about Monument No. 184 has generated a lively, at times caustic, debate about the nature of art, the character of Daniel Van Meter and the scarcity of city monuments in the San Fernando Valley, which claims just 54 of the 789 on the list.
Van Meter's exasperated relatives and the developers working with them say the pile of pallets is the furthest thing from a work of art. In language as colorful as the tower is curious, they have disparaged it as "a rotting vestige of one man's egotism" that festers "like a sore on the community's body."
What lies behind this animosity is unclear; family members refuse to discuss it. But they have suggested in letters to city agencies that Van Meter, who lived on the land for much of his life and shared ownership with his family, exploited the tower and its protected status to keep control of the lot, which one real estate agent valued at $7 million or more.
"The tower stands as a deteriorating remnant of sibling rivalry, with the monument's perpetrator being always the holdout and instigator of trouble," wrote Van Meter's nephew, James, in a letter to the Cultural Heritage Commission. "It should be destroyed, and a more pleasing structure should be allowed to replace it."
Not so fast, said some of Van Meter's neighbors, who had developed an affection for the courtly old man. They professed to admiring the tower. They also made no attempt to hide their dismay at the traffic that 98 apartments would bring to their quiet, block-long cul-de-sac.
Likening Van Meter's structure to the famed Watts Towers, they have urged the developer to build fewer apartments in order to save the listing pillar of beer pallets.
City planning officials are expected to decide this spring whether to permit the demolition of the monument or force the developer to build around it.
Paul Rossilli, a transplanted New Yorker who works in film and radio, said he wants the decrepit structure to survive.
"We love the tower," said Rossilli, who lives in a condominium complex next door. "Whatever history we have in Los Angeles, I think we should hold on to and cherish rather than throw away. All the intrigue and folklore -- it's a shame when those things disappear."
Van Meter was an idiosyncratic man who claimed he was a descendant of John Quincy Adams and the Wright brothers. He first made news in 1942, when then-Atty. Gen. Earl Warren pursued him and two of his brothers up and down the state for failing to register as subversives, as the law then required. The brothers were considered threats because of their alleged association with a group that had ties to the pro-Nazi German American Bund.
Newspaper accounts say that Van Meter eventually surrendered "wearing a 10-gallon hat." His brother, Baron, turned himself in wearing a top hat. (He later won renown as a square dancer using the name "Cacti Pete.") The third brother, James, surrendered as well.
Daniel and Baron Van Meter pleaded not guilty but were convicted under the Subversive Organizations Registration Act, the accounts say. Daniel Van Meter served time at San Quentin.
Six decades later, a real estate broker representing the Van Meter heirs submitted a news account of the episode as evidence that Van Meter should not be sanctified as a folk artist.
"He was a conniver, a schemer, and a manipulator," wrote Hal Wheatley. He did not create art, Wheatley said. "Instead, he used his eccentric creation to justify a deeply selfish motive -- avoidance of societal regulation."
Baron Van Meter lives in a retirement community in Oregon. His son James, who serves as his conservator, said neither he nor his father would talk about the tower.