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Another turning point for spire

The hospital adornment survived bureaucrats and a tornado. It's now bound for a new site.

June 07, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

He sized up the towering shaft dangling dizzily Wednesday afternoon over South Flower Street and stepped back a few paces.

"What's its length? Ninety-four feet? Then we'd better be standing more than 94 feet away, given its history," said Richard Colyear Jr. with a laugh.

He should know. The Colyear Memorial Spire has experienced more than its share of ups and downs in the nearly 50 years it has stood atop Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital.

On Wednesday it was coming down to make way for a construction project on the hospital grounds. This morning, a 320-ton crane is scheduled to lift it to a new location on another Orthopaedic Hospital building.

The slender steel spire was seen as an inspirational symbol of hope for young patients being treated for crippling ailments when Richard Colyear Sr. paid $30,000 to have it fabricated and installed.

The elder Colyear had deep ties to the nonprofit hospital, which started out as a small rehabilitation clinic housed in the carriage house of a 19th century estate at Adams Boulevard and Flower.

He was president of an automotive parts company and a member of the hospital's board of directors who helped oversee the development of the 13-acre complex in the late 1940s and '50s. He also spent a year there as a patient after a shooting accident left him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down.

Colyear Sr. was on safari in Africa when he was shot by a gun bearer who was handing him an elephant rifle owned by a friend, Los Angeles-area dairyman Tom Knudsen. He was being charged by a rhino at the time.

"The bullet went through my father's right hip and out his left. He stuffed his thumbs in the two holes to keep from bleeding to death," Colyear Jr. said. "He was here for treatment six days a week in '58 and '59 and eventually was able to walk. They were hoisting the spire up on top of the hospital when he was being treated inside."

When it was first installed, the spire was the tallest building adornment of its type in Los Angeles. It was something of an engineering marvel too: Instead of being held in place by guy wires, it was bolted to 18-inch plates cast in concrete. The hospital received special permission from federal aviation officials to erect it.

It didn't stand for long, however.

Los Angeles building officials demanded that it be taken down when they learned it had been built in a Long Beach shipyard by welders certified by the Navy but not by the city. They ordered Colyear Sr. to cut the slender shaft into pieces and have it rewelded by city-approved welders. He spent $10,000 rebuilding it.

Colyear Sr., who was also a pilot, liked to joke that he would be able to use the crisp white spire to identify the location of the hospital as he cruised in his small plane over Los Angeles.

He was a passenger in his plane in 1961 when the two-engine Beechcraft Bonanza crashed while taking off from Los Angeles International Airport. The aircraft went into a spin, plunged through high-voltage lines and crashed in flames in a vacant lot between Imperial Highway and Imperial Avenue in El Segundo, killing Colyear Sr., the pilot and three others. They had been on their way to a duck-hunting trip in Los Banos.

A freak tornado almost destroyed the Colyear spire in 1983. The twister, which damaged 100 businesses and homes before tearing away part of the Los Angeles Convention Center's roof, bent the steel shaft sideways, said Colyear Jr., demonstrating the damage by hooking his forefinger into a U shape.

The bent structure was taken down, straightened out, strengthened and reinstalled.

The 2-ton spire is being moved to its new location on the southwest corner of the Lowman Outpatient Building so a former 162-bed inpatient treatment building can be torn down. Inpatient services are now being handled at an Orthopaedic Hospital site operated in conjunction with UCLA in Santa Monica, said hospital board President Mary Schmitz.

The hospital has sold about nine acres of its land south of downtown to a private developer who will construct as many as 850 apartments, Schmitz said. The $70-million profit from the sale is being channeled back into hospital expansion and operation, she added.

The spire's relocation -- involving 10 workers and two giant cranes -- is costing about double what Colyear Sr. paid for the original spire. The expense is being underwritten by his widow, Hancock Park resident Margaret Halvorson.

Her son said expanded Orthopaedic Hospital facilities scheduled for completion in 2010 will be far superior to the seven-story South Flower treatment center. Colyear Jr. is also a former Orthopaedic board member and former patient.

"I spent New Year's Eve here in 1958 when I broke my left leg," he said. "I'd been at a New Year's Eve party at Harold Pauley's house in Hancock Park. I was coming down a circular staircase, and they had a big chandelier and I grabbed it to swing on. Then Vern Underwood gave me a push right when I was planning to swing back to the stairs. I took maybe a 12-foot fall onto the marble floor."

Colyear Jr., now a 68-year-old retired bank executive living in Rolling Hills, said he has remained a lifelong friend of Underwood, whose family runs Young's Market Co. -- despite that one up-and-down of his own.

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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