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Landmark LAX eatery sidelined by falling arches

March 09, 2007|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Officials shuttered the Encounter Restaurant in the iconic Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday after workers discovered that space-age arches above the eatery are unstable.

Inspectors uncovered the problem after a 1,000-pound piece of white stucco fell off the underside of one of the upper arches last month, smashed into the facility's roof and broke into dozens of pieces. No one was injured. Officials said it took days to diagnose the problem because they had to find a "cherry picker" crane that would reach 90 feet above the ground.

Although part of the lower portions of the four arches were retrofitted in 1999, the upper portions above the restaurant haven't been modified since the arches were erected in the late 1950s, officials said. The steel-and-stucco parabolas don't provide structural support for the glass-encased restaurant -- which offers panoramic views of the airport below.

Officials said retrofitting the upper arches is expected to take months. The restaurant's closing and the need to surround the landmark Theme Building with scaffolding are a blow to city officials, who are eagerly awaiting worldwide media attention for the arrival March 19 of the massive Airbus A380 on its first U.S. test flight. The Theme Building -- along with the Hollywood sign -- has long been considered one of the city's signature sites.

The restaurant, which struggled to recover from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, will be closed for at least three months.

City leaders Thursday found parallels between the crumbling icon and aging LAX -- which officials have spent $150 million and more than a decade trying to modernize.

"It certainly is a symbol," said Alan Rothenberg, president of the city's Airport Commission. "Unfortunately, we have an old facility.... There's lots of deferred maintenance."

Late Wednesday, engineers suspended high above the restaurant discovered several apparently loose panels in the arches -- leading officials to shut down the restaurant. After the panel fell last month, workers built a covered walkway near the building for restaurant patrons and employees to use to reach a commissary, deli and offices under the eatery.

"Over the years -- this structure was completed in 1961 -- water has gotten into the stucco" and caused it to corrode, said Dave Shuter, a deputy executive director at the city's airport agency.

Engineers said they must remove the stucco from the upper arches and inspect the steel beneath it for damage. If the beams need to be replaced, the new ones would have to be fabricated. Airport officials also say asbestos and lead paint may have been used in the arches, and getting rid of those materials could slow the retrofit.

According to the 2005 book "A Symbol of Los Angeles: The History of the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport", the structure was erected as part of a modernization plan for the airport in the late 1950s to "incorporate a dramatic iconic focus at the center of the new jet-age terminal that would be long remembered as a symbol of Los Angeles."

The $2.2-million futuristic building was designated a historic-cultural monument by the City Council and the Cultural Heritage Commission in 1992. Any reconstruction work must be approved by the commission.

The restaurant, created to resemble a flying saucer, is supported by a concrete shaft, which officials said is structurally sound. An observation deck atop the eatery has been closed for security reasons since 9/11.

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jennifer.oldham@latimes.com

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