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LAPD employees say goodbye to Parker Center

As sworn and civilian personnel move into the new headquarters, some say they will cherish their memories of the once cutting-edge police facility.

October 30, 2009|Bob Pool

Call it the long goodbye.

Police who two months ago began packing up and leaving Parker Center for their shiny new headquarters will need another two years to finish their move.

But their memories of the 54 years they spent in the Los Angeles landmark some called the "Glass House" will live forever, say those who have worked there.

"I got misty-eyed walking over here," said Mary Helen Ayala as she returned to Parker Center one last time to retrieve a few personal items she had left behind after her move from her old sixth-floor office. "I actually cried when we packed up the office on Oct. 5."

Ayala worked there 48 years, starting out as an 18-year-old secretary. In her current job, she is executive administrative assistant to Police Chief William J. Bratton.

"The building was only 8 years old when I came here," she said. "People had a sense of pride working here. I thought it was so beautiful, so plush."

Ayala still does.

She appreciates the ceiling-level interior windows that linked Parker Center's cramped inside offices and work spaces with the outside, creating an airy, open feeling. She likes the way the building allowed police employees to be grouped together in a logical, accessible way.

"Now, in the new building, people are so spread out," Ayala said of the 500,000-square-foot, $437-million headquarters complex at 100 W. 1st St.

The eight-floor, 398,000-square-foot Parker Center was built for $6.1 million in 1955. It was named in honor of Police Chief William H. Parker after his death in 1966.

The new place was a marvel to both law enforcement experts and architectural professionals.

It boasted modernist lines that were coming into mid-century vogue -- expanses of glass, walls and columns accented with mosaic tile, and movable interior walls and partitions that would lend future flexibility to the building's occupants.

There was a maze of hidden pneumatic tubes, some large enough to move bulky files, to automatically connect records clerks with detectives and booking desks. Television cables were built in, along with "super-secret" electronic recording equipment that included 60 concealed microphones in jail cells and interview rooms and 25 telephone tap devices.

Equally revolutionary was the dedication of an entire floor for use as a crime lab, which was equipped for sophisticated chemical testing and filled with state-of-the-art scientific equipment. A communications room used conveyor belts to link emergency phone operators with radio car dispatchers who placed small colored cards on a large street map of the city that was installed on the floor in the middle of them.

Det. Gus Villanueva, who has been a police officer for 31 years, remembers starting in 1974 as a student worker in Parker Center and watching as a group of visiting law enforcement officials from Florida oohed and aahed over the place.

"They were so impressed with the building. Another time a group of police Explorer Scouts from San Luis Obispo were here and they just stood in amazement when they saw an LAPD helicopter land on the roof. I remember thinking then that this is such a neat building. I was so proud. I thought we were so cutting-edge here."

In reality, Parker Center was too small the day that it opened. In time, departmental units and offices began being squeezed out and moved elsewhere.

Officers who patrol the downtown area were relocated to a new station house a few blocks away. Parker Center's roll call rooms were subdivided into office space and part of its lobby area was converted into work areas for Juvenile Division investigators. Its eighth-floor cafeteria was shuttered and converted into office space for part of the personnel section, community relations and investigative analysis.

Most remaining workers will be moved out by February, although the schedule calls for fingerprint section workers to be the last to leave -- in about two years.

Some of the empty offices are still crowded with steel, 1950s-style desks and battered cabinets designed for the 3-inch-by-5-inch file cards that were used before computers came along.

"This place seemed super-modern to me when I started here," said Brenda Benton, a secretary in the department's media relations office, which will remain in Parker Center until about mid-November.

Benton was fresh out of high school in 1973 when she went to work at the headquarters and she was in the Records and Identification section during the Symbionese Liberation Army shootout the next year. "I remember them bringing in body parts for us to fingerprint," she said, still shivering at the thought.

Down the hall, a deputy chief's executive assistant, Mary Campos, was sweeping the worn office carpeting with a broom.

"I don't want to leave this place a mess," she said. "I'll miss it here."

Some things won't be missed, however. Like Parker Center's occasional odors. And its elevators.

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