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CALIFORNIA : OUT THERE

Lighthouse fans beaming

Angels Gate boosters expect $1.8 million for a spruce-up

May 27, 2010|Jeff Gottlieb

Nearly 100 years of being battered by the waves, winds and rain, to say nothing of the sea gulls, have taken their toll on the Angels Gate Lighthouse at the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor.

The paint is peeling and its iron walls have rusted. The cornice has pulled away and hangs sadly. Inside the 73-foot-tall lighthouse, portions of the floor have rotted where water seeped in.

"That's your first impression if you're traveling by sea to Los Angeles," said businessman Gary Dwight. "It looks terrible."

Now, Dwight and his organization, the Cabrillo Beach Booster Club, are poised to do something about the state of the harbor's sentry. Next month, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission is expected to give the group $1.8 million to begin restoration of the lighthouse.

"In my opinion, it's as important to us at this end of Los Angeles as Griffith Observatory is at that end of Los Angeles," said Allan Johnson, the club's vice president.

Angels Gate sits at the end of the breakwater outside Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, two miles from shore. The lighthouse continues to function, although it has been unmanned for decades; the Coast Guard operates it by remote control.

Its light flashes every 15 seconds, its green beam distinctive from the white lights elsewhere in the harbor. Its foghorn was known as "Moaning Maggie" in the days when it sounded a deep two-note blast. It now emits a higher, single-note squawk that's called "Bleating Betty."

"The beacon is doing a fine job," said Marifrances Trivelli, director of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro. "It's just the tower needs some help."

Angels Gate's design is unique among lighthouses, Trivelli said. The tower is built on an octagonal base with black vertical stripes rather than horizontal. Boosters have variously described the architecture as Gothic and Romanesque.

When the weather is clear, you can see Catalina and as far south as Dana Point from the lighthouse. On a recent day, dolphins bobbed in the ocean as a mob of barking seals sunned on the rocks and splashed in the greenish ocean. A couple of tankers sat anchored outside the harbor, while sailboats bobbed past.

The lighthouse cost $36,000 to erect, a much sturdier building than the wooden tower first envisioned. The revolving green beacon first poured from the structure in 1913.

For years, people would scamper along the two miles of rocky breakwater to reach the lighthouse. "It was a rite of passage when I was a kid," Johnson said.

These days, the path is blocked and a thick, rusted chain keeps the fence around the lighthouse locked. Still, people have somehow managed to slip through and carve their names into the door.

Tenders stayed at the lighthouse until it was automated in 1971, Trivelli said. Angels Gate was the first lighthouse in the country to be solar-powered; panels were installed in 1987. A few years later, the Coast Guard decided that the visibility of the beam had diminished, so it ditched the solar panels and reverted to using a generator, Trivelli said.

The lighthouse was last painted in 1989.

For those traveling by sea, Angels Gate Lighthouse has been the sentry at the mouth of the harbor, guiding them toward the breakwater that separates the city's bustling harbor from San Pedro Bay.

"You knew you were home as far as the fishing industry and other water-related industries," Dwight said. "It was a welcome light. As you were coming home in the morning or evening, when you saw that green light it was just a comforting feeling."

According to a history of the port, the lighthouse, along with the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge, was a wondrous symbol to returning World War II servicemen that they had finally reached home.

The money for the refurbishment comes from settlement of a lawsuit over the expansion of the China Holding Shipping Co. terminal that requires the port to spend funds on community projects.

The lighthouse project originally was turned down by the San Pedro Subcommittee of the Port Community Advisory Committee but then received the support of its Wilmington counterpart.

Repair work is expected to begin next spring. Although it is hoped that the $1.8 million will cover the restoration, the Cabrillo Beach Booster Club may have to raise additional funds and hopes to establish an endowment so that the lighthouse doesn't again slide into disrepair.

Taking on such a project two miles from shore is not easy. A barge will tow equipment to the lighthouse, and each day workers will take a boat from U.S. Water Taxi to the site. They will have to collect all the debris generated by the work to make sure it doesn't pollute the harbor.

"It would be a very sad thing if we let something like this get knocked down," said Johnson, a former longshoreman and commercial fisherman who owns a company that provides nautical props to Hollywood. "We're not going to let that happen."

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jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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