Bunker Hill Park

Saturday, December 24, 2005

This is my Grand Intervention proposal:


Our New Park

by Tim Quinn

We were standing at the window on the tenth floor of City Hall looking west up the hill toward the Music Center. Spread out below was the new park, still un-named. The philanthropist directed our attention to the beautiful home midway up the hill that contained the ground floor of the museum bearing his name. He explained, "That home is the portal to our past. Built into the new false hill below are the four huge floors of our new Museum of Los Angeles. The false hill has more than enough room left over for the courthouse and administrative functions for the County. Those facades are on the Temple side." We had seen the pictures earlier, the reproduction of the old sandstone courthouse seemed to be tucked right into the hill side.

"Let's take the walk up so I can show you what we have done." We followed--who wouldn't?

We regrouped at the top of the stairs leading down to the Civic Plaza that now comes right up to the base of City Hall, Spring Street running underneath through tunnels for both the trains and buses. Our guide continued as he descended the stairs, "The cobblestones you see covering the plaza came from the old Santa Fe Freight Depot over in the Arts District. They covered the freight-handling yard, next to Sci-ARC, for nearly 80 years before we brought them here. The Museum of Jazz stands there now. Fascinating place. Makes one proud to be an Angeleno."

He gestured toward a Mayan-looking structure occupying the southern border of the Plaza. "That magnificent elegant structure comprises the grandstand and walls of The Taste, a court for Ulama,
a sort of handball or squash descended from a game played by the original residents of this area. I understand the game is still played in some parts of Mexico." A couple of us laughed at this; he had forgotten we were the Ulama team from Cal State Long Beach.

As our guide strolled across the cobblestones, he pointed to the pond at the far northern end of the Plaza. "We realized that an urban park should provide frequent opportunities for what we call `micro-vacations,' moments away from the city. These might supply the restorative tonic a hard-working civil servant obviously craves, yes?" We nodded.

We sat on the low stone wall at the edge of the pond. "Lesley's little lake here provides a variety of opportunities to forget where you are for a few minutes. We named it Poundcake Pond for the hill that stood here until 120 years ago. Besides, it sounds better than either New High Pond or Courthouse Lake. You can see the far shore is actually muddy. We've brought in crawdads and rainbow trout, a few catfish, but they're just for looking at." He threw in a small pebble. "The sounds of water are very calming. Don't you think? The ducks are real, by the way."

We walked the edge of the pond to Broadway where a stream spilled out from under a remarkable small bridge built entirely from small boulders. "We have been harvesting the boulders from local excavations going on Downtown, including our own, to mimic an old L.A. style perfected in the Lummis Home. Do any of you know it?" Some of us apparently did. So he continued, "One of our original goals for the park was to create a place that would age gracefully. Accomodate the roots of growing trees. Show the use of generations in the beautiful patinas and worn surfaces of real materials. We finally concluded that we could accomplish that by building a park that might have stood here, even hundreds of years ago, somehow. So we took what material came from the ground, as Lummis and dozens of others had before us, to make the things our park required: bridges, walls, benches and tables. Of course, it's all a big fiction. There is a giant concrete building under our feet, but this is Los Angeles, dammit. We know how to do fiction." The old guy was getting worked up, but as he gestured across Broadway at the new fake hill, I had to agree. It looked like it was coming down in the next quake, but it appeared to be an absolutely authentic California chapparal-covered hillside rising steeply from the sidewalk.

As if on cue, the signal changed to walk. We took the suggestion and crossed to the other side. The smell of the sage enveloped us as we made the sidewalk and I did, for a second, looking up at the yucca blooms, forget where I was. A local bus whirred past bringing me back to the city. Our guide continued south to the center of the block. Stopping, he said, "We've taken some liberties with the shape of the hill here to achieve a naturalistic impression. No buildings on this end, except for Court Flight." He pointed to the funicular rising up the hill above us. The funny little skewed boxes that made up the cars seemed pretty rickety. "Fiction again, its a completely safe, but accurate, re-creation of the train that served this end of the hill during the same years that the better-known Angels Flight thrived over at Hill and Third. People love this sort of stuff." It was clear from the bounce in his step as he entered the car that he was one of those people. We went up. Our benefactor looked out over the landscape as it gradually spread out below us. "My, those towers are new, aren't they. Things are changing so fast." I couldn't tell how he felt about it. Our reverie was interrupted by the comic last clunk of the car arriving at the top of its run.

The rest of the park spread out before us. The top of the hill was almost flat, rising gently toward the Court of the Music Center. In the middle distance was the Victorian mansion we had seen from City Hall. Behind it, slightly higher, the Chandler Pavilion. Now at ground level, it was finally evoking the ancient temple that inspired it. All around the new hill, Downtown's high-rises formed a glittering frame for what I realized was Los Angeles's new Acropolis. What philosophy might arise to match this beautiful place? What civic spirit ignited? What music written? But our guide was speaking. "These photos we have mounted here were taken by Ansel Adams in 1940 from this spot. The comparison is quite amusing. About the only thing left is City Hall. Beautiful photographs though, don't you think?" We did.

We spent a half an hour wandering through the gardens that occupy the eastern end of the plateau. The beds and path were bordered by the same stone work that made the bridge down below: rounded river rocks carefully fitted to form graceful sloping walls. My favorites beds were the cactus and agaves. Huge century plants and more flowering yuccas. We re-assembled in front of the mansion.

" . . . built in 1880 for the families retirement from the mining business. The Bradbury's had met in Mexico where she was born. They worked in mining and real estate in Mexico and up and down the state before coming here to retire because of the old man's failing health. Didn't work though: he died a couple years later. Simona proved to be a powerhouse, an able businesswoman. It was she, with her husband's business partners, that built the block on Broadway bearing their name. I believe it shows a woman's influence and the architectural sophistication of someone raised in old Mexico. She built a few other buildings, too, including one that served as the county courthouse for a time. Quite a woman, apparently."

"She used the home. Our reproduction is all plastic, by the way. Pretty convincing though. She used the home as a social center, opening it for gatherings and meetings of her wide circle of friends and the many clubs and committees she belonged to. It was a well-known and welcoming place. That is why we chose it as the portal to the museum below. It embodies an attitude toward neighborhood and community, a meeting of public and private needs. It has great dignity. At the same time, it celebrates workmanship. It elevates family, community and the civic dialog by its fine example. It is a handsome building, don't you think?" We did.

"But there is a bonus," he continued, "The home later came into the hands of the young Hal Roach. This would have been around 1912 or 15. He used it as the headquarters for his film studio, the interior and exterior as film sets. That would have been silent film, by the way. You know, black and white, really early stuff. We have a little theater downstairs where we show nothing but films shot up here on the hill. Amazing collection of stuff. Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, funny, funny stuff, right here."

We walked to the corner and up the path toward the Music Center Plaza. "On the right up ahead is our new little amphitheater. Diverse program lined up there, you'll see. Most of the art you see was commissioned for the site, but some of it was saved from basements and bad installations elsewhere. The older things, you know, mostly Pershing Square." We fanned out over the lawns and paths looking over the collection, enjoying the live music. I eventually found myself in the Music Center Plaza and noticed a new building there. Or an old one that had not been there before. It was a standard issue clapboard two-story boarding house. "It is a duplicate of a building that used to be here when this was the intersection of Bunker Hill Avenue and Court Street." The philanthropist was standing beside me. "We call it the Jon Fante Residence. Its a haven for writers, poets, artists to spend some time in Downtown Los Angeles. We've already booked two years, lots of interest. Who wouldn't want to work up here for a little while, hmm?" I had to agree.

This proposal incorporates ideas from other participants and blog contributors. It is not intended to subsume or replace those contributions, but to honor them. They include Josef Bray-Ali, Lesley Taplin, Stuart Rapeport, Steven Rosen, and others.