Just a block away from my SoCal home, an intersection is constantly being captured by this intriguing fellow with the keen eye and retro gear. Although all he directs now is traffic, he’s a reminder of the area’s deep filmmaking roots. But monuments in and around Los Angeles also call to mind other dreams and legacies of generations past – including one that’s very special to me.
It’s a building.
While LA’s filmic heritage does loom large, there are plenty of reminders that, while maybe not so old in the grand scheme, its history is much longer than a two-reeler or even a feature. I’m embarrassed to admit though that, despite having lived here for years, there’s much I haven’t seen. That’s my trouble with local attractions – I put them off because I know I can go anytime. Like I’ve always wanted to see the La Brea Tar Pits and their ancient saber toothed cat bones (talk about deep roots!). I keep thinking this will be the weekend I get caught up on my laundry and go check it out –
And then a quarter century goes by…
Another problem is my daily life doesn’t take me into some of the real history hotspots like Downtown LA where I pretty much only find myself for two reasons. One, alas, is for jury duty. Not my favorite outing – but it’s a civic responsibility I try to make the best of by making into a field trip of sorts.
Over the summer, I had a bout of jury service that hung on for over a week. On the bright side, I did get my first look at Grand Park – a relatively new section of Downtown that offers numerous nods to the old. Bounded by immense and busy buildings, it’s four refreshing blocks (to which I didn’t do justice in pictures…) of open air, flora and fountains, performance space and lots and lots of history!
Among the memorials is one honoring veterans of the Vietnam War, and one displaying the route of El Paseo de los Pobladores de Los Angeles – “The Walk of the First Settlers of Los Angeles” who founded the city in 1781. Statues pay homage to figures like George Washington and Christopher Columbus (guys a wee bit older than my gent with the camera). And I especially enjoyed wandering the Flag Garden – a collection of flags spanning our nation’s history.
Catching sight of LA’s City Hall at one end of Grand Park brought me back to why I was downtown in the first place – to do my jury service nearby. I’ve seen this graceful, glistening white building in so many films that I tend to forget real stuff actually goes on there!
City Hall stands near a collection of administrative and court-type buildings, including the Criminal Courts Building with which I actually have a slight connection. Not, you know, because of my criminal past. Wait – not that I have a criminal past, it’s just…
Okay, let me start again. My connection is that it was constructed by a company my grandfather worked for back in the day (although he wasn’t involved in this one, so it’s not the building).
Let me tell you a little about my Grandpa K. The eldest son of Finnish immigrants, he was a construction man most all of his life. And he adored it. Mum tells me nothing made Grandpa happier than erecting an edifice where nothing had been before – and building it to last. His very first job on a construction site as a boy was bringing water to the crew. But he soon moved on to being a bricklayer and from there, he never stopped learning about the business and striving to be the best at what he did.
During tough Depression days, Grandpa K moved with Mum and my grandma from job to job all around the Midwest. Finally, Grandpa thought he’d try his hand in Chicago where he met Gust Newberg, the man behind the Gust K. Newberg Construction Company. Mum remembers Newberg as an absolute genius at crunching numbers and figuring things down to the last detail – and down to the last minute – in order to submit just the right bid to secure a project. And with Grandpa K’s years of construction experience from the very bottom up, it became Grandpa’s responsibility to oversee the actual building.
Although busy enough in Chicago, Grandpa wanted the chance to work in California where he figured there were new opportunities and where the weather would be less disruptive to construction than it could be in the Windy City. So when Gust K. Newberg Construction dove into the LA market, Grandpa K went along and got his wish to build places in the sun!
I’d love to be certain of all his superintending credits, but I do know one building on which he worked sits on Bunker Hill at the other end of Grand Park – it’s the Department of Water and Power Building (now known as the John Ferraro Building) which opened in 1965.
There are quite a few buildings in the LA area that were constructed by Newberg’s company – from one on the campus of UCLA in Westwood all the way down to the old Long Beach Arena. And it makes me proud to know that some of those went up under Grandpa’s expert eye. While people have been arriving in LA for ages with dreams like building new lives, building movie studios and building commercial empires, Grandpa K came here with a dream simply to build.
And build he did.
When Mum was a little girl back in Chicago, she was interviewed on the street for a radio program and asked what her daddy did for a living. With innocent gusto, Mummy responded as she’d heard Grandpa’s buddies do:
“He’s in the building racket!”
A bit embarrassed, Grandma K shyly accepted the free can of coffee that went to program participants, grabbed her precocious child’s hand and hurried on her way.
However his crew termed it, I get the sense that Grandpa considered construction more of a calling. After a lifetime of passionate engagement in all of its aspects – realizing the architect’s vision, sweating details, rising to challenges, creating something enduring – I think building was in his soul. And while it would please him, I bet Grandpa wouldn’t be surprised to learn that, according to a 2012 article in the Press-Telegram on the Long Beach Arena’s 50th anniversary, renovators remarked how “well-constructed and strong” it still was. I’m sure he’d also be pleased to know the DWP building is now on the list of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments.
Getting a recent taste of the history to be found in downtown LA reminded me that a great third reason to make the commute would be to discover more legacies of Angelenos past!
And what was that second reason? Well, I’ve said it before (in The Biscuit in the Basket Bit) but I can’t help going there again. See, I share with Grandpa another of his great passions – ice hockey! Although he was a lifelong Chicago Blackhawk fan, I’m an LA Kings fan and my last time seeing his DWP building was October 14th en route to the Kings’ first home game this season. The franchise kicked off celebration of the 50th anniversary of the team’s joining the NHL with a game (against the Flyers) set up to mirror the Kings’ first-ever game that took place on the same date against the same opponent back in 1967. That game was played in the “well-constructed” Long Beach Arena – and Grandpa was there!
Yup. Love of hockey is definitely a lasting legacy passed down from Grandpa K – and it’s carried on by Mum and me and my nephew too!
But whenever I cruise down the 110 Freeway and spot that DWP building rising up out of the heart of LA, it’s so very nice to remember that my Grandpa’s legacy is bricks and mortar too.
P.S. Thanks to my dear friend, Danielle, I know that a super way to dig deeper into Downtown history is to take a tour offered by the Los Angeles Conservancy. Danielle has treated me to one revealing LA’s Art Deco side and one through iconic Union Station where many a dreamer first arrived!