June 20, 2016

Photo Essay: An LA Museum for Streetlight People (RIP Vermonica)

[Ed: Updated to reflect the dismantling of Vermonica as of Nov. 2017 11/25/17 10:24 AM PT]

LA has kind of a love affair with streetlights.

Maybe it started relatively recently, like when LACMA installed its "Urban Light" art installation, which was supposed to be temporary but became so popular that it still stands out front today, facing Wilshire Boulevard.

But now that I've seen some of the historic streetlight designs dating back to the early days of electricity, I suspect that LA's fascination with design in light started long before that.

I've always been fascinated with streetlights in general—but since starting my explorations of LA, I've found myself increasingly photographing streetlights as part of documenting where I've been. One of my earliest ones was "Vermonica" in the Rite Aid parking lot at Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, a public art installation that featured 25 antique street lamps from the LA Bureau of Street Lighting.

Designed in response to the LA Riots, it too was only supposed to last a year when it was first installed in 1993, but it remained longer than anyone ever expected until being unceremoniously dismantled and removed in November 2017, just after the 25th anniversary of the riots.

The lampposts themselves have been relocated to the Bureau of Lighting, but not in the same arrangement—which, as artist Sheila Klein stated, referenced "...the intimate household scale of candlesticks into an urban scaled candelabra for the household of the city.”

They've also lost the significance of their location in East Hollywood, at a strip mall that partially burned during the riots of 1992. There, they relit the darkness. It was a rebuilding in the wake of destruction. RIP.

Although I prefer my streetlights in situ, I found myself drawn to the Historic Streetlight Museum in the Public Works building.

On the second floor, surrounded by Bureau of Sanitation workers...

...there's a tiny room that chronicles the history of how LA has lit its streets since the early 1900s.

It's only open once a month, by appointment...

...for exactly 30 minutes.

Its collection is breathtakingly beautiful... why should they keep it all to themselves?

LA has had an amazingly wide variety of street light styles—and actually still does, among its 200,000 lights standing today.

Each of the 400 styles have come to define certain areas—and, in some cases, certain streets—like the "5 Globe Llewellyn" of Downtown LA, circa 1900.

Other lamps were a bit more "all-purpose," like the very utilitarian "open type fixture" with "radial-wave bowl" and insulators...

...that was used from 1915 to the 1930s, throughout LA.

Most of them aren't just utilitarian "lights," but bona fide lanterns, lighting the way for wayward LA souls, beckoning them across certain bridges, into certain neighborhoods, and onto certain streets.

From the 1930s pendant style of the GE Novalux Form 25A, with its "ripple glass" globe... the 1928 Ray-Lite #13 Globe from the Lake Hollywood Area, these fixtures don't just illuminate the streets below them.

They draw the eyes upwards, past their concrete electroliers, to gaze directly at their textured glass globes and occasionally intricate metalwork.

These globes, pendants, and lanterns had their heyday nearly a century ago, when beauty had a utility all of its own. Luminaries like the Westinghouse Paragon Senior were the celestial bodies of Lankershim Blvd. The Lalux #1005 brass lantern disrupted the darkness of night in Brentwood. General Electric Novalux brass lanterns crisscrossed the LA River.

And then, probably in the wake of World War II metal shortages and the widespread rationing of all sorts of building materials, function began to eclipse form—and beauty was sacrificed.

From the 160-watt mercury vapor lamp of the 1940s to the 175-watt metal halide lamp of the 1960s, the romance of the streets of LA transitioned from the streetlight to the headlight. I think by the time the LA Bureau of Street Services started to use the 70-watt high pressure sodium lamps in the 1980s, our city had reached the point of no return.

But fortunately, there's been no widespread, blanket replacement of historic streetlights. Many have been kept in their original locations, as long as they still work—which will hopefully be the case as the city starts to institute their new energy-efficient LED-powered streetlights.

And for those streetlight people whose vintage lanterns may have been retired from neighborhoods like Benedict Canyon or Holmby Hills—or streets like Venice and Wilshire Boulevards, Flower Street, and Verdugo Road—there's always the antiques at Vermonica and the Historic Streetlight Museum.

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