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Uphill Battle : Angel’s Flight Railway Restoration Gathers Steam

Times Urban Affairs Writer

It was to have taken only two years to restore Angel’s Flight, Los Angeles’ quaint little incline railway, and get it running again up and down the side of downtown’s Bunker Hill.

But there were delays, and in 1970 it looked as though it would take five years to get what was often described as the world’s shortest railroad working. “Just wait,” city officials said confidently.

A lot of dirt has been shoveled on Bunker Hill since then and thousands of tons of concrete, glass and steel have gone into new office and residential towers in the $3-billion redevelopment project that caused Angel’s Flight to be dismantled--temporarily, of course--in the first place.

Absolutely nothing has happened to Angel’s Flight since then except that the two orange and black cars, fondly known as Olivet and Sinai, have gathered more dust and lost more paint, and the fancy station, arch and other equipment have become a little more weather-beaten.

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Now, however, the Angel’s Flight cars finally are being resurrected--although not, as most people concerned about their future have known for some time, to haul the new residents and daytime business people who populate Bunker Hill’s condos and high-rise office buildings.

That job will be handled by replicas of the original Angel’s Flight funicular, but it will be at least another five years and possibly as late as 1994, according to city Community Redevelopment Agency officials and Bunker Hill developers, before the planned incline railway runs between Bunker Hill’s new glass and steel towers.

Duplicating the original cars with a newly designed operational system is a concession to Angel’s Flight devotees who wanted to see the cars running again. But Bunker Hill planners also believe a replicated Angel’s Flight is a practical and unique way for the hill’s growing population to master the steep hillside.

Meanwhile, cleaned up and restored, the funicular’s original wooden cars will become museum pieces. As such, they will be colorful reminders of the days between 1901 and 1969 when the popular funicular--a Los Angeles historic-cultural monument--carried more than 100 million passengers up and down the hill, beside the 3rd Street tunnel between Hill and Olive streets.

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The redevelopment agency, which owns the aged cars and everything that went with them, is about to seek proposals from a dozen or so qualified restoration experts to have the cars ready for display early next year.

The agency has set aside $150,000 for the project. It will include restoring the cars to U.S. Interior Department historic rehabilitation standards, as well as duplicating the big, gaudy arch that marked the funicular’s lower entrance at Hill Street. The restoration project also calls for installing a short section of track--at the railway’s original 33% grade--on a landscaped slope at Heritage Square, the city’s turn-of-the-century architectural showcase near downtown just off the Pasadena Freeway.

“The cars won’t look new (through restoration),” says Robert Chattel, a redevelopment agency planner. “That’s not what we want. We just want to stop the deterioration.”

Heritage Square will have only one car. The other will be displayed at a temporary site in California Plaza, the $1.2-billion high-rise complex under construction in the Bunker Hill redevelopment area. Later it will be housed in the Angel’s Flight Museum, a focal point of California Plaza’s Angel’s Park, which cascades down the Bunker Hill slopes.

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In the plaza’s master plan, the museum is near the incline railway’s original 3rd Street route--now occupied by the Angelus Plaza retirement housing complex--and in virtually the same area where the Angel’s Flight replica will carry passengers up and down a new, redesigned railway incline.

No Plans for Station

While plans for restoring and displaying the two original 84-year-old Angel’s Flight cars are well along, there are no plans now to make use of the old upper Olive Street station and the arch that graced the bottom of the incline at Hill Street.

The station and arch, once as much a part of the Angel’s Flight railway as Olivet and Sinai, are being stored in a South Los Angeles salvage yard at a cost of $225 a month.

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Officials say the new Angel’s Flight funicular will run from Hill Street up the hillside between the south end of Angelus Plaza and an office building of about 45 stories planned for 4th and Hill streets.

Plans for the line cannot be finished until the designing of California Plaza’s third phase is completed. Timing of the third phase is subject to office space demands, and even under the best conditions, the completion of the plaza could be some years away.

California Plaza is expected to design and build the new Angel’s Flight and pay for such things as the trestles and landscaping. The redevelopment agency, though, has the primary responsibility--about 75%--for the operating equipment, including new cars, and is expected to put an estimated $4 million into the project.

Several things seem certain. The new Angel’s Flight will be a few feet shorter than the original, measuring about 300 feet--the length of a football field. And the grade up the hillside will be a few degrees less, because after the original Angel’s Flight was torn down, the top of Bunker Hill was shaved off to provide a buildable surface for new office and residential buildings.

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William Lewis, the redevelopment agency’s Bunker Hill project manager, believes it will be almost 10 years before the new Angel’s Flight line operates.

But Shem Krey, California Plaza’s project director, is more optimistic, feeling that 1990 is a realistic goal.


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