48-Year-Old Armory Rises From Ashes to Serve Again

Times Staff Writer

In 1935, military planners selected a site in Chavez Ravine to build one of the nation's first and largest naval reserve armories, figuring the deep gorge and surrounding rugged terrain would conceal the building in case of enemy air attack.

During World War II, more than 20,000 sailors passed through the Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Training Center, including such famous reservists as actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and director John Ford.

Although the military kept a close eye on the city's skies throughout the war, Axis bombers never appeared to test the concealment theory.

About 40 years later, however, the center almost succumbed to another enemy--a fire that destroyed most of the building's traditional features and required six years and $4.5 million in renovation.

Building Reopened

Last month the armory was formally rededicated. In a colorful ceremony, about 800 Navy and Marine Corps personnel and reservists, and a handful of community members, attended a ceremony to formally reopen the 48-year-old building.

Many of those attending were too young to remember the armory's busiest days during World War II, or to know that almost 250,000 sailors and Marines have been processed through its doors since its completion in 1938.

But they echoed the sentiments of Navy historian Bruce Lively, who says that the restoration preserved an important slice of military history and Art Deco architecture. Lively, who has a doctorate in history from USC, recently completed a detailed history of the armory site, which has been submitted for publication to the Southern California Historical Quarterly.

"All of us who were concerned about the armory's survival and its importance as a historical building were really ecstatic about the renovation," Lively said. "It has a special place in military history."

Built by WPA Workers

Built by WPA workers using reinforced concrete, the armory's Deco-Moderne style of architecture is typical of public buildings constructed in the 1930s: Streamlined, smooth surfaces, spare and abstract ornamentation, monument-like stone steps that lead up to an imposing white portico held up by huge stone pillars.

The 1980 fire, started by faulty electrical wiring, destroyed living quarters for visiting admirals, a banquet room and bar, an indoor pool and a rifle range.

It also crippled the reserve program, burned four decades of documents and forced about 500 naval reservists to train in cramped trailers during the restoration of the 90,000-square-foot building, said Lt. Cynthia A. Perez, the center's executive officer.

Most of the remodeling changes are inside. Gone are the old second-floor quarters overlooking Chavez Ravine where the armory's commanding officer once lived. Also gone are the brass fixtures, ornate lighting and dark wood moldings that used to give parts of the armory a homey, old-fashioned feel.

In their place are classrooms and administrative offices where reservists practice first aid, learn technical skills and watch military training films.

Navy and Marine Corps reservists must train at least one weekend each month and go on active duty for two weeks each year, sometimes in assignments overseas, such as in Japan or Antarctica. Reservists sign up for eight-year hitches.

The armory holds sentimental value for many reservists. For Nat B. Read of Glendale, who has been a reservist more than 20 years, it is where he formed deep friendships and learned communications skills he applied later when he founded his own public relations firm.

Since 1965, when he first joined the reserves, Read has watched temples gray, hairlines recede and waistlines expand--although not beyond Navy standards of course, he joked.

"Getting together one weekend a month, you develop real camaraderie, like a family," Read said. When the armory reopened last month, "I was happy because of the history that's there. We all have so many memories of having drilled there over the years."

About 45 Navy and Marine Corps personnel staff the armory during the week. Come Friday night, the site is transformed as reservists pour in for the weekend's training.

Since the Korean War, when reservists were mobilized through the armory, reservists have maintained war readiness without seeing combat.

Marine Corps reservists who muster at the armory but practice amphibious maneuvers at San Diego or Camp Pendleton were less inconvenienced during renovation, said Lt. Col. Robert A. Pryor, the armory's senior Marine officer.

No Weapons Stored There

Unlike some other armories, the building was not used for storing weapons and munitions. It was regarded as too close for safety to residential neighborhoods, including small homes and apartments clustered just south of the armory on the northern fringe of Chinatown.

For John A. Schutz, a USC history professor who has lived on a hill overlooking Chavez Ravine for more than 40 years, the armory holds a different kind of memory, one of military pageantry glimpsed from the hill's rim in his backyard while patriotic music drifted through the air.

"It was very dramatic, especially during the war," Schutz recalled.

From 1941 to 1945, the armory turned out active-duty sailors and served as a communications school, recruiting station, induction center and basic training facility. Trainees slept on cots on the drill deck or in tents.

Called a Good Neighbor

Most neighbors today say the armory maintains a low-key presence. Except when they notice recruits jogging through the hills or nearby Elysian Park, most neighbors give it no thought.

"They're just a big stone building down in the gulley. It doesn't have much impact on the community," Schutz said.

However, Alicia Brown, chairman of the nearby Solano Community Improvement Organization, said she is glad the armory is there.

"They're good neighbors," said Brown, who believes that the presence of sailors and Marines at the massive white building helps deter crime.

Bill Shumard, a spokesman for the Dodgers, whose stadium adjoins the armory, said there is little interaction between the stadium staff and armory personnel, although the stadium offers a $2 discount to armed forces personnel that occasionally draws some reservists.

Lively, the historian, is attempting to make the armory better known. He has traced the site's history to the days when it was an Indian village, and said that, in 1769, an expedition led by Gaspar de Portola camped there on its historic journey from Mexico to Monterey.

In 1854, the land was the city's first Jewish cemetery, the "Home of Peace," an ironic name for the site of a future military training center, Lively commented.

In the early 1900s it was the site of a quarantine house for smallpox victims and a garbage dump.

In 1935, Navy strategists selected Chavez Ravine as a potential site for the armory, seeing it as a central spot to muster troops from throughout Southern California and one that would provide a full view of downtown Los Angeles, a strategic advantage, according to Lively.

On Dec. 13, 1935, the Los Angeles City Council voted to donate about 4.5 acres in Chavez Ravine to the Navy, and construction by the Works Progress Administration began shortly thereafter. During World War II, the armory expanded as the need for recruits grew.

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