Tower of Tranquility : Unusual Sherman Oaks Landmark Provides a Refuge From Turmoil

Times Staff Writer

Daniel Van Meter's Sherman Oaks back yard is unusual, to say the least.

Behind half a dozen junked cars, an old bus, washing machines, water heaters, an old outhouse and even a turret from a battleship stands Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 184--The Tower of Wooden Pallets.

Constructed by Van Meter in 1951, the 22-foot-tall tower consists of about 2,000 wooden pallets that were tossed out by a brewery. The pallets are placed in a 22-foot-wide circle and stacked on top of each other in brick-like fashion. Inside the structure is the grave of a child buried in 1869.

In 1977, the Fire Department declared the tower "an illegally stacked lumber pile" and a fire hazard.

A year later, it was named a landmark by the city Cultural Heritage Commission, joining such other historic-cultural monuments as the Watts Towers, the Hollywood sign, the Venice canals, a 1,000-year-old oak tree in Encino and the S.S. Catalina.

"Maybe we were drunk," a former commissioner joked when asked why the tower was designated a landmark.

'One of the Stranger Things'

The Tower of Pallets, as it is known on the official record of city landmarks, is one of the lesser-known and, in the words of another former cultural heritage commissioner, "one of the stranger things" that the commission has declared a historic-cultural monument during its 25-year existence.

But to its creator, 74-year-old Van Meter, the tower is a special place to get away from the turmoil of urban society.

"I have a place where it is quiet, despite the apartments, the noise of the boulevard and the hum and screeches of the rat race on the freeway 200 feet away," he said.

At night, Van Meter said, he climbs to the top of the tower and looks at the moon and the stars. "To me, this is a spiritual place."

Tucked away at the end of Magnolia Boulevard, a few feet from the San Diego Freeway, is Van Meter's house. The house and 2 1/2 acres--where Van Meter has lived since 1947--is the only single-family residential property left on the block, which has been developed with a condominium complex, a fire station, an office building and a private school.

A visit to Van Meter's house finds cats, dogs, chickens, turtles and a raccoon. "This morning, I had 300 pigeons," Van Meter said in a recent interview. "They were the wild ones that come to visit me every morning." He feeds the pigeons each day.

Van Meter's property is filled--some might say littered--with historical memorabilia.

There are wooden wagons that date to 1912, rusty old cars, washing machines, water heaters, a boat, a kitchen sink, an old outhouse and sheds full of other dusty stuff. A red gasoline pump, advertising gas for 24.9 cents a gallon, stands beside a 1938 city bus.

Many of the items he owns are crumbling with age and the beating they have taken from many years of exposure to the elements. But that doesn't seem to dampen Van Meter's enthusiasm in showing off the items to a visitor.

With every item, Van Meter tells a story.

'First Road'

"That was used to build the first road from Los Angeles into the Valley," he said, pointing to an old wagon.

Asked about the turret, Van Meter said that, to his knowledge, it has no historical value. He said he found it in an Army-Navy surplus store. "There it was, and I hated to see it hauled to the dump. I just said, 'I'll take that home, and I'll find something to do with it.' " He stores old papers and other things in the turret.

"I also had two nice street cars," Van Meter said proudly, adding, however, that "I sold those when they were still down in the yard. I had no way of getting them out here."

Van Meter, who said he is a descendant of President John Quincy Adams, has been interested in history since he began picking up coins and artifacts as a child.

A founder of the American Independent Party and supporter of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace's 1972 presidential campaign, Van Meter loves to talk politics. In an interview, he complained about President Franklin D. Roosevelt taking the country off the gold standard and contended that the federal income tax is illegal.

Lifelong Bachelor

But his first love appears to be collecting historical memorabilia. A lifelong bachelor who has held odd jobs, Van Meter once was called as a witness in a murder trial because he found the victim's remains while rummaging through a trash bin in search of cardboard boxes.

"If there weren't crazy people like me, there wouldn't be any museums," he said.

Clearly, the most unusual item in Van Meter's collection is the tower.

Van Meter got the pallets as a result of a labor dispute at the Schlitz Brewing Co. Union workers at the brewery refused to repair the pallets, which were slightly damaged. They wanted the company to hire workers from another union to make the repairs. The company stacked the pallets outside the brewery until the dispute could be settled.

"Then they got word that some big shots from back East were coming to inspect the brewery," Van Meter said. He said the supervisor at the plant wanted to get rid of the pallets before the executives arrived. Van Meter said he offered to take "a few" off the company's hands.

5 Truckloads

When five truckloads of the pallets arrived at his door, "I decided I had to do something with them," Van Meter said.

He decided to build the tower because he wanted a place to look out across the San Fernando Valley. "I could see way over into Van Nuys because there weren't any apartment buildings around," said Van Meter.

He placed the flat, 3-foot-wide, 6-inch-thick pallets in a 22-foot circle at the base and piled them on top of each other to a height of 22 feet. He said it took him only a couple of weeks to build the tower. A visitor to the tower can still find Schlitz imprinted on the end of many of the pallets.

Of the grave inside, he said he has never been able to find out more about the child who was 3 years old when buried there.

Shortly after the tower's completion, Van Meter said, city building inspectors arrived. He said the tower, open at the top, defied classification.

'They Called It a Fence'

"They stared at that tower for several hours before they finally decided what to call it," he said. "Since it didn't have a roof, they finally decided to call it a fence."

In 1977, fire inspectors declared the tower a fire hazard and ordered it torn down.

That was when Van Meter decided to seek protection from the Cultural Heritage Commission.

"This structure means much to me, has been a pleasure to all who have seen it and has never been a bother or a hurt to anyone except land-hungry developers who have exerted every type of pressure and misused public agencies in an attempt to divorce me from my land," Van Meter said in a 1978 letter to the commission.

"In a few years, this piece of the good earth may be covered by apartments for the storing of surplus people," he said in the letter. "In the meantime, pray let this strange structure be, let it continue to be a haven of rest for an individual--that endangered species--who once knew how sweet was our Valley."

Mixed Feelings

Patricia Simpson, a member of the commission at the time, recalled that members initially had mixed feelings about declaring the tower a landmark. In fact, attached to the commission file is a note from the late Commissioner Carl Dentzel, which says of the tower: "Can't understand why it's up for consideration."

The commission, nonetheless, declared the structure a landmark. The vote was unanimous.

Robert W. Winter, a former commissioner who voted for the designation, broke out laughing when asked about the tower.

"That, I think, is the funniest thing we ever did."

Added Winter: "It's interesting that we also declared the Hollywood sign to be a monument because no other city would do that. We kind of like to reward eccentricity."

'Social Interest'

City records say the tower was declared a monument "because of its significant social interest in the Valley." Simpson recalled that commissioners also were swayed by sympathy for Van Meter, who many believed was single-handedly fighting bureaucracy, and by "the fact that the thing is so unusual."

Asked if she knew why the tower was declared a landmark, Dodo Meyer, Mayor Tom Bradley's Valley deputy, said: "It is, I guess, a piece of folk art, albeit one folk's."

Meanwhile, attached to the commission file on the tower is an article from an art magazine on another subject. It reads: "Expression means many things to many people. What's 'art' to some is 'junk' to others."

Some of Van Meter's neighbors said they can see the tower from their condominiums next-door, but they were unaware that it is a historic-cultural monument.

"Are you serious?" one neighbor asked when told of the designation. "All I see is a pile of junk."

"Call it what you want," said Van Meter, who receives two or three visitors a month who hear about the tower by word of mouth. "It's whatever the person sees; that's what the thing is to them."

The tower will not stand forever, however. Under a requirement imposed by the city in 1978, the tower must be demolished once Van Meter dies or sells the property.

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