Statue of Port Founder Going ‘Home’
As Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores put it: “Stephen M. White is finally coming home.”
It only took half a century.
White, for those who have forgotten their local history lessons, was the United States senator responsible for locating a federal breakwater--and thus the Port of Los Angeles--at San Pedro in the 1890s. In honor of that accomplishment, his bronze likeness has stood in downtown Los Angeles for 80 years.
That, however, has irked San Pedro residents since the 1930s, when they began trying to have the statue moved to their community. Recent critics complain that nobody in Los Angeles appreciates White--or even knows who he is. They grouse that the statue, arm extended, reaches toward Disneyland when it should reach toward the harbor that White helped create.
Tuesday, the County Board of Supervisors agreed.
Unanimously and without discussion, the supervisors voted to move the statue from its spot in front of the Los Angeles County Courthouse to a new home in San Pedro on--where else?--Stephen M. White Drive, not far from where the breakwater begins.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Mitch Maracich, aide to Supervisor Deane Dana. Maracich, along with former Los Angeles Planning Commissioner Sam Botwin, led the relocation movement. Both men live in San Pedro.
“We feel that statue belongs in San Pedro,” Botwin said in an interview last week. “No one knows who Stephen M. White is in Los Angeles. They don’t care. It’s just a statue of a guy with his hand out.”
No date has been set for the relocation, although Maracich said he would like to have the move completed by March 1--the day San Pedro concludes its year-long centennial celebration.
When Los Angeles County residents voted to commission the statue at the turn of the century, White had been dead only seven years. Most Angelenos knew him as a respected lawyer and politician and as the leader of what was called the “Free Harbor Fight” to persuade Congress to appropriate $2.9 million to build the breakwater and deep-water harbor at San Pedro, rather than Santa Monica, where the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad wanted a port.
For his triumph, Maracich said, White is known as the “savior of the harbor.”
The bronze statue, which Maracich said is “slightly bigger than life,” was sculpted in 1908 by Douglas Tilden. It stood on the lawn of the old County Courthouse at Temple Street and Broadway for 50 years, and was moved to the site of the new courthouse at 1st and Hill streets in 1958.
Last year, the statue was briefly shunted off to storage because Metro Rail workers feared that construction would damage it. When Supervisor Kenneth Hahn heard about that, he had the statue dusted off and hauled out in front of the courthouse again, this time at Grand Avenue and 1st, where it stands today.
There have been numerous attempts over the years to move the statue to San Pedro.
Five years ago, a group of San Pedro residents--Maracich and Botwin among them--formed a committee to relocate the statue. Unable to persuade county officials to relocate it, they tried to commission a duplicate, but the $130,000 price tag was too high.
In the 1950s, the local chamber of commerce tried to get it moved, and there were several attempts during the 1930s. The earliest was in 1933, but White’s family opposed the statue’s removal.
Once--in 1939--the Legislature got involved, passing a bill authorizing the bronze to be relocated to San Pedro. Then-Gov. Cuthbert Olson signed the legislation, but the Native Sons of the Golden West, an organization instrumental in erecting the statue, fought the relocation and it was never moved.
The Native Sons, by the way, lent their support to the most recent relocation effort. In a letter to Councilwoman Flores, the group’s district representative wrote that the White statue “belongs to the harbor. That was his dream.”