Underground Culture : Long Past Its Glory Years, Art Deco Tunnel Faces Final Exit
Waiting to be restored or sealed forever, a long-forgotten Art Deco pedestrian tunnel lies beneath Ocean Boulevard at Pine Avenue. Through the cracks of its boarded entrance, a sea breeze sways the remnants of banners that once hung over an international arcade.
The tunnel, which has a vaulted ceiling and is 181 feet long and 30 feet wide, was built in 1927 so that beach-goers could avoid traffic-clogged streets.
Local historians say it should be preserved as a cultural site, but last year the City Council approved a developer’s plans to build a 35-story condominium that would block the tunnel’s last entrance. The main entrance was sealed permanently in 1967 when Ocean Boulevard was widened.
The tunnel once led to the Pike amusement park, which, with its tall, wooden roller coaster, was Long Beach’s most popular attraction decades ago.
“All the kids I grew up with used it to go to the Pike,” said Morgan Humphrey, 52, a member of the Long Beach Historical Society. “We’d go out the back door of the Jergins building and there’s the beach.”
Humphrey would like to see the tunnel restored and opened as a museum, displaying local art and historical photographs.
City officials, however, say they have no plans to do anything with the tunnel.
“It’s one of these sad stories,” said Ruthann Lehrer, the city’s neighborhood and historic preservation officer. “There isn’t much we can do to bring it back to life. What it comes down to is the issue of who pays. The city isn’t in a position to pay for anything.”
During its glory years, between 1934 and 1939, the tunnel housed booths that sold 50-cent bottles of orange-blossom perfume, handwoven cloths, old-fashioned candy, stuffed animals and fresh flowers.
The tunnel connected the beach with a thriving international arts and crafts arcade beneath the Jergins Trust Building. That building, one of the city’s first designated historic landmarks, was demolished in 1988.
Building the tunnel was the inspiration of Alexander Beck, one of the city’s first councilmen. Beck was appalled because between 30 and 40 pedestrians were being killed by automobiles in Los Angeles County every month. Ironically, Beck was killed by a car while crossing 3rd Street in Long Beach in 1947.
Last year, the City Council gave Harry Mow, owner of Century West, a Santa Monica-based development company, approval to build a $70-million condominium--the Ocean Promenade--on the half-acre Jergins Trust Building site. Mow, who is looking for financing, plans to seal the tunnel entrance when he builds a five-story parking structure under the condominium.
The rubble-strewn lot has been cleared, and, for the time being, Mow is allowing a movie production company to film there.
When Mow bought the property three years ago, he was not aware of the tunnel. “I was really surprised when I looked at the thing,” he said. “It’s a dark and dank space. All that’s there are spider webs and homeless people.”
But Long Beach historian Charlie Jackson disagrees. “For being closed up as long as it has, the subway is in remarkably good shape,” said Jackson, 76, who toured the tunnel with city officials in March. “It’s beautiful.”
Inside the tunnel, which was named the City-Jergins Trust Subway when dedicated in 1928, the pale yellow, white and nectarine-colored tiles are still firmly stuck to the walls. The floor, studded with thousands of tiny tiles, is cluttered with broken glass and debris.
The property above the tunnel was deeded to the city in 1889 by the Long Beach Land and Water Co. One of the stipulations of the gift was that the land “be used exclusively as a public park or as a place for recreation, public health and pleasure,” City Atty. Irving Smith wrote in a letter to the City Council on Nov. 6, 1939. Smith advised the council that the 23 underground booths had to quit doing business because the city could lose the property by allowing businesses in the tunnel.
By 1941, all the booths were gone. The tunnel continued to be used by pedestrians until 1967, when it was closed during the widening of Ocean Boulevard.
“It’s just being sealed off and left as it is,” Lehrer said. “If it were used for another function, it would violate the deed.”
To the distress of historians, the empty passageway remains neglected, silently awaiting its fate.
“If the city fathers could come back to life, they’d take it back,” Humphrey said.
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