COLUMN ONE : Taps for an L.A. Police Legend : A gritty, ramshackle station house is closing today. Officers recall a crazy sort of pride in a fortress that never let comfort get in the way of fighting crime.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If these walls could speak, they might first wheeze, from age, and then groan, from the sting of countless bullets.

And then the stories would tumble forth: How on nights when all hell was breaking loose, nights when the city was in flames, the ramshackle brick police station on 77th Street--bad lighting, bad roof and all--managed to cope. How through two riots, a pipe bombing and all too many rip-roaring, gangbanging, gunslinging weekends, outmanned and over-stressed officers of the Los Angeles Police Department gathered here to wage some of their fiercest struggles in the war on crime.

The tales go back 70 years, replete with many a triumph and tragedy, and many a moment just plain bizarre. Toward the end, the cramped, antiquated precinct house became the butt of jokes: an impossible place to do an impossible job. But it also stood for an attitude, a dogged perseverance, that helped to define the very character of law enforcement in a changing, trouble-marred metropolis.

It was tough out in the streets, where murders and drugs were reshaping the city core, and it was also tough indoors at 77th and Broadway, where confiscated rifles and Uzis piled up in the leaky basement and investigators often toiled without winter heat, waiting for an open phone line, waiting sometimes an hour just for a chance to use a computer.

"If you could work 77th," boasted former Detective Dennis Pagenkopp, who did just that for five years, "you could work anywhere in the city . . . any police department in the world."

Although that sentiment still holds, an era is ending: The 77th Division station house, the oldest in Los Angeles, closes today, soon to be razed. For two years, police serving an 11.8-mile swath of South-Central will work out of trailers and modular buildings, awaiting construction of a $26-million showcase with miles of elbowroom, a tree-lined courtyard and state-of-the-art equipment.

It is high time, say the officers whose feet helped wear dark footpaths across the ancient floor tile of the watch commander's office. Still, many are leaving with regret. They took a crazy sort of pride in a station like no other--a no-frills, Jack Webb kind of place, a place where creature comforts never distracted from the job at hand. To many, 77th was police work boiled down to its essence: everyone pulling together, because so much was stacked against them.

Friendships took root that have lasted for decades. Even some of the most hard-boiled veterans admit to a certain sentimentality, even sadness, because they are pretty sure that it will never quite be this way again.

"You hate to say goodby to this place," said Sgt. Ken Hornick, who is proud of his spot in history: the last watch commander, scheduled to end his shift at 7 this morning. Hornick was hanging around Wednesday during his off hours, just savoring memories. Behind him, like a feature out of the eccentric Winchester House, a set of stairs rose to nowhere, a dead-end: a reminder that there once was a second floor, condemned and torn down several years ago.

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Now, even the banister is gone, ripped from the wall to expose gaping holes. Clocks have disappeared, as have door placards, bricks and a drinking fountain. Souvenir hunters are picking the place clean. A sign on the booking cage, a narrow glass-and-chain-link enclosure where suspects were logged in day and night, warns everyone to keep their mitts off: The whole thing is going, intact, to an LAPD museum.

In the last week, officers reached into a wall over the watch desk and removed a time capsule planted in 1957. One of the names on the buried watch sheet was an up-and-coming sergeant named Tom Bradley--later the mayor, perhaps the biggest star among the thousands of officers who have served since 1925 in the city's most storied station house.

Character runs through the whole building--from the basement "dungeon," a dingy enclosure where officers sometimes bunked for the night, to the Spartan lobby, where the portraits of slain officers form an understated tribute. In the detective wing, ceiling leaks have brought down sections of acoustic tile. There are long banks of desks--the room holds 40 investigators--but it is never difficult to locate the Area Latent Print Officer, better known as the ALPO man: The fingerprint station is marked by a dog food can and cardboard arrow, both hanging by a chain from the light fixture.

Exposed pipes and air ducts and bare bulbs hang over a short row of jail cells. Here, drunken, righteously angry men would stand cursing and threatening mayhem. That was particularly true on the inaugural day of the 1965 Watts riots, when 60 or 70 men were jammed into custody by 8 in the morning, recalled former Officer Rolph Lucke, now 66. It got so bad that harried jailers had to use Polaroids to photograph looting suspects and bits of evidence--radios or liquor bottles.

Buses had to be hastily dispatched to ship the overflow Downtown.

"We told them there was no way we could handle that kind of workload," said Lucke, who remembered the jail as being outdated even then. "We'd never faced anything like that before."

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Today, the prisoners are gone; firefighters came in this week with chain saws to cut the cells to pieces--more souvenirs. Before they arrived, someone had taped to the bars a plastic bag stamped with a booking number. Inside was a dead cockroach. "77th's last suspect," a wag had written. "Refused to leave."

Cop humor, 77th style--it was just one reason that so many officers refused to leave. That and devotion to duty.

One veteran, crime analyst Tony Guarino, arrived 21 years ago and fell in love with being a street cop. "It's just so busy the day flies by," Guarino said, sitting in the station house for one of the last times, sipping black coffee from a cardboard cup. It took a lot to get Guarino off patrol: In 1988, his black-and-white was rammed by a drunk driver on Hoover Street. He missed more than a month with two herniated disks, came back too soon and ended up falling through a roof while on a search. That put him out 10 months and left him with a desk job.

He still misses the action.

"There's a lot of bad guys out there," he said, grinning. "It's a lot of fun."

Officers in the 77th seldom go unnoticed by the 175,000 people who call the area home.

Esquine Pettie, a longtime block club captain who lives within walking distance of the old station, said her community has always found the officers eager to help: "You can just reach out to 77th, and 77th will be there."

"They need us, and they know they need us," Detective Howard Tanner said. "That's one thing I really feel here. I'll drive down the street and everyone waves."

Hollis Lee, another detective, transferred from Harbor Division and stayed 27 years. He heads the major assault crimes unit, handling rapes and acts of domestic violence. For a long time, Lee investigated child abuse--horrible cases, children scalded, beaten up. He worked with troubled teens.

"I like to think I made a difference with kids," Lee said.

But resources? Well, in his unit are four phone lines--for 10 investigators. If he puts out any calls, chances are his sources can't call back--they can't get through. A room a few paces from Lee's desk contains a vast Gordian knot of colored wires and winking, 1950s-era switch lights, ready evidence that adding phone lines is not a simple matter. "Every telephone in this building," Lee said, examining the mess in apparent resignation, "is out of this room."

And then there is the matter of ventilation: Air ducts blow down nonstop--no one can turn off the fan. On the roof is an air conditioner, but during the summer everyone sweats, despite the thousands of dollars spent on it. Winter heat is provided by a hulking, rusty boiler in the basement. If it is working, Lee said, it is impossible to adjust the heat.

If it is working.

"You come in here on a Monday," he said, "and it's like ice . . . because the boiler's out."

Technically, no one is allowed to reignite the pilot; a worker has to come from Downtown to push the button. But because it can take two or three days, the rule is often ignored. The boiler often comes on with a sound that Detective Kenneth Bryant likened to a "sonic explosion."

Officer Rondee Carter, who works around the corner in the property room, recalls her first reaction to hearing it: "scared as hell."

Throughout the building, floors are dingy, walls faded and covered with graffiti. Light fixtures and other amenities have been jury-rigged. Not long ago, officers realized that hooligans were shooting down an alley into the police parking lot. So they got some sheet metal and plexiglass and fashioned a makeshift bulletproof gate.

"The building is just . . . part of the ambience of working 77th. People have done the job here in spite of the building itself," said Capt. Larry Goebel, who is acutely aware of the weapons firepower harbored by many of the precinct's less law-abiding citizens.

"You ought to be here on New Year's Eve," Goebel said. "It sounds like a war going. You can actually hear the lead dropping. . . . We have actually, over the years, found lead on the roof and in the parking lot."

Traditionally, 77th Division has led the city's 18 precincts in murders and violent crimes. Last year's total--138 homicides--represented a swing for the better. Every month, without fail, the basement property room--once a shooting range--is filled with an armory of confiscated hardware: more than 100 handguns, 20 or so rifles and a hefty assortment of automatic weapons, crowbars, machetes and baseball bats. A special truck hauls them all Downtown, and the room is filled all over again.

"For every (gun) in here," Goebel said, "who knows how many more are out there?"

The rise in violence over recent decades contributed to the physical decline of the station house, Goebel said. Money that might have gone to paint and floor tile began going to more urgent matters. Budgets grew tighter. The sheer friction of 350 sworn officers and civilians working in tight surroundings, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, eventually took its toll.

"It's hard to believe the old joint's worn out, but, boy, it's worn out," said retired Officer Morris Candlish, 71, who worked there throughout the 1950s and returned Monday for a reunion barbecue. "It's got 2 million miles on it."

Candlish drove in from Henderson, Nev., to join the reunion, attended by about 600 officers, past and present. They spent much of the afternoon swapping memories--suspects they fought, characters they knew, nights that the phones backed up with 30 help calls, bomb explosions, the house that was stolen and later recovered in Mexico.

Although now aging themselves, many old-timers still share a strong camaraderie. More than 100 ex-officers meet every June for a weekend in Las Vegas--and have for a dozen years. Of all that they have in common, the broken-down station house ranks way up there, a monument to what was, and boy, was it.

"They're going to miss it," said Officer Ron Smith, now about to retire himself. "But it's really been a rotten place to work."

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