The nation’s terrifying nuclear past united with the peace and quiet of nature Saturday when the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy opened a new state park high above Encino and Brentwood to commemorate the Cold War.
From 1956 to 1968--before perestroika or the dawn of Russian elections--a tiny knob of dirt 1,950 feet above the Pacific Ocean, between the San Fernando Valley and Brentwood, was the last line of defense to protect Los Angeles and its teeming aerospace factories from Soviet bombers.
It was there, on a hot and dusty spot that Pentagon planners had deemed the highest in the city, that a team of U.S. Army missile control specialists manned radar towers that kept constant watch over the city’s northern and western horizons for the Apocalypse.
Today, historians, hikers and even dogs can tramp up a set of newly painted and reinforced metal stairs to see what those missile fire-control officers saw 24 hours a day for a dozen years: electrifying views of the Valley and the Los Angeles that seemed far too beautiful and serene to potentially harbor the flash of thermonuclear war.
If bombers had been detected, though, the mountaintop officers’ mission would have been deadly, according to park educational exhibits fashioned to look like military signs. They were to launch five-ton nuclear-tip Nike missiles from silos along Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys and guide them at Mach 3.6 to their targets.
“Few people realize that for the men stationed here, the Cold War was very hot indeed,” said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the conservancy, at the opening ceremonies for San Vicente Mountain Park.
In the late 1960s, faster and higher flying intercontinental ballistic missiles replaced bombers as an atomic threat, and the Nike program was dissolved. Eventually, Nike base LA96C was declared surplus federal property, and offered to the state as parkland.
The base languished, however, for lack of vision and funding, according to Edmiston. Dilapidated and overgrown, it became a curiosity and a mystery alongside the dirt section of Mulholland Drive even as surrounding mountain land was incorporated into the new Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area by federal fiat.
Edmiston applauded County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Councilman Marvin Braude and U.S. Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) for helping to bring the base back as a memento and warning of the past.
But most of the credit went to conservancy land acquisition chief John Diaz, who said he first visited the base as a wide-eyed UCLA undergrad in the late 1970s. In the past year, Diaz has used all his skills as a veteran--not of the Cold War but of public finance wars--to wring a $674,000 state grant from Los Angeles city park bureaucrats who had held it up. With interest, the money available to build the park had grown to $998,000 by the time the check arrived last month.
“Now I understand what developers go through,” said Diaz, who spends most of his time tangling with home builders seeking to tear down open space in the mountains.
The backbreaking work of restoring the base fell to Sky Atchison, a conservancy deputy director. The tall, athletic, Harvard-trained conservationist said he battled hard against city and federal officials who declared that the central radar tower could not be opened to the public because anyone who fell from it could sue the government.
“We refused to take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Atchison, who will move with his wife to an earthen-banked, two-bedroom home just off the ridgeline that the state built on the site to help provide 24-hour protection for the park.
Atchison and design consultants managed to preserve much of the old Nike base for the park: Cement pads on which the radar rested became observation decks flanked by picnic tables. An old sentry station became an entrance. The former site of officers’ quarters became a restroom.
With many of the park’s buildings painted camouflage tan and its elevated platforms painted U.S. Air Force gray-blue, the line between old and new became so blurred that former base commander Capt. Paul Barbour, on hand for the opening, said he was not sure which was which.
And that was the point, according to national park Supt. Arthur Eck, who suggested that the new state park should stand as much today as a sentinel against the destruction of the wilderness as it did 30 years ago against the destruction of the city.
The grand political themes were less compelling to many of the 50 mountain bikers who showed up for the opening than the notion of using the park as a way station in their silent, soulful circuits through the hills.
The public can reach the park either by climbing north from Sullivan, Rustic or Mandeville canyons on the West Los Angeles side, or by driving west on unpaved Mulholland Drive from Encino Hills Drive in Encino, or by driving east from Canoga Avenue in Woodland Hills.
Christian Altenbach, a 40-year-old native of Switzerland who has lived in Venice for the past decade, said he would enjoy the new shade trees, water fountains and restrooms. He said he much preferred the Santa Monicas to the Alps.
“Everything in Switzerland is so developed--there’s a gondola on every peak,” he said, sweat dripping from his chin. “This is so much wilder. There are only real hikers and bikers here. You have to earn this view.”
Indeed, as the officials and crowds had drifted away after a couple of hours in the heat, a cool breeze whipping through the tower and the new oak trees was the only voice that could be heard. The hills were calm again and the ghosts of terrors past, benign.
Resting beneath a military-style corrugated metal roof at the park’s picnic area, Kirk Lombard relaxed and swigged water from a bottle. The 28-year-old Glendale financial analyst, who said he rides the mountains for a few hours every weekend, was all but alone--and grateful for the peace.
“When you live in a city with 13 million people, it’s nice to sometimes think you’re the only one here,” he said.