Angels Flight Crash Mars Preservationist’s Vision
John H. Welborne was best known as a bow-tied civic booster, a proud fourth-generation Angeleno who was a tireless activist in civic causes and historic preservation campaigns.
He wed at one preservationist cause celebre--St. Vibiana’s Cathedral--and led one of the movements to rescue another, the Central Library. And for 15 years, he pushed to breathe new life into the once-defunct Angels Flight railway. When it began running again in 1996, he stood at the helm, as manager of the Angels Flight Operating Company.
When one car plummeted down into another Thursday-- killing an 83-year-old New Jersey man and injuring seven others--Welborne found himself in a new role, under the glare of public scrutiny of the celebrated civic icon that he adopted.
“It will take a much longer time to repair the psychological wounds than to repair Angels Flight,” Welborne said, in a conversation in which he choked up with emotion. “I just so regret that something caused this tragedy. It’s devastating because of the huge tragedy to the people involved.”
“Accidents,” he puzzled, after a sleepless night. “Why did this happen? Why did this asteroid hit here? It is just so sad.”
Orchestrating damage control for a horrifying accident is a new and unsettling role for Welborne. The 53-year-old attorney is accustomed to a far more prestigious prominence for his endeavors to preserve what remains of Los Angeles’ historically significant public architecture.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky recalls his days as a city councilman, when Welborne lobbied to downzone the Park Mile area between Wilton Place and Highland Avenue to a three-story ceiling to prevent the monolithic concrete canyons from rising on western Wilshire Boulevard.
More recently, Yaroslavsky recalls, Welborne passionately argued for ensuring that a new Hollywood Bowl be faithful to the design of the original Los Angeles landmark.
“He’s one of L.A.’s treasures. He’s an urban visionary,” Yaroslavsky said. “He has so many relationships in city and county government that could have made him millions of dollars if he chose to exploit those relationships--and he never has.”
Linda Dishman, the executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, remembers when Welborne helped form coalitions to push for the preservation of the downtown public library and, later, for the restoration of its garden.
“He was involved with really organizing the effort that drew attention to the fact that the Central Library was going to be demolished,” she said. “That’s one of John’s strengths: bringing together different groups and constituencies to make a project happen.”
Said Tom LaBonge, a onetime aide to Mayor Richard Riordan: “As Tommy Lasorda bleeds Dodger blue, John Welborne bleeds Los Angeles blue.”
It may take more than these qualities to restore public confidence in Angels Flight, the 100-year-old funicular that traverses the steep incline between Hill Street and Bunker Hill.
The rails had been silent since 1969 when Welborne began looking for support to restore Angels Flight in 1981, after his appointment by then-Mayor Tom Bradley to the committee planning the city’s bicentennial celebration. His dream was realized when Angels Flight’s cars began the steep climb up the hill in 1996--the same year Welborne married.
“It’s devastating,” said his wife, Martha, an architect and city planner who helped create the red Metro Rapid buses introduced in June. “It’s the worst thing in the world. We just have to go one step at a time.”
Welborne’s passion for preserving the city’s vanishing architectural legacy is rooted in a family history that parallels the birth of modern Los Angeles.
His grandmother was born in 1881 to a telegraph operator and his wife in a farmhouse at what is now the corner of Vernon and Central avenues. She later moved to a clapboard house on Bunker Hill with his widowed great-grandmother.
A Family of Preservationists
Welborne’s great-uncle, Spring Street bond salesman James R. Martin, bought the site of what is now the downtown library with a group of businessmen who later sold it to the city for a dollar more than the group paid for it, Welborne said. Martin also owned Mines Field, leasing it to the city for air races until it was acquired to build Los Angeles International Airport, Welborne said--but that fortune had slipped through Martin’s hands by the end of his life.
Welborne’s mother worked in the rare book department of the J.W. Robinson’s department store--which later became Robinsons-May--and when World War II broke out, she joined the American Red Cross and followed Gen. George S. Patton’s march across Europe. His father, a real estate broker, was a veteran of both world wars.
Welborne lives in a red brick colonial house in Windsor Square, four doors away from the home his grandparents built in 1918.
For many of his years as an activist, Welborne practiced law with Adams, Duque & Hazeltine, starting in the late 1970s, until the firm was dissolved in 1996. And since 1995, he has been proud to call himself president of the foundation for the Angels Flight Railway, which had made four million unremarkable passenger trips--until Thursday’s disaster.
Welborne slept only an hour Thursday night. He spent the night talking with a half-dozen engineers and government inspectors who are trying to determine the cause of the accident. Then he sat up into the wee hours, preparing a statement he read at a news conference Friday morning.
“I’ve been too busy and had too much adrenaline to get sentimental,” he said, even as his voice cracked. “It’s devastating because of the huge tragedy to the people involved.”
He still can’t stop puzzling over the accident’s random destructiveness.
“It could have been anybody,” he said. “I could have been riding on it, if I’d had lunch an hour earlier.”
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