Shopper Rosa Chairez was in the dark about why a row of streetlights stands in the middle of a Hollywood parking lot.
“They’re here for the nighttime?” she guessed.
Well, yes. But the 25 lamp poles lined up at a shopping center at the northeast corner of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard illuminate a different time too.
Ranging from the ornate to the ordinary, the streetlamps form an impromptu museum that helps shed light on a part of Los Angeles history that most people take for granted.
Some of the lamps date from 1925, when the city’s Bureau of Street Lighting was created. Together, the collection represents a cross-section of the 500 or so designs found among Los Angeles’ quarter-million streetlights.
There’s the 866 A, an ornate lamp that lines streets in Holmby Hills. Next to it is the Keystone 8, a bulbous-topped metal pole used on Edgemont Avenue in the Los Feliz neighborhood. Next to it is the 808, a concrete pole holding an oval lamp that is found citywide.
The other end of the line is anchored by the 895 Shepherd’s Crook, a short pole topped by an ornate hook and a ball-shaped lamp that is seen in Benedict Canyon. Next to it is the Belair 11, a short metal pole topped by a billowy lamp that is found in Bel-Air. And next to it is the 852 C Plain, a short, concrete pole equipped with the familiar cobra-headed lamp fixture found in residential areas across the city.
Those who see the light poles for the first time are puzzled.
“It’s not government space. It’s private property. There’s no sign up. I’ve kind of named it ‘Luminopolis,’ ” said Hollywood activist John Walsh, a teacher who noticed them this month.
Actually, the lineup has a name. In a nod to its shopping center location, it was dubbed “Vermonica” 10 years ago by its creator, artist Sheila Klein.
Initially, Klein intended for her streetlamp installation to be on display for only a year because she had borrowed the poles from the nearby city streetlight yard on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Klein found Los Angeles’ varied streetlight styles to be romantic. So she not only convinced city officials to lend the poles, but also persuaded 27 Bureau of Street Lighting workers to volunteer two weekends of free labor to erect them.
City Cultural Affairs Department officials, who approved a $6,000 grant for the project, suggested the shopping center site, which was being rebuilt after the 1992 riots.
Property owners Victor La Cagnina and Larry Field offered a grassy parking lot median for the installation and contributed $3,000 to help with expenses.
Because the installation was to be temporary, a canvas banner attached to one of the light poles was the only sign explaining what the “Vermonica” exhibit was about.
The poles turned out to be so eye-catching that everyone decided to keep them up after the year passed, however.
These days the banner is long gone. So shoppers and other passersby are curious about the row of antique and contemporary lamps.
“Every day, people ask me what the streetlights are doing there,” said John Mahan, a greeter who has worked for a year and a half at the entrance of an office supply store in front of the poles.
“People are always out there taking pictures. They need to put up a plaque or something that explains what it is,” Mahan said.
Klein thinks that’s not a bad idea.
“There are a lot of people who contributed to it and should be recognized. The street lighting guys who worked on it were great. The piece became a lot better because of their involvement.”
Klein left Los Angeles seven years ago for a 26-acre farm in Washington. (“I live near Edison. That’s its real name. It has 150 people and, I think, two streetlights put up by a women’s auxiliary group.”) She often does transportation-themed artwork.
One of her installations helps decorate and light Pico Boulevard beneath the Santa Monica Freeway overpass in West Los Angeles; another is at the Los Angeles International Airport control tower; a third includes the flickering movie projector at the Hollywood and Highland Metro Rail subway station in Hollywood.
Klein compares the streetlights of “Vermonica” to a kind of urban candelabrum.
Phil Reed, director of the Bureau of Street Lighting, agrees.
“ ‘Vermonica’ shows some of the historic culture of Los Angeles. One of the things we’re trying to do in the bureau is preserve the historic fabric of our communities,” said Reed, who has headed the department for three years.
The city’s policy has been to replace old streetlights with newer poles, he said.
But these days, workers rewire old poles with brighter and more efficient bulbs and install replica poles when old ones can’t be salvaged.
A consultant is conducting a historic survey of the city’s streetlights, and a picture book detailing their different styles and vintages may be produced. Eventually, a larger display of streetlights may be erected on city property, Reed said.
A more dignified and more defined exhibit space wouldn’t hurt, some said.
“They’re kind of hidden in this shopping center,” said Eric Foinquinos, a film music composer who lives in Hollywood.
And others such as Anthony Sanchez wish their neighborhood was depicted in the display.
“The prestigious areas are represented here,” said Sanchez, a Cypress Park retail display designer. He was pointing toward the Bundy 3 Light, an ornate metal pole topped by three lighted balls that is used along Bundy Drive in the Brentwood area. “The streetlights in my neighborhood are on wooden telephone poles.”