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Plaques at Old Caltrans Building Lose Some Luster

Times Staff Writer

After more than half a century of fooling downtown Los Angeles, the myth of Caltrans’ historic plaques came crumbling down Wednesday.

Workers demolishing state highway planners’ former regional headquarters revealed that dozens of “bronze” emblems that decorated the exterior of the 56-year-old structure were actually made of concrete, not metal.

The plaques disappeared in a cascade of concrete chips as wrecking equipment jackhammered and pulled the Spring Street building apart.

“People thought they were metal, but they weren’t. They were cast in concrete from molds when the building was constructed,” said Alan Wright, field superintendent for Cleveland Wrecking Co., which is clearing the site to make room for a new headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department.

“We’ve gotten calls from people who wanted to buy a plaque for their backyard. Even the governor’s office called,” Wright said Wednesday.

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Measuring 2 feet by 3 feet, the plaques were painted to look like weathered bronze. Their six designs depicted the winged wheel of the California Highway Patrol, a road builder’s pick and shovel, highway engineer’s drafting equipment, right of way surveyor’s equipment, a bridge, and an image of crenelated towers, a symbol of engineering.

Twelve of the emblems closest to the Caltrans building’s entrance were cast from aluminum. The others were molded from hand-carved wooden forms, Wright said.

“I wish we could find those forms. They would really be valuable,” he said.

Demolition workers removed the 12 aluminum plaques and cut one copy of each concrete replica out of the wall. All were given to Caltrans, Wright said.

“It cost about $2,000 each to remove them, plus the delays that it caused. The concrete ones weighed about 380 pounds each. The aluminum ones were about 5 pounds,” he said.

Caltrans spokeswoman Judy Gish said the plaques -- both aluminum and concrete -- probably would be displayed sometime at the new Caltrans headquarters east of the old one. She said no one remembers why those designing the building for the old state Division of Highways went to the trouble of casting the emblems in concrete instead of metal.

World War II material shortages may have played a part. Construction of the five-story building began in 1941 but came to an abrupt halt when the United States entered the war. The building was finally finished in 1949.

Maybe there should have been a plaque celebrating the highway headquarters builders’ tenacity.


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