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Does It Stack Up as Art?

Times Staff Writer

It’s unclear how serious members of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission were back in 1978 when they designated Daniel Van Meter’s “Tower of Wooden Pallets” a historic monument.

Commission member Bob Winter later joked that “maybe we were drunk” when they recognized the 22-foot stack of crumbling, termite-infested Schlitz beer pallets. Winter called it “the funniest thing we ever did.”

Van Meter’s creation became Monument No. 184, taking its place on the same registry as the Hollywood sign, Union Station and the Pantages Theatre.

In 2000, Van Meter died at age 87, and his family took over the lot on Magnolia Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. Now his heirs, who never liked the tower and were often at odds with its eccentric creator, want to clear the land of feral cats, strange plants and the tower itself so a developer can put up 98 apartments.

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Van Meter’s relatives stand to make millions from the sale of the 1.43-acre lot. But the tower is in their way. Knocking down a monument, even one that may be about to topple on its own, requires layers of bureaucratic process, including public hearings and detailed reports.

So for more than a year, the question of what to do about Monument No. 184 has generated a lively, at times caustic, debate about the nature of art, the character of Daniel Van Meter and the scarcity of city monuments in the San Fernando Valley, which claims just 54 of the 789 on the list.

Van Meter’s exasperated relatives and the developers working with them say the pile of pallets is the furthest thing from a work of art. In language as colorful as the tower is curious, they have disparaged it as “a rotting vestige of one man’s egotism” that festers “like a sore on the community’s body.”

What lies behind this animosity is unclear; family members refuse to discuss it. But they have suggested in letters to city agencies that Van Meter, who lived on the land for much of his life and shared ownership with his family, exploited the tower and its protected status to keep control of the lot, which one real estate agent valued at $7 million or more.

“The tower stands as a deteriorating remnant of sibling rivalry, with the monument’s perpetrator being always the holdout and instigator of trouble,” wrote Van Meter’s nephew, James, in a letter to the Cultural Heritage Commission. “It should be destroyed, and a more pleasing structure should be allowed to replace it.”

Not so fast, said some of Van Meter’s neighbors, who had developed an affection for the courtly old man. They professed to admiring the tower. They also made no attempt to hide their dismay at the traffic that 98 apartments would bring to their quiet, block-long cul-de-sac.

Likening Van Meter’s structure to the famed Watts Towers, they have urged the developer to build fewer apartments in order to save the listing pillar of beer pallets.

City planning officials are expected to decide this spring whether to permit the demolition of the monument or force the developer to build around it.

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Paul Rossilli, a transplanted New Yorker who works in film and radio, said he wants the decrepit structure to survive.

“We love the tower,” said Rossilli, who lives in a condominium complex next door. “Whatever history we have in Los Angeles, I think we should hold on to and cherish rather than throw away. All the intrigue and folklore -- it’s a shame when those things disappear.”

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Van Meter was an idiosyncratic man who claimed he was a descendant of John Quincy Adams and the Wright brothers. He first made news in 1942, when then-Atty. Gen. Earl Warren pursued him and two of his brothers up and down the state for failing to register as subversives, as the law then required. The brothers were considered threats because of their alleged association with a group that had ties to the pro-Nazi German American Bund.

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Newspaper accounts say that Van Meter eventually surrendered “wearing a 10-gallon hat.” His brother, Baron, turned himself in wearing a top hat. (He later won renown as a square dancer using the name “Cacti Pete.”) The third brother, James, surrendered as well.

Daniel and Baron Van Meter pleaded not guilty but were convicted under the Subversive Organizations Registration Act, the accounts say. Daniel Van Meter served time at San Quentin.

Six decades later, a real estate broker representing the Van Meter heirs submitted a news account of the episode as evidence that Van Meter should not be sanctified as a folk artist.

“He was a conniver, a schemer, and a manipulator,” wrote Hal Wheatley. He did not create art, Wheatley said. “Instead, he used his eccentric creation to justify a deeply selfish motive -- avoidance of societal regulation.”

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Baron Van Meter lives in a retirement community in Oregon. His son James, who serves as his conservator, said neither he nor his father would talk about the tower.

Daniel Van Meter built the tower in 1951, when he was in his late 30s. After a labor dispute at a local brewery, he offered to take a pile of pallets that had to be removed from the premises before an inspection. He hated to see anything go to waste.

When more than 2,000 pallets arrived at his house, he set about stacking them in concentric circles until he had built a cone 22 feet high with a staircase winding around the outside.

In those days, Van Meter’s creation was one of the higher points in the San Fernando Valley. He would climb up and gaze at the orchards and fields as they yielded to the relentless advance of subdivisions.

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“To me, this is a spiritual place,” he once said.

Van Meter never married and left no descendants. He supported himself with odd jobs and lived in a bungalow on Magnolia Boulevard. In a 1980 interview with The Times, he said he had just one life and would spend as little of it as possible working.

Instead, Van Meter collected castoffs -- wooden wagons, junked cars, a 1938 city bus, a turret from a battleship, a boat, a gasoline pump and a kitchen sink -- all of which shared space on his property with goats, dogs, cats, chickens, turtles and raccoons. The pallet pile is his only known creation.

His weed-choked lot still harbors the detritus of a century of San Fernando Valley history, with the tower looming in the background like a ruined Mayan temple. In front, Van Meter’s wrecked house leans like a boxer in mid-fall. Deep pools of water pock the land, and cats warily circle the property. Condominiums sit on one side, and a private school, the Emek Hebrew Academy, on the other.

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In 1977, fire inspectors declared the tower “an illegally stacked lumber pile” and ordered Van Meter to tear it down. He refused. Instead, he persuaded the Cultural Heritage Commission to declare it a monument. He claimed it surrounded a “Tree of Heaven” and the 1869 grave of a Native American child.

It was not just Van Meter’s artistic vision or mystical claims that persuaded commissioners. It was Van Meter himself.

“He was a character,” recalled Winter, the former commissioner. “The goats climbed all over the tower. It was a scream.”

It appears that Van Meter sought historic designation in part to protect his land from encroaching home builders.

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In the city’s file on Monument No. 184 is a handwritten note from Van Meter saying the tower has “been a pleasure to all who have seen it, and has never been a bother or hurt to anyone except land-hungry developers who have exerted every type of pressure and misused public agencies in an attempt to divorce me from my land.”

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Shortly after Van Meter’s death, his heirs reached an agreement with a developer, Westgate Group Inc. of Los Angeles, to build apartments on the lot. The developer obtained a demolition permit in 2003 and dispatched a bulldozer. Workers had begun to knock down Van Meter’s house when the city planning department realized there was a problem: the monument.

The neighbors enlisted land-use lobbyist Brad Rosenheim, who filed comments with the planning department objecting to some features of the proposed apartment complex and requesting that the tower be preserved.

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Along with complaints about window heights and construction noise, Rosenheim asserted that Los Angeles leaders had given short shrift to the San Fernando Valley when it came to monuments.

“Some people say the Valley is a cultural wasteland,” Rosenheim said. “Is it because it is a wasteland, or is it because people don’t value the actual cultural elements we do have? Is everything just to be torn down? Or do we keep some of these things as elements of our cultural history?”

City officials say they want to balance the development rights of Van Meter’s heirs against preservation concerns, although some privately wonder how passionate the neighbors would be without the threat of the apartments.

“We are not debating whether it should be a monument,” said Lambert Giessinger, the city’s deputy director of preservation. “It already is.”

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Years ago, he pointed out, some complained that the fanciful spires of Watts Towers -- steel rods and wire mesh covered with a colorful mosaic of broken plates and seashells -- were an eyesore and should be demolished. Now, Simon Rodia’s creation is regarded as one of the world’s most distinctive examples of folk art.

Although he refused to comment on the artistic merits of the pallets or compare them with Watts Towers, Giessinger noted that the city has recognized both.

Yet no influential preservationists or art scholars have stepped forward to demand a reprieve for the pallet pile. It has never acquired the exalted status of Watts Towers.

Last year, the city’s planning department ordered Westgate Group to pay for a historical and artistic analysis of Van Meter’s tower as part of an environmental impact report on the development.

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The draft report, made public in August, concluded that the tower was “not significant” as a historical work and “does not demonstrate the inventiveness associated with outsider art.”

Many city officials say the tower is a fire hazard and contributes to blight.

Johnny Grant, a former member of the Cultural Heritage Commission, suggested that Westgate Group put up a sign commemorating the pallets, raze the tower and be done with it. The developers say they might do that -- if city officials permit them to demolish the pile.

Westgate recently reached a compromise with many of the neighbors and the Hebrew academy, agreeing to add parking spaces and redesign the apartment complex’s windows so they don’t directly face the school’s classrooms.

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With that agreement, an ending that Van Meter anticipated in 1978 could be imminent. “In a few years,” he wrote then, “this piece of the good earth may be covered by apartments for the storing of surplus people.”

Some neighbors say they are resigned to the tower’s destruction.

“It’s sad,” said Nancy Cohen, who can see the pallets from her bathroom window.

“Here was this man who lived the way he wanted to live, and now it’s going to go modern. The last piece of pleasure in the Valley.”

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