This season’s rains may not yet have set a record. But they have succeeded in washing away Los Angeles’ most unusual cultural record.
That’s what amateur archivist Gary Leonard discovered when he unlocked the Echo Park building where he keeps 40 years of Los Angeles artifacts and stepped into a flood of memories.
Rain seeping through a leaky roof of the Echo Park Avenue storefront had soaked boxes stuffed with more than 10,000 snippets of the city’s vibrant late-20th century history.
Destroyed was the commemorative program from the 1972 dedication of Arco Plaza, the twin 52-story towers that set the tone for modern-day downtown Los Angeles.
Dripping wet was the menu salvaged from Nickodell restaurant when the Hollywood hangout beloved by movie stars and studio technicians alike closed in 1993.
Saturated were the Howard Jarvis-Proposition 13 property tax reform campaign fliers from 1978, the carefully preserved promotional materials from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the pristine 1993 opening-day program for the former Southern California Rapid Transit District’s Red Line subway.
All this and much more were collected over the years by Leonard, 53. He is a freelance photographer who for more than three decades has documented Los Angeles events for local weekly and alternative newspapers.
But he has never been content just to capture the moment on film.
At every ribbon-cutting ceremony, at every politician’s inaugural and at every art show opening, he also made a point of collecting and saving the project fact sheet, the candidate press kit, the gallery publicity poster.
“I grabbed pieces of L.A. everywhere I found it. I knew that someday I’d be the only one to have it,” he said.
Leonard’s loss is a blow to local history buffs.
“It’s heartbreaking. He has a desire to save history, and he recognizes the importance of things,” said Carolyn Kozo Cole, curator of photographs for the Los Angeles public library who has known Leonard for 13 years.
“Every day now is a tragedy for him. Every day he is discovering something else lost and damaged.”
Leonard had carefully stored his eclectic collection in 250 numbered cardboard boxes and 1940s-vintage suitcases in the rented storefront. The aging Echo Park Avenue building once housed a neighborhood pharmacy and, later, an artist’s funky loft.
“I’d always worried in the back of my mind about a fire,” Leonard said. “But I never thought about a flood.”
When Leonard stepped inside Feb. 21 he found water puddled on its floor.
To his horror, rainwater was seeping through the building’s 8-decade-old wooden roof and its lath-and-plaster ceiling. The leakage was streaming onto a wooden platform once used as the loft’s sleeping area.
Water had spattered over the platform’s four sides and dripped onto the storage containers stacked beneath it. The boxes and cases and their contents had soaked it up like a sponge.
He frantically began pulling the containers away from the leaky corner. Peeling open the soggy boxes, he saw history disappearing in front of him.
For Leonard, the scene was like a kick in the stomach. “I’m still in a state of shock,” he said after spending more than a month digging through soggy boxes and peeling away pulp-like pieces of the past.
Ruined were things such as ticket stubs from the Beatles’ 1966 Dodger Stadium concert. Mementos from the city’s 1981 bicentennial celebration. Programs from Mayor Tom Bradley’s two inaugurals -- and his funeral. The first edition of the L.A. punk music magazine No Mag.
It was the emerging local punk scene 35 years ago that gave Leonard his start as a photojournalist. He took photos of musicians and fans, and often collaborated with fledgling stars on their album covers.
Original artwork, along with publicity handbills and album covers for artists such as Darby Crash and the Germs, the Go-Go’s and Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, were wrecked by the flooding.
“Top Jimmy. Now they were the core of Los Angeles music. They were the thread that ran through the other L.A. bands. People like David Lee Roth would come in and pick up on it and turn it into a big hit that millions would buy,” Leonard said as he gazed at a wrinkled, somewhat primitive-looking Rhythm Pigs poster drying on the storefront’s floor.
Spread out to dry nearby were years-old calendars issued by local businesses and damp copies of vintage newspapers reporting the assassination of President Kennedy, the murder of John Lennon and the death of Jimi Hendrix. Some of the papers’ pages were stuck together.
Drying on a shelf was a water-stained, pocket-sized copy of the 1965 book, “A Guide to Architecture in Southern California.” Leonard gently picked it up and pried carefully at its stuck pages.
“I carried this in my car for years. This is the book that first got me looking at Los Angeles,” he said, finally setting it down.
On the other side of the room, new plastic tubs contained about 300 T-shirts promoting such things as the 1994 downtown Library Tower Stair Climb, the 1985 Beverly Hills Labor Day Bike Race and the 1988 L.A. Theater Center Festival. All had been soaked by the rainwater.
“Everybody gave those shirts away,” said Leonard, who has been able to salvage most of the garments by laundering them in a special mixture of detergent, fabric softener and baking soda to remove stains and mildew.
“You talk about Americana. This was L.A. with an ‘ana’ attached to it,” he said with a laugh.
Other plastic containers were being filled with dried-out magazines, photos and event fact sheets and with items that somehow emerged from the waterlogged storage pile undamaged.
Leonard has hired an assistant, William Mitchell, to carefully unpack the saturated storage boxes and peel apart wet magazines, photographs and other waterlogged materials. As they dry, they cover every flat area of the storefront. “A lot is readable, just badly water-damaged,” Mitchell said.
Leonard said his trove of artifacts was an investment.
“I thought of this as my retirement,” he said as he pulled a wrinkled and stained 1972 photograph of artist Andy Warhol from a pile. “I’m an independent photojournalist. I don’t have a company retirement plan. I would have been able to sell some of this. A lot of this would have supported me.”
Chuck Soter, an Atwater Village history writer, said the extent of Leonard’s loss won’t be known for years, when future historians are looking for materials to study and collectors are searching for vintage items to buy.
“There’s something unusual and admirable about somebody proactively saving things,” Soter said.
“It doesn’t matter whether these items are going to be valuable in 50 years. It’s that they’re irreplaceable, right now.”