A Pantry's Painful Artifacts

Times Staff Writer

The two unmarked metal bins sitting in a storage lot in Los Angeles' garment district hold artifacts from one of the most shocking events in modern American history: equipment and fixtures from the pantry where Robert F. Kennedy was fatally wounded June 5, 1968.

The 29 items from the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel, including chandelier lights, wainscoting and the ice machine behind which assassin Sirhan Sirhan may have hid, face an uncertain fate.

Are they really the stuff of history? Do they enhance national memory? And what is to be done with them as school officials prepare to build a campus on the former hotel site?

As with anything connected to assassinations and the Kennedys, answers do not come easily.

Some preservationists contend the collection should be used in a re-creation of the pantry at the school. Some historians want the artifacts given to a museum or library for permanent safekeeping. The Kennedy family wants all of them destroyed and kept out of the hands of ghoulish collectors.

"It's a very difficult set of issues to discuss, and people feel very strongly about them," said Nicola Longford, executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the Dallas institution devoted to the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President Kennedy.

In December, a commission appointed by the Los Angeles Unified School District to consider memorializing Robert Kennedy at the new school urged that the Wilshire district campus not include any assassination artifacts. Instead, it said the K-12 school for 4,240 students might honor Kennedy in other ways: naming the campus after him, teaching about the social issues he cared about, or building a park with public art extolling his values.

"We didn't want to celebrate the death. We wanted to celebrate his life, particularly his ideals," said commission chairman Cruz Reynoso, a former state Supreme Court justice.

Earlier environmental studies had declared that the pantry was "exceptionally significant" and should be preserved in some manner. Subsequent plans called for it to be moved as a whole or in pieces for reconstruction at the school later.

But then engineers found the structure too deteriorated to survive a relocation, Reynoso said.

After studying old photos, the commission also concluded that the pantry had changed so much since 1968 that its authenticity was gone. Important evidence -- such as bullet-pocked ceiling tiles -- were removed long ago and destroyed by police, to the consternation of theorists who believe Sirhan may have had an accomplice.

So the commission recommended against spending any money to rebuild the pantry, although state law required the pieces to be at least temporarily saved. The school's design has no spot for the pantry.

Xandra Kayden, the commission's executive director, acknowledged that other assassination sites are popular attractions, such as Dealey Plaza and Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., where President Lincoln was shot in April 1865.

But those aren't schools, she said. "You go to Ford's Theatre, you stand reverentially and look at the [presidential] box and go away. You don't live with it on a day-to-day basis. If you lived with it on a day-to-day basis in a school, it would become a joke with the kids," Kayden said.

Before the Ambassador came down, the pantry was photographed and measured, and 2-foot-diameter samples of its wall, floor and ceiling were taken. In January, its contents -- including a warming table and closet door -- were placed in the 40-foot-long storage bins and moved across town.

Maxwell Kennedy, one of RFK's sons, who had long advocated razing the hotel to make way for the school, said his family is pleased with the commission's report. Now he wants the artifacts destroyed, saying: "I don't see how the school district can justify the continuing cost of preserving the items."

Robert F. Kennedy, 42, was leaving a celebration of his victory in California's Democratic presidential primary when Sirhan ambushed him in the crowded pantry. The U.S. senator from New York died the next day.

Despite the pain of that tragedy, some preservationists say that even such mundane things as electrical boxes and switch plates may deserve special treatment.

The Memphis motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in April 1968 is now the National Civil Rights Museum. The popular museum has fielded complaints that the site is "negative, too much of a downer," said marketing director Gwen Harmon. Her response: "It's history. This country is based on not all good news, and the first step for healing is dealing with some of the painful things."

Even displaying just a few items from the Ambassador pantry would be a "unique educational opportunity to have a piece of history right there within your grasp," she said.

Sarah Vowell, whose 2005 book "Assassination Vacation" takes a wry tour of presidential shooting sites, agrees.

"Why lock up the evidence in some dark room?" Vowell wrote in an e-mail. "It's an educational facility. Education is about confronting hard questions."

The Washington train station where President Garfield was shot in 1881 is gone. Also demolished is the Buffalo exhibition hall where President McKinley was fatally wounded in 1901, but a marker Vowell visited commemorates the site.

The Los Angeles Conservancy and other groups sued the school district in an effort to save the Ambassador. After a preliminary court ruling favored the district, a settlement allowed demolition and established a $4.9-million endowment to maintain the district's historic schools.

Re-creating the pantry without the rest of the hotel would be "an inappropriate piecemeal treatment of a site of national tragedy," said Ken Bernstein, the conservancy's director of preservation issues. Still, with the hotel now gone, the district remains legally obligated to stick to that re-creation plan, he said.

Since district officials say that is not going to happen, the commission may discuss over the next few months whether the items should be saved, and, if so, how.

"They are in a safe environment now. So there is no pressing rush to make a decision," said John Kuprenas, senior project manager for the new school.

Any final determination about the artifacts -- and a campus memorial -- is up to the school board, officials said.

Several historians, such as presidential biographer Robert Dallek, suggest giving the collection to museums or archives.

At the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, which includes a display on presidential assassinations, politics division curator Harry Rubenstein said he was not familiar with the pantry items and could not comment specifically.

However, in general, the museum "is honored to be considered and glad to review the requests" if offered objects with potential significance, Rubenstein said.

"Having the ability to see real things from real historical events makes the event more real," he said. That's why the museum has collected such items as the floor tiles from the Garfield shooting and the teacup from which McKinley last drank.

But Frank Rigg, curator at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, said he was not interested in the pantry objects: "We deal with the lives of John and Robert Kennedy, not the manner in which they died."

The California State Archives in Sacramento holds the voluminous police files and court evidence, including Sirhan's .22-caliber handgun. State archivist Nancy Zimmelman said she didn't know enough about the pantry collection to say whether she could accept it.

Longford, of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, said she does not support restoration of the Ambassador pantry because it never played a major role in the life of L.A. In contrast, the former Texas School Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald is believed to have shot JFK has attracted mourners and "people trying to solve the mystery" since 1963.

But Longford urged that the Ambassador artifacts be kept secured and away from Internet auctions. "There are many people," she said, "who because of lurid fascination would want to have a memento."

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