Toasting Industry as Art

Times Staff Writer

Oil company manager Bill McFarland, in hard hat and goggles, is accustomed to taking industry executives on tours of his firm’s sprawling expanse of oil rigs: the tanks, the pipelines.

But on this warm summer day, he has all the aplomb of a seasoned museum docent.

“Here,” he says as he points to the sights, “the sculptures, the waterfall.”


His venue is a man-made island, complete with lush landscaping and palm tree groves, named Island White. It is one of four well-disguised drilling platforms that produce 32,000 barrels of oil a day just offshore of downtown Long Beach.

Although McFarland has led island tours here for years, some new visitors care less about the rigs than the 1960s landscape devices designed to hide them.

Not only have the islands long stood as a familiar guidepost -- a sort of HOLLYWOOD sign for the region’s industrial south coast -- they debuted this month in Long Beach as significant works of art. One historian called them prime examples of the “aesthetic mitigation of technology,” a mid-20th century design trend that camouflaged or softened industrial structures.

The original design drawings and photographs of the islands have been painstakingly framed, annotated and displayed at the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach in an exhibit called “Fantasy Islands: Landscaping Long Beach’s Oil Platforms,” which runs through Oct. 15.

It was organized by architectural historian Kurt G.F. Helfrich. He believes the islands capture a pivotal moment in mid-20th century America as society began to question technology but did not reject it altogether, as it would when the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill helped to spawn the environmental movement.

“They’re of a moment, and they’re at the tail end of a moment,” Helfrich said.

Designed by prominent theme park architect Joseph H. Linesch, the island landmarks are part Disney, part Jetsons, part Swiss Family Robinson

But what they really are -- 42 acres of oil fields, with 175-foot-high drilling towers and 1,100 current wells penetrating a vast underground oil field -- is virtually invisible from shore.

Even today, the masquerade works.

Most visitors and even many Long Beach residents think of them as bona fide islands. At night, they glow with orange and yellow lights like offshore casinos or tropical resorts.

“They’ve withstood the test of time, because people don’t know what they are,” said Helfrich, a curator at the UC Santa Barbara art museum that owns the collection of Linesch’s work.

“There’s a playfulness about them. There is very much pulling wool over your eyes.”

In the early 1960s, Long Beach residents opposed the notion of unsightly oil derricks marring their harbor, so a consortium of oil companies spent $10 million to mask them to quell the controversy.

The investment would be worth it.

Far beneath the city lay more than a billion barrels of oil in the Wilmington Oil Field, then the fourth-largest field in the continental United States. In 1965, the city chose five firms to recover the oil: Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil and Shell, working together as Thums Long Beach Co., an acronym of company names. The firm is now an Occidental Petroleum Corp. subsidiary.

To mastermind the islands’ creation, the consortium hired Linesch, who had helped design landscapes for Disneyland. A landscape architect with engineering training, Linesch even had prior experience disguising derricks.

In 1965, Occidental hired him to turn a Venice Beach derrick into a tall, white cone resembling a lighthouse. Another derrick, which still stands on Pico Boulevard in Beverly Hills, became a 161-foot-tall structure sheathed in metal like a high-rise building.

The Long Beach drilling platforms would be Linesch’s biggest challenge.

He oversaw the building of four 10-acre island pads containing derricks pumping 180 underground wells, two of them less than 2,000 feet offshore from Ocean Boulevard.

Barges hauled in heaps of Catalina Island rock to create four giant rims to be filled with sand and earth from the ocean floor. They were planted with hundreds of Mexican fan palms, Canary Island palms, oleanders, sandalwood, figs and acacias.

Sculptor Herbert J. Goldman designed the curving, melon-colored panels that hide the guts of the oil equipment.

“The forms are a symbolic echo of the skyline of Long Beach,” he wrote. “It’s not an attempt to ‘fake’ a city, but rather to strongly relate the islands visually to urban Long Beach.”

Today, the islands remain a strange amalgam of tropical plantings, science fiction forms and oil. Red pipelines emerge from under banks of magenta-flowered bougainvilleas. The hedge-lined approach to the oil pumping area has the feel of the entrance to a ride at Disneyland.

Those who work here play along.

As visitors boarded an island-bound boat last week, the boat captain asked McFarland teasingly, “Do you want us to play the jungle music?”

Behind the oleander and sandalwood, Thums has pumped 930 million barrels of oil used to make asphalt for the region’s roads and parking lots, with an estimated 130 million barrels still to be excavated. In more than 40 years, the operation has not experienced a single pipeline leak, said McFarland, human resources manager for Thums.

Some residents scoff at the island landscaping, dismissing it as a Band-Aid attempt to hide the plundering of natural resources.

But many residents have made the islands their own.

The waterfalls are visible from shore, and if one malfunctions, operators will hear first from perturbed “live aboards” in the city’s marina, McFarland said. Residents of high-rise condominiums have called before dinner parties to ask if the waterfalls could start early or run late.

When the Cal State Long Beach museum began organizing the current show, planners decided to add a $55-a-person fundraising tour to the islands, to be held Saturday.

“Someone said, ‘We’ll be lucky to get 100 people,’ ” recalled museum director Christopher Scoates. But the 320 tickets were gone last week, with many more names on a waiting list.

When the oil wells dry up in 30 to 40 years, the islands will revert to the city of Long Beach, leading to speculation about their future.

Perhaps, said Chris Garner, director of the city-owned gas utility, one island could become a theme park like Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland.