A modern spark in historic trolley plant

Edward S. Cobb, a prominent civil engineer and civic leader in the early part of the last century, might be more than a little surprised to see the fanciful new life bestowed on an electrical substation he designed circa 1906 for the no-nonsense purpose of powering streetcars.

These days the imposing brick Huron Substation, located in Cypress Park, a block off bustling Figueroa Street, hosts movie shoots, art shows and other "special events." And it's a unique home for owner Meike Kopp, her son, Anton, 12, her mother and the family's cat and two dogs.

Musicians Josh Groban and the Jonas Brothers have performed there and scenes from the films "Must Love Dogs" and "Fast & Furious" were shot there. Last spring, the vast ground floor was transformed into a likeness of New York's Central Park Boathouse -- complete with water -- for a movie featuring Tina Fey and Steve Carell.

When things get too hectic, the family packs up to stay with friends, but most of the time they go about their lives even as film crews are setting up in their "living room" and brides are primping in a small chamber off the mezzanine. Kopp laughs recalling how she had to shoo away pigeons that flew into the building during a fundraiser for Anton's school.

"People are surprised to see this here. We're an oasis in an urban setting," said Kopp, who affectionately refers to her gritty, working-class neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles as "the Wild East."

The Huron Substation, with its 45-foot-high ceiling, antique brick, arched windows and 12-foot-high doors opening onto a patio strung with hundreds of tiny lights, sits serenely at 2640 Huron St., a plaque next to the front door proclaiming its niche in history.

Although it still lacks heat and air conditioning, the building has come a long way from its utilitarian origins as a converter of electricity for a trolley system popularly known as the Yellow Cars.

The trolleys, operated by Henry E. Huntington's Los Angeles Railway, were the local counterpart to Pacific Electric Railway's Red Cars, which covered four counties. Both systems operated streetcars powered by electricity and required scores of substations to convert alternating current to the direct current used by the cars.

Charles J. Fisher, a board member and past president of the Highland Park Heritage Trust, said Cobb developed five different designs for the Yellow Car substations, only a few of which survive. In the late 1950s, just a few years before the last Yellow Car made its final run in 1963, the city of Los Angeles sold the Huron Substation, which became a signal manufacturing plant, then a welding shop.

Furniture designer Bob Josten, now a builder based in Venice, bought the building for his workshop in December 1988, just as it was being designated city Historic-Cultural Monument No. 404. Shortly afterward, fire gutted the building. Fisher said the blaze started from a hot plate inadvertently left on by someone at the welding company, which had not yet moved out. But Josten said the cause was never determined.

"Only the four walls were left," recalled Josten, who spent two years painstakingly restoring the building, including a seismic retrofit.

Kopp, who had moved into neighboring Highland Park, first came upon the substation in 2002 and fell in love with its spaciousness, clean lines and beautiful bricks. It somehow reminded her of buildings she had seen in her native Germany, and she was determined to have it.

"I stalked the owner for two years," she quipped, relating how she kept sending Josten written offers and how he always responded that it wasn't for sale.

Then, in 2005, he contacted her and asked if she was still interested. She happened to have just sold her Highland Park house and had some money to put toward the purchase.

"I couldn't believe the timing," said Kopp, who soon began turning the substation into her family's home and renting it out for special events to help pay the mortgage and support her family.

She enlarged the small kitchen area and created bedrooms on the mezzanine with help from designer friends. The enormous doors now open onto the back garden patio with a fountain, and a sculptor friend, Christopher Slatoff, has reclaimed a large shed there for his studio. He is working on a huge statue, based on a character from Ray Bradbury's 1951 book "The Illustrated Man," in collaboration with the author.

Kopp started a website about the space, huronsubstation.com, and recently created a line of candles inspired by the building's sense of history and romance. She hopes proceeds from selling them will enable her to stop renting the building out for weddings. "We just get inundated" with the labor-intensive events, she said.

It is hard not to wonder what the substation's designer would make of all this. By most accounts of the day, Edward Sigourney Cobb, who came to California in 1883 and moved from San Francisco to Southern California in 1901, was a highly successful engineer with offices in downtown Los Angeles and a home in Whittier, where he once served on the City Council.

News accounts in the Los Angeles Times credit him with construction of Angels Flight, the one-block railway up Bunker Hill, and he was one of three experts hired in 1912 by the City Council to investigate the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

He also had some setbacks. Huntington, the man who had hired him for the streetcar substations, snubbed Cobb in 1907 when he commissioned noted architect Myron Hunt to redo Cobb's design for his San Marino mansion, now the Huntington Art Gallery. And Cobb later lost his 1914 bid for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

When he died in 1937 at age 79, four years after the death of his wife, Lillian, the Whittier newspaper printed only a very short obituary that made no mention of his accomplishments, according to information provided by the Whittier Museum.

What would Cobb think if he could see his substation the way Kopp does now, with the moonlight shining in through the skylights and the large round window near the peak of the roof?

"Some nights it almost looks like a church, and I feel so lucky to be here," said Kopp. "It's just magical."



Times librarian Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.

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