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Watching over an old L.A. sentry

For his first 40 years he looked down on 6th Street in downtown Los Angeles. For the next 40 years he looked down on a frontyard in Santa Ana.

Now the stone-faced figure wearing a Roman soldier’s helmet and breastplate and angel’s wings is gazing upon the polished concrete floor of Eric Lynxwiler’s Los Angeles loft.

The 1 1/2-ton terra cotta sculpture is one of the few surviving remnants of the Richfield Building, a black-sided, gold-trimmed landmark that was topped by an oil-derrick tower and served as a monument to petroleum.

Architect Stiles O. Clements placed 40 of the golden figures around the top of the 12-story oil company building when it was constructed in 1928 and ’29 at the corner of Flower and 6th streets.

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A 1930 edition of Arts and Architecture magazine described the pieces as “a highly conventionalized suggestion of motive power,” although it didn’t explain what that meant.

“Heroic in size, impressive in conception, are the sculptural figures designed by Haig Patigian which crown the main walls with a fairly regal procession of silhouetted torsos,” the magazine added.

Lynxwiler has determined that the pieces were cast and kiln-fired by Gladding, McBean, a clay pottery and pipe manufacturer founded in 1875. That firm also produced the black tiles that covered the 350-foot-tall Richfield structure.

When the building was torn down in 1968 and ’69, the 10-foot-tall figures were ripped off the sides of the structure and put up for sale by the Cleveland Wrecking Co.

“It took about two weeks. We put a choke around the neck and one around the waist and just cut away the concrete,” Dick Laws, the company’s superintendent for the job, explained at the time. As they were removed, the bottom of each figure’s torso was lost.

Although two of the sculptures were decapitated during removal and several others suffered chipped wings or noses, all 40 were put up for sale in April 1969 by the wrecking company.

Most were offered for $100. “It cost us that to tear ‘em down,” explained Laws. But the one purchased by John Rehak after he read about the sale in The Times was priced at $150 because of its good condition.

Rehak placed the figure in his frontyard and nicknamed it the Golden Boy.

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When he decided this year to move to a new home, he contacted Lynxwiler, a graphic designer who is also a well-known local historian and urban anthropologist.

Lynxwiler, 37, paid $2,500 for the sculpture and Rehak presented him with a formal-looking document labeled “official adoption paper” for the figure. Both of them signed it.

Lynxwiler had recruited his father, Bill, to help him move it in a truck. But it turned out that the sculpture was solid baked clay — and heavier than it looked.

“I ended up hiring a crane and a forklift. The crane operator weighed it and found it was 11/2 tons, so I had to have a special base made to hold it. Altogether, it ended up costing $10,000,” Lynxwiler said.

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He lined up five friends to help roll the sculpture into his second-floor loft, which is in a converted onetime customs warehouse on Molino Street in the Arts District.

“It barely fit through the front door. The door is 44 inches wide, and the angel fit with less than half an inch to spare. Thankfully, this place has 8-inch-thick concrete floors.”

Lynxwiler said he is trying to track down other Richfield Building figures. Earlier this month he told of his search on a local blog, laobserved.com, but had no response.

“It’s possible he’s got some brothers out there,” he said. “It’s not like I want a family reunion, I just want to know where the rest of the family is.”

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Much of the rubble from demolished buildings ended up as fill material beneath Los Angeles-area freeways and it’s possible that is where some of the Richfield sculptures went, according to Lynxwiler.

A pair of ornate elevator doors from the Richfield Building were saved and incorporated into one of the Arco Plaza high-rises when they were constructed on its site. UC Santa Barbara has four of the building’s front door ornaments, he said.

Lynxwiler said eventually he would like to see the sculpture displayed in a museum.

“This is part of one of the most-missed buildings in Los Angeles,” he said.

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“The Richfield Building was our Empire State Building.”

bob.pool@latimes.com


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