Monday, October 30, 2006
Statue Goes From Broadway to Hill to Storage Yard to Grand…to San Pedro
By ROGER M. GRACE
Fifteenth in a Series
There it stood, majestically. The 8-foot bronze figure of an orator, gesturing broadly with his right hand, was positioned atop a layered 12-foot granite pedestal. A plaque identified the figure as “Stephen M. White.”
But it was the late 1930s, and the ornate building by which the statue had been placed in 1908...the red sandstone courthouse at Broadway and Temple Street...was gone, razed after it was damaged beyond repair in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. The monument to White, which faced Broadway, was now on a grass-covered vacant lot, with the Spring Street side of Los Angeles City Hall in the background, a block behind it…as seen on the post card at left.
The statue of White had been sculpted through funds privately donated, and was a gift to the state, though standing on county-owned property. It was fitting that the statue be placed in the Civic Center, for it was there that White, who died in 1901, had practiced law, including his stint from 1883-85 as district attorney.
However, about half a century had gone by since White tried cases in downtown courtrooms, and even memories of his later service as a state senator, lieutenant governor, and U.S. senator were dimming. On the other hand, residents of the San Pedro area of the city—where a deep-water harbor had been constructed with federal funds as a result of White’s determined efforts— coveted the statue.
As noted last week, one bill to move the statue to San Pedro passed the state Legislature in 1937, but was vetoed by the governor. (That bill was one of 423 torpedoed that year by Gov. Frank Merriam, who vetoed more bills in 1937 than the governor of any other state.)
Two years later, a bill again passed the Legislature, and the new governor, Culbert Olson, signed it. However, the Native Sons of the Golden West exerted its influence, and despite the legislation, the statue wasn’t moved.
During the 1940s, the statue was not so isolated; bungalows were constructed on the former site of the 1891 sandstone courthouse, at least some of them housing courtrooms.
“The imposing statue in Los Angeles of the late U.S. Sen. Stephen M. White was given an official scrubbing, its first in years, and in the future it will be repeated annually,” an Aug. 2, 1948 article in the Oakland Tribune says. “Wielding soapsuds and brushes were Municipal Judges Walter H. Odemar, Harold Schweitzer and [future Court of Appeal Justice] Clarke Stephens, County Supervisor Raymond V. Darby and several officials of Native Sons Parlor of which Senator White was a charter member.”
When the new, massive county courthouse was dedicated on Oct. 31, 1958, in ceremonies on the Hill Street steps—with the chief justice of the United States, Earl Warren, rendering the keynote address—the statue of White was in place, a few yards away, by fountain at the corner. The July 15, 1958, edition of the Van Nuys News relates:
“The statue of Sen. Stephen M. White, the ‘father of Los Angeles Harbor,’ was moved yesterday from the Civic Center site where it has stood for the past 50 years.
“Workmen carried the big bronze monument from the southeast corner of Temple and Broadway Sts. to a new pedestal at First and Hill at the entrance to the new $24,000,000 County Courthouse.”
Published the same day as that account was one in the Los Angeles Times. Its rendition points out:
“On a low pedestal of academy blue granite this memorial to a man, one of the city’s most illustrious citizens, stands facing the Los Angeles Times Building, one and a half blocks away.”
Noting the Times’ editorial support in the 1890s of White’s efforts to obtain a $2.9 million federal appropriation for the harbor, the article remarks:
“With upraised hand, the native Californian who was a U.S. Senator and Lieutenant Governor of the State seems to salute an old friend.”
There was a momentary upsurge in interest in the statue in 1960. A story in the Van Nuys News on Jan. 21 of that year reports:
“The late Stephen M. White...was honored at brief ceremonies in front of the County Courthouse on the 107th anniversary of his birth.
“Wreaths were placed on the foot of a life-sized statue of White, showing the onetime United States Senator in a pose he used to strike while pleading for a harbor for Los Angeles.”
Photo from Herald-Examiner, bearing caption: “A group has gathered to place a memorial wreath before the Courthouse statue of Stephen M. White. Left to right: John B. Schmolle, grand president, Native Sons of the Golden West; Eugene Biscailuz, ex-Sheriff; Mrs. Frances Sullivan; John C. Crowe, chairman; and Eldred L. Meyer, past grand president, Native Sons.” Courtesy of photo archives, Los Angeles Public Library.
And attention was drawn to White’s Irish ancestry on St. Patrick’s Day in 1960. A report in the Van Nuys newspaper on March 20 says:
“Old-timers of Los Angeles beamed in delight when they learned the statue of Stephen M White (1853-1901), Los Angeles district attorney and then Democratic Senator from California, had been draped with green muslin in its eloquent position before the new courthouse, First and Hill Sts.
“Four pieces of the green cloth formed a toga, a sash and two scarfs.
“ ‘Begorra,’ said an old-timer as he sipped a bit of Irish cheer near Civic Center, ‘’twas white of the elfs and the leprechauns to think of White in the wearing’ o’ the green.”
Jack Smith’s column in the Los Angeles Times on July 24, 1969 mentions:
“On Monday, while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were in orbit around the conquered moon, heading for their rendezvous with Mike Collins, I took a walk in the civic center mall.
“I stood for a minute in front of an heroic bronze statute at the Hill St. entrance of the county courthouse. The subject is a stubby man, comfortably overweight, in the fashion of his time, with a Ulysses S. Grant beard. He wears an ill-cut suit with a frock coat and trousers that hang low at his heel and break twice at the ankle.
“His coat is open to show an unkempt six–button vest. His bow tie is askew against a wing collar. The whole impression is that of a man who has slept on a bus.
“His left thumb is stuck in a pocket. His right arm is raised and extended in what is probably meant to be a visionary gesture.
“It is a face and figure that nobody could place without reading the name on the pedestal: Stephen M. White.
“Though the face is not familiar, any student of Los Angeles history would recognize the name. As a U. S. Senator, White led the campaign in Congress to make San Pedro a major harbor.”
That column does lend credence to the notion that White’s link to the harbor was better remembered at that point than his service as DA.
Stephen White’s great granddaughter, Lindalouise White De Mattei, tells me that in the 1980s, there was a group in San Pedro that wanted to make yet another try at getting the statue moved near the harbor. She recites that the group contacted her father, Stephen N. White (since deceased), and drove up to Los Gatos “to meet with him to get his blessing” for their efforts…which he withheld. The family had, through the years, opposed relocation of the statue from the Civic Center, where White had been in private practice and served as district attorney and where he had been married, in St. Vibiana’s Cathedral.
De Mattei says:
“The fundraising went very slowly on the costly project and, in the meantime, the statue was uprooted and dumped in a service yard. The excuse was that the Metro rail workers would damage it.”
The statue had been designed by a deaf and mute artist, Douglas Tilden. De Mattei recalls her father telling her “that a deaf person, who knew the Tilden connection to the statue, saw the statue peering up over the fence in the yard and was extremely upset and got the ball rolling....”
She credits Supervisor Kenneth Hahn (also deceased) with getting the statue moved back to the Civic Center in late March, 1988.
A Feb, 2, 1988 motion by Hahn, which passed unanimously, read:
As part of the construction of the Metro Rail project, the RTD has committed an outrageous and thoughtless act by removing the statue of former United States Senator Stephen White from outside the County Courthouse and placing it for the foreseeable future in a dirty storage yard.
Stephen White was a great leader for Los Angeles County, for California and for the nation. His contributions—especially his leadership in establishing the Los Angeles Harbor—should not be forgotten just because they were achieved in the last century.
THEREFORE, I MOVE that the Chief Administrative Officer be instructed to arrange for the retrieval of the statue of Stephen White from the RTD and placed at a suitable location outside the County Courthouse so that he will once again stand proudly pointing in the direction of the harbor he helped create.
The rescued statue was placed not on its old site, at the corner of First and Hill, but was positioned on the Municipal Court side of the building, at First Street and Grand Avenue. But it wasn’t there long.
Supervisor Kenneth Hahn (seated) is seen at the 1988 rededication of the statue on the Grand Avenue side of the Central Courthouse (now named after Stanley Mosk). Participating are, from left, Carrie Baer, great-great granddaughter of White; Catherine Baer, his great granddaughter; and grandson Stephen N. White.
The office of Deane Dana, then supervisor from the Fourth District (which includes San Pedro), had gotten behind efforts of the Stephen M. White Statue Committee. Dana’s chief deputy for the San Pedro area, Mitch Maricich, was working closely with the group.
Maricich died in 2002 and Dana died last year. But institutional memory of the events persists. A spokesperson for the current Fourth District supervisor, Don Knabe, says that in light of an impending widening of Grand Avenue and installation of ramps to provide handicap access to the courthouse, the statue had to be moved, once again. As long as it was to be uprooted, anyway, “the Fourth District decided” to put the statue in San Pedro, he explains.
“Unanimously and without discussion,” a Los Angeles Times article of Sept. 22, 1988, says, the Board of Supervisors approved the relocation to the harbor area—thus giving effect to state legislation enacted 49 years earlier.
The statue was moved to its present location, at the entrance to Cabrillo Beach off Stephen M. White Drive, on Feb 23, 1989. A report in the San Pedro News Pilot says:
“Thanks to the persistence of local residents and family descendants, the 81-year-old bronze statue of the former U.S. senator responsible for locating a federal breakwater in San Pedro was finally unveiled Thursday at its new spot overlooking the now thriving harbor.”
In the end, the family—Stephen N. White being the spokesperson for family sentiment—did go along with the movement to bring the statue to San Pedro. De Mattei explains that her father “held firm” to the traditional family position “until it seemed hopeless and that the statue would [otherwise] be forgotten or destroyed.”
The story in the News Pilot observes:
“Judging from the enthusiastic reception at the unveiling, White’s likeness will be very much appreciated in San Pedro.”
it stands, after a campaign by denizens of the area that stretched over more
than half a century.
Statue of White in front of red sandstone courthouse on Broadway, its original home.
Statue as it appears today on Stephen M. White Drive in San Pedro.
Moving on from Stephen M. White—who was probably the most illustrious of the men who have served as Los Angeles district attorney—I’ll discuss next the most obscure DA in the county’s history.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company