Sunday, January 2, 2011

Nike Defense Tower - Rediscovering A Viewpoint

Brenda and I did a cool thing yesterday while the weather was clear, fair, and a bit nippy, that we hadn’t done in a while.  We went to the Nike Defense Tower.  That’s not its official name, but that’s what I’ve always called it.  Its actual name probably involves some military letters and numbers.

I first found out about it in high school.  I was talking to someone one day during lunchtime and they said that there was some kind of gun turret up in the Santa Monica Mountains that people occasionally partied at on Friday and Saturday nights.  Apparently, it was some kind of abandoned military station tucked away somewhere.  My interest in all things urban-archeology related had already budded years before, so to me, there was not time to be wasted wondering.  It had the same aura as hearing about and locating the old zoo a couple of years earlier.   So with the most vague of descriptions, I set out to find this gun turret on my own.

It turned out to be on Mulholland a quarter mile or so West of where it turns to dirt, and the same distance West of where one of the residential streets feeding off of Havenhurst meets Mulholland.  What I found was a chain-linked gate; one that cars could drive through, only this one was deliberately locked.  Just on the other side of the fence was what looked like an old security booth with military numbers on it.  So, whatever this was, I had found it.

I noticed that the chain linked fence was cut and pulled out at one corner, so people had obviously welcomed themselves in and out of the decaying paved road that lead around the base of a hill.  I went on in through the opening in the fence, hoping not to be immediately found and prosecuted for trespassing on military property.  I ascended the paved road and around the corner, what I found was a thick, metal pillar with a platform on top of it.  At it’s base were rusted metal stairs that meandered in various directions finally leading up just under the base of the platform, at which point, there was a metal ladder that rose up through a hole in floor of the platform like a submarine.

I reached the top and found that I could see all of the San Fernando Valley looking to the North, and I could see most of the Santa Monica Bay, only a portion of it blocked by a nearby hill just South of the tower, all the way across to downtown.  This was incredible!!!  How many people actually knew about this spot?

I quickly noted several things about this place not to be ignored; the rickety, decaying metal stairs and ladder on the way up, no railing on any part of the perimeter of the platform, which by the way stands about forty feet up from the ground.  But the most dizzying thing about it was that there was a second hole in the platform; one similar in size to that which the ladder had led me through.  Only, this second hole was just completely open.  Looking down at it, I could see the ground forty feet below.  One distracted step, and lights out.

So over the years, this became one of those hidden treasures that I was aware of.  A gem of a lookout point perched atop the Santa Monica Mountains.  And I always felt confident, being the guide to my guests, to help them negotiate the perils of this forgotten feature of the mountains.  I remember once, back in about 1990, I brought my girlfriend at the time, Kristin, to this tower at night to see the lights of the City and the Valley all around us.  It was an utterly gorgeous thing to behold on a clear night.  But most of my time on the platform with her was spent making sure she didn’t go anywhere near that gaping hole.  The visit was a success, I was a hero, and we’re both still on this planet to speak of it.

Since then, the Santa Monica Conservancy has done some work to make it safe and accessible.  You can go there any day of the week, but not the night anymore.  That’s now a rare experience for me, a handful of friends, and probably a few dozen pot-smoking, bottle-smashing heshers just enjoying their weekend nights.  But again, thankfully, one of them tipped me off early about this treasure before many knew about it.  The area is called San Vicente Mountain Park, and it includes bathrooms, water dishes for your dogs, disabled parking access, and couple of those blue 25 cent telescopes you can try to focus on something before the timer goes out.

The stairs that lead up to the tower are now broad, safe, and have handrails.  You arrive via the end of the stairs, and not through a hole in the platform.  The platform itself has safety rails around it’s perimeter, and most importantly, no gaping hole in the floor of the platform anymore.  In fact, the platform floor is now made of cement, and you couldn’t feel more secure. 

The Santa Monica Conservancy has also added information signs, which describe what this actually was.  It was built during the cold war to detect any incoming missiles or unwanted aircraft headed for Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley.  When walking around the site, you will see several concrete platforms.  They held Lopar (radar) hardware that would rotate and scan the skies for anything out of the ordinary.  If incoming missiles were detected, a computer housed underneath the ground at that site would alert personnel stationed there and they would in turn launch defense missiles from the Sepulveda basin, where the dam area is located now; an area, which you can also see from this Nike Defense Station.  It’s just so cool to have this history right in our hills.  This station was decommissioned when ICBM’s (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) were developed because the Nike Station’s defense was not strong enough to intercept missiles of that speed and elevation.

This is just a side note of something I was told more than once, but I have never verified.  There apparently were various defense tower stations build during WWII, which made an arc from the Santa Monica mountains, around or through downtown, and then on towards Long Beach.  They were built after a huge bombing scare one night during the war that ended up not being an attack on LA.  And lastly, that one of these defense towers still exists somewhere in Long Beach.  I don’t know if the Nike station that I’ve been describing was actually one of those, and then adapted later during the cold war, of if what I mentioned above isn’t even true at all.  But I just thought I’d mention that since as I said, I have heard it from two sources, one of them being an uncle who just passed away, and who was a VIP airplane engineer during WWII.   …OK, I just found information on the Internet and will put it into the foot notes below.***  Could have looked it up first and saved you some reading.

 If you go to the Nike Defense Station that I’ve been describing, be sure to thoroughly walk around the upper and back areas of the parcel because there are more signs describing how it all worked, including an actual photograph of the exterior of the station.  It’s great because you look at the photo, and then you look at the actual sight.  The photo is an exact angle of the site from where you stand.  And be sure to walk all the way around the left side of the fence on the top of the parcel.  At the end and to the right, you will find yet another sign with a nugget of information.

I just love it.  And I loved it again yesterday.  People riding their bikes, finishing or halfway through their runs from the bottom of Westridge near Sunset, taking a break at a tower that had a whole hidden history for so many years.  And on a very clear day, from this platform, and from various nearby hills, you can see half the world with a turn of your head.

*** Ring of Nike Defense Sites:

More Info

Even More Info