The Story Behind Angels Flight

Seeing the recent KCET documentary “Incline LA: Angels Flight and Its Lost Sibling” that featured Windsor Square resident John Welborne, the Larchmont Buzz decided to go right to the source himself, and get some of the background on how Angels Flight came back into being after its removal from Bunker Hill in 1969. The following is an interview with John Welborne, President of Angels Flight. Vintage photos courtesy of Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Windsor Square resident John Welborne is featured in the KCET short film.
Windsor Square resident John Welborne is featured in the KCET short film.

When did you become involved in the Angels Flight project, and why? 

Like many Angelenos, I had a parent who took me on Angels Flight sometime before it was closed in May of 1969. Then, in 1971 or 1972, back from the U.S. Army and reacquainting myself with Downtown Los Angeles, I drove around the denuded (from redevelopment demolitions) Bunker Hill. I drove on what was left of Clay Street (which crossed under the Flight). I know this because I have a black and white photo, taken with my father’s old camera, that shows my mother’s 1964 Chevy Nova parked on Clay Street with the foundations of Angels Flight in the background.

In 1978, Councilman John Ferraro and Mayor Tom Bradley appointed me as a member (the youngest, by far, it turned out) of the City’s “Los Angeles 200 Committee” (headed by architect Albert C. Martin and actress Margo Albert). The private nonprofit Committee , also called the “Committee of 44,” had 44 members to mirror the number of the original settlers of Los Angeles, “Los Pobladores,” in 1781. The Committee was charged with planning the 1981 celebration of the bicentennial of the City’s 1781 founding. For our first staff member, we hired Jane G. Pisano as executive director. She now is the president of the Museum of Natural History, about to celebrate its 100th anniversary this week.

Area before Angels Flight construction.
Area before Angels Flight construction.

By early 1980, the Committee had made some great plans for a year-long celebration scheduled to kick off on September 4, 1980. However, we were running out of the money we had raised from the leading companies of Los Angeles, mostly Downtown in those days. Finance Committee chairman Robert R. Dockson (then the president of California Federal Savings and Loan; later Dean of the USC Marshall School of Business) was reluctant to go back to the same well, seeking more funds from corporate leaders.

At an executive committee meeting (my having become a member of the executive committee and the assistant corporate secretary because I was a young lawyer and had a hard time saying “no” to yet another unpaid volunteer job), I suggested that there were many individuals in Los Angeles who cared about their city’s history and who likely would be willing to make donations to support the Bicentennial. The other executive committee members said to me, “we know how to have a lunch meeting at The California Club and get corporate executives to pony up, but how would we reach out to individuals all across the community, and how would we know whom to approach?”

I responded with the confidence that comes only from youth and inexperience. “Well, first you have to get a number of prominent people to allow you to put their names on a letterhead. Then you have to send a letter to lots of people asking for money, and you have to say that anyone who gives a donation of $1000 or more will have his or her name on a Donor Wall.”

Committee chairman Al Martin looked at me with some skepticism and said, “Well, kid, if you want to go and do something like that, good luck.”

Angels Flight in the 1900s.
Angels Flight in the 1900s.

And that was how the Patron Participation Project of the Los Angeles Bicentennial came to be. Many Larchmont area local leaders ultimately were part of our letterhead, including Mr. and Mrs. Sidney A. Adair, Dr. and Mrs. Jack L. Blumenthal, Mrs. John Challiss, William B. Coberly, Jr., Mrs. Brian Dockweiler Crahan, Mrs. Gabriel C. Duque, Jr., Mrs. Nathaniel Dyke, Warner W. Henry, Jack K. Horton, Mrs. Richard Anson Hotaling, Francis H. Lindley, Dr. Ynez Violé O’Neill, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas C. Ridgway, Jr., Nena Marquard Roswell, Mrs. William T. Sesnon, Jr., Carey Stanton, George B. Stoneman, M.D., Mrs. Norman B. Terry II, Homer Toberman, Robert H. Tuttle, Vernon Underwood, Mrs. Thomas Wachtell, and yours, truly (among the 75 names we ultimately recruited for the letterhead) .

With this “letterhead committee” in formation, there still was one problem . . . where to erect a Donor Wall. Unlike a government agency or a university, the Los Angeles 200 Committee owned no real estate. We had just our office in Downtown’s historic Oviatt Building, made available to the committee at a favorable rate by it re-developer, Windsor Square resident Wayne Ratkovitch. So, in my “spare time” when not practicing law at Adams, Duque & Hazeltine (in the historic Pacific Mutual Building, just a half-block from the Oviatt Building), I undertook a citywide study of possible locations for a “Los Angeles Bicentennial Monument and Time Capsule.” (By then, we had decided to promise donors of under $1000 that their names would be in a time capsule, along with circa-1981 artifacts to be selected by the 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council.)

After a bit of research, I presented to the executive committee a report about possible locations for the Monument / Donor Wall. Among the places examined and not recommended were the South Lawn of City Hall, the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial (the long-dry waterfall west of Hill Street), and Pershing Square. I said to the committee, “These places aren’t quite right. We should have the Los Angeles Bicentennial Monument and Time Capsule be at the top of Angels Flight on Bunker Hill.”

Whereupon, with a quizzical look to me and the others on the executive committee, Al Martin said, “But, John, there is no Angels Flight; it was taken down in 1969.”

And I replied, “Yes, but that is my point. People loved Angels Flight and still miss it, and I have discovered that there is a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) plan to bring it back.” I told the committee of my research in the Central Library and at the CRA. I told them that the CRA had the major components of Angels Flight in storage and that the Railway was supposed to be rebuilt as a part of the “California Plaza” project slated to get underway in 1982. I said that raising funds for our Bicentennial Monument to be installed “at the top of Angels Flight” could both help our fundraising campaign get needed attention and also help keep City officials aware that their promise to rebuild Angels Flight was not being forgotten.

Al Martin once again looked at me with some skepticism and said, “Well, kid, if you want to go and do something like that, good luck.”

Looking east on 3rd St from observation tour, circa 1920s.

And so . . . we soon had a solicitation mailing whose cover letter had a list of  75 distinguished Angelenos and enclosed a reply envelope and a multi-fold brochure. The cover of the handsome brochure had a line drawing sketch of a restored Angels Flight (and the insides of the brochure included text about plans for the Bicentennial celebration and lists of the names of the Committee of 44, the Finance Committee, and every City of Los Angeles elected official). With these materials, we proceeded to raise in mid-1980 all the remaining money needed (with some ultimately left over) to present Angelenos with a wonderful, year-long celebration of the 200th birthday of Los Angeles.

In addition to the direct-mail solicitation, we also asked every newspaper-reading Angeleno for support through a full-page ad in each the Los Angeles Times and the Herald Examiner.

So, by September 4, 1981, with the happy celebration officially complete, the community leaders appointed to the Committee of 44 felt very pleased with our efforts and believed that they should be getting on to other things.

However, for me, Jane Pisano, Al Martin, and our actual corporate secretary, O’Melveny & Myers senior partner, James C. Greene, we knew there still was unfinished business and a need to wrap up the nonprofit corporation. And, not incidentally, there were the matters of an historical recounting of our efforts (a book), the placement of the accumulated time capsule artifacts into an actual time capsule (to be installed at California Plaza), and the design, fabrication, and installation of the Los Angeles Bicentennial Monument (also at California Plaza).

I ended up overseeing all of those clean-up projects, with the beautiful, limited edition, award-winning book, Los Angeles Bicentennial — A Legacy for the Future, designed and printed by Richard Hoffman, being distributed to our major donors and area libraries in 1986. Collectible copies are available on various Internet book sites.

In the late 1980s, because we had announced that the “Los Angeles Bicentennial Monument and Time Capsule would be at the top of Angels Flight,” I had an especially strong interest in following the design process for the second and third phases of the California Plaza project. In early 1989, I became aware that Arthur Erickson, the Canadian architect designing California Plaza for the project’s developer, Bunker Hill Associates, was planning to have two separate levels of pedestrian plazas for the project. The upper level plaza, at 385 feet above sea level, would be a wide-open “corporate” plaza with no retail. The lower level, at 370 feet above sea level (but still well above Olive Street) would have all the shops and restaurants. Arthur Erickson was designing the landing platform for an eventual Angels Flight to be at that lower, retail level.

The problems with such a design were two-fold: First, funiculars by their very nature go to the tops of things! The orange Top Station of the Railway should be visible (as it now is) across California Plaza from Grand Avenue and elsewhere. Second, if the top of the Railway were at a lower elevation, the angle of the track would be substantially less that its existing 33 degrees, and it would be impossible to reutilize the historic rail cars, Olivet and Sinai, which were built for the original slope.

Armed with these concerns, and with the helpful support of the president of the Cultural Affairs Commission, art consultant Merry Norris, we arranged an “all hands” meeting of concerned citizens, the full Cultural Affairs Commission, and Arthur Erickson at his Los Angeles architecture office on Robertson Boulevard. We (Commissioner Norris and I) were firm in our demand that architect Erickson redesign his project so that Angels Flight would terminate at the plaza upper level. He was pretty adamant that he didn’t want to do that. Finally, quite frustrated, Mr. Erickson stormed out of his conference room, saying “alright, YOU design the —- project.” Many months later, on July 8, 1989, the Cultural Affairs Commission approved the design of California Plaza, with Angels Flight alighting at the upper level, as reported by the  LA Times.

By about that same time, I also had obtained a stainless steel time capsule, which we had filled with all the accumulated memorabilia and a copy of the book (which contained the names of ALL, donors, not just those of $1000 or more). Airtight and sealed with inert nitrogen or some other gas, the time capsule was then resting in the City Archives maintained by the Records Management Division of the Los Angeles City Clerk, in rooms located on the top floor at the C. Irwin Piper Technical Center on Ramirez Street, just east of Union Station. When the second phase of California Plaza got under construction, I arranged to move the time capsule to a specially constructed concrete vault at the Watercourt level, adjacent to the then-future site of Angels Flight to the east.

A remaining task for me and the remnant leaders of the Los Angeles 200 Committee was to design and manufacture the Bicentennial Monument, with its promised Donor Wall. This was an effort made easier because we had the design guidance of the famous graphic designer, John Follis, who had designed the iconic Los Angeles Bicentennial Angel, with her halo a rainbow of colors, at the outset of the Bicentennial planning in about 1978 or 1979. The Follis design for the Monument consisted of seven large ceramic panels, each three feet square, mounted horizontally. The panels were made in an exacting process by the Otsuka Ohmi Ceramic Company in Japan.

Angels Flight, 1967, just before Bunker Hill was reduced in size.
Angels Flight, 1967,  before the top of Bunker Hill was shaved off and reduced in size.

Because the California Plaza developers had managed, beginning in 1982, to put the restoration of Angels Flight off from Phase 1 and into Phase 2, and then from Phase 2 off into an uncertain Phase 3, the committee arranged for the Bicentennial Monument to be erected in a temporary location, on the southern exterior wall of MOCA, adjacent to One California Plaza’s Spiral Court. Installed on the left of the seven square panels is an eighth, temporary panel, one foot wide by three feet high, that has the art from the cover of the fund-raising brochure (the line drawing sketch of Angels Flight) and an explanation that the Monument will be moved to the top of Angels Flight when Three California Plaza is built.

The monument panels are mounted inside of a handsome Follis-designed stainless steel frame. That compete structure was erected and installed on the wall of MOCA in late summer of 1991, and the Monument was then covered with a drape to await its unveiling.

One September 4, 1991, exactly ten years after the completion of the Bicentennial celebration, and on the 210th birthday of the City of Los Angeles, our remnant committee gathered in the Spiral Court with Mayor Tom Bradley, Ninth District Councilmember Rita Walters, fans of local history, and a contingent from the media. I had drafted speeches for each the Mayor and the Councilmember. The mayor oversaw the “dropping of the drape” to unveil the Monument. He also pointed to a large bunch of balloons we had tethered above the eastern edge of the under-construction Two California Plaza Watercourt.

It was in Mayor Bradley’s speech (where he ad-libbed) and in Rita Walter’s speech (read verbatim by a deputy because she was called back to City Hall for unexpected City Council business), that the public heard about the plans that attorney Dennis R. Luna (then a CRA commissioner and today the chairman of the board of the Angels Flight Railway Foundation) and I had concocted in the previous months. Dennis, like me, had been involved in the Los Angeles Bicentennial. In his case, and on behalf of his then law firm, he had done legal work for the Committee regarding licensing or intellectual property or something that I don’t exactly recall at this time.

Working with staff of the CRA and the Mayor, plus historic preservationists at the Cultural Affairs Department and the Los Angeles Conservancy, Dennis and I in 1991 had focused on the CRA plan for rebuilding Angels Flight, which involved the CRA providing the public money it had reserved for that purpose to the California Plaza developer, who would rebuild the Railway with the CRA’s money and then run it in perpetuity as a community benefit.

As Dennis and I knew, there was a problem, and the problem was the real estate market! It was unlikely that this developer, who already had postponed Angels Flight from both Phases 1 and 2, would get Phase 3 (and Angels Flight) underway in the foreseeable future. So, Dennis (the CRA Treasurer) and I urged that, since the CRA had the money, the CRA should use that money to rebuild Angels Flight as soon as possible.

Hill Street, 1967, after demo of buildings.
Hill Street, 1967, after demo of buildings.

And so, on September 4, 1991, with the needed agreements in place to do just that, and the relevant speeches drafted by me, Mayor Tom Bradley made the surprise announcement — in connection with unveiling the Bicentennial Monument and pointing to the balloons aloft nearby — that he was directing the CRA to study a return of the Angels Flight buildings to an empty lot on the corner of Fourth and Hill Streets (today a Metro Rail entrance to the Pershing Square Red and Purple Line station). The Mayor said he also was directing the CRA to arrange for the rehabilitation, restoration, and reopening of Angels Flight. Councilmember Walter’s speech affirmed her support for this approach.

As a result of these speeches and the Mayor’s and CRA Board’s actions, on October 31, 1991, around midnight, the historic Angels Flight buildings were brought by flatbed trailer from their long-time (22 years) hidden location in an outdoor storage yard in Gardena, and they were set inside a chain link fence on the very visible corner of Fourth and Hill. (It did not hurt our plans, as Dennis and I knew, that the storage yard landlord was anxious to get rid of all items stored there so that he could redevelop his site.)

With the Bicentennial book complete, with the Time Capsule in place, and with the Bicentennial Monument unveiled (albeit in a temporary location), Dr. Pisano and Messrs. Martin, Greene, and I felt we now could wind up and dissolve the nonprofit corporation, which we did soon thereafter.

And that pretty much ended the Bicentennial portion of my involvement with Angels Flight.

During 1992 and 1993, the CRA issued numerous contracts for consultants and contractors to undertake the restoration and rehabilitation of the Angels Flight buildings and the two historic rail cars, Olivet and Sinai. There also was a contract to design and build a new, three-story building to support the historic top station and to house the machinery to run the Railway (as well as a subcontract to design and build that machinery).

Dennis Luna and I stayed involved, with Dennis chairing an “Angels Flight Coordinating Committee” that we had conceived, consisting of city staff and historic preservationists. I was an active member of that committee, and, by 1994, I began to review the architectural drawings for the “new” Angels Flight. Just as with the corrected mistake of trying to bring Angels Flight to the lower level of California Plaza, there were some correctable mistakes in the consultants’ plans.

A notable example of something needing correcting was the designers’ doubling of personnel costs by having a Control Room for an Operator to punch the “Start” button on the lower level of the machine room building and a separate work station for a second person to collect the passenger fare (today fifty cents) through the ticket window at the restored Station House one level up! For the first 68 years of Angels Flight operations, however, the sole Operator had had a much more complicated job, actually running the noisy machinery by hand and collecting the fares. Now, someone was proposing, in a computer-assisted era, that there be TWO people paid to perform an easier job.

The old control house, early 1969 before Angels Flight was taken down.
The old control house, early 1969 before Angels Flight was taken down.

That and other correctable mistakes were corrected. The separate “Control Room” for the superfluous person to push the “Start” button was relabeled “Storage” on the building plans. And, since nobody at the CRA overseeing the design had thought to include a room for someone in management to count the quarters, pay the bills, and file the daily log forms, that Storage Room ultimately became the Angels Flight Railway office.

This long answer to the question from the Larchmont Buzz is coming to an end, at last. Because (1) we — primarily Dennis Luna and I, but others concerned with the perpetual future operation of Angels Flight as well — had seen in 1994 that nobody was thinking about the design of the restored Railway from the perspective of a future operator, and because (2) the CRA had not yet figured out how its re-constructed Angels Flight would be operated, and because (3) the adjacent developer, Bunker Hill Associates, had no interest in taking on this responsibility and, in fact, was in the process of ending its participation in the California Plaza project, and because (4) Angels Flight historically had been operated by private sector entrepreneurs ever since its construction and opening by Colonel J.W. Eddy in 1901, my law firm and I incorporated the Angels Flight Railway Foundation in 1995.

The purpose of creating the foundation was to have in place an entity, a private nonprofit corporation, that would step into the developer’s shoes, take possession of the completed Angels Flight from the CRA, and subsequently contract with private sector experts to run and maintain the Railway. And looking around in 1995, there were not a lot of other people to fill the corporate positions, so Dennis Luna became the chairman of the board of the fund-raising Angels Flight Railway Foundation, and I became the president of both the Foundation and the separate operating company that my law firm created to oversee the Railway on a daily basis.

Angels-Flight-Heull-HowserOn Friday, February 23, 1996, we started a weekend-long festival to celebrate the Railway’s reopening. On Friday morning, all the elected officials came out for a press conference and ceremonial opening. The event featured artist Leo Politi among those riding the first car up the hill, a Los Angeles Master Chorale octet singing “funiculi, funicula” in the descending car, and multiple speeches. It all was memorialized in a two-hour special broadcast on KCET by Larchmont-area resident Huell Howser.

On Friday night, there was a 900-person fundraising dinner in a tent in a parking lot across the street, where we raised money for the KCET Women’s Council (which provided a lot of people power), for the Los Angeles Conservancy (which provided people power and mailing lists), and for the nascent Angels Flight Railway Foundation (which was happy to have some income). On Saturday and Sunday, Angels Flight opened to the public, and about 30,000 people came down to Hill Street (closed for the weekend and full of carnival rides plus free entertainment in the nearby tent left over from the gala dinner on Friday night) to celebrate and ride the reopened Angels Flight Railway.

And I have been running the Railway ever since, in better times and worse (which would be the 2001 accident resulting from the 1990s government low-bid contracting approach that rebuilt the Railway). As a result of the tragic accident, our little Foundation had to raise $3.5 Million (which we did) to throw out the prior low-bid drive system and install an all-new, robust, and completely safe new Drive and Control System. The Angels Flight Railway has been back in daily service, generally operating seven days a week for sixteen hours every day, since our re-reopening on March 13, 2010. The stewardship mantle is one that Dennis and I are looking to pass, so interested volunteers should please get in touch with me as soon as possible!

How often do you ride Angels Flight ? 

I am at the Railway four or more times per week. (Someone has to pay the bills, and someone has to take the quarters to the bank, after all; and, as you know, I was opposed to doubling the paid personnel on duty at any one time!) Convenient for performing these Angels Flight tasks, my job as a lawyer at Hill, Farrer & Burrill (a law firm just 23 years younger than Angels Flight) has me in an office a few hundred feet west of Angels Flight, but 37 floors higher, at One California Plaza.

If I am at the Railway with guests, or if I want to check on the interiors of Olivet or Sinai, or if I want to get a cup of coffee or lunch at the Grand Central Market across Hill Street, or if I want to go down to enter and ride the Metro subway at Fourth and Hill, I’ll ride the Railway. A great treat for me, so often when riding, is to overhear a mother or father or grandparent telling a youngster about riding Angels Flight in “the old days” with his or her relative.

Through my efforts, abetted by numerous historic preservation advocates, during the design phase in the mid-1990s, we managed to keep the historic cars as well as the buildings (the Arch on Hill Street and the Station House at the top). We managed to keep the “look and feel” — complete with bumps and squeaks — just about the same as they were in 1969. (All the marvelous, and sometimes finicky, new electronics are well-hidden, we hope.) Therefore, when I ride, I get to see the current generation of riders share a quintessential Los Angeles experience very much the same as previous generations have enjoyed for 113 years. When I overhear the happy comments from others when riding, it provides me a smile and a satisfaction that almost compensates for the economic cost of too much volunteer work for too many years, “workin’ on the Railway.”