A Park for the Cold War

On a Mountain in Los Angeles Are Remnants of an Era When Mutual Annihilation Was the Goal

by Fran Marsh

Ian Fleming and John LeCarrČ would be right at home in a Los Angeles park designed by Professor Randolph Hester of the department of landscape architecture.

It's got the usual things one finds in a western park -- Coast Live Oak, coyote, deer, mountain lions and expansive views of the Los Angeles Basin. But this park has something more.

From 1956 to 1968 San Vicente Mountain was a Nike Missile base. Its radar searched the sky around the clock for enemy warplanes, ready to launch missiles stored four and a half miles away in the Sepulveda Basin.

Attack dogs patrolled behind barbed wire security fences.

But the advent of the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile in the early '70s rendered the Nike defense useless. The new ICBMs traveled high and fast, beyond the reach of the Nike.

When the base was decommissioned, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a Southern California park agency, took over the site.

The conservancy was created in 1979 to buy land in the mountains around Los Angeles to create "Big Wild," a 20,000 acre urban wilderness with a continuous network of parks and trails for public use and wildlife habitat extending from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific.

Hester, who has been working with the conservancy for some 10 years, was called on to redesign the 12-acre "LA96C," the military's designation for the mountain top site.

"The first inclination was to get rid of all the military stuff and restore the land to its natural state," he said. But Hester decided against that.

Today, the park retains its military-era atmosphere with signs, fences, buildings and equipment. Forty-five-foot high hulking towers were left to dominate the landscape.

An interpretive manual for teachers describes the operation of radar and Nike Missiles, military life, views of Los Angeles and chaparral ecosystem functions.

And schoolchildren who don't remember the Cold War -- and adults who do -- can now get a glimpse of what life was like back then.


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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