(Site of) Tower of Pallets
1951 – Daniel Van Meter
15357 Magnolia Boulevard, Sherman Oaks – map
“I have a place where it is quiet, despite the apartments, the noise of the boulevard, and the hum and screeches of the rat race on the freeway 200 feet away… To me, this is a spiritual place.” – Daniel Van Meter
I can’t imagine we’ll see a more dubious Historic-Cultural Monument in Los Angeles than this stack of 2,000 pallets out in Sherman Oaks. Actually, we won’t even see HCM No. 184 any more, either, as another unsightly apartment complex is currently being built on the site.
Daniel Van Meter had a colorful past. His dad, James (d. 1938), was the chemist who invented the chloro-cyanic gas used in World War 1, to hilarious effect. Chums with Edison, Burbank, Marconi, Steinmetz, and Tesla and a protégé of Mexican President General Porfirio Diaz, the elder Van Meter introduced liquid chlorine to the U.S., concocting it at his Deutsche Chlorine Works in Germany. Daniel’s mom, Esther (d. 1954), was a great-granddaughter of John Quincy Adams.
In April 1942, Daniel and two of his four brothers, James and Baron, surrendered to the man on charges of sedition under the Subversive Organizations Registration Act. The trio, which was operating a goat, chicken, and rabbit ranch at 2180 West Adams Boulevard at the time, was busted for failing to register as members of Robert Noble and Ellis O. Jones’s “Friends of Progress”, a group that allegedly supported the overthrow of the U.S government while having ties to the pro-Nazi German American Bund. Baron (who became a well-renowned beer-can collector –Beer Can Collector of America #418! – and square dancing’s “Cacti Pete”, having the distinction of having attended every single National Square Dance Convention from 1951 to 2002!) and Daniel (who went on to co-found the American Independent Party in the 1960s) did time for their political beliefs, with the Dan landing in San Quentin. While a District Court of Appeals later reversed the conviction, the brothers’ demands in lost wages and damages were denied.
In 1951, when union workers at a local Schlitz Brewing Company plant refused to repair thousands of junky 3'x3'x6" pallets, the enterprising Daniel Van Meter saw his chance and he took it. Using the five truckloads of discarded pallets, he began to build his monument in his backyard on Magnolia Boulevard off Sepulveda. Van Meter had moved to the property in 1947. The land was once part of an apricot ranch owned by actress Louise Fazenda (you may remember her from such films as Schultz the Paperhanger, Tea: With a Kick!, and Are Waitresses Safe?). Going back to the 1800s, the land was owned by the McMasters family. The Van Meter boys (Baron moved there, too) ultimately turned their land into a veritable junkyard – later visitors mentioned seeing there a dozen scrapped cars, a gas pump, a 1938 city bus, washing machines and water heaters, an old outhouse, a battleship turret, and wooden wagons, not to mention the menagerie of cats, dogs, chickens, turtles, pigeons, and a raccoon.
Taking Van Meter two years to build, the Tower of Pallets, when finished, reached twenty-feet tall and twenty-two-feet wide at its base. There was a thirteen-foot wide opening at the top. The open room inside, full of patio furniture and all sorts of detritus, according to legend, marked the grave of a three-year-old who died and was buried there in 1869. Soon after Daniel finished the tower, building inspectors arrived and, stumped, classified the giant pallet cone as a fence. (The picture leading off the post is from the L.A. Dept of City Planning website.)
In 1977, the city’s fire inspectors declared the tower “an illegally stacked lumber pile” and ordered the structure torn down. Van Meter, though, somehow convinced the Cultural Heritage Commission and the city of L.A. to declare his twenty-five-year-old creation HCM No. 184, pushing off demolition until Van Meter moved or died. (Robert W. Winter, who voted for the tower’s designation when he was a commissioner, later explained the monument conferral with, “Maybe we were drunk.”)
Daniel Van Meter died in June 2000 at the age of 87. Three years later, developers Westgate Group Inc. had in hand a demolition permit for the old Van Meter home. However, since the landmarked tower was protected, the developers had to get the city’s okay for its razing (or what was left of it – it had dwindled to about five-feet tall by 2002, according to Steve Harvey), which it did in early 2005. Today, construction on a new, 98-unit apartment building on the site of the Tower of Pallets (click on that link for a picture of Daniel and a chicken along with quotes to make you cringe) is almost finished (so, did they find the body of a 140-year-old three-year-old?).
Here’s what the prescient Van Meter wrote thirty years ago when lobbying for his tower’s landmark status:
“… in a few years this piece of the good earth may be covered by apartments for the storing of surplus people. In the meantime, pray, let this strange structure be, let it continue to be a haven of rest for an individual – that endangered species – who once knew how sweet was our Valley.
“Noted Inventor Burial Planned” The Los Angeles Times; Jan 23, 1938, p. A6
“Noble Called Racketeer by Former Associate” The Los Angeles Times; Feb 25, 1942, p. A1
“Brothers Seek Arrest in Vain” The Los Angeles Times; Apr 16, 1942, p. 15
“Noble Aids Go on Trial Today” The Los Angeles Times; Jul 6, 1942, p. 6
“Seven Denied Damages by State Board” The Los Angeles Times; Nov 28, 1946, p. 10
“Rites Set Today for Mrs. Esther Van Meter” The Los Angeles Times; Jul14, 1954, p. B8
Simon, Richard “Tower of Tranquility Unusual Sherman Oaks Landmarks Provides a Refuge from Turmoil” The Los Angeles Times; Feb 15, 1988, p. 8
Simon, Richard “For a Collector, His Is an Odd Pallet” The Los Angeles Times; Feb 19, 1988, p. 3
Harvey, Steve “Only in L.A.; The Valley’s Once-Mighty Tower of Pallets Has Fallen on Hard Times” The Los Angeles Times; Nov 14, 2002, p. B4
Garrison, Jennifer “Does It Stack Up as Art?” The Los Angeles Times; Jan 26, 2005, p. Metro A1
Up next: (Site of) President’s House