A former Angeleno recreated the downtown Los Angeles of his childhood and now lives in his own private Idaho.
Larry Kmetz, 70, took a decade to complete a model of a city he experienced while growing up in Skid Row. It's now on private display in the basement of his home in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, 30 miles east of Spokane, Washington. The city sits on a plywood platform measuring 144 square feet, and is scaled to fit his electric powered streetcars. It's considered complete only because he ran out of room in his basement.
He admits that if anyone tries to find their way around town with his model, they would get lost. Landmarks of San Pedro are close to the inner core of the city, unlike the eerily detailed WPA model of downtown Los Angeles on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, built by the city's model makers, engineers, and architects from 1938 to 1940.
Kmetz calls the model "L.A. Creation," which he describes as "an L.A. of yesterday, and some of an L.A. of me." It's fragments of location, a recollection of the city based in childhood memories of exploring the city by light rail. When he was a boy, he moved to Los Angeles with his father, first living at the Santa Rita Hotel on Main near 11th, and attended St. Joesph's Elementary School. For Kmetz, that fragile time of adulthood independence did not begin with the Southern California car culture, but by streetcar. "When I was 15, I didn't care about a Chevy. I got more kick by riding street cars," he said.
As a young teen, he also began an interest in music, became an avid collector of record albums -- and still spends his time as record dealer -- and once played in a rockabilly band while being tuned in with Los Angeles DJ culture. That can be heard when Kmetz recalls routes and details of downtown Los Angeles buildings like they were liner notes on the labels of old Chess records.
He rattles off with the rhythm of a 1960s DJ weaving into a set of rock and roll songs. "You could jump on the P-car down Pico and Rampart, or later to see downtown Broadway's department stores. Richfield Tower, the old Texaco building," he says with sustained breath before recalling the view toward the industrial section. "On Broadway and 8th, if I looked east, there was an old looking building from the 1930s, on top was a steel sign with lighting in it. On 7th and Broadway, still looking east, you can see the gasholders. Of course, from Alameda, it was impressive looking," he said as he paused for one beat. "From 6th and Broadway, you can see eight smoke stacks, then the street shifted, the stacks looked higher from 5th and Broadway; factories with waters towers, the whole industrial look," he said. "I wanted to recreate that experience I had as a kid."
Then Kmetz speaks a beat slower and just a bit quieter as he thinks how downtown shifted into the 1960s as he entered his 20s. "L.A. was changing from what I liked. It was becoming modern. But that's what they wanted to do, that's their city."
He paused again. "March 31, 1963. It was really a sad day when Los Angeles transit merged into buses," he said, thinking back to the final day of operation for streetcars. "Some were sold to Cairo, Egypt." Needless to say, he's excited to learn that streetcars are coming back to downtown, asking for details on routes and rails.
Literal Street Art
Kmetz's plan to build a model based on downtown began over ten years ago, while living in Los Angeles. It grew after getting advice from other model makers, and goes beyond using kits. He also used found objects, like coffee cans, to make the water towers, and builds the gasholders from scratch. Then he got it serious. He took reference photos of the city from the edge of Miracle Mile, through MacArthur Park, and into downtown. "I took picture after picture. I know we were going to be leaving, and I knew I would be trying to design something more." He knew enough when he moved in 2002 to select a home in Idaho large enough to dedicate a room for his city.
He started with the Figueroa station, and paid attention to his craftsmanship. The ideas kept coming, he said, and by the time he got to the second sheet of plywood board, "I was rolling." When he was able to make street corners round, instead of square, he felt he was catching on.
He sticks METRO stickers on his model streetcars. Not accurate for the time, but it is his world that downplays steel and glass towers while highlighting what he saw as the backdrop, the industrial section with its gas holding tanks. After all, this is his personal interpretation of a city.
Photos courtesy of Larry Kmetz