The Pokey as Hub of Culture
Arts Meets History in Highland Park

By Michael T. Jarvis
Los Angeles Times Magazine - August 24, 2003

 

This is the city: Los Angeles, California. When the population here swelled in the 1920s, new growth meant new opportunities for businesses - and for criminals. Around 1925 the city built several Police Department stations in sprawling areas to clamp down on crime. Only Highland Park's Northeast Station remains in reminder from the bygone epoch. And the station is reveling in its new, postmodern incarnation as historic museum, gift shop, art gallery, movie location and community center. All this while still a working substation. "It's the last of the old police building," says Richard Kalk, founder of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society, which oversees "Behind the Badge: The LAPD Experience" Museum and Community Education Center.

 

The Highland Park police station, circa 1950, before it became a museum, too.

 

The thick iron bars on the windows can't hide the building's film noir elegance. Designated a Historic Cultural Monument by the city and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, the station has a Renaissance Revival exterior decorated with light-colored brickwork; inside are vaulted ceilings, abundant molding and dark wood detailing. Six small jail cells on the first floor have rusted graffiti on the bed frames. A pistol range, abandoned in 1950, today serves as basement storage space. The basement, also a former roll call room for traffic patrolmen, now hosts the local Kiwanis Club and a Neighborhood Watch group. "We've kept it as close to historically correct as we can," says Kalk, who dreamed up the historical society and museum while a detective in Rampart Division in 1988. The building was leased to the historical society by the city in 1994 and dedicated in June 2001.

 

History is neck-and-neck with the creative spirit on York Boulevard. Kalk and museum volunteers often can be found shuttling artifacts around to accommodate movie crews who cover the building's retro vibe. "The Lyon's Den" an NBC drama starring Rob Lowe, just finished shooting at the station, says Kalk. The lobby's wood-framed, '30s-style front desk area, the perfect spot to be booked after one too many martinis at Musso & Frank, was built on-site for Clint Eastwood's film "Blood Work," along with wooden room dividers and blinds on the second floor. And closing August 30 is "Without Alarm III," an art installation in the station's jail cells by the Arroyo Arts Collective.

 

Movie set or otherwise, Officer Lorena Walsh works the front desk, taking reports for stolen vehicles, vandalism, and domestic violence. The photos of police women in long dresses intrigue her. "It's a good thing I was born when I was," says Walsh, a 15-year veteran who wants to wear a vintage uniform to work one day.

 

Out back, a courtyard is crammed with an LAPD helicopter and several bullet-riddled cars. "Unfortunately a lot of good stuff was thrown out," says Kalk, who in contrast to his detecting days is now chasing angels. "The museum is a [non-profit] charity so anything anyone wants to give us, historical artifacts or money, we'll take. We've come a long way in 12 years with no money."

 

Kalk believes airing the LAPD's sometimes controversial, always colorful history is a good thing. "We can show the bumps [in] the road because the rest overrides it. If we're going to report the history, we'd like to report it factually. Just the facts, sir."