A Phoenix Rises in Los Angeles: Architects Restore the Ft. Moore Pioneer Memorial

What do a London-born sculptor, Connecticut-based/German-native artist, the Mormon Battalion of Salt Lake City, Mormon Battalion of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and our firm of Los Angeles architects have in common? The answer might surprise you: the Ft. Moore Pioneer Memorial in Los Angeles, California. As reported on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, January 28th, 2017, thanks to generous support from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and with the technical and design team at  Sparano + Mooney Architecture, the “forgotten memorial” is undergoing critical restoration to return the monument to its original civic glory. 

Photo: Bruce Cox, Los Angeles Times, July 3rd, 1958. © Los Angeles Times

If you drive along the Hollywood Freeway, cross the Los Angeles River, pass Union Station, and look towards Chinatown, you may have noticed an enormous – if blighted – stone fortification of sculptural carvings, some 300,000 multi-colored mosaic tiles that once facilitated a dramatic 77-foot-wide waterfall, and a red brick wall, now blistered by worn graffiti and years of inattention. This is the current state of the memorial, which, after 40 years of neglect, will be resurrected after a serious effort to resuscitate this stirring tribute to military history, the enduring pioneer spirit, and California’s heritage. “It’s the most historically and geographically important monument that nobody knows about,” says Clare Haggarty, manager of L.A. County’s art collections.

The Ft. Moore Pioneer Memorial was dedicated on July 3rd, 1958, and celebrates the first raising of the U.S. flag over Los Angeles in 1847. At the dedication, members of the Mormon Battalion of Salt Lake City reenacted this historic event, originally performed by their forbearers, the Mormon Battalion from Council Bluffs, Iowa (joined by the 1st Regiment of Dragoons and the New York Volunteers) some 111 years earlier. These pioneering members of the U.S. military had marched some 2,000 miles to Los Angeles in preparation to protect the city from destruction in the Mexican-American war. The war had ended upon their arrival, but despite the ceasefire the Battalion stayed on long enough to hoist our nation’s emblem in commemoration of the first Fourth of July in Los Angeles. The event took place on the earthen walls of a fort the soldiers had built in order to defend the city during the conflict, named for Benjamin Moore, an officer who lost his life fighting in a battle near San Diego. 

The creation of the Ft. Moore Pioneer Memorial resulted from the influence of the L.A. Society of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, as well as the need for a large architectural wall to contain the earthen embankment known as Ft. Moore Hill, which remained after much of the original fort was leveled to make way for roads, buildings and a new Civic Center. The face of the hill was the design canvas for London-born artists Albert Stewart and Connecticut-based, German native Henry Kreis, immigrant sculptors who designed the bas-relief vignettes depicting the Mormon Battalion’s march and flag-raising, period transportation infrastructure, and regional scenes including cattle ranching and orange groves. The memorial also features a tableau recognizing the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as a sponsor of the monument, and a 68-foot tall pylon bearing an eagle-adorned dedication inscription.

In 1977, the memorial’s centerpiece – an enormous cascading waterfall – was turned off due to drought conditions, and when water was once again plentiful, the waterfall was sadly beyond salvage. The mosaic tiles were crumbling, and the pumps had been vandalized. The red bricks became an urban canvas for graffiti, and the terra cotta tiles comprising the bas relief sculpture became worn and unkempt. The Ft. Moore Pioneer Memorial declined into obscurity, until an elaborate reenactment in 1997 reignited the community’s interest in the monument and its place in American history. After many years of effort, a plan for revitalization was approved in 2014, with funds committed from the Board of Supervisors and the City of Los Angeles. Sparano + Mooney Architecture is proud to be a part of this restoration, which will see the waterfall flow again (with a mindful balance between historical accuracy and water conservation), the tiles replaced, the bas-relief mural refurbished and the graffiti scoured away. A re-dedication is planned and we hope that when the date is announced, we will see you at the site of the Ft. Moore Pioneer Memorial, which will once again serve as a poignant reminder of our nation’s and Los Angeles’ architecture history and heritage.