Saturday, November 05, 2016

La Brea Tar Pits, 1971

Ever since I was a child, the La Brea Tar Pits captured my imagination, with thoughts of a prehistoric landscape populated by camels, giant sloths, birds, mammoths, Smilodons (ye olde "Saber Tooth Tigers"), dire wolves, small horses, and other critters long-gone. 

Everyone loves to point out that "La Brea Tar Pits" translates into "The Tar Tar Pits", and I admit, it has a certain ring to it. The black goo is actually asphalt, endlessly bubbling up from deposits. The sticky stuff trapped plenty of animals, and even preserved pollen, plants, and sea shells. 

Located on what is now a busy stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, right next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, people can still see the tar pits, and explore the George C. Page Museum. One of the most famous features is this black lake - actually the remains of an area where the asphalt was mined for various purposes. There's something fascinating about watching giant methane bubbles break the surface regularly. Bloop! The petroleum aroma is pretty strong.

The wonderful fiberglass sculptures of a family of 3 mammoths were created by artist Howard Ball, and installed in 1968. I can't remember if they were all there the last time I visited - I seem to recall a saber-toothed cat sculpture as well, once upon a time. The unfortunate fellow seen here actually floats on a sort of palette that is just beneath the surface - a breeze will make him drift. 


Nanook said...


The La Brea Tar Pits are a wonder to behold, I suppose. Gotta love the 'delightful' aroma and the occasional burping adding to the atmosphere representing a bygone era. And as far as the repetitive name is concerned, my personal favs in So. Cal are: Moorpark Park; Cloverfield Field; and [the former] William Tell Motel-!

In the second image we can see the formerly-named Mutual Benefit Life building under construction - still the tallest building in the Miracle Mile District.

Thanks, Major.

Nanook said...

Oh My-

Boy have I got my bearings all screwed-up. The Mutual Benefit Life Building is looming over us just across the street; although it was completed in 1971.

TokyoMagic! said...

Nice pics, Major! Looking at a satellite view, it appears that these statues do still exist. There was a fourth statue of a baby woolly mammoth, but I can't tell if it is still there or not. That's an interesting bit of info about the one in the tar actually floating. I just looked at different images online and there was one showing it with it's chest pressed up tight against the shoreline and another pic of it turned around facing the opposite direction!

I do enjoy walking around the La Brea Tar Pits, as well as the Page Museum, although I must admit that I haven't been there since the 90's. I was told recently, that they have removed "La Brea Woman" from the museum, along with the Pepper's Ghost effect that would change her from just bones into a recreation of what she might have looked like in the flesh. I'm wondering why she was removed. I know her bones didn't date back to prehistoric times, but they were quite old and they were the only human bones to have ever been pulled from the Tar Pits.

Scott Lane said...

All the times I went by the tar pits when I lived in LA and never stopped in.... smh

Time to kick the (photo)bucket.

Major Pepperidge said...

Nanook, what about the Moorpark Moors? OK that doesn’t exist, but it should, so that Sherlock Holmes can chase giant glowing dogs across those moors. The Cloverfield exit from the 10 Fwy always makes a part of my brain go “Aha!”.

Nanook II, my bearings are always screwed up!

TokyoMagic!, I know that the statues were restored a short while ago - nearly 50 years of being in the elements had taken their toll. I didn’t know about the baby mammoth (or if I ever did, I’d forgotten), but there was definitely at least one Smilodon, possibly with some babies. I remember the display with the La Brea Woman and the Pepper’s Ghost effect - I believe that the descendants of local Indian tribes objected to the display of her remains.

Scott Lane, now locals are worried, because the L.A. County Museum of Art wants to build and enormous blob-shaped black building (a blog of tar?) that will not only cross Wilshire Blvd, but will further encroach on the tar pits and loom over them. As for Photobucket, I agree with you, but I am having trouble finding a suitable replacement after having asked around.

K. Martinez said...

A true Southern California classic! Always enjoyed my visits to the La Brea Tar Pits as a kid. I remember small bubbling pools of tar showing up in different areas of the park's grassy areas and the in the parking lot too. I have to wonder if Disneyland's Jungle Cruise influenced them to add the mammoths to the park. Thanks, Major.

TokyoMagic! said...

Major, that makes sense (I guess), why they would have removed the La Brea Woman exhibit. And a giant blob-shaped building? I thought they ruined the views of the tar pits back in the eighties when LACMA built the Japanese Art buildings so close to the edge of the tar pits. And don't even get me started on how LACMA ruined their original William Pereira-designed buildings with a horrible remodel job....again in the eighties.

Ken, I remember seeing the tar ooze up through the grass. You would see patches where people had stuck a bunch of sticks in it to poke at it. I also remember seeing tar footprints on the walkways from people stepping in it.

Now I'm wondering if the round Observation Pit building is still there? I'm not seeing it on the satellite view.

Alonzo P Hawk said...

Whenever anyone mentions the La Brea Tar pits I'm always reminded of the Felix Figueroa classic "Pico & Sepulveda". Always a Dr. Demento (for you so. cal GDBr's)classic. I think every kid in Southern California went there on a field trip (I know we did). Thanks for posting.
Link to the song.

Major Pepperidge said...

K. Martinez, it is kind of interesting to see the random puddles of tar appearing in the grass. I was curious to see if Howard Ball had any kind of Disney connection (it could happen!), but I couldn’t find anything.

TokyoMagic!, I sort of like that strange Japanese Arts building, but you’re right, it does encroach on the tar pits area. I get the feeling that developers and ambitious museum directors look at that large lot of land right on Wilshire Boulevard and can’t stand that it’s just sitting there. They'll keep trying to chip away at it. I remember one of the little “volunteer” tar pits had a bunch of feathers in it, but no pigeon; maybe a cat came along and pulled the bird out. I am pretty sure the observation pit is still there, I was just there about two years ago.

Major Pepperidge said...

Alonzo, I know that song well! My favorite line: "Where nobody's dreams come true".

Nanook said...

@ Alonzo P. Hawk-

How's about some equal time for just plain Sepulveda - another obscure song from the good Doctor's library-? I'm having trouble recalling from memory (the internet is of no help) both the artist and some of the lyrics, but the end lines are: "Gonna drive my Jeep - beep, beep... beep, beep, beep - down Sepulveda boulevard. In San Fernando. Out in the valley. Sepulveda Boulevard".

Melissa said...

This Old Eastern tin horn never heard of the Tar Pits until Fry and Leela sunk their spaceship in them on an episode of Futurama. If I recall correctly, Leela tried parking the spaceship there because she was too cheap to pay for valet.

Nanook said...


Sepulveda was performed by the King's Jesters. Here IT IS

Alonzo P Hawk said...


Songs like these are makin' me homesick. I could go for a cup o coffee at the pantry while I try to eavsdrop on Joe Friday and Bill Gannon as they mull over "the facts" of a hot case.

Nanook said...

@ Alonzo P Hawk-

My favorite still has to be Azusa, by the Andrews Sisters. Where else could such lyrics be found...

It hasn't got a big population.
It hasn't got a Grand Central station.
No building so tall,
That you think you might fall.
But it's got just what I need,
To make heaven guaranteed...

Sheer lyrical genius.

Anonymous said...

Major, these are splendid pictures, really bringing back memories of kid visits to this spot.

Agree about the horrid remodeling of the LACMA, the architect was the "hot-at-the-time" firm, which is always the case with high-profile museum projects. As I recall, they had little or no experience in museum design, and relied on the consultant to do the hard stuff. The forthcoming project will likely be the same sort of debacle and will probably result in a design that will be a distasteful "what-were-they-thinking" about 10 years after it's finished. To be fair, the De Young Museum in San Francisco did the same kind of stunt about a decade ago, resulting in a building that looks like a wrecked aircraft carrier, so LA is good company.

I'm more forgiving of the Japanese art pavilion because it actually works pretty well as galleries for the art works within, in spite of it's odd appearance. This design was by an Oklahoma architect who was generally reviled as a radical outsider in his lifetime and was never a stylish designer. He did very few buildings, and nothing of this scale was ever constructed in his lifetime.

The building was intended for a site in Oklahoma where the donor client / art collector lived. There was some kind of weird deal where it finally got built in California to house the collection, I can't recall the details now. Architecture fans were pleased to see the project realized by a sensitive successor firm to honor the idiosyncracies of the original design. Not sure it has ever been very popular with the public as a building on it's own, but it is an art work in it's own right in a very different way than the other museum buildings. Again, no museum experience to speak of, but the initial concept worked very well, unlike some others.

We did get to take the kids to see the tar pits on one visit long ago. A worthwhile stop for visitors, if only to enjoy the smell.

Thanks for posting the pics, Major.


Major Pepperidge said...

Nanook, I don’t know that song, but it doesn’t have a line about tar pits, I’ll wager!

Melissa, I’ve seen every episode of Futurama, but have forgotten that particular bit, unfortunately. Time to watch the complete series again!

Nanook, oh good job, I actually kind of looked on YouTube and had no luck.

Alonzo, here’s one of my favorite exchanges from Stan Freberg’s parody: St. George: You call me, chief? Chief: Yes, the dragon again, devouring maidens. The king’s daughter may be next.
St. George: Mm hmm. You got a lead? Chief: Oh, nothing much to go on. Say, did you take that .45 automatic into the lab to have ˜em check on it? St. George: Yeah. You were right.
Chief: I was right? St. George: Yeah. It was a gun. (dramatic music)


JG, it is true, the latest hot architect often gets rewarded with such commissions. The Bruce Goff building is certainly interesting - I like it for its weirdness - but it does feel out of place to me. And the last time I was in it, there was much evidence of roof leaks and water damage, much to my surprise. Like many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, they look amazing, but might not be so structurally sound. I did not know that it had originally been intended for another purpose.

MB said...

I too have a memory of a saber tooth tiger being included in the tableau at the big tar pool. As a child in the mid 1970's the scene of the young mammoth and parent on the shore, screaming for the second parent who has fallen and is becoming stuck in the tar, was impactful and made me keep my distance from the pit (as well as warning my parents not to get too close). In my memory, there was a saber tooth tiger on the back of the mammoth in the pool, attacking him at the neck / jugular.

Going back as a young adult, I rember wondering why they had removed the saber tooth. However, still being impressed at the scene's ability to communicate such terror with static figures. After reading your article and the comments, I now see it as the scary equivalent to Mark Davis' brilliant, humorous Jungle Cruise scenes (although sans animation).

I have never been able to find any photos of the saber tooth tiger on the mammoth in the lake, and all pics I do find from that era show the mammoth without a tiger on his back. A few friends my age also have vague memories of the tiger. Some say they heard it was removed because the scene was too gruesome with it.

There does seem to be a spot on the mammoth, that looks like it has been re-plastered or covered up, where the anchor foot of the saber tooth would have been. I even saw the cover up patch taken off in one of the rehab photos online, and it does appear there is a divot in that spot. So maybe the tiger is not just an imbellishment in my memory.

By the way, I really enjoy your blog! Thank you!