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There's a hidden museum of streetlights in downtown Los Angeles




Ed Ebrahimian is director of the Bureau of Street Lighting. The city currently has about 215,000 streetlights installed throughout in Los Angeles.
Ed Ebrahimian is director of the Bureau of Street Lighting. The city currently has about 215,000 streetlights installed throughout in Los Angeles.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

On Broadway and 12th street in downtown Los Angeles, on the 2nd floor of the Department of Public Works building, there’s a museum I’ll bet $5 you haven’t heard of.

The Historic Streetlight Museum is home to what must be the most comprehensive collection of Los Angeles streetlights since Chris Burden’s "Urban Light" was shut down for maintenance at LACMA.

It’s not the easiest museum to get to: it opens just once a month... for just a half hour. But if you step inside and take a look around, you’ll find the story of Los Angeles told in fluorescents, cast iron and LEDs. 

"It's a small room, here, but it's got a lot of history," says Bureau of Street Lighting director Ed Ebrahimian. "The fixtures that you see here are so precious that they don't exist anywhere else in the whole world."

In a room only a little bigger than a LACMA bathroom, you can see the entire museum: fixtures ranging from the first ever street light attached to a power line to state of the art LED poles with bulbs specially calibrated to imitate moonlight.

Yes, the sample size is small — maybe it's best to call it "curated." If you walk the streets of Los Angeles today, you'll find over 400 varieties of lights above you — 215,000 street lights altogether. The museum houses a couple dozen.

The museum came about only in the last couple years — most of the artifacts on display were just housed in storage before. Ebrahimian says the Bureau wanted to start a museum because nearly every light tells a story.

"Los Angeles is a large city. Each neighborhood in the city has its own characteristics," he says. "Some of these fixtures kind of identify those neighborhoods throughout the year. We owe it to the citizens of the city of Los Angeles who lived here to preserve what was here many years ago." 

The oldest light on display at the museum dates back t0 1905 — a Five Globe Llewellyn — which back in the day dotted the streets of Downtown Los Angeles.

But for Ebrahimian, fast forward a couple decades and you enter the renaissance of street lighting — giant ornate fixtures with beautifully patterned artisanal glasswork housed in cast iron decorated with mermaids, pine cones and leaves.

"Frankly, we don't make them this way anymore," Ebrahimian says. "It doesn't pay for itself nowadays — to be able to spend that much time to create fixtures similar to this."

Ebrahimian says the museum keeps the odd hours for now because the Bureau simply doesn't have the resources to keep it open longer — after all, they're in the street lighting business, not the museum business.

So if  you want to take a look, it's best to ask for time off now — the museum's next opening day is Friday, June 17 between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Email the museum through its website for a reservation.



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