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Cross purposes

April 21, 2007 |  6:30 am


April 21, 1957

Los Angeles

Although Easter has passed in 2007, it has just arrived in 1957. One way Los Angeles marked Easter weekend was by arranging the lights in City Hall so that they formed a cross. I'll apologize in advance for the poor quality of the pictures, but take a look, because we are not likely to see this again.

The first example is from 1930, two years after City Hall opened. The practice continued at Easter and Christmas for more than 40 years. (Below, Easter 1957 and Christmas 1962).

In 1959, Mrs. Gordon L. Mann (remember, this is the era when married women had no first names) wrote a letter to The Times, invoking the Founding Fathers and a Christian nation in protesting plans to keep City Hall's windows dark because of construction work. Her argument prompted a rebuttal from John R. Goy on religious freedom.

City_hall_cross1957 Then, in digging through the clips, I encountered the incomparable Jack Smith.

In 1971, he wrote about the annual press release announcing that the Board of Public Works would present the cross in lights on three sides of City Hall. And yes, I'm quoting an official City of Los Angeles press release:

"In a world of war and unease, among  people who pray and plead for peace,  there will shine again this Eastertime the lighted Cross atop the three sides of City Hall as a herald of the day when died a man who was born to bring peace to the world....

"He died on a wooden cross he had carried himself up the hill of the skull--called Golgotha--and none was to help him save Simon as he stumbled and fell under his heavy burden. And they crucified him, the soldiers of Rome....

"Therefore, to illumine the story of his death and the lasting lessons learned from his life, the Board of Public Works, on a directive from Mayor Sam Yorty, today ordered the lighting of huge crosses on the high faces of City Hall ...  to mark the advent of Easter and to bring a brightness into the hearts of men troubled by the times....

"And as he was outstretched and pinioned to the cross to form a living crucifix, so will the outflung arms of the lighted cross high above the city's strife serve as a sign of the universal appeal of the words he spoke in forgiveness of his enemies and of the love he bespoke for all mankind....

"And the lights burning bright on City Hall will grow dim and flicker and die as Easter morn again comes gently to the city with the message his believers form gratefully with their lips and repeat in their hearts as has been their wont for 2,000 years: He is risen."

Now that's quite an official press release and it's probably not something we would expect to see today.

But of course being Jack Smith, he's got a twist. And I'll get to that in a minute.

City_hall_cross1962In 1976, Judge Norman R. Dowds barred the display in a preliminary injunction sought by S. Dorothy Metzger Fox, who said the cost of the lights was an illegal use of tax money. In 1977, the state Court of Appeal overturned the ban. The state Supreme Court took up the case, and in 1978 upheld the ban.

Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird wrote in a separate, concurring opinion: "It does not take foresight to see that this situation is fraught with dangers of political divisiveness."

In the dissenting opinion, Justices Frank K. Richardson and William P. Clark said: "The 30-year practice has passed unchallenged either by the general public or by any individuals or groups, religious or otherwise....

"The record before us totally fails to demonstrate that the display either encouraged or inhibited any particular religion in Los Angeles or anywhere else."

The decision generated its own dispute and figured in a 1979  investigation as to whether the high court delayed several controversial decisions until after the Nov. 7, 1978, elections.

A report by the state Commission on Judicial Performance found that another of the controversial decisions--overturning the "use a gun, go to prison" law--could have been returned five months before the elections if Bird had not decided to write a separate concurring opinion. The sensational investigation ended in November 1979, when the commission found no wrongdoing by the state Supreme Court.

And as for the author of the annual Easter press release, David Soibelman, who emigrated from Russia, spent his retirement writing for The Times, the Santa Monica Outlook and the Buffalo, N.Y., Jewish Review until his death in 1998 at the age of 94.

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