After 10 years of painstaking work late into the night, Larry Kmetz says he’s done.
He’s built a city in his basement and is ready now to devote his time to other passions.
Kmetz, 70, has assembled a scale model of the downtown Los Angeles of his youth.
“I guess it was just a love for where I grew up,” the Coeur d’Alene retiree said.
Pieced together from custom efforts and model kits, the city rose and spread across platforms spanning 144 square feet. It includes dozens of buildings, from banks to theaters to churches, as well as an industrial area, mass transit and minute landscaping.
“Believe me, I’m not a modeler. I don’t know how I did it,” Kmetz said. “I think the big guy said, ‘All right, you like LA? Well I’m going to let you build it.’ ”
He recalls moving to Los Angeles from Gary, Ind., in 1948 and being fascinated with the big city.
“I was 6 years old, and we stayed downtown in Skid Row. But I didn’t know any difference. All I knew was I saw these old yellow street cars rocking on the track. I thought they were cool and I used to love to ride them,” Kmetz said. “And LA was my playground.”
Growing up in South Central, he would explore the sprawling metropolis, marvel at the architecture, tune in to the hum of city life.
“It was kind of a hustle and bustle for a young kid that I thought was pretty cool,” he said.
Anyone who knows old LA will recognize some of the iconic architecture Kmetz has recreated – the 27-story Los Angeles City Hall, which still stands after 84 years, and the massive natural-gas storage tanks of the Los Angeles Gas Co., which disappeared in the 1960s.
“This was scratch-built from a coffee can,” Kmetz said, pointing to one gas tank dominating his favorite part of the replica. “That was a devil.”
A highlight is an electric trolley running the full 18-foot length of the model – bound for Pasadena. Tiny overhead wires allow him to run the tram between stations and past waiting commuters under palm trees.
The smallest embellishments offer some of the most delicious visual treats: water tanks on apartment roofs, street signs, lamp posts, fire plugs, park benches – even coffee cups at a walk-in McDonald’s restaurant.
“I tried to make it as realistic as I possibly could,” he said.
His construction is not a facsimile of Los Angeles at any point in time. The basement isn’t that spacious, so he took liberties with the layout. But the model is an inspired appreciation and highly detailed depiction of the city he remembers before the era of criss-crossing interstates, steel-and-glass skyscrapers and gang-plagued slums.
“As I saw the city change through the years, I didn’t like it,” Kmetz said. “When they started tearing down, like the Richfield Tower,” the striking, art deco headquarters of the Richfield Oil Co. “That was a landmark building in LA, and they tore it down and built the ARCO (Plaza), a big glass tower that’s ugly. The street cars were gone. All of a sudden they started high-rising the city.”
In his basement, Kmetz takes a sentimental cruise down Broadway, San Pedro and Alameda streets, past the Rosslyn Hotel, the Palace Theatre, KPOP radio and Maier Brewing Co., maker of the working-class Brew 102.
When he hit his teen years and took a shine to rock ’n’ roll and blues, the city took a back seat. Kmetz began a lifelong obsession with collecting records, took up drumming and crossed paths with some of his idols: Al Frazier of The Rivingtons; the renowned studio drummer Hal Blaine; and Johnny Otis, “the godfather of rhythm and blues,” who died earlier this year but plays on in Kmetz’s world with a show advertised on the marquee of the Wiltern Theatre.
One day he met The Coasters, who recorded such hits as “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.” Impressed with his knowledge of their recording history, the band members invited Kmetz to cruise with them down Central Avenue, he said.
“I’m a nobody, but I was there with all these people,” he said.
Kmetz spent 25 years with the Teledyne Corp. making hardcopy and blueprint paper, and later worked for Kaiser Permanente. He also ran a record shop for a time in the 1970s, was in a band and hired out as a disc jockey.
When he retired in 2002, Kmetz moved to North Idaho with his wife, Polly. The real LA had changed too much for them. An avid music collector and dealer, he has filled other rooms in his basement and many shelves upstairs with tens of thousands of records and CDs, and he sells at Northwest trade shows.
Kmetz figures the LA project cost him $6,000 to $7,000. He has fun showing it off now, though it’s a bear to dust.
“I don’t know what will ever become of it,” he said.