For the second time in its 92-year existence, the "Live Oak Manor"" rock archway on Sierra Highway in Newhall was moved out of the way of future road improvements Thursday, August 30, 2018.
The archway — a stone-and-cement structure built to attract tourists to a peculiar cactus and succulent garden in the 1920s when the Santa Clarita Valley was "way out in the desert" — was successfully moved in one piece by contractors for Trammell Crow Co., developer of the first phase of the Gate-King Industrial Park at Needham Ranch.
Moving and preserving the arch has been the intent ever since the Santa Clarita City Council approved the business park in 2003.
It hasn't been an easy process.
"The obligation and responsibility to relocate the historic rock archway out of the future Sierra Highway right-of-way to enable construction of Sierra Highway roadway improvements has been one of the most challenging undertakings," said John Balestra, vice president of Trammell Crow Co.
"We have spent many months and consulted with a number of experts to determine the feasibility of relocating the arch out of the future Sierra Highway roadway right-of-way, hopefully without destroying it," he said. "Although we had no assurances that we would in fact be successful, we are ecstatic that we were able to relocate it essentially intact."
The arch stood in the public right-of-way along Sierra Highway, about one foot closer to the road than the adjacent Edison power poles. As such, it posed a danger both to motorists and to itself when the highway is adjusted to accommodate traffic into the new, 132-acre business park.
The arch wasn't there originally. It was built in 1926 at a bend in what was then a 2-lane highway (Highway 6) that followed today's Remsen Street. Its creator was John E. Olmstead, a retired contractor who either leased or purchased a small piece of the Needham Ranch where he established the Live Oak Manor Cacti Gardens. Described by the L.A. Times as a "stone zoo" with "grotesque figures," it was a tourist attraction that featured zoomorphized desert rocks and a variety of cacti and succulents.
To lure northbound motorists who had just driven through the Newhall Tunnel, Olmstead erected a distinctive, 13-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide arch of stones and concrete with prickly pear cactus on top. Today the 1926 location would be described as the middle of the northbound lanes of Sierra Highway.
In 1930, old Highway 6 was realigned, creating the present Sierra Highway route north of the Newhall Tunnel to the current Remsen-Sierra intersection. Olmstead's arch stood in the way, so he moved it 50 feet to the west, making it the entrance to his gardens, where it remained until Thursday.
In 1938 the Newhall Tunnel was blasted away, and Sierra Highway was widened to four lanes. There must not have been a turn pocket for northbound traffic, because Olmstead gave up on his gardens in 1939, complaining that northbound motorists couldn't get there.
Since then, the arch has stood silently next to the road, absorbing several earthquakes with little obvious damage and leaving most modern motorists to wonder what it was — with untended cacti still growing out of it, none the wiser.
In retrospect, Olmstead didn't move his arch quite far enough to accommodate 21st-century needs.
Back in 2003, the master developer and major landowner of Needham Ranch, Mark Gates Jr., agreed to "preserve the rock archway by moving it and incorporate it into the Sierra Highway entrance to the project." The city formally required the developer to "work with the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society to record and preserve if possible any portion of ... the Rock Archway on Sierra Highway" and other historic features on the property.
The development project was held up by environmental lawsuits followed by a national recession. Grading only started in 2017.
On Thursday the arch was moved to a temporary location less than 100 yards west of Sierra Highway. Plans call for it to be moved one more time to its final resting place next to a heritage oak tree that was preserved in place. The tree stands near the construction entrance which will become the east entrance to the business park, only about 100 feet from the arch's last location.
"As the project proceeds," Balestra said, "we will be working with the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society and the city to incorporate the historic archway into the project entry landscape design and preserve a small piece of Santa Clarita's rich history for future generations to enjoy."
The arch is to remain intact and a separate monument sign will be installed for The Center at Needham Ranch, which will provide 4.3 million square feet of light industrial and office space (and no new homes).
Moving the arch became a more formidable undertaking than initially envisioned.
In coordination with the city and the Historical Society, Trammell Crow Co. hired a historic architect late last year to devise a plan. The structure couldn't be lifted straight up and out, because high-tension power lines were directly above it. So, the idea was to crate it, trench around it and pull it out in one piece, upright. The historic architect could see that it potentially weighed 30 tons. But without digging, the architect couldn't see the full extent of what was underground.
What was underground proved to be both bizarre — such as current fiber-optic cable running inside an old oil pipeline — and prohibitive. The foundations under the pillars extended roughly 8 feet deep into the ground and were joined at the bottom by a cross-bar of train track. Excavation would have required digging up a good chunk of Sierra Highway — which could not be done because a 14-inch high-pressure gas line runs 4 feet, 8 inches below the road surface and 3 feet out from the arch.
All that was left to do was chop it off, crate it, move it like a statue and hope for the best.
Construction crews sawed the two columns off of their foundations this past week, revealing that the columns were full of stones and Portland cement with no steel reinforcement inside. Olmstead must have built frames, filled them with stones and then poured cement through them. But that's just conjecture.
This week a steel frame was built around the arch to secure it so it could be raised with a forklift and loaded onto a lowboy flatbed truck. The load weight, archway plus frame, was 20 tons.
The other 10 tons below ground aren't going anywhere soon.
"The first phase of development of The Center at Needham Ranch project is an exceedingly complex undertaking, with over 4 million cubic yards of earth movement completed and many millions of dollars in roadway, utility and infrastructure improvements and extensive biologic mitigation underway," Balestra said.
"Many thanks to the city and Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society for their patience, and the development team at Oltmans Construction and American Heavy Rigging and Moving Inc. for going above and beyond to successfully complete this difficult endeavor," he said.