Repairing The Ring

photo by John Mattera

Although the Korean Friendship Bell’s home has always been on the bluff in Angel’s Gate Park, the very first time it was rung was almost 6,000 miles away in Seoul, Korea. United States and Korean officials ceremoniously rang the bell before it made its voyage across the Pacific on the Fourth of July, 1976.

The creation and erection of the bell was unlike any monument in the US. The bell was given by the Republic of Korea on the bicentennial celebration of American independence. In creating this bell, they tapped a lost art. When the 17-ton bell was cast, it had been over a thousand years since a bell of that size had been cast in Korea. The bell was modeled after the Bell of King Seongdeok, which was cast in 771 AD.

When the bell arrived in the Port of Los Angeles, it took two weeks to unload 28 cargo containers of materials. Korean stonemasons and carpenters worked 14-hour days to construct the belfry, platform and steps.

Finally, in October of 1976, four months after its first ring, the bell was officially dedicated, and struck on American soil.

Now, almost four decades have passed with little or no maintenance to keep the bell in good condition. Bird excrement is caked onto the belfry, there is obvious deterioration of the protecting layer on the bell and deviants have even marked the inside of it with graffiti. For nearly a year, the bell could not be rung because the link needed repair. The link is the wooden structure holding the bell to the belfry, which had fully broken causing the bell to twist.

The bell was in obvious need of a protector. That’s where Ernest Lee and the Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee come in.

The committee of 33 formed in 2006 with hopes of getting the bell back to its former glory.

“The bell called out to us,” says Lee. “ When you see the bell, you feel heartbroken with the shape that it’s in, and still awestruck with its beauty. Rather than just aching about it, we thought, let’s do something about it and have a long term plan.”

Rarely seen photographs of the construction of the Korean Friendship Bell belfry circa the mid-1970s. (photos provided by Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee)

While there are organizations that are designated to take care of city or federal landmarks, Lee says they don’t have the trained personnel to do it. Bell making is a particular craft, so the committee did their research.

“We found the company that originally worked on the bell,” says Lee. “All but one of the masters had passed away. We spoke with the surviving member of the group who, in 2011, sent his protégé here to give us an estimate to refurbish the bell.”

The budget based on his estimate: about $360,000.

Lee explains that the reason for the high price tag is that all of the key time frames for maintenance were missed.

“The salt air and strong winds of the area obviously don’t help,” he says. He stresses the need for caution with restoration. “First we want to do no harm. We have to work in careful and steady steps.”

Indeed, if the restoration is done hastily using craftsmen who are unfamiliar with the art of bellfounding, they may do irreversible damage. Besides it being an ancient craft, the bell is also covered with intricate artwork and an inscription engraved in relief on the bell. The bell is made of copper and tin, with gold, nickel, lead and phosphorous added for tone quality.

“The bell was designed to be an instrument,” says Lee. “It has a narrow tube inside and the bowl at the bottom for acoustic resonance.”

Korean craftsmen designed the belfry. Everything about the pagoda-like structure that houses the bell was done with purpose and symbolism. Creating the bell itself was not something that was done easily in Korea. Casting a bell that large is uncommon, and in the first attempt it was broken. The total cost for the bell and structure was over a million dollars, paid for by the Korean government.

With all of the painstaking attention to detail that was administered in its creation, it’s no wonder that there is a laundry list of repairs that the landmark must undergo to regain its full brilliance.

“We need to carefully sandblast the outer bell and fill holes,” says Lee. “There is bird-proofing that needs to be done, painting and the wooden striker needs to be replaced.” They already fixed the link in 2011, just in time for its 35th anniversary.

The road to getting the rest of these restorations will not be an easy one. The group of volunteers has worked tirelessly to get donations. One fundraising campaign was inspired by Lee’s friend and mentor, San Pedro icon, John Olguin.

“He used to say, ‘I’d rather get a dollar from a thousand people then have one person write a check for a thousand dollars,’” says Lee. “We fundraised all over San Pedro and Los Angeles, asking that people give a dollar donation for the bell.”

In following Olguin’s saying, they hope that with individuals reaching into their own pocketbooks, they will feel personally invested and connected to the cause.

The committee has about $280,000 for restoration. $5,000 came from residents in San Pedro and Koreatown and $275,000 has been allocated by the South Korean government. Although grateful for the large influx from the South Koreans, Lee believes that it’s time for the American government to take the reigns.

“We’re hoping that the city council will assist in matching what the South Korean government has donated,” says Lee. “It’s time to say it’s ours, we’ll take care of this magnificent gift.”

The committee is planning a fundraising golf tournament this spring to raise more cash. With the bell being such an iconic San Pedro landmark, Lee believes community members will step up.

“The meaning comes from the memory that attaches to it,” says Lee. Many San Pedrans find that meaning in the memories of family picnics on the great expanse of grass in front of the bell, flying kites, or even one of the many weddings that take place at the bell’s steps.

Deterioration of the wooden bell ringer (left), on the ceiling (bottom left), structural column damage and bell corrosion (right) due to improper upkeep and weather has taken its toll on the bell. (photos by John Mattera)

For Lee, the bell symbolizes an important friendship between two countries.

“If it were not for the United States involvement with Korean independence, I may not be here today,” says Lee. Lee’s parents emigrated from South Korea, which benefitted from the U.S. involvement in the 1950 Korean War. The U.S. defended South Korea against North Korean invasion, splitting the two countries at the 38th parallel or Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

According to the Department of Defense, the total American military casualties resulting from the Korean War were over 50,000. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, South Koreans have fought alongside American military in both Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The bell’s symbolism holds a significance that’s not lost on the committee.

“I feel as the other committee members do,” says Lee. “Honored and privileged to have this opportunity. We’re also painfully aware of the grave responsibility.”

They hope to start restoration as early as May, but funds will dictate their timeline. Their wishlist for the future includes the lower parking lot connecting to the bell and more wheelchair accessible areas. “I know there are Korean War veterans who are disabled and would like to get around up here.”

Most of all, Lee hopes to restore the bell so that future generations can see it as it was when it first traveled nearly 6,000 miles across the Pacific to the bluff at Angel’s Gate Park. spt

For more info, visit www.kfbpc.org or email info.kfbpc@gmail.com.

Trekking LA Walking Tour

Trekking LA presents “A City Within A Park”, a walking tour of Angels Gate Park. Docents will walk you through the history of the park and introduce you to all the groups that call it home. You’ll have a rare opportunity to tour the art studios and model railroad rooms! Tickets are $10, advance purchase required at www.lacommons.org.