On some nights, the small islands off the shore of Long Beach shine with bright Vegas-style lights: orange, yellow, red and blue. Rising around a quarter mile off the coast, they feature colorful 180-foot cement towers, waterfalls, and a plethora of palms, oleanders, and sandalwood trees. They “look like giant futuristic sets for a modern-day Wizard of Oz, or some billionaire’s idea of luxury apartment living,” one reporter wrote in 1967. The fascinating story of the their construction, and the remarkably successful attempts to mask their true purpose, are emblematic of a strange and problematic period in the history of early environmental activism in America.
The Wilmington Oil Reserve is one of the largest in the country. It was discovered in the 1930s. Debates over what to do with the black gold under Long Beach raged for years.
Residents wanted the riches that oil wells would bring but were reluctant to be surrounded by the unsightly derricks and refineries that overtook cities like nearby Signal Hill.
“We’ve seen what happens to cities when they discover oil under them,” city manager John R. Mansell told the Weirton Daily Times in 1967. “Landowners get rich and move away; the cities go to pot.”
According to the Long Beach Business Journal the issue came to a head in 1964, when the courts awarded the state of California mineral rights to the offshore oil of Long Beach.
A consortium of five major oil companies—Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil, and Shell, or THUMS, as they’re known—won a bid to lease the fields from the state, agreeing to give the state and city of Long Beach a majority of the expected profits in return for the privilege to take control of the oil field.
Long Beach had already voted to lift a ban on drilling within city limits when a “beautification clause” had been inserted into the language of the proposal.
This meant that THUMS had to find a way to build a major oil operation that was not only profitable but virtually silent and invisible to residents and tourists along the Long Beach waterfront.
“The residents of the city voted to approve leasing—but under a very unique arrangement,” Frank Komin, executive vice president of southern operations for current owner California Resources Corporation told the Business Journal.
The company was formed in 2014, and is exclusively focused on California. It is the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the state.
“It was to be done from four man-made islands that were designed to appear as tropical settings and to hide the development from view. That was the reason for the islands.”
To create the four islands, between 10 and 12 acres each, around 640 tons of boulders were transferred from Catalina Island, and 3.2 million cubic yards of sand were dredged from the ocean.
Soon more than 500 people were hard at work shaping man-made islands in the placid San Pedro Bay. The islands were ingeniously designed in a bowl shape, so that runoff would not contaminate the surrounding water.
“Our goal was to come up with a plan for total landscaping of the islands and complete screening of derricks and equipment,” Harry D. Aggers, vice president of THUMS Long Beach Co. told the Independent Press-Telegram. “We were searching for a concept that not only would screen distracting ugliness, but also would add to the natural beauty of the coastland.”
They soon assembled a dream team for their asserted mission. The Los Angeles firm of Linesch and Reynolds was hired, with landscape architect Joseph Linesch acting as principal.
Linesch and his firm were noted for their innovative theme parks and fantastical designs, having worked on the original Disneyland, Astroworld in Houston, the California Exposition, the Tahoe Keys in Nevada, and the Rancho California in Riverside County. Linesch had also concealed an oil derrick in Venice with a lighthouse-like structure, and another on Pico Boulevard, behind a faux-modern metal office building.
“They have knowledge and experience in designing landscapes for oil well drilling operations and covers for derricks,” Aggers explained when he announced the firm’s hiring. “The results have been esthetically pleasing.”
Linesch stated that his goal was to “design total landscaping for the islands and evolve covers for the oil well drilling derricks so as to provide maximum safeguards against unsightliness and detriment to the natural beauty of the surrounding area.”
This was part of his larger mission to transform the Long Beach Waterfront into the “Rivera of the West.” Linesch predicted that the islands would “blend with the coastal landscaping, the beginnings of which are now being installed by the city of Long Beach along its shoreline.”
“The City of Long Beach had originally proposed making the islands look like a tropical island from the South Pacific,” says Julia Larson, reference archivist UC Santa Barbara Art Museum. “But Linesch and Reynolds decided that the proximity of the islands to the downtown core of Long Beach would not make sense, so they designed the islands to look like buildings.”
The city smartly chose to accept LA native Linesch’s vision. Linesch was known as a modern, forward thinker, who saw “landscape architecture as an opportunity to influence and enrich society,” by promoting multiculturalism and minimizing visual and environmental pollution.
His past and future work would include projects for the Queen Mary, Pepperdine University, Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, EPCOT at Disneyworld, the east sculpture garden at LACMA, and Busch Gardens in Van Nuys. He would also serve a short stint as the director of Landscape Architecture at Disney Enterprise.
Sculptor Henry J. Goldman was brought onto the project, as was Morgan “Bill” Evans, who along with Ruth Shellhorn and Linesch, had landscaped much of the original Disneyland, including the park’s famed fictive landscapes. He would eventually become the director of landscape design for Disneyworld in Florida, and even work on the layout of Hong Kong Disney in his old age.
Also on the team were Tom Marchese, Long Beach’s deputy city engineer, and Donald D. Obert, Long Beach Park Director. Obert was brought on because it was estimated that in around 35 years, the islands would cease producing oil, and be turned into popular, tourist-drawing island parks.
This prediction would prove false.
The plans for the islands sprung out of the growing pains of environmentalism that were a major factor in industrial design during the 1960s.
Called the “aesthetic mitigation of technology” by one historian, it sought to conceal and minimize the inconveniences and ugliness that industrial plants produced, without actually attacking the root problems of production and pollution.
In many ways this ploy succeeded, the kitschy novelty of the design seems to have gotten much more press than the hundreds of wells (some of which stretch through piping far inland) the landscaping concealed. In 1966, a reporter for the Independent Press Telegram gushed:
If the final results are as spectacular as the technicolor sketches, the multibillion-dollar quads well may become the greatest tourist attraction this side of Disneyland… the four derricks on each of the 10-acre islands will be dressed for starring roles as high-rise structures, complete with colorful panels and balconies- presenting a place of interesting shadows by day, dramatic lighting by night.
Construction began in 1965 and continued through 1968. Every element had a purpose. The large waterfalls were designed to muffle the sounds of the oil derricks and machines, and Goldman’s sleek curving melon panels hid oil equipment. Borrowing tricks from Disney, derricks and even some trees and shrubs were placed on tracks for quick mobility.
According to the curators at the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach:
What resulted was a camouflage that employed waterfalls, palm trees and shrubs set against abstract, brightly colored concrete walls and 180-foot tall towers – all dramatically lit at night. Linesch & Reynolds . . . worked to create a fantasy environment that would mask the working mechanical equipment of the oil platforms and relate the islands visually to adjacent urban Long Beach.
The completed islands were considered a huge success in the field of landscaping architecture and engineering. In 1966, THUMS was feted for being the outstanding engineering achievement of the year by the National Society of Professional Engineers.
Furthering the hip, space-age theme, in 1967 each island was named after early astronauts killed in the line of duty: White, Grissom, Chaffee, and Freeman. That lead to their nickname, the “Astronaut Islands.”
These strange, otherworldly islands, closed to all but those who worked on them, became a Long Beach icon.
“Long Beach marina boat owners having parties have been known to request that the waterfall and nightlights on Island Grissom be left on past 10 p.m.,” a profile in the Oil and Gas Journal reported. “THUMS accommodates them. More than once, a waterfall has been turned on to serve as a backdrop for a wedding on a nearby boat.”
Employees have recalled getting frequent calls from freaked out visitors, warning- “Hey, your building just moved!”
Other times, they are duped, believing the tall movable structures are apartment buildings or hotels. One employee told the Los Angeles Times, “This little old lady wanted to know if she could rent an apartment. I told her we didn’t have any vacancies.”
But underneath the waterfalls and behind the sculptures is a complex oil operation just like any other. According to a reporter who visited the islands in the mid-1990s, the illusion dies as soon as you set foot on the land:
Palms and banana trees rustling in the ocean breeze. Hibiscus and impatiens in bloom. Whitewater tumbling into the sea… But step off the boat and you see that it’s all a facade, propped up with struts and cable, like the television set of “Gilligan’s Island.” This granite atoll—one of four in the harbor—isn’t graced with grass shacks, it’s gridlocked with pipelines and storage vats. Inside the fringe of palm trees, men and women in hard hats scoot around on forklifts or lug heavy pipes.
“They’ve withstood the test of time, because people don’t know what they are,” Kurt G.F. Helfrich, a curator at the University of California, Santa Barbara Art Museum, where Linesch’s papers reside, told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s a playfulness about them. There is very much pulling wool over your eyes.”
The islands have had a relatively clean track record, with no major spills or disasters to their name. In April, however, the Center for Biological Diversity slapped claims of around 290 violations on the California Resources Group, whose subsidiary is THUMS Long Beach Co., claiming that it failed, among other things, to perform integrity tests for injection wells. The state regulatory agency declined to issue civil penalties. (Critics have charged that agency has long been too lenient on oil producers in the area).
THUMS have also brought a more than $4 billion payday to both the state and the city of Long Beach. Also reaping financial rewards are the 6,000 Long Beach landowners living near the shore who had stakes in the oil field.
“Even today, we’re cutting over 6,000 individual checks monthly,” Komin said in 2015. “Many of those town lot owners have passed them down to their heirs that might live in other parts of the world. The checks go to a lot of different places!”
And so, THUMS roll on, their legacy one of delightful, and not yet deadly, deceit.
“Beauty pays off,” Linesch said long ago. “The people are happier, land values go up, business comes, and people and tourists stop and linger and spend money. We’ve just proved that oil and people do mix.”
- Mapping the long history of oil drilling in LA [Curbed LA]