Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Whither the “Cube”

Mt Umunhum's radar tower

Look to the southwest from anywhere in the south San Francisco bay and you can spot it up there on the mountain. If you get high enough in the Diablo range you can spot it from more than 50 miles away with the naked eye. So what is that huge boxy looking thing way up there? Its Mt Umunhum’s derelict remains of a cold war era radar tower. Long decommissioned, it sits there crumbling. So the question is; is that huge monolithic “cube” sitting there on the summit a glaring eyesore marring the skyline of the coastal mountain range, or is it really an important historical relic that deserves to be preserved? That is one of the most important questions to be addressed at the next public meeting scheduled for the evening of October 17th in Sunnyvale. Go to the Mt Umunhum project page on MidPen's website to learn more.

It seems that history can have a very different context depending on how you choose to look at it. Natural history of course would be that of the flora and fauna that flourished unimpeded across this range for untold centuries. Make no mistake; in times past, the natural beauty of this region as documented by first hand accounts in early times is nothing less than glorious. One only needs to read the personal account of John Muir’s 1868 ramble from San Francisco to Yosemite in order to get a sense of what the overall San Jose area looked like before being overtaken by modern times. It’s a classic. Sierra Azul is actually one of my favorite wild flower sites. Also of significance is the role of the mountain in the lore of the Ohlone people that dwelled here for many generations, long before Europeans had ever come to these shores. Modern history however is a very different story. Modern history brought us the history of the cold war and of the Almaden Air Force Base. The radar station that was built on top of Mt Umunhum was one amongst a series of similar sites that formed part of a defensive network of outposts keeping watch on the coast. First operating in 1957, and evolving thereafter, there were probably thousands of military personnel that once worked and/or lived there in the line of duty. The base was a bustling nerve center before technology finally outpaced it making it obsolete and leading to its decommissioning.

View to Mt Umunhum
Fast forward to present time; the site is now owned by MidPeninsula Open Space District. The district has been involved in a long and laborious cleanup and restoration project for years, with the eventual goal of opening the summit to public access as open space. The original vision was for a return to natural habitat, demolishing all remnants of the former Air Force base following toxic material cleanup. Following that the site would be allowed to slowly return to something like its former glory. The more simple and cost effective plan is for an unobstructed panorama of view, a decent road, parking areas, restrooms, a few picnic tables, some interpretive boards, additional hiking trails, and that’s about it. Give it back to nature. After all, lots of people see the tower merely as an ugly intrusion on the natural landscape, my own wife among them. Personally I am fine with that plan, and in fact have been eager to welcome the public opening, but there are others that have a different vision for what should happen on the site, and how the site should be developed.

There is a petition now being circulated to save the radar tower. The proponents of this petition, which appears to have been spearheaded by a group of retired service personnel, are of the opinion that the radar tower has historical significance and should be saved regardless of cost. They offer no financial planning or support for this idea, but that is their desire. This group has further deemed that they would like to have a visitor’s center constructed which would contain historical information about the cold war military history of the site with the centerpiece being the preserved radar tower. They further expect for the site at Umunhum to be grand enough to rival those of Mt Diablo or Mt Tamalpias in order to properly pay homage to what they see as the important historical context of the former Air Force base. And to top it all off, they expect for MidPen to cover all the additional costs to preserve the crumbling concrete cube, and construct all of the elaborate accruements they desire. One newspaper article published in the San Jose Mercury even makes a passing reference to the possibility of a lawsuit being files in an attempt to prevent the district from demolishing any of the remnants of the former Air Force base without being formally reviewed by the county for any historical significance that they might deem exists in all that decomposing and formally toxic debris.

In any case, The Mt Umunhum project page on MidPen’s website includes three possible options for how to approach this issue. The first option is to go ahead with the original plan to demolish all remnants of the base, including the tower, and return the summit to as near as possible to a natural state. The second option is to partially demolish the tower, and keep only the first floor outer wall of the structure, forming it into an open air monument. The third option is to completely seal and preserve the immense cube. Artist conception drawings are presented of all three options. The MidPen website makes no mention of any visitor’s center structure.

With all due respect to the military history of the site, and to those who performed their duty by serving there, in my opinion the real historical significance of the Air Force base is quite minimal. The site is not unique, and there were no battles fought there. It’s not like it was freakin Omaha Beach or Gettysburg or something like that. I suspect these guys actually had it good there compared to those who served in a real fighting war in some God forsaken corner of the world like some of my old friends. I would imagine that it was not unlike the duty that I myself performed when I in the service. I too am also a former serviceman, and during my 4 year stint on active duty in the 70s, I was stationed at Teufelsberg in Berlin. Teufelsberg was at the time a top secret facility with an intensive, live, cold war ear mission shrouded in mystery. We worked very hard, but we always had it comparatively good. I have to admit it makes me a little sad to see pictures on the internet of the dilapidated condition of the Teufelsberg site following it’s decommissioning after the close of the cold war era. And like Umunhum, it has a group of former servicemen who are trying to save it. In my opinion it’s really up to the people who live in the region to decide whether they think Teufelsberg is important to their history. Or is it just an eyesore?

Let me be clear about one thing. I would support the idea of preserving the tower, and even of constructing a visitor’s center, provided that some alternative funding can be worked out. I do not support the idea of forcing MidPen to pay for these costly developments if that is not part of their vision. As stated earlier, I do not support the idea that the tower on Umunhum has significant historical value. Just because it was military doesn’t make it noteworthy enough to sweat over. Sorry, but nothing really historical happened there. Sorry if that make anyone angry, and I mean no disrespect, but it’s the truth. If some county historical board decides to declare different, then we will all be forced to accept it, but in my opinion the natural value of the site and the profile of the landscape are more important than a gigantic monument to a bunch of people who were, at the end of the day, just doing their duty, like the countless many who served at other military outposts all over the world who have no monument to their service. Not to mention those who really sacrificed, and even paid the ultimate price, and likewise have no monument.


Katie (Nature ID) said...

I've been fascinated witnessing the creation of parks and monuments that will exist long after we're gone. The cube seems to have become a visual landmark or eyesore. You have an interesting point of view. I'm curious to know what Cindy thinks, even though I doubt she could publicly comment. I've wavered as I read your post, MidPen's process, Wikipedia, and newspaper articles. I'm a little surprised to find out sealing and repairing is more expensive than the open air option, or even razing it completely, and hauling out all the debris. Continuing maintenance costs might eventually become a major issue (I can see it being a magnet for graffiti and vandalism). What do you think about the 5-year plan to have the proponents raise the remaining funds? I'm thinking it's too soon to truly see the historical significance of a radar station. How will people view the site in 75 years or more if the cube is saved? The views from atop that thing must be incredible. I'll be curious to find out what decisions are made come Wednesday.

Waypoints said...

Hi Katie,

My position actually has not changed at all since learing about this little conflict. I think its fine to have the radar station commemorated, save the cube, and even build a visitor'c center if the proponents of the petition can find a way to fund it. It may come down to a review and decision by some county officials. I am totally opposed to a shakedown lawsuit to force MidPen to do it.

Waypoints said...

Now that I think of it Katie, you may have something there. What if the cube were rebuilt into an observation tower? that might be cool. You also have a good point about the graffiti. Without having full time staff there's no deterent to vandalism.

Katie (Nature ID) said...

I also found an editorial suggesting MidPenn should sell the summit to Santa Clara County Parks to develop since the historical bit would be better suited to the County Park's mission. However, I doubt SCCP has enough resources to get the funding to do this. Do you know how last night's meeting went and what decisions were made?

ps - Your comment CAPTCHAs are very difficult to decipher. I have to prove I'm not a robot repeatedly, but really I can't decipher the fuzzy photos. With your comment moderation on, maybe you could remove the CAPTCHA?

Waypoints said...

I was at the meetng last evening. Sue got up and made comments, but I declined. What was decided was to implement the 5 year plan with the fence around the cube. This option will allow the site to open to the public, while still allowing the cube proponents time to find the funding to preserve it. I plan a blog post when I get some time.

I had the same opinion of the county option. The county never committed any support to the idea. It was just an idea someone had.

I will look into the problem you had with the difficult to decypher photos.