September 12, 2013

Imaginations Lift Off at Los Arboles "Rocketship" Park

  • By: Lauren Walser
The Rocketship Park. Credit: Neil Klemer, Flickr.
The Rocketship Park in Torrance, California.

For generations of children who have grown up in Torrance, Calif., traveling to outer space was as easy as visiting Los Arboles “Rocketship” Park.

The highlight of the 6.3-acre park, completed in the 1960s, has long been the 28-foot-tall rocket ship play structure, purchased from a catalog of playground equipment shortly after a local developer donated the land for the park to the city.

On any given day for the last five decades, park visitors would see children scaling the ladder inside the ship from one level to the next and careening down the metal slide on the outside of the structure.

“Kids feel like they’re blasting off into space,” says Janet Payne, a vice president with Torrance Historical Society.

The Rocketship Park opens to a stunning vista of the city. Credit: Woolennium, Flickr.
The Rocketship Park opens to a stunning vista of the city.

The rocket ship was installed during the height of the Space Race, following the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. Torrance, an area with a long history in the aerospace industry, was a perfect setting for both the rocket ship and the park’s other major feature, a metal replica of a lunar module.

The park was even featured in an issue of Life magazine in March 1963.

But in the early 1990s, as the city was reviewing its playground equipment in each of its many parks, the metal rocket ship was targeted as a safety concern. It was removed in February 1992.

The move sparked uproar. More than 100 protestors, including some of the region’s aerospace engineers, contacted the city, demanding the rocket ship be returned.

“[The city] had never seen anything like this,” Payne says.

Kids play at the Rocketship Park. Credit: tHis1tRik4U, Flickr.
Kids play at the Rocketship Park.

But city officials heard the protesters and vowed to bring the iconic structure back. It was sent to a specialist, where it was rehabilitated, repaired, and brought up to code, complete with new safety features. The lunar module play piece was also repaired.

That September, seven months after its removal, the rocket ship returned to the park, and the city celebrated with a rededication ceremony. The Torrance Historical Society installed a plaque on one of the ship’s fins, declaring the structure’s historic status in town, and the park, historically called Los Arboles Park, added “Rocketship” to its name.

Today, Los Arboles “Rocketship” Park remains one of the most popular parks in Torrance. And the rocket ship continues to be a huge draw.

“Kids can climb up the ship, no problem,” Payne says. “But if a grown-up tries, well, it’s much harder. But, you know, they climbed up there as kids, and now they take their own kids to do the same. It’s such a special place.”

The Los Arboles park. Credit: Woolennium, Flickr.
The Los Arboles park.

Located at one of the highest points in the city, the park offers sweeping views of Southern California’s South Bay region and, on particularly clear days, landmarks like the Getty Center and Hollywood sign. And the view from the top of the rocket ship, Payne says, is even more spectacular.

“The rocket ship is a neighborhood icon,” Payne says. “Everyone feels very, very protective of it. It’s a point of pride for the whole city.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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