Unusual Real Estate Listing #24213
Lookout Mountain Lab

185 Lookout Mountain Lab. CLUI photo

WE REPORTED ON LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN, the former secret government film studio, located in the hills above the Sunset Strip, in the Fall 1997 issue of this newsletter, as it was notable then for its mere existence. Now, Lookout Mountain is for sale.

The site was first developed in 1941, as a control station for military radar sites on nearby mountaintops. After the war, the building was expanded and its mission changed. It became the main photo and film studio for the documentation of the new atomic age. Called Lookout Mountain Air Force Station, the 52,000 square foot building opened in 1947, after Operation Crossroads, the nation’s first nuclear test series. Lookout Mountain contained a full soundstage, film processing labs for 16- and 35-mm motion picture film, facilities for optical printing, animation, and editing, screening rooms, and film storage vaults.

As many as 250 people worked there, in the only totally self-contained film studio in Hollywood. It operated in complete secrecy, producing classified films for internal use by the federal government, drawing experts from the local industry, and occasionally using well-known actors (including James Stewart and Ronald Reagan) for hosts and narrators.

Just about all the classic footage of Pacific atomic tests, as well as from the Nevada Test Site was produced and shot by staff from Lookout Mountain, and processed, edited, and printed there. Some footage found its way into wider distribution, used for civil defense and public education. But nearly all of the estimated 6,500 films produced at Lookout Mountain remain classified.

In 1997, a declassification program supported by the energy secretary under President Clinton was initiated, compelled by the release of new footage uncovered and presented in the film Trinity and Beyond, by Los Angeles filmmaker Pete Kuran. Kuran helped select the films for declassification, and to preserve the films for the government. He produced four more documentaries using the declassified footage, images that up to then had never seen the light of day. The declassification was stopped after 9/11, with fewer than 100 films making it into the public. The bulk of the product of Lookout Mountain remains entombed in the classified vaults of the Defense Threat Reduction Information Analysis Center, at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.

By the late 1960s the formerly remote canyon was now heavily developed, due to a post-war boom that the lab helped generate. Neighbors were getting upset with the lab’s traffic and its industrial activities – it’s on the very narrow and steep Wonderland Avenue, which became lined with homes. Also, atomic testing was forced underground, making for less photogenic activities, and for a change in the function and technology of documentation (the technical bomb photography was continued by the EG&G company, based in Nevada and Massachusetts). So in 1969 Lookout Mountain Lab was shut down, and was auctioned off. It became a private residence at the peak of the countercultural period that bloomed in Hollywood, and especially in Laurel Canyon.

Laurel Canyon in the ‘60s and ‘70s was Los Angeles’ Haight-Ashbury, full of wild parties and music. Its residents at that time included Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, Dusty Springfield, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, the Mammas and Pappasin fact just about every famous rock star of that era. Even the past and present California Governor, Jerry Brown, and that other wild and crazy guy Steve Martin lived in the canyon then.

Not much of what went on in the 52,000 square feet of the former Lookout Mountain Lab in this period is as yet part of the public record, though hopefully it remains in a few people’s hazy memory, and will find its way to print, someday. But, as some form of testimony to what transpired, Lookout Mountain emerged from that era with a dozen more exotically tiled bathtub spas than it had originally.

The property ended up being put up for auction again in 1994. The sale took place on January 18, the day after the Northridge earthquake. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge and his partner, a painter (apparently, the only people who showed up), bought it for $750,000. Under their stewardship more renovations were done, including improvements to the pool, and the creation of around ten thousand square feet of gallery space, covered with their paintings. The sound stage is now an art studio, and there are several apartments scattered around the building. It is only a bungalow or two smaller than the largest private home in Los Angeles, the 56,500 square foot Manor, built by TV producer Aaron Spelling. The lower, darker level, remains relatively unchanged. Institutional hallways with peeling paint and acoustic tile lead to screening rooms, stripped of their chairs, and to a dozen film vaults with combination dials on their doors and empty shelves. It’s a labyrinth.

The current owners put Lookout Mountain on the market in September, 2010, around the time that the New York Times had a story about the Bomb Chroniclers, which mentioned the building’s historic role. The real estate listing describes it as a personal residence/creative space and a Warhol Factory Style compound that could not be duplicated today. Indeed.

Asking price $6,300,000. Contact real estate agent Brett Lawyer, Sotheby’s International Realty, (310) 888-3808.

*All of Pete Kuran’s movies are available for sale through the CLUI. The original government films that were declassified are available on DVD from the Department of Energy, for $10 each, though many are available for free on the internet at places like the Prelinger Archives.