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Angel’s Gate Park in San Pedro was once part of Fort MacArthur, an Army base with cannons (and later missiles) to protect Los Angeles Harbor. Today it’s a Los Angeles city park that, along with nice views of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and the ocean, is home to an exotic and colorful monument. Dedicated in 1976, the Korean Friendship Bell and Pavilion was a gift from the Republic of (South) Korea. It commemorates the United States Bicentennial and the friendship between the United States and South Korea. It also honors veterans of the Korean War.
The giant bronze bell is modeled on the eighth-century Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok the Great, the largest bell ever cast in Korea and one of the “national treasures of South Korea.” The Korean Friendship Bell, also cast in South Korea, has similar dimensions: 3.7 meters high, 2.3 meters across, and weighs 18.7 tonnes. It’s decorated with four pairs of figures in relief. Each pair includes a “goddess of liberty” resembling the Statue of Liberty in New York, and a seonnyeo (Korean spirit figure) holding a national symbol of South Korea.
The bell has no clapper. It’s rung with a painted wooden log during special ceremonies held five times each year: New Year’s Eve, 14 January (Korean American Day), 4 July (United States Independence Day), 15 August (South Korean Independence Day), and during the week of 17 to 23 September (United States Constitution Week). Dignitaries sometimes fly in from South Korea to participate in the ceremonies. During the rest of the year, a locked iron chain on the log secures the bell against unauthorized ringing.
A sign in Korean Hangul script on the west side of the monument announces the official name of the pavilion: Ujeong-ui Jong Gak, the “Belfry of Friendship.” Thirty South Korean craftsman spent ten months building the belfry. Twelve red columns, representing the animals of the Chinese/Korean zodiac, support a swept “pyramidal” roof and decorated ceiling from which the bell hangs.
The pavilion’s design and decoration represent a traditional Korean style called dancheong. Dancheong is most often used in temples and palaces, where intricate designs decorate furnishings as well as the buildings. The decorations include stylized carvings, geometric floral patterns, and dragons.
The bell and pavilion were completely refurbished in 2013. After 37 years they had accumulated serious damage from the elements, and from human and avian vandals. When I first visited in 2002, a green patina coated the bell; the pavilion’s paint was also noticeably weathered and faded. During a ringing ceremony in 2010, a metal strip attaching the bell to the ceiling broke, leaving the bell hanging precariously. The monument must have been a sorry sight by 2013.
Even if the City of Los Angeles had the budget for the necessary restoration, there were no available craftsmen with expertise in Korean bronze bells and dancheong. A local preservation committee convinced the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism to put up the money for the refurbishment, and to hire the necessary Korean experts. The bell was restored by a former apprentice to the man originally in charge of casting it. The refurbished bell and pavilion reopened with a ceremony in January 2014.