In the Oakland Hills, we were sitting on a Cold War relic that had been ignored for decades – until it was rediscovered and used by Oakland performance artists. The story begins with a Chrysler Air Raid Siren, which was dusted off and lovingly saved for posterity by Oaklander Jack Schroll.
“I could not let this piece of history go to the scrap pile,” Schroll explained. “I have made a good living in Oakland for the last 33 years and I feel this is a small something to give back. I will never sell the siren.”
Run For Cover
Remember fall out shelters? After World War II, Americans were drilled in how they should respond to missiles and other enemy threats while at home, work or school. You were supposed to duck and run for cover when you heard the dreaded siren. (Don’t worry, it was before my time too.)
Around the country, there were a series of alert systems set up to communicate with citizens. You probably know about the “emergency alert” tests conducted by TV and radio stations. In addition, extremely loud air raid sirens were installed to let everyone know something was, well, very wrong.
History Of Victory Sirens
Chrysler manufactured many of these long-distance horns, including one model that put out 138 decibels and produced 30,000 watts of power. They only delivered a few hundred of these monsters, between 1952 to 1957. Of course, the sirens were tested regularly and maybe helped deflect Americans’ fears.
One siren could be heard four to five miles away. The siren operator also could be remote, since he was able to turn it on or off by “high tech” telephone. According to Victory Siren, “the loudness of this siren is unmatched by any other warning device ever sold, ever. It’s also considerably louder than the largest steam whistle or horn.”
Our Woodminster Siren
Our local Chrysler had been perched atop the Woodminster Amphitheater, in Joaquin Miller Park. After years of neglect, Oaklander Jack Schroll decided it was worth saving. Schroll had to battle the City of Oakland, but his mission was a roaring success.
There were actually five documented sirens in Oakland, including two that still existed on Lafayette School and Woodminster Amphitheater roofs. The Woodminster siren seemed to be in very good shape, in a protected spot for decades. Years of summer theater-goers had no clue it was there, but Jack knew otherwise.
Schroll first submitted approvals for restoring both sirens and spent nearly two years wrestling his request through the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board. In April 2007, the Preservation Board granted their unanimous approval (see PDF). The Oakland Unified School District and City of Oakland later gave their thumbs-up, since the sirens were owned by those entities.
Siren Extrication Begins
Now that Jack had the rights, extrication and refurbishment presented the next hurdles. I was able to reach him a while back, and asked about the steps involved:
It was a matter of preparing the proper documents. I had to send a copy of the crane operators license to the City Attorney’s office along with proof of insurance. This was a little tricky as everything really had to happen at the same time. The City issued a permit to remove property on a given date. I had to coordinate with the Public Works Dept and the City Attorney’s office. There were a few snags and I must give credit to the City Attorney. They actually stayed late on a Friday night so we could proceed on Saturday. This was done mid May.
Once we had the [Landmark Approval] letter in hand, we contacted Skyscraper Cranes of SF. They did a site survey and gave me an estimate. I approved the estimate and we set a date. Although the Siren weighs only 6000 pounds, it took a 75 ton crane to remove it. This was due to the fact we had to reach over some tall trees to hook on to it. It took myself and my crew about three hours to remove the wiring and unbolt it from the roof.
We set it down on a trailer and took it to my shop. Like a kid with a new toy, we began that day inspecting it. On eBay, I found an original owners manual for the siren. What are the chances of that? We found the siren was intact, but the engine had serious damage due to the freeze in the Oakland Hills in the early 70’s. We had to repair the block and replace the cylinder heads. We then found a replacement fluid drive as the existing unit was not serviceable.
The Siren Works
In just two short months, Jack Schroll did his very first “run up” of the siren on July 4, 2007. The siren debuted later that summer to a huge audience, and has been part of the performance art scene ever since.
Schroll continues to make sure all the mechanical aspects of the siren work well, and has plans to work on the outside cosmetics too. But it’s all about that sound, that remarkable siren blast.
More info: Find out where the Oakland Victory Siren has appeared, it will surprise you – Oakland’s Victory Siren Comes To Life.