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To: Matthew Alice:

Every time I drive down Sixth Avenue to 163 north, I see a strange pinkish building on my left on the grounds of Mercy Hospital. It's strange because the highest five or six of its 10 or so stories seem to go nowhere. The building is a sliver; there is no room on those top floors for more than one small room, and the stairway itself. So why did they build it, and what is its purpose?

-- Linda Perry, San Diego

Dear Mr. Hip:

There is a structure that has been perplexing the heebie jeebies out of me for over two years now. It is a building next to Mercy Hospital. It looks as if it is only large enough to contain a stairwell that just goes straight up. Could this be Mercy's own Stairway to Heaven for their most dearly departed, or a way for the doctors to consult with the big guy in private? Please help me. I am almost desperate enough to find out myself.

-- Jason K., North Park

Dear Matt:

I commute to work in the UTC area using Miramar Road. In the course of my travels, I have noticed an ominous-looking set of huge gray buildings on Equalization Road, just before Miramar crosses the 805. There aren't any signs out front. I've never seen any people or vehicles. There aren't even any windows visible. What is this place? Secret antiterrorist commando training camp? Weapons testing laboratory? Martian precolonization headquarters? The public must know the truth!

-- Carlos B., Miramar

Easy there, cálmate, Carlos -- assuming we're talking about the same buildings. Sorta tan (not gray), little white pyramid thingies on top? Not so much ominous as kinda, well, sneaky -- hunkered down in the landscape. One reason you don't see any signs is because when you're at Miramar and Equalization, you're looking at the wrong end of the dog. It's the backside of the city's new water reclamation plant. If one day you decide to play hooky and you head north on 805 instead of to UTC, you'll see the rest of the complex spread along the freeway -- more tan bunkers and white pyramids. Real people work in some of the buildings. Far as I know, they're not colonizing planets or hatching bomb plots, unless you count that toilet-to-tap thing.

And as for Mercy Hospital's unique wedgie building, somewhere around here we had a whole bucket of inquiries about the thing, but the elves could only come up with these two. They tell me the rest were sacrificed during that big confetti emergency last New Year's Eve. If you were one of the many who asked but didn't get your name in the paper, well, that's the chance you take when you deal with elves.

So, anyway, rather than some Legoland fantasy, Mercy's big pink cereal box teetering on the brink of 163 is the product of sound financial management. Once upon a time, it was a fully integrated part of the hospital building. It was exiled during a remodel in the 1960s, when the rest of the building was knocked down. The odd box is an elevator shaft that still connects the ground-floor clinic to part of the hospital. It apparently was cheaper to give the elevator its own building than to install a new elevator in the new building or modify the new building plan to incorporate the old elevator. A literal example of "thinking outside the box," yes?

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