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Fate of Old Buildings Has No Certainty : Glamorous Past Doesn’t Prevent Neglect, Razing

Times Staff Writer

“Welcome to Beirut West.”

Actor Werner Klemperer greeted a visitor with this when he was one of the last tenants in the partially demolished and decaying Sunset Towers in August, 1982. Today, the building is still one of the monumental eyesores in the Los Angeles basin.

They’re actually monuments--of the historical kind, but they have fallen into disuse, disrepair and disgrace. Victims of vandals and/or developers who didn’t finish what they started--whether it was demolition or rehabilitation, the buildings, vacant sometimes for years, are each a sad reminder of a glorious past, unfortunate present and uncertain future.

Such has been the lot of Sunset Towers, Sunset Plaza Apartments and Pacific Coast Club. The neo-baroque but dilapidated Garden Court Apartments at 7021 Hollywood Blvd., home in the 1920s and ‘30s to film colony stalwarts such as Louis B. Mayer and Mack Sennett, was razed last year after being closed since 1980. In the end, the rubble-strewn haven for drifters and runaways was known as “Hotel Hell.”

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And what of the others?

Building Boarded Up

After the lobby of the 47-year-old Sunset Plaza Apartments, just off the Sunset Strip at 1220 Sunset Plaza Drive, was bulldozed last July, that part of the two-story, 25-unit building was boarded up. Said Mark L. Brown, a deputy city attorney:

“The owners were ordered to cover up the exposed part of the building so the elements wouldn’t destroy it, and they were told to prepare an environmental impact report before reporting back to the Building & Safety Commission. When we have the EIR, the city will determine if the building will be demolished or not.”

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Armando Flores of the Building & Safety Department added, “It could be another six to nine months before there is anything definite on this.”

Designed by the late architect Paul Williams, the Spanish-Colonial style apartments housed many celebrities. Among them were Tommy Dorsey, Dorothy Lamour, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Farrell, Mitzi Gaynor, David Wolper, Joan Caulfield, Richard Arlen, Jimmy Dean and, more recently, Bernadette Peters and Robert Forster.

Besides Klemperer, who is probably best known for his role as Col. Wilhelm Klink on the old, weekly TV show “Hogan’s Heroes,” Sunset Towers was supposed to have been home in the past to Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jerry Buss, Lloyd Pantages of the Pantages theater family, Paulette Goddard, Howard Hughes and Errol Flynn.

Early High-Rise

John Wayne, who lived in the penthouse, purportedly brought a cow into the building at 3 a.m. so his guests, who had gathered for coffee, could have some fresh cream.

Designed by Leland A. Bryant in 1930, the 46-unit building at 8358 Sunset Blvd. was one of the best examples of large-scale apartment Art Deco Moderne architecture in Los Angeles. It was one of the first high-rise reinforced concrete buildings built in California.

It’s been called “as much an emblem of Hollywood as the Hollywood sign,” but due to a foreclosure and extensive litigation, it has been deteriorating for years. Like the Garden Court Apartments, it has attracted vagrants, according to Kay McGraw, president of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “Somehow, no matter what precautions are taken, people forage into these old abandoned buildings,” she said, “and we’ve been concerned.”

McGraw may not be concerned much longer because principal litigation involving the Sunset Towers has been settled. When contacted, Michael L. Klemens, a vice president of the Abacus Group, announced that his firm is negotiating with a developer to restore the building. As successful bidder at the foreclosure sale, a subsidiary of Abacus acquired title to Sunset Towers in December, 1982, but litigation involving title claims continued even after the sale.

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Loves the Building

“I’ve been in the real estate business since 1958, and I never before saw anything so legally messed up, but it looks now as if there is a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel,” Klemens said. “I am an Art Deco aficionado and love the building, so--hopefully--it will be restored into a first-class property--a hotel or commercial property, because turning it into a condo or apartment building doesn’t make economic sense.”

Standing there--deserted and rotting--doesn’t make economic sense either, but this has also been the fate of the Pacific Coast Club at 850 E. Ocean Blvd., in Long Beach.

A fine, private men’s club in its day, the massive--140,546-square-foot--structure, designed by the architectural firm of Curlett & Beelman and built in 1926, has been vacant, except for some vandals and occasional curiosity seekers, real estate agents and potential buyers, for 15 years.

Robert Paternoster, Long Beach planning director, explained that the building has been involved in bankruptcy proceedings. “It has been condemned,” he added, “but we’re working with the trustee to get it fixed up or demolished.”

Disaster on Inside

Designed by A. B. Heinsbergen & Co., its ornate interiors have been destroyed. Yet, the gargoyles, turrets and solid-looking, concrete-and-steel construction that have inspired onlookers to call the club a castle remain.

“The inside is a complete disaster,” Jerry Greisman of JTM Brokerage Corp. in Long Beach, said, “but the frame of the building could be utilized as a great hotel. In fact, we prepared a feasibility study showing how that would work.” Greisman is working to sell the building with Dick Gaylord of JTM, which was given the $6.5-million listing for six months.

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The building is about two blocks away from the Long Beach Convention Center and a block from a new marina, and its 1.55 acres--including about three blocks on Ocean Boulevard--are what Greisman described as “the only privately owned land on the beach in Long Beach.”

However, it would take deep pockets--an estimated $15 million to $18 million, including purchase price, by one account--to restore, though the building would qualify for an investment tax credit as a property on the Department of Interior’s National Registry of Historic Places.

“We’re interested in somebody with the wherewithal and ability to close escrow--not in somebody syndicating the building. The bottom line is that somebody must buy it as is, but along with that, I think the city would cooperate with the buyer to preserve the building,” Greisman added.

Not Optimistic

Paternoster was not optimistic about the building being restored. “It would be difficult to rehabilitate, and the likelihood is that it will be demolished,” he said. “A child was killed in there about a month ago, so we are concerned about it.”

The building was boarded up and padlocked with a fence around it, but a young boy found his way into the dark interior and fell into an elevator shaft, said Karen Clements of the Long Beach Cultural Commission. “That’s the problem with vacant buildings,” she said. “They’re an invitation to explore.”

Since the boy’s death, a security guard has been stationed on the property, she added.

Vacant buildings, no matter how historical, can be dangerous as well as ugly, but Greisman echoed the sentiments of preservationists about the Pacific Coast Club and similar structures when he said, “She’s a lovely old lady who’s been abused, and she doesn’t deserve to be torn down.”

This is also true, said Ruthann Lehrer of the Los Angeles Conservancy, of the historic Jergins Trust building, eight blocks west of the Pacific Coast Club at Ocean Boulevard and Pine Avenue, and the Rapp Saloon, the oldest building in Santa Monica, at 1438 2nd St.

Demolition Permit

Neither is in such poor shape as the other buildings mentioned, but a demolition permit has been issued for the Jergins Trust, an Art Deco, terra cotta-clad structure started in 1915 and completed in 1925. And owners have filed for a “certificate of appropriateness,” leading to a demolition permit, for the Rapp Saloon, built about 1873 as a saloon but later used, at different times, as the Santa Monica City Hall, city jail, one of the first movie studios in the Los Angeles area, and an art gallery.

The 900-square-foot Rapp Saloon and an adjacent vacant lot have been listed with Jim Dunham at the Victorian Register in Los Angeles at a price of $1.26 million, but the certificate of appropriateness expires on July 2, according to Karen Rosenberg, a Santa Monica city planner. “Demolition would need city approval,” she added, “but that would not be held up for landmark status.” The Rapp Saloon has been vacant for a couple of years.

The 10-story Jergins Trust is not officially on the market. “But we’re marketing it,” Clements said. Tenants have been given notice to get out of the building by June, she continued, “and the managers/developers have indicated that they plan to start tearing it down in July. We’ve been bringing in developers with offers, but none has been accepted yet.” The asking price? She sighed. “They’re talking $7.3 million, and so far, the developers we’ve found say that doesn’t pencil out.”

The plight of these buildings concerns the Conservancy’s Lehrer, who can point to such successful historic renovations in Los Angeles as the Fine Arts Building on West 7th Street, Oviatt Building on 6th Street and, most recently, the Wiltern Theatre, which opened May 1, and its Pellissier Building, which is still being tailored for some retail uses to accommodate its office workers, Wiltern Theatre-goers and possible hotel guests, who would be housed in another structure planned on the site.

About places like the Pacific Coast Club, she said:

“It seems to us a shame to see these wonderful buildings going to waste, particularly when some of them could provide such wonderful opportunities for development and adaptive reuse.”


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