Preservationists Hope the 'New' Long Beach Won't Level the Old

Times Staff Writer

It was enough to warm a preservationist's heart.

In a week when things old and beautiful were honored across the nation, the restored terra-cotta pastels of the Dr. Rowan Building glistened like new. Across the street, the triple-spired temple the Masons crafted in 1903 had been rescued from a wrecker's ball.

A block farther south, at Pine Avenue and Broadway, a sign below the landmark clock tower on the old Bank of America proclaimed "space available" because of historic restoration.

But, as the nation marked National Historic Preservation Week and as Long Beach approaches its 100th birthday in 1988, local preservationists say another downtown building is more indicative of city government's efforts when it comes to restoring historic structures.

The Jergins Trust Building, an ornate embodiment of the tourist and oil booms that raised its 10 stories in stages from 1914-29, is scheduled for demolition in July.

"I'm afraid demolition is moving faster than preservation," said attorney Donald Lounsbury, chairman of the Cultural Heritage Committee, an advisory body the City Council formed in 1977.

"Here we are planning for the year 2000," said Lounsbury, "but if we don't do something in the next two or three years, we won't have any buildings left worth saving."

In addition to the Jergins, the Pacific Coast Club on Ocean Boulevard just east of downtown, the Fox West Coast Theater on Ocean, Acres of Books on Long Beach Boulevard and the Tichnor House next to the Pacific Coast Club are all threatened, said Doug Otto, president of the private Long Beach Heritage Foundation.

None of the architecturally and historically significant buildings in Long Beach are truly protected, said Lounsbury. As demonstrated by the Jergins building, even the 25 structures designated landmarks by the city can be razed after a maximum city-ordered delay of one year.

That is why Long Beach preservationists--several small loosely knit groups with no paid leadership--were not celebrating Tuesday when the City Council officially reaffirmed its general commitment to architectural heritage and added three more buildings to its list of landmarks.

"Preservation is not a high priority at City Hall," said Lounsbury. "We have been told unofficially that until we show we have a constituency, don't rock the boat. But government has a responsibility to lead. It can't just react to people marching in the streets. Overall, the council members have not faced the need for attention to this matter."

For their part, city officials say they are still resurrecting a downtown that by 1965 had gone 30 years without a major new building, by the mid-1970s had lost half its shops, and by 1978 was cited in one federal study as the sixth most depressed urban area in the country

"If all these buildings were so great, we wouldn't have to redevelop the downtown," said Mayor Ernie Kell. "I feel the private sector are the ones interested in restoring the buildings, so they're the ones who should be involved. I'm just not convinced how involved government should become."

Lounsbury, Otto and others maintain that after seeing several hundred million dollars in new downtown construction during the last decade, it is now time for the city to also focus on saving the best of its past.

In general, what the preservationists say they want is for the City Council to approve a specific plan for saving historic buildings.

Heritage Experts

Other area cities, notably Pasadena and Los Angeles, have done just that by hiring experts in cultural heritage to work hand in hand with redevelopment officials. Those cities, according to spokesmen there, recruit developers to rehabilitate old buildings just as they seek out developers of new ones.

Pasadena has four full-time employees working on urban conservation projects, said Claire Bogaard, executive director of Pasadena Heritage.

In addition, Pasadena has made it illegal for property owners to tear down any building that is at least 50 years old without first having city permits to build a new structure on the site. The Long Beach Cultural Heritage Committee recommended a duplicate ordinance, but the city attorney's office said it would be constitutionally questionable.

The city attorney also said a follow-up proposal that would have restricted demolition of only landmark structures raised too many unresolved legal questions. The 2-year-old Pasadena statute has not been challenged in court, said Bogaard.

Redevelopment Aims

Care should be taken in comparing the restoration efforts of cities, cautioned David Biggs, redevelopment project manager for downtown Long Beach. The substantial investment of Pasadena and other cities with clusters of historical buildings occurred because "the cornerstone of redevelopment in those cities is historical preservation," said Biggs. "In Long Beach new development is anchoring downtown redevelopment."

As evidence that restoration makes economic sense for Long Beach, though, Lounsbury cited a state Heritage Task Force study that says tourists are drawn to cities with well-preserved historical buildings. The city, he said, needs at least one full-time employee to identify historic buildings that should be saved and work with redevelopment to that end.

Some city officials, including Councilman Tom Clark, said that might be a good idea, but the proposal has never been brought to the council. "We are willing to look at any reasonable proposal," he said. "I don't know anybody on the council who is not in favor of preserving buildings identified as being historical."

Clark, in fact, said he was surprised at the preservationists' complaints. The city has rebuffed the Heritage Committee only on the Pasadena-like demolition ordinance, he said. It will make about $830,000 in loans available for restoration of the Dr. Rowan Building and refurbishment of the Masonic Temple. And it has helped provide parking that has made restoration of the old Bank of America Building feasible, he said.

In addition, the Planning Commission upheld the Heritage Committee's recommended one-year delay of demolition of the Jergins building, so supporters could try to find money to refurbish it and prevent construction of a modern hotel on its site, he said.

Commitment Questioned

But businessman Marv Haney, who led the fight to save the Jergins, said the city did little to encourage its restoration. "They will help when you have everything put together," he said. "Most cities around the country have given some bond help to maintain these buildings, but not Long Beach. On paper the city has made a commitment, but their actions don't show it."

One investment company that was interested in refurbishing the Jergins backed off the $7-million purchase, a company official said, because the city said it could not help arrange financing through bonds or grants or help provide parking. Steven Hightower, president of Westcap Financial Group, which specializes in historical renovation, said that without that assistance the purchase made no economic sense.

Haney, chairman of Signal Savings and Loan Assn. and president of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said many of the large old buildings, like the Jergins, probably cannot be profitably refurbished without some government help. And it will be a tragedy, he said, if they are allowed to fall.

"The most beautiful cities in the country are the ones that have a blend of the good old buildings with the modern architecture. There's something to play off of. If you have only mirrored buildings reflecting mirrored buildings, you've got nothing."

City officials noted that several large and historically significant downtown buildings have been restored, including the Breakers Hotel and the Security Pacific Bank Building. Owners who restore old buildings can receive extraordinary federal tax breaks, they said.

A building that qualifies for the Department of Interior's National Registry of Historic Places gets a tax credit for 25% of restoration costs. Buildings at least 40 years old but not on the registry carry 20% credits and 30-year-old buildings get 15% credits. Those tax breaks, however, would be eliminated under President Reagan's proposed tax reform package.

Although preservationists see the probable demolition of the Jergins Trust Building and the once-elegant Pacific Coast Club as monumental losses, some said the long struggles to save the buildings have galvanized the city's cultural heritage movement.

"I think the movement is growing, that concern is growing" said Nancy Latimer, a planning commissioner who has served on both the redevelopment and cultural heritage boards. "People come here from Pasadena and say, 'What an interesting skyline you have, the old and the new.' But they don't realize the old is all endangered."

Donna Harris, past president of the Heritage Foundation, also sees increased community concern. "When I first joined the Heritage Foundation three years ago, we were conducting house tours basically, and we had only 10 people at our annual meeting."

Now, the membership is several times that, and in recent months the foundation has sponsored a letter-writing campaign to save the Jergins.

The benefit of that highly publicized Jergins campaign "is that it is a reminder to the citizens of Long Beach that unless they become actively involved, one by one all of these buildings will come down," said Otto, who helped found the Heritage Foundation in 1978.

The struggle has also piqued the interest of city planners, who are generally sensitive to preservationists' concerns, Otto said. At least four council members--Clark, Marc Wilder, Wallace Edgerton and Jan Hall--have also expressed support, he said.

"We always say we are not preservationists for preservation's sake," said Otto, a Long Beach lawyer. "We are not in the business of creating architectural petting zoos. We don't want white elephants all around town.

"But if you can't go down to the Jergins Trust Building and explain to your children that that's where the courthouse used to be or to the Insurance Exchange Building, which used to have a boys' gym on top, then you wind up with the anonymity of urban life everybody fights against."

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