Through the Roof: Authenticity Isn’t Easy for Museum

Times Staff Writer

He is a man who will readily tell you that he’s been married to the same woman for 36 years. Perseverance, he says, “built the Brooklyn Bridge and the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge.”

And perseverance, namely his, gave Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum a new roof.

Yeats, project coordinator for the City of Pasadena’s Public Facilities Division, knew from the beginning that replacing the museum’s 60-year-old tile roof would be a difficult and painstaking job.

What he didn’t know at the time was that it would turn out to be one of the city’s most difficult restoration projects.


“No one thought it was going to be that much trouble,” Yeats says now that the job is done--five months behind schedule and $30,000 over budget.

The trouble with replacing the museum’s roof began with the fact that the building, owned by the city and erected between 1922 and 1926, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a rare example of Chinese palace-style architecture in the United States. Any major work done on the building, located at 46 N. Los Robles Ave., must be an exact replication of the original architecture.

Coupled with that restriction is a strict municipal ordinance which stipulates that any structural work done on a building over 50 years old must be reviewed by Pasadena’s Cultural Heritage Commission.

That knowledge in hand, Yeats took over the project in December, 1983. An independent consultant was hired and the city was told it could remove the 7,000-square-foot roof and clean, repair and replace the tiles in five months. The consultant said that about 10% of the tiles would be lost in the process. A small pottery shop in Sierra Madre was contracted to replace them.


But over the months that followed, a series of mishaps, surprises and wrong information turned the project into something of a nightmare. Originally estimated at about $100,000, the job ended up costing $130,000, and what was expected to be a five-month project dragged on for nearly a year.

Despite the myriad setbacks, Yeats kept slowly plugging away at the job, his perseverance prevailing even when those working with him wanted to quit. “I never had any doubt that we could do it,” he says now.

The job was partly funded by a $30,000 federal grant. The museum contributed $20,000 and the city picked up the rest of the tab, said Lyle Ericson, Pasadena’s public facilities administrator.

“It cost a lot more than the city anticipated,” Yeats said. “Restoring these places is not something that’s done inexpensively. I found myself wondering if we shouldn’t be repaving the streets with this money.”


‘It Was a Challenge’

But, he added, “it was a challenge, and I enjoyed it.”

Workers began removing the ceramic roof tiles, believed to have been handmade in China, last July.

That was Yeats’ first surprise. As workers began prying the tiles loose, they found that most of them were stamped with “L.A. Press Brick Co.,” which had long since gone out of business.


“That meant that there were no tiles available like that,” Yeats said. The tiles were also mortared onto the roof, “put together like brick,” he said, making it difficult to remove them intact. Because the tiles were old and brittle, many broke or cracked. Yeats found he was losing about 40% of the tiles being removed, instead of the estimated 10%. The small pottery shop in Sierra Madre was unable to produce the number of tiles needed to replace the breakage.

10,000 Exact Copies

Now Yeats was faced with trying to find a company that could make 10,000 exact copies of the tiles. “The tiles have the same glazing that you would find on a china cup,” he said. “Trying to find someone to do this work was an enormous effort.”

With the help of the Cultural Heritage Commission, Yeats found the company that had bought out L.A. Press Brick Co., the manufacturer of the original roof tiles. Two commission members traveled to Lincoln, Calif., “a tiny little town above Sacramento,” Yeats said, to see if the company still had the molds for the tiles. It didn’t.


“I contacted every tile manufacturer in this area,” Yeats said, and others as far away as Hong Kong. “I didn’t have any place else to go.”

After four months of searching, he discovered San Valle Tile in Hollywood, which reluctantly agreed to do the work. “They lost money on the deal, I know they did,” Yeats said. “There were times when they wanted to quit.” San Valle Tile took 159 color samples before getting a jade green that matched the original tiles.

Painstaking Process

Once the tiles were fired and glazed, roofers began the painstaking process of individually mortaring each tile back onto the roof. “It had to be done one at a time, by hand,” said Peggy Spear, the museum’s development officer. “People in the museum thought it was never going to get done.


“We knew it was going to be hard, but we didn’t have any idea of hard it was,” she said.

The work was finally completed last month. And Spear said that, despite the delays, the finished product was well worth waiting for. “They did a just phenomenal job,” she said of everyone involved in the project.

The museum, which houses permanent collections and visiting exhibitions of artwork from Asia and the Pacific Basin, is officially called the Grace Nicholson Building and is owned by the City of Pasadena. Nicholson, an eccentric and flamboyant collector and importer of Oriental art, hired architects Marston, Van Pelt & Maybury to design the exotic Chinese building in the 1920s. She lived on the second floor and used the downstairs for an art gallery until her death in 1948.

Local Legend


Local legend has it that Nicholson was so independent that she didn’t pay her taxes. After her death, the city took over the property for payment of back taxes. The Pasadena Art Museum occupied the Nicholson house until 1968, when it moved to new quarters and eventually became the Norton Simon Museum in a controversial takeover by the wealthy industrialist.

With the Pasadena Art Museum gone, the city decided to tear down the Nicholson house, Spear said, to make way for a tire store.

Three local art appreciators “all but chained themselves to the gate post and said, ‘You can’t tear this down,’ ” Spear recounted. The trio, Dr. Lennox Tierney, Sophia Adamson and Peg Palmer, eventually negotiated a lease with the city and moved their organization, the Pacific Cultural Foundation, into the building.

The foundation, which sponsored cultural exhibits and demonstrations of Asian art, eventually became the Pacific Asia Museum in 1971.


The new roof is part of an overall restoration and renovation plan estimated to cost $20 million.