Quake Study Forces Sheraton to Close Pasadena Landmark : 6-Story Building That Hosted Social and Official Events for Decades Fails to Meet Structural Standards to Survive Temblor, Officials Say

Times Staff Writer

The imposing and historic central building of the Huntington Sheraton Hotel--whose guests have ranged from Theodore Roosevelt to Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca--will be closed within a week.

The social and architectural Pasadena landmark is the victim of two earthquakes, one that struck last month in Mexico City and one that is thought to lie in wait for the Los Angeles region. Despite its massive appearance, the 79-year-old building has been found to have only 25% of the structural strength required by modern standards to withstand a major tremor.

Formal announcement of the closing is set for 9 a.m. today.

Building's Future Uncertain

The fate of the main building is undecided. The hotel's Japanese owner--Keikyu USA Inc., probably will take some time to choose between tearing the structure down and renovating it, said Denis McDowell, a senior vice president in charge of Sheraton's Los Angeles hotels. Sheraton manages the hotel for Keikyu, which bought it in 1974.

A structural survey of the building that was constructed in 1906 and opened the next year found that its unreinforced concrete-and-brick walls are too weak to withstand a major earthquake such as the 8.1 Richter scale shock that killed at least 7,000 people in Mexico City on Sept. 19. Fear that such a quake might strike here was a major decision in closing the hotel, Sheraton spokesmen said. The building is thought to be the largest unreinforced concrete structure in the state, Sheraton spokesman Joseph Giudice said.

The closing is to be completed by Sunday or Monday at the latest. A chain-link fence will be erected around the walls of the 280-room hotel, located on a knoll in a residential neighborhood. The first-floor windows will be boarded up and the main road entrance to the hotel will be blocked.

When the quasi-Spanish or Mediterranean-style building is closed many of the major features that attracted a local and an international clientele will be gone. These include the Viennese Ballroom with its massive chandeliers, the Ship Room, popular for its lavish brunches, and the Tap Room. Services such as airport buses and a rental-car office also will be closed.

Weakness Came to Light

However, 105 rooms in a separate building, 26 cottages which house the hotel's permanent residents, and 20 acres of formal gardens and grounds will remain open. A new restaurant and bar will be opened in another building.

Ironically, the main building's structural weakness came to light as studies were being made for an extensive renovation of the six-story hotel. Some remodeling of the lobby and rooms had been completed under a program begun in 1980, but a planned $10-million remodeling effort was stopped by the discovery. Until the study was made, no one suspected that the building was a possible hazard and a potential liability, McDowell said.

Another irony is that the building had been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

Before the structural weaknesses were revealed, the hotel was valued at $40 million and its annual revenues were about $12.5 million.

"It doesn't have the benefit of modern design for seismic or earthquake forces," said Roy Johnston, a partner in the Los Angeles structural engineering firm of Brandow and Johnston, which surveyed the building. A soil and geo-technical consulting firm also was called in for an opinion.

Although the building rode through the 1971 Sylmar earthquake and earlier episodes undamaged, Johnston said the hotel lies near several faults, including the San Andreas fault and "would be in danger of at least partial collapse" in a major earthquake.

The building has about 25% of the structural strength required for modern hotels, Johnston said, adding that his firm had recommended taking steps to make the building less earthquake vulnerable. Those improvements would cost about $5 million, he said. Brandow and Johnston's findings were supported by a New York structural engineering firm, Lev and Zetlin.

Dramatic Changes Proposed

Structural changes could not be made without dramatically altering the hotel's historic architecture, McDowell said in a statement prepared for release today. Changes reportedly would include filling in the many arches that give the hotel's ground floor much of its atmosphere.

McDowell said the decision to close the building was made Oct. 3, the day he saw the report on the structural weaknesses of the building.

The report was a shock, he said. "The thing physically looks like it's going to be here another 500 years and to read a piece of paper and have the piece of paper say, 'Well, sorry, you're wrong' . . . it takes time to settle in and I'm not sure it really has . . . ."

"It's like putting away somebody's grandmother," Giudice said.

The closure was a tightly held secret until Sheraton executives began notifying organizations with business booked at the hotel, including the Tournament of Roses, on Wednesday afternoon. Sheraton officials also scheduled a meeting with the Pasadena Board of Directors on Wednesday evening. City officials were told only that the hotel had an "urgent" matter to discuss.

Contacted by The Times before the meeting, Pasadena Vice Mayor John C. Crowley expressed surprise that a move as "extraordinary" as closing the main building would be made. "The first question that comes to mind is what would be necessary to make it (usable) again," Crowley said. The loss of the hotel space would definitely hurt the city, he said, adding that "finding the equivalent of that hotel space" would become a priority, if the building is not to be reopened.

A news conference on the closing is scheduled for this morning. Meetings to inform the hotel's 225 employees were scheduled for Wednesday night and this morning. About 30 to 40 workers will stay at the hotel, said John Monaghan, Sheraton's director of human resource development. About 10% to 15% of the employees probably will be able to find jobs with other Sheraton hotels in the Los Angeles area and Sheraton will hold a job fair in early November for the remainder, he said.

Thirteen workers have been at the Huntington for 20 years or longer while the largest group of employees has worked there between 10 and 20 years, Monaghan said.

Sheraton executives said their second-biggest problem after the employees was working with groups and individuals who have used the hotel for years for official and social functions.

Functions to be Rescheduled

McDowell estimated that about 240 scheduled functions will have to be relocated. Although football teams playing in the Rose Bowl quit staying in the hotel last year, the Huntington remained the hotel for officials of the Big 10 and Pac 10 conferences, Tournament of Roses guests and many Rose Bowl parties.

"It (the closure) is very complicated and it has a heavy emotional overtone, too," McDowell said. "Closing a hotel, you bring no good news to anybody, except maybe the competition. We're going to have to deal with the social parties that have been coming for years . . . We've done thousands and thousands of weddings. Fortunately, the season is almost over, so we're not going to have heavy problems. But that whole social element is a lot more sensitive for us than it would be in commercial houses. The complexities are greater when you're part of a community."

Date Not Set

Most of the hotel's furnishings will be sold at what spokeswoman Christle Balvin called "the world's largest garage sale." A date has not been set.

Several chandeliers made in Vienna will escape the auction block and will be packed and stored in the event that they can be used in a new or renovated hotel, Balvin said.

The hotel's collection of historic photos and other memorabilia will be donated to the Pasadena Library, while paintings will be loaned to the Huntington Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens, Balvin said.

Balvin and McDowell noted that the speed with which the closing is being made have left many items unresolved.

Still unsettled, for instance, is whether a closing party or wake will be scheduled for the old hotel.

"We may do something more fitting than just shutting the doors," McDowell said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World