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Tale of Two City Halls : History Puts a Crimp in New Oceanside Complex

Times Staff Writer

Hold everything.

Just when Oceanside officials thought it was all systems go for construction of their new $17.5-million civic center, an 11th-hour discovery has rumpled the city’s carefully crafted plans.

Late last week, a noted professor of architecture provided Oceanside officials with conclusive evidence that City Hall, a cramped, rather banal-looking building constructed in 1934, was designed by noted California architect Irving Gill.

Cause for a celebration, you say? Not quite. Here’s the problem:

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The structure, which fronts 3rd Street, is due to be razed to make way for the new civic center, an elegant, campus-style complex that will carpet three downtown blocks and should be ready for occupancy by January, 1989.

Designed by respected Los Angeles architect Charles Moore, the new government center retains another Gill building--a small fire station built in 1929--but has no use for the white adobe City Hall, which is depicted as a grassy knoll and parking lot in Moore’s blueprints.

“Up until last week, we had no convincing documentation that (City Hall) was a Gill building,” Assistant City Manager Bill Workman said Monday. “In fact, most of our evidence pointed in the other direction.”

But last week, David Gebhard, a UC Santa Barbara professor of architecture and a Gill expert, telephoned with some rather disconcerting news.

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“He said he had some leads that suggested it was indeed a Gill building,” Workman said. “We were a little surprised, I’d say, but we’ve seen the evidence, and it looks like that’s the case.”

The discovery has triggered some touchy concerns in town--chiefly that history buffs and groups of architectural preservationists like the Friends of Gill would squawk if city fathers proceed with plans to level their suddenly famous City Hall.

Consequently, the City Council will meet today to talk about the quandary and decide whether to finance a detailed study on the significance of the building and what should be done with it.

“The list of options includes retaining the entire building, just keeping the facade, tearing it down after doing a pictorial history of the facility, or removing it and going ahead with the civic center as planned,” Workman said. “It’s up to the council.”

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All in all, civic leaders seem to be taking news of the somewhat inconvenient Gill connection philosophically. And none seems to think that tacking the old building onto the new complex would jeopardize the civic center project, which officials hope will spark an urban renaissance in this aging coastal city.

“I have no hard, fast feelings about tearing it down anyway, so maybe it’s just as well that we hang onto it for extra space, like for storage or something,” Councilman Sam Williamson said.

“I’m still a bit skeptical that it truly is a Gill building,” Mayor Larry Bagley said. “But if it is, and we have to modify the design to include it, I don’t suppose it will destroy the project.”

Councilman Walt Gilbert, confiding that he didn’t think the building had “much to recommend it,” took a harder line.

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“We’re already saving one Gill building, and the old city hall’s been torn apart and remodeled and expanded so many times that Gill himself probably wouldn’t recognize it today,” Gilbert said. “I’d favor holding onto the building for awhile and then finding some group that wants to take it off our hands for a dollar.”

Meanwhile, local architects and history buffs--who have long attempted to persuade officials that the city hall was, indeed, designed by Gill--were overjoyed to hear that their beloved building has been given a second shot at life.

“I’m very pleased that the experts now say what we’ve been saying all along,” said Charles Hannan, who is spearheading a petition drive seeking the preservation of the Gill buildings as well as a historic theater that today screens adult movies.

Community activist and former Councilwoman Lucy Chavez urged the council to preserve the building so “we have a remnant of something that truly captured the spirit and flavor of the era, of a young, growing Oceanside.”

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“We’ve lost so many fine old buildings, largely because no one took the time to care,” Chavez said. “I hope they’ll see fit to save this one from the wrecking ball.”

According to Workman, two pieces of “conclusive evidence” reveal that the city hall was designed by Gill, whose distinctive “anti-ornamental” style was inspired by the missions and adobes he found in San Diego in the early 20th Century.

One is a sketch of the building that bears Gill’s signature, and the second is an Oceanside Blade-Tribune article from the fall of 1934 that announces Gill’s involvement with the project.

“Originally, we believed the building was designed by a man named Westbrooks of San Clemente,” Workman said. “It turns out that building went to the voters and they rejected his design.”

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The City Council paid off Westbrooks for his plans, and then Gill--described in the newspaper article as a “certified architect from Carlsbad"--came into the picture. Apparently, he designed the building and then-councilman C.W. Hoegerman acted as contractor. The total cost of labor and materials was estimated at $6,735, according to the article.

Workman said it was unclear why city archives had no mention of Gill’s hiring or the building’s true creator.


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