Architectural Masterpiece : Landmark Building Badly Damaged by Fire

Times Staff Writer

Fire destroyed part of The Design Center Building early Tuesday, a Hillcrest structure considered to be a local architectural masterpiece.

The multipurpose building, which graced the southeast corner of 5th and Brookes avenues, suffered $250,000 damage to its south side in the early-morning fire, which officials said was deliberately set.

The creator of the center--a split-level "glass box" built in 1950--was Lloyd Ruocco, who died in 1981 and was known for his distinctive, natural style of architecture. Among his most acclaimed works are the Children's Zoo in Balboa Park and the Geophysics Building on the UC San Diego campus.

Ruocco also served on the architectural team that designed the Community Concourse Building downtown, said J. Spencer Lake, a San Diego architect who called the Design Center Building "one of (Ruocco's) really significant landmarks . . . a kind of model of experimental design that was being explored by designers of that period."

"This is terrible. That building is one of the truly magnificent office spaces that we have, " said Lake, who added that he was impressed by Ruocco when he first met him during his days as an aspiring architect.

Bruce Kammerling, a curator at the San Diego Historical Society, where Ruocco's work is chronicled, said the architect's style set him apart from his contemporaries--a style Lake described as being rooted in simplicity and practicality.

"Very few architects create an original style," said Kammerling, who added that the Design Center is one of the best examples of Ruocco's work.

With its glass exterior and white painted columns, the center seems to blend into a surrounding cluster of trees and organic landscape that give the building a "sense of top and bottom but also a sense of floating in space," Lake said.

"The columns of the building are not obvious and blend in, while the detailing on the windows were done so that the glass seems to disappear. . . . What (Ruocco) did was create a little geometric puzzle," he added.

Three businesses at the Hillcrest center were burned out while another barely escaped destruction from the blaze, which 50 firefighters fought for an hour before bringing it under control.

"We were lucky," said Alfred Kerendian, whose International Design and Management office suffered ceiling damage.

"We're going to have to find a temporary place," Kerendian said as he and his associates packed up boxes of equipment at the architecture and construction company.

Stan Grau, owner of the building, said fire officials told him the blaze started in the office of LaBarre and Associates office, which sells plants.

An art gallery and a graphics business were also destroyed, Grau said.

Businesses undamaged by the fire were open Tuesday and will remain open, said Grau, who was unsure when repairs will be made.

Lake said he hopes that the building will be restored to its original form because "the structure allows for the building to be seen in a very articulate way. I sure hope that people have the will and the wherewithal to restore it," he said.

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