Money Needed to Renovate Greystone Mansion : Debate on Museum Plan Focuses on Funds

Times Staff Writer

The Beverly Hills City Council last week agreed to move forward--albeit gingerly--on a proposal by the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History to use Greystone Mansion as a satellite facility.

City Council members said they liked the idea of the 60-year-old mansion housing a $10-million collection of zoological exhibits and the museum foundation providing educational programs for Beverly Hills students and senior citizens.

But some council members expressed concern that the County Board of Supervisors, which provides the museum with about half of its $14-million annual budget, would not provide an additional $2.5 million to help restore the 55-room mansion and about $400,000 annually to maintain and secure the facility, as called for in a preliminary agreement.

Mayor Benjamin H. Stansbury Jr. suggested that "an angel," or private benefactor, be sought to ensure the money for repairs on the 46,000-square-foot building.

James R. Gilson, an attorney representing the museum foundation, said he is confident that the additional money would be allocated by the county or raised through private contributions, but that a commitment from the city was needed before a benefactor could be secured.

"I think together (the city and museum) can attract an angel," Gilson told the council, "but we need a commitment" from the city that the museum is wanted.

The council did not give Gilson a formal commitment, but asked for a staff report on what the satellite proposal would cost the city. That report is expected Jan. 19.

An earlier staff report indicated that it would cost the city at least $2.5 million to bring the mansion up to building and safety codes, and an additional $3 million to $9 million to restore the 1928 mansion to some semblance of its former glory. The city has agreed to pay the costs to bring the building to safety codes, but has been seeking a tenant that could restore the mansion.

"We like the concept, but we don't know if the numbers are going to work," Stansbury said.

The city purchased Greystone in 1965 for $1.1 million. The American Film Institute leased the mansion for 12 years at $1 a year before moving out in 1981.

Since then, the mansion has been without a permanent tenant. The city had reached an agreement to house the private collection of abstract, Expressionist, pop and contemporary art of the Frederick R. Weisman Foundation in February, 1986. Weisman had agreed to pay $1.5 million a year in operating costs and up to $8 million for restoration in exchange for a $1-a-year lease for 55 years.

But nine months later, facing growing community opposition, Weisman decided to look elsewhere for a home for his collection.

The city's Greystone Foundation, a 15-member board responsible for finding a tenant, first received the museum's proposal last July and approved it. Under a preliminary agreement with the Greystone Foundation, the museum would receive a 35-year lease with an option to renew. Because of the improvements the museum would make to Greystone, there would be no annual rent. However, the city would receive a portion of the proceeds if the museum were allowed to operate a restaurant or gift shop.

The lease would only cover the mansion and 100 parking spaces. The grounds of the 18.6-acre estate would continue to be under city control as a public park. The museum, however, is seeking an option to build a 50,000-square-foot building on the estate for extra space.

The museum at Greystone would limit public access by requiring parking reservations for admission, like the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

It would develop educational programs in cooperation with the Beverly Hills Unified School District and the city Library and Community Services Department.

Last month, Councilman Robert K. Tanenbaum told the council that he had been approached by a prospective buyer who was willing to pay $40 million for Greystone. City Manager Edward S. Kreins also said he had received inquiries about a possible sale of the mansion.

However, a council majority--Councilwoman Donna Ellman, Councilman Maxwell H. Salter and Stansbury--has resisted selling the property.

Tanenbaum, who favors selling Greystone to help the financially strapped school district, said he will consider the museum proposal. But the councilman said he still wants the question of Greystone's use, including its possible sale, put to a vote by the people.

"I think we should have every option in its final form, and then have it voted by the people," Tanenbaum said in an interview. "The question of selling it should also be a consideration. Greystone is not just a park like, say, Roxbury. We should try to get the best deal culturally and financially for the city."

Councilwoman Charlotte Spadaro echoed similar concerns, saying that she would like to know how residents feel about the museum's proposal.

Ellman, Stansbury and Salter expressed reservations that the county supervisors, particularly because of recent budget cuts in social and health services, would not provide the museum with the additional money for Greystone.

But Ellman, perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the proposal, said that bringing the museum to the city would be beneficial.

"I think what we have before us is do-able," Ellman said. "It would serve the community well."

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