Group Plans Bid to Rescue Theater From Wrecking Ball

Times Staff Writer

The group of preservationists that apparently has saved the historic La Cienega water treatment plant in Beverly Hills from demolition is now attempting to rescue the 56-year-old Beverly Theater from the wrecking ball.

The Friends of the Waterworks has already lost the first round in their fight to save the once-grand movie house, which is privately owned. Last week, a proposed urgency ordinance that would have imposed a 45-day ban on demolition of most city-designated historic buildings received only two of the four votes necessary for passage.

The group also faces opposition from nearby residents, who have complained about noise from patrons attending rock concerts at the theater. A spokesman for the building's owner says it would be too expensive to restore.

"Preservation is not an easy road," said Ruthann Lehrer, a member of the Friends of the Waterworks.

The preservationists were caught by surprise earlier this month when the theater owner, Columbia Savings & Loan, applied for a city demolition permit. City officials said there are no ordinances regulating the demolition of privately owned historic buildings.

Word quickly spread among the group's members, who were celebrating after a study on the waterworks found that the facility could be saved. In addition, a prospective tenant had emerged who would pay to restore it.

At a study session Jan. 12, Councilwoman Charlotte Spadaro suggested that the council adopt the temporary ordinance to block the theater's demolition until the city could draft a permanent ordinance to save historic buildings.

But Columbia Savings sought a court order on Jan. 15 to force the city to issue the demolition permit. A Superior Court judge refused to grant the order but scheduled a full hearing on the matter on Feb. 1.

Only Spadaro and Councilman Robert K. Tanenbaum voted for the urgency ordinance at last Tuesday's meeting, which didn't end until almost 2 a.m. Wednesday. Councilwoman Donna Ellman voted against it, saying the matter did not warrant an emergency ordinance.

Councilman Maxwell H. Salter abstained from voting because he owns stock in Columbia Savings. Mayor Benjamin H. Stansbury left the meeting before the issue was discussed, saying he had an early flight to catch the next day.

Preservationists say the ornate theater on Wilshire Boulevard and Canon Drive is worth saving because it was designed by B. Marcus Priteca, who was one of the 10 most influential American architects of theaters, according to John Miller of the Los Angeles chapter of the Historic Theater Foundation.

Miller said the Beverly--which billed itself as "the theater where the stars see themselves"--cost $1 million to build in 1931. He said it would cost between $25 million and $30 million to renovate.

Lehrer said the city's experience with the waterworks should indicate that "time and exploring alternatives can be very positive and very useful. All we want is a delay of demolition."

Pauline Stein, a member of the city's Architectural Commission, which oversees the aesthetics of commercial developments, said she will continue to push the council to adopt a permanent ordinance to protect historic buildings.

"We are not giving up," she said.

Jeffrey Palmer, a Columbia Savings vice president, said his company supports efforts to restore historic buildings. He said Columbia Savings was involved in recent renovations of the Biltmore hotel in Los Angeles and the Newporter Inn--now called Newporter Resort--in Newport Beach.

However, Palmer said, rehabilitation and the continued use of the building as a theater is not economically viable. He said the building does not meet seismic standards and has outdated electrical wiring and asbestos insulation. Asbestos is widely regarded by experts as a cause of lung ailments, including cancer.

"It would cost a fortune to try to correct the problems," said Palmer, who did not specify an amount. "When you add it all up, it was decided to demolish and start all over again. We are cognizant of culture, but our overriding consideration is in safety and health."

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