La Venta Inn, a stately hacienda-style hospitality center and Palos Verdes Estates' first structure, was nominated as a state point of historical interest Tuesday by the county Board of Supervisors.
The nomination comes four months after owners of the 66-year-old inn, popular for weddings and banquets because of its history and its spectacular ocean view, began advertising the three-acre estate for sale for $10 million.
But it was the operators of the inn, not its owners, who applied for the historical designation.
"We're all very concerned. Everybody around here is concerned" that the inn might be demolished after its sale, said Bob Eskridge, whose family has operated it for two decades.
Eskridge said he has pursued state historical site status since October, when inn owners offered the estate for sale in an advertisement that proclaimed it "Palos Verdes' most historic building site."
He interpreted that to mean that the old inn would be demolished and replaced by up to three single-family homes, which city officials confirm is allowed by the property's zoning.
A building designated a state historical point of interest acquires limited protection against demolition because an environmental report listing other alternatives is required before it can be razed, according to the state Office of Historic Preservation.
La Venta Inn is owned by three daughters of the late Peg Schnetzler, who Eskridge said bought the estate in 1947. They could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for them said Eskridge misinterpreted the October advertisement and that no protection is needed for the inn.
The advertisement was intended to convey that the estate "is the site of the most historic building in Palos Verdes," not that it is a building site, said real estate agent and spokesman Bob Brown. "The value of that property is that it's such a piece of history. It's one of a kind. It's kind of like buying a Van Gogh painting."
Brown acknowledged, however, that numerous developers had expressed interest in the estate as a building site for luxury homes. But he "could not guarantee" them that they could build, Brown said.
"It's my understanding that the property cannot be developed or altered. I think the city would be very upset if someone tried to alter that building," he said. "Certainly, it's the intent of the (owners) to retain it as the landmark property of Palos Verdes."
Ruth Gralow, a Palos Verdes Estates councilwoman, said demolition of the inn would not be popular with the community. "It is very special," she said.
It is Gralow's position, however, that the value of the site might be so high that new construction is reasonable.
"It would be lovely to be able to preserve that whole open site," she said, "but I don't see how it could be economical for the property owner to maintain it as it is."
The inn was built in 1923 as a luxurious sales office for the housing tract that is now the city of Palos Verdes Estates. Prominent Los Angeles architect Walter Swindell Davis won an award for its design, which includes a distinctive 50-foot tower.
Its significance has grown over the decades as generations of area families have visited it for occasions as routine as club meetings and as special as high school banquets and weddings, several area residents said in interviews.
Tim Burrell, a Rancho Palos Verdes developer interested in the area's history, said whoever buys the site should "keep it just the way it is. Improve it a little, but keep the concept, because it's such a great place. I'm a developer, yes, but I'm also someone who had his football banquet there as a kid."
Ken Dyda, a founder of the Rancho de los Palos Verdes Historical Society, said his group supports Eskridge's application to the state because the inn was the first building completed on the peninsula. The inn was designated a historical site in 1978 by the society not long after it was founded, Dyda said.
"Historically, it would be a very substantial loss," said Dyda, a former Rancho Palos Verdes councilman. "And as a community we use it for a lot of civic activities. People can make an argument that you can do that in another facility. But it's the history of the place--the fact you can go there and realize how it all began--that adds to its value."
Eskridge said that whatever happens to the inn if it is sold, it is worthy of historical recognition by the state.
"Last year we had a bride whose mother was married here and whose grandmother was married here," he said. "That signifies the longstanding relationship the building has had with this community."
The state Historical Resource Commission is expected to consider the nomination at its next meeting, in May.