Temperatures Rising : Dispute Swirls Around Vacant Medical Clinic in Test of Long Beach's Resolve to Preserve Its Heritage

Times Staff Writer

Like a monument to the elegance of a former age, the Harriman Jones Medical Group building stands unobtrusively at the corner of Broadway and Cherry Avenue.

The shades on its front windows are pulled down. A paper sign announcing that the clinic has moved hangs over the building's directory, blocking the names of the physicians still listed there. And behind the locked front door, the spacious wood-beamed living-room-like waiting area--complete with a piano and burning fireplace--still holds the memories of thousands of area fathers who waited nervously in it for word of newborn babies.

Far from being a relic of the past, however, the building may be a symbol of the future. For around it swirls a controversy which is testing he city's newly articulated resolve to preserve its cultural heritage.

Historic Buildings Razed

Recent years have seen several major defeats on that front. Despite public outcries, during 1988 the city's historic Jergins Trust Building was razed almost simultaneously with the Pacific Coast Club. Both buildings were the subjects of long and heated debates between preservationists and developers.

One result was the appointment earlier this year of the city's first historic preservation officer, Ruthann Lehrer. Now along comes the old Harriman Jones clinic, the first major preservation controversy to erupt since Lehrer took office in February. The manner in which she handles it, both sides agree, will say much about whether and how her newly created post can function effectively.

"It's a test to see whether or not we can all work together to resolve conflicts and agree to compromise," Lehrer said. "The loss of the Pacific Coast Club and Jergins Trust Building was disastrous, and people in this community still grieve over those losses. My job is to say that we're not going to do that anymore--to develop a different approach in this city so that we don't have the (Pacific Coast Club) coming down again and again."

Indeed, the protagonists say, Lehrer's involvement already has done much to create a new mood of negotiation between preservationists and would-be developers, which has resulted in optimism on both sides.

The current controversy evolved from the actions of Rae La Force, a 60-year Long Beach resident who has lived within nine blocks of the Harriman Jones building since 1955. Like many of her neighbors, La Force frequented the clinic pharmacy for years and spent many an afternoon hobnobbing at the pharmacy's old-fashioned soda fountain that once served as a popular neighborhood gathering spot.

During a visit last summer, however, she learned that the building was about to be sold. Alarmed at the potential implications of the move, La Force began researching the structure's past. What she discovered ultimately persuaded the city's Cultural Heritage Commission to recommend the site for landmark status.

Trust Fund Begun

Built in 1930, the clinic--which initially also served as a hospital--was the brainchild of Dr. Harriman Jones, who came to Long Beach in 1901 as one of the town's first doctors and eventually became its first public health officer. In that capacity, he is credited with establishing the city's first sewer and garbage disposal systems, as well as writing its first public health regulations. He also founded the city's first hospital in a small house on Daisy Avenue in 1902, and helped organize the medical institutions that eventually became St. Mary Medical Center and Memorial Medical Center of Long Beach.

The clinic bearing his name was innovative for its time, combining various medical services under one roof and establishing a trust fund by which medical services were provided to the needy. Many believe it signified the coming of modern and progressive medical health services to Long Beach.

Architecturally, the building is interesting as well, constituting the first major work of Kenneth Wing, a once-prominent local architect whose other works include the Long Beach Arena, Southern California Edison Co. building, Long Beach Community Hospital and Signal Hill City Hall. Patterned in the style of an Italian villa, the two-story Harriman Jones building is entered through a portico featuring stone benches and a tile mosaic. It once included a series of interior courtyards.

"It's a beautiful piece of Mediterranean architecture that you won't see built again," said Charles Paap, son of the legendary Dr. George Paap who, as reigning obstetrician-gynecologist at the clinic from 1931 until his death in the early 1970s, delivered an estimated 3,000 babies, including some of the city's most prominent citizens. "It has a historical place in the city of Long Beach."

After operating at the site for more than 50 years, the Harriman Jones Medical Group began expanding into other facilities in the early 1980s. The process was completed early last month when the company finally vacated four scattered satellite buildings, including the one at 211 Cherry Ave., and consolidated its services in a new building on Willow Street at Redondo Avenue.

Condo Units Planned

Since late last year, the old Cherry Avenue clinic has been in escrow with a group of Newport Beach developers whose original intention was to replace the entire building with condominium units priced in the $200,000-to-$300,000-range, as well as 21,000 square feet of retail space fronting Broadway.

The Cultural Heritage Commission's recommendation for landmark status was endorsed by the Planning Commission, putting that project on hold. A designation of landmark status by the City Council, while not preventing ultimate destruction of the building, could delay any action for up to a year while alternatives are being explored.

Initial reactions were heated.

Representatives of the Terry/Nikols Development Co. said they had tried in vain to find a new tenant for the building willing to use it in its current condition. Their efforts were thwarted, said co-owner Don Nikols, by the lack of parking. And a spokesman for Harriman Jones Medical Group complained that the delay in escrow, which was originally scheduled to close on Feb. 9, is costing his company $38,000 a month in maintenance fees and mortgage payments. "It's a problem for us if it's an all-or-nothing situation," said Bob Nelson, the group's administrative director.

Historic preservation officer Lehrer is trying to make it something other than an all-or-nothing situation.

Delayed by City Council

In a move she supported, the City Council last month delayed until May 23 any action on the request for landmark status. And in the interim, representatives of preservationist organizations, community groups, the developers and the owners are meeting regularly under Lehrer's guidance to work out a compromise they all can live with.

On the negotiating table, Lehrer said, is a plan by which the developers would proceed with their condominiums but revise their design to preserve the building's entire Cherry Avenue side, including the portico, as well as an interior reception area, stairway and upstairs library.

According to Nikols, who supports it, the change would cost his company about $1 million in added construction charges and lost income from the sale of the higher-priced condominium units it would eliminate.

"The realities are that if I don't make a compromise now I may have no business," Nikols said. "And if the preservationists don't compromise, there is a likelihood that after (landmark status) holds up any action, the building will be demolished."

Wait-and-See Stance

Still uncertain is the fate of the living-room waiting area that preservationists say they want to save, but which Nikols says can't be preserved without eliminating valuable parking spaces.

While both sides say they are maintaining a wait-and-see attitude on the negotiations, they also say they are optimistic about the ultimate outcome.

"We're trying to open up new vistas to the developer," said Doug Otto, president of the private Coalition to Preserve Historic Long Beach, which recently organized a neighborhood rally to draw attention to the building's plight. "Things are moving relatively quickly."

Said Lehrer: "There's a real spirit of cooperation here. I think the problems will be solved."

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