Ground Broken for Academy Archive at Old Waterworks

Times Staff Writer

In March, 1987, the Beverly Hills City Council voted 3 to 2 to demolish the old municipal waterworks, an imposing pile of concrete that looks like a Mexican church complete with soaring tower, tile roofs, rosette windows and flying buttresses.

But Mayor Charlotte Spadaro could not bring herself to sign the demolition order for the 60-year-old landmark despite the majority vote. She suggested that Vice Mayor Benjamin H. Stansbury Jr., who also voted to save the building, sign the order.

But he also balked, winning time for a hastily formed group called Friends of the Waterworks to get a court order that blocked the scheduled demolition of the building, preservationists said.

Ground was broken there Tuesday for the motion picture academy's library and film archive, but Spadaro and Stansbury, both of whom left the City Council in 1988, were not invited.

A spokeswoman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said the city's part of the guest list was drawn up by city officials, but a city spokesman said that the academy only asked for the names of current officials.

"Truly, Charlotte and Ben were for preserving the waterworks," said Mayor Max Salter. "I was at fault for not mentioning their names."

Spadaro said later: "It was a tremendous victory, and I consider it as one of the highlights of my career on the City Council, so I was just delighted to see it saved." She said she was too busy with her new cookie business to come even if she had been invited, but Stansbury said he thought the omission was bad manners.

"It's the symbolic gesture of all the people coming together to a friendly conclusion," he said. "That's why you want to have everyone there for the grand opening."

"If I was asked, I'd have invited Charlotte Spadaro and Ben Stansbury, because they were instrumental in saving the building," said Bob Cohen of Friends of the Waterworks.

At the ceremony, Salter recalled that he voted as a councilman in favor of destroying the hulking old waterworks, which had been abandoned since 1976.

"I was opposed to doing anything with this building because I was convinced some kid was going to come in and fall down a hole," he said.

But, he said, "once we knew the academy was going to pick up the tab for remodeling this wonderful building, everybody in Beverly Hills was happy, because they knew they weren't going to be taxed to develop it."

Richard Kahn, president of the Beverly Hills-based academy, said the industry group had looked as far as Santa Monica and Glendale to find a home for its collections, which include historic early film footage and the papers of movie greats, including John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock. Kahn announced Tuesday that Cary Grant's papers will also be part of the archives.

"Little did we know how close we'd wind up," he said. "Because it turned out that at the same time that our eye fell upon the mysterious-looking building in La Cienega Park . . . the city had just been persuaded by some preservation-minded citizens to see if a suitable use couldn't be found for it. Many meetings later, the academy signed a 55-year lease, and here we are."

The persuasion did not come easily, Cohen recalled.

The 12,000-square-foot waterworks was slated for demolition after a city staff report said years of corrosion had weakened the structure.

With a 3-2 majority in favor of demolishing the building, it was only the temporary restraining order won by volunteer attorney William Delvac that halted the demolition, he said.

The citizens group then filed a suit, successfully charging that an environmental impact report was required before the city could demolish a historic building.

The city settled the suit out of court by agreeing to look for possible uses for the building, which eventually led to the deal with the academy.

Opponents questioned whether the building was earthquake-safe, but tests have since shown that "this is probably the strongest building in the city," Cohen said, leaning against a concrete-faced steel column that helps hold up the roof.

The new library is expected to open next summer, at an estimated construction cost of $4.65 million, said Bruce Davis, executive administrator of the academy.

The academy has already paid $750,000 toward an expected total rent of $1 million on its 55-year lease, Davis said.

"I'm hoping that after 55 years it will be such a vital feature of the Beverly Hills landscape that they won't be able to do without it and they'll renew the lease," he said.

Built in 1927 at a cost of about $148,000, the building was the first municipal water treatment plant on the West Coast, according to a study conducted for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The society has listed the building as "an outstanding architectural and engineering achievement."

Having suffered some damage in a 1971 earthquake, it was not abandoned until five years later, when the city began taking all its water from the Metropolitan Water District.

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