BAY AREA QUAKE : Landmarks Totter : Preservationists Fear Quake-Damaged Historic Buildings Will Be Torn Down

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As a wrecking ball punched into the historic Cominos Hotel again and again last Friday, Betty Brusa sadly clicked away with her camera, recording for posterity the death of one of the Salinas Valley’s most regal landmarks.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Brusa, president of the Monterey County Historical Society, who with a stunned group of local preservationists and history buffs watched the destruction of the old luxury hotel in downtown Salinas--a favorite haunt of author John Steinbeck.

“Four or five times they bashed it with that ball and the building refused to break. Finally, they weakened it enough that it began to come down. . . . I felt as though I was losing a member of my family,” Brusa said.


With Northern California building inspectors adding daily to lists of structures damaged in last week’s earthquake, preservationists from San Francisco to Hollister worry that many landmarks may face demolition.

From Oakland’s postcard-pretty Victorian row houses to Ford’s department store in Watsonville, the region boasts one of the richest inventories of historically and architecturally significant buildings in the nation. In San Francisco alone, 114 buildings and neighborhoods are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Officials in a number of cities are still evaluating quake-damaged buildings, but preservationists are already sounding warnings and urging local authorities to move cautiously in determining what structures should be torn down.

“We’re trying to tone down the hysteria and make sure there’s a little calmer assessment of damage,” said Kathryn Burns, western regional director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Local officials say they are trying to be sensitive to preservationist concerns, but their first priority is protecting lives and property from heavily damaged buildings that could still collapse.

“This is a state of emergency,” said Surlene Grant, spokeswoman for the Oakland Public Works Department.


But in the post-quake confusion, preservationists say they are having trouble determining which landmarks are in trouble because some officials have been slow to provide lists of damaged buildings. In addition, some jurisdictions have been slow to reveal the criteria they are using to judge which buildings must be torn down.

Preservationists also worry that private owners of designated landmarks may use quake damage as an excuse for emergency demolitions that allow them to redevelop the property, thus dodging stiff regulations protecting historic structures. Moreover, preservationists are concerned that demolitions may be ordered by private engineers--many of them volunteers helping out overworked local officials--who may not be qualified to assess older buildings.

The quake, which registered magnitude 7.1, wreaked extensive property damage in Northern California. In Oakland, more than 1,600 homes and other buildings--including at least a dozen landmarks--were damaged. The landmarks include the Beaux Arts-style Amtrak railroad station in west Oakland, a registered national historic site, and Oakland’s towering, 75-year-old City Hall, which officials say may have to be torn down.

In San Francisco, at least 240 buildings are on the city’s “red-tag” list of structures that were severely damaged and are considered unsafe. Preservationists on Tuesday were hastily cross-checking the newly released damage list against lists of historic buildings, but they believe hundreds may be in jeopardy.

“There’s going to be tremendous pressure to begin pulling down buildings that are identified as hazardous,” said Mark Ryser, executive director of the Foundation for San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage.

Larry Litchfield, San Francisco’s superintendent of building inspection, denied that the city has or will act hastily to knock down buildings. He said only about 10 structures throughout the city will eventually have to be demolished.


“It’s not our goal to demolish anything,” he said. “It’s our goal to save them, granted that there are some that just can’t be saved.”

Litchfield said any inspections conducted by volunteer engineers will be confirmed later by city inspectors, together with structural experts hired by property owners.

While Northern California officials have torn down relatively few buildings since the quake, preservation groups are lobbying hard--and quietly preparing to take court action if necessary--to persuade building officials to find alternatives to demolitions.

Many organizations are lining up sympathetic architects and engineers to give “second opinions” to inspectors on buildings they have earmarked for demolition.

They also are referring property owners to experts who can tell them how to repair historically and architecturally important structures. They are also urging that authorities cordon off damaged buildings--rather than summarily demolish them--in order to buy time to see whether a structure can be saved.

Although preservationists praise some cities’ actions, they are outraged at rapid demolitions of buildings like Salinas’ Cominos Hotel, where Steinbeck sometimes drank and which he used as a setting in his novel, “East of Eden.”


“It was a magnificently beautiful building,” Brusa said. “She was very regal, very grand. The marquee was solid copper. It was very luxurious in its day. Presidents stayed there, governors stayed there, actors and actresses stayed there. “

Brusa said that before the quake local preservationists had been embroiled in a legal battle with the city over the hotel. The city had sought to knock down the hotel, which is in a redevelopment district, and replace it with a $25-million complex featuring a movie theater, office building and Steinbeck museum.

A local judge had granted an injunction against the hotel’s demolition, but after the quake, city officials persuaded him to let them tear the building down, arguing that it was in imminent danger of collapsing, she said.

But officials refused to let preservationists review the engineer’s report, Brusa said, adding that it took repeated hammering with a wrecking ball before the hotel came apart.

Paul Ogden, assistant executive director of the Salinas Redevelopment Agency, said the structure was so heavily damaged that city authorities had “little choice” but to raze it.

He said the city-owned building was not an official landmark, but acknowledged that city officials have not designated any local structures as historically or architecturally important.