The roof leaked, a thick layer of tar blacked out the skylights, rust coated the steel support beams overhead. The wooden floor buckled, trash festered in piles, and now and then a ceiling tile broke loose and smashed onto the floor 22 feet below.
"It was a hole, a pit," Elisa Crystal said.
She was talking about the California National Guard building on Raymond Avenue in Pasadena. But after $638,000 worth of renovations and plenty of gallery-white paint, the structure, built in 1934, opens to the public Thursday as the spiffy Armory Center for the Arts.
Crystal, executive director of the center, presides over an airy, two-story, 21,000-square-foot building rehabilitated in a fashionable blend of High Tech and Art Deco.
The renovated building is graced with skylights, a specially built maple floor perfect for dance performances, a 2,800-square-foot art gallery and a warren of sunny offices overlooking Memorial Park.
The building is home to the former Pasadena Art Workshops, a 43-year-old children's art program that has adopted the center's name.
"For years we have wanted a permanent site like this," Crystal said last week, as the pounding of hammers and the smell of fresh paint filled the building.
Last week, Crystal and others wheeled giant yellow plastic bins filled with art supplies into the north half of the building, where schoolchildren will take art classes. Meanwhile, artists and photographers streamed into the building's south half to ready an inaugural exhibit that will coincide with the building's opening Thursday.
Sponsored by the Fellows of Contemporary Art and scheduled to run through Jan. 31, the exhibit features works by 13 Los Angeles-area artists. Five of the pieces were specially designed for the exhibit at the center and will be dismantled after it ends.
The Fellows held a preview party Monday with artists and the show's curator, Noel Korten, director of the USC Atelier Gallery.
Running the gallery represents a new challenge for the art program but one that Crystal said will benefit the children because of the "wonderful reaction to seeing art and making it."
Indeed, the exhibition was a lucky break for the center, which planned no exhibits for at least two years.
"The Fellows had a show planned that didn't work out, and we were finishing a building and needed a show," said Susan Caldwell, president of the center board. "It was kind of serendipity."
So, while the Fellows planned the show, the center tackled other tasks. Among them was raising more than $1 million for the building's rehabilitation and for an endowment fund to cover annual operating costs. Those costs are expected to reach $500,000 at the new center, a $150,000 annual increase.
Previously operated out of extra space in a school gymnasium, the art program served 20,000 schoolchildren last year with lessons at the gym, at various community centers in low-income areas and on school campuses.
"Schools don't have a budget for the arts anymore," Crystal said. "Since Proposition 13, there are no longer art teachers in the elementary schools. They have in general one art specialist for the whole district."
Mindful of the number of children served by the art program and needing a cultural center to complement the burgeoning retail development in nearby Old Pasadena, the city's Community Development Agency, which owns the armory, approached program operators four years ago. The agency proposed that Crystal's group renovate the old building and run its program and a new art gallery there in exchange for free rent.
The deal wasn't as appealing as it sounded.
The building, in a run-down neighborhood, had deteriorated without regular maintenance. In addition, the Pasadena Badminton Club, which had been renting space in the building for more than 50 years, objected to relocating and filed a lawsuit against the city.
After the city agreed to pay the club's relocation cost, renovations proceeded.
Center officials plan to celebrate the opening with a street festival from noon to 5 p.m. next Sunday.
"In so many ways, it's more beautiful than what we envisioned," Caldwell said.