Donated Home’s Theater Organ Sparks Discord in La Canada : Preservation: Frank Lanterman left the house and its contents to the city, stipulating that the estate remain intact. But there is no money to renovate the recital hall.
When the late Frank Lanterman brought it home to La Canada Flintridge almost 25 years ago, it was quite a conversation piece: A 1926 theater organ, rescued from the defunct Fox Theater in San Francisco, built to carry the sound of a 90-piece orchestra to 5,000 listeners.
The organ, a Crawford Special, is one of four of its kind in the United States. The other Crawford Specials are in the Detroit Fox Theater, the St. Louis Fox Theater and the Civic Center in Wichita, Kan. A fifth organ in the original series, formerly at the Brooklyn Fox Theater, was dismantled in 1970.
The Crawfords are among the largest and best organs built by Wurlitzer. The Lanterman organ was built in 1926 for the 4,651-seat Fox Theater in San Francisco. It was purchased for $15,000 by Lanterman after the theater was closed in 1963.
To accommodate the musical purchase, the powerful assemblyman added a recital hall over the patio of his family’s Craftsman-style house. In this room, he played the organ and relived his earlier years as a theater organist, before his career in politics.
Today, Frank Lanterman’s Wurlitzer is increasingly the subject of discordant conversations in La Canada Flintridge.
Along with the house and what is left of the six-acre Lanterman estate at 4420 Encinas Drive, the organ passed to the recently incorporated city when Frank’s surviving brother, Lloyd, died in 1987.
Lloyd Lanterman, the last surviving member of La Canada’s founding family, willed the property to the city. The trust stipulates that the estate remain intact, and city officials must determine if that means keeping the organ at its present site. To complicate the debate, the property was left to the city without any source of funding for maintenance.
The city, prompted by a $500,000 state restoration grant and community debate over the property, must decide what to do with the house, the recital hall and the organ.
The grant from the State Office of Historic Preservation is designated for the restoration of the house as a museum. Money was not appropriated to renovate the organ hall.
Some city officials and residents think the organ should be left where it is and played as Frank Lanterman probably would have wanted it played. Local organists and historians cite the historic value of the organ but criticize the acoustics inside the relatively small, cement-floored room.
Architect Jim Spencer, a city consultant on the project, said the Lanterman recital hall is inconsistent with the house’s design and should be torn down for the sake of architectural integrity.
Neighbors near the Lanterman estate and elsewhere in the community say the instrument would be disruptive to the area and want it moved. Others attest to the historic qualities of the estate and say the organ should remain.
The gilded instrument occupies seven rooms in the Lanterman house. Its current home is a economically constructed addition to the estate, with cement floors and no decorations. The organ relay system occupies the master bedroom.
In 1965, the organ and recital hall were on a six-acre site. Since then, a number of expensive houses have been built near the estate.
“What it boils down to is the issue of commercial use in a residential neighborhood,” said Leslie Wolf, who lives across the street from the 1.35-acre site.
Wolf and eight other neighbors filed suit against the city, challenging the environmental impact report and conditional-use permit for the site. On Oct. 26, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the city and the renovation of the property as a public museum and recital hall.
Because of the costs involved, city officials will have to consider whether they are willing to appropriate municipal money or if they will rely on raising money from private sources.
Councilmen Ed Phelps and Chris Valente, along with City Manager George Casewell, have suggested the creation of a nonprofit corporation to finance the Lanterman project.
“The organ is part of a bigger problem,” Phelps said. “The issue is that the trust was conditioned upon the city maintaining the house and its organ so long as it was able to do so.
“But the question now is, is the city going to fund the project beyond that level which the state is going to fund it?” Phelps said.
“If the city is not going to pony up a fair amount of money to work with the project, it should probably play it straight with the state and give the money back,” Phelps said. “The renovation would eventually come, but it would be on a much longer time line.”
Phelps estimated that annual maintenance costs for the property are between $60,000 and $100,000.
A possible solution is moving the 30-ton organ to another site, Valente said. Suggested sites have included the Foothill Intermediate School in La Canada Flintridge and the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
The current market value of the organ is estimated at $100,000 by Ken Crome, owner of Crome Organ Co. Crome said the replacement figure for such an instrument would be $800,000.
Those close to the Lanterman estate say the historic significance of the instrument necessitates that it remain on the property.
“There’s no place locally that’s any better,” said Eugene Burrows, estate caretaker. “If it were removed, it would be another piece in the circus out there, rather than the historic instrument that it is.”
Local historian June Dougherty added, “This relatively small auditorium is ideal for the organist.”
Walter Blanchard, a local organist who plays the instrument about once a week, said, “It’s installed as it was in the Fox Theater. It has all the original relays.”
Others in the Los Angeles area, including music professionals and an architect, favor an alternative location for the instrument, where a larger audience can enjoy it.
Tom Harmon, an organist and chairman of UCLA’s music department who attended the organ’s final concert at the Fox Theater in San Francisco in 1963, said the instrument “is a national treasure.”
Yet he added that the organ is of little “musical value in the Lanterman home. It’s an overwhelming sound in that room. You can’t hear its full musical personality.”
“It’s impossible to play the organ as it was meant to be played,” said Sue Schecter, former chairman of the Lanterman Advisory Committee.
Spencer said that the costs of renovating the organ hall, in addition to the house, would far exceed the $500,000 state grant. In accordance with its conditional-use permit, sound insulation, heating and air conditioning would have to be added to the hall.