Downey History Protected : Ordinance Covers Judge's 1911 Mansion, Oilman's 1926 Home and the Oldest Original McDonald's


The City Council has given its blessing to a compromise ordinance that would protect two historic buildings and a landmark McDonald's restaurant.

The council voted 4 to 1 Tuesday night to move forward with the ordinance despite protests by the company that owns one of the historic sites. A lawyer for the company said it would unlawfully deprive the firm of its property rights. The ordinance was also attacked by conservationists, who called it a watered-down measure that would do little to preserve some of Downey's older historic homes.

The council is to consider final approval of the ordinance at its Oct. 9 meeting.

The ordinance would require the city's Planning Commission to hold a public hearing and approve requests to demolish any of the three buildings. That way, the city could provide incentives to maintain the properties, to move the buildings to other locations or to study and document the buildings before they are razed, said Ken Farfsing, assistant city manager.

The ordinance governs only residential properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places and non-residential properties that are eligible to be included in the register.

Only three properties in Downey fit that description.

The Rives mansion on the northwest corner of Paramount Boulevard and 3rd Street is in the register. The late Superior Court Judge James C. Rives built the mansion in 1911. It resembles a Southern manse, with large white Greek columns. Mary Hendricks and her daughter, Jane, own the house.

Casa de Parley Johnson, an L-shaped house on Florence Avenue, is also in the register. The two-story Spanish Colonial Revival residence was built in 1926 by the noted Southern California architect Roland A. Coate for a prominent citrus grower and oilman, Parley Johnson. The house has been owned by the Assistance League of Downey, a philanthropic group established in 1953, since Mrs. Parley (Gypsy) Johnson donated it to the league.

Owners of those two properties did not object to the council action Tuesday night.

But strong protests came from the owner of the property that is home to the historic McDonald's on the southwest corner of Florence Avenue and Lakewood Boulevard. Pep Boys, the auto accessories firm, owns the lot and leases it to McDonald's franchise owner Roger Williams.

In 1984, the federal government declared the oldest original McDonald's eligible to be listed in the register as an artifact of the 1950s. The outlet, which opened in 1953, has golden arches that light up at night and a tall neon sign with a scurrying, winking figure in a chef's outfit.

A Marin County architect nominated the McDonald's for preservation, much to the chagrin of Pep Boys, which never consented to have the site included in the National Register of Historic Places. Private property can be nominated and found eligible but cannot be included in the register without the owner's consent.

Inclusion on the register brings tax benefits. Although it does not usually deter a property owner from demolishing a structure, being on the register creates a public relations problem that makes it difficult for an owner to tear down a historic building.

When the 40-year McDonald lease expires in 1993, the owner may want to use the property for other purposes, said Stanley William Lamport, an attorney representing Pep Boys. He said the ordinance would unfairly require Pep Boys to seek permission to alter the property and, possibly, to perform expensive studies to satisfy the city.

"Whatever reason you use to justify (the ordinance), it's a physical taking of property," Lamport said.

But Mayor Roy L. Paul, who cast the dissenting vote Tuesday night, said that state and federal officials deemed the hamburger outlet to be historic and that it should be covered by the ordinance.

Paul voted against the ordinance after the council majority decided that homes found eligible for the register would not be covered.

"I think you need to preserve residences as well," Paul said. "It's only half an ordinance."

Ironically, only homes were considered by the council when it broached the idea of establishing a preservation ordinance in the summer of 1989.

Former Councilman Randall R. Barb introduced the idea of an ordinance after a property owner had approached city officials about demolishing a home built in the early 1900s, Farfsing said.

Many of the city's old homes are on large lots. City officials feared that owners would tear them down and build several homes in their place.

The council imposed a moratorium requiring the owners of 23 houses to get a permit from the Planning Commission before demolishing them. The houses were at least 50 years old. The Rives mansion and Casa de Parley Johnson were on the list.

During the next few months, the proposed ordinance was modified to exclude the other homes and to include McDonald's.

Councilman Robert G. Cormack said he would still like to see the city pass an ordinance to protect historic homes.

But the city, not the property owner, should bear the burden of preserving history, he said: "We as a City Council need to make certain that the majority of the people in Downey want it badly enough that we spend public funds to do it. The city should buy or underwrite the costs."

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