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Landmark May Be Used as Arts Center : Simi Valley: The city plans to build a permanent facility. But officials say the money won’t be available for 10 years.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was originally built as a church, but over the years has also served as a mortuary, a Jewish temple, a theater and even a haunted house on Halloween.

But Simi Valley businessman Bob Mitchell had another idea when he bought the stately, two-story building on Los Angeles Avenue in 1986 for $650,000.

“We were going to restore it and make it into a wedding chapel,” said Mitchell, 57. There were also plans to rent out the downstairs area as a meeting room or banquet hall.

That was before Mitchell suffered a heart attack and before the city told him that, before any weddings could take place, he would have to pay to widen the part of Los Angeles Avenue in front of the church.

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“It was going to be $250,000" for the street improvements, he said. “I just didn’t have it.”

With the city unwilling to budge, Mitchell said his only other option was to level the building and sell the land. He applied for a demolition permit and began soliciting buyers.

“We had offers of $1.5 million,” he said.

There was only one problem. The building, constructed in 1924, was a registered county historical landmark and the city wanted it preserved.

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Fine, Mitchell said, the city can buy it. But the city wasn’t interested.

Until recently.

City officials said this week that they are in the process of putting together a preliminary report on the building for its possible use as a performing arts center.

Assistant City Manager Jay Corey said he and two city architects met with Mitchell Wednesday and toured the building.

“We are looking at it for possible acquisition, but it’s very preliminary,” he said.

Corey said he is simply trying to determine how much it would cost to purchase and renovate the building, which has fallen into serious disrepair. In addition to having a leaky roof and several broken windows, the building has not been determined to meet earthquake safety standards.

Although the building appears on the outside to be solid concrete, it is mostly plaster and wood, Corey said. It is documented that some steel was used in its construction but how much is unknown.

Corey said he and his staff will present a preliminary report about their findings to the City Council at the end of the month. The council will then decide whether it wants to pursue the matter.

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The city has planned for years to build a performing arts center at the Civic Center site. However, Corey said a new center would cost from $6 million to $11 million and the city will not have the necessary funding for at least another 10 years.

Mayor Greg Stratton said he is interested in the concept of using the building on Los Angeles Avenue as an interim arts center.

“We have plans for our own, but that’s a few years off,” he said. “Plus, there’s always room for a smaller theater.”

Councilwoman Judy Mikels, a former member of the city’s Cultural Arts Assn., agreed.

“It sounds like a great idea,” said Mikels, who owns and operates an art gallery. “But a lot will depend on whether or not we can get the building at a reasonable rate.”

Patricia Havens, a member of the Simi Valley Historical Society, said she hopes that the city can find some use for the building to ensure its preservation.

“It’s the only monumental building in this part of the county,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it.”

The Simi Valley Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1924 for $28,470, records show. Havens said it was modeled after a similar church in Whittier that featured a classical style of architecture more commonly associated with government buildings than churches.

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“To me, it looks more like a courthouse than a church. It always has,” said Havens, who was married in the church in 1951.

She said she always has been fascinated with the church’s grandiose design, which is in sharp contrast to its rural surroundings.

“What is most unusual is the very fact that it survived,” she said. “For that reason alone, it should not be removed.”

But more importantly, she said, Simi Valley grew up around the church, which--along with nearby Simi Elementary and the old Simi Valley High School--was once used by residents as a community center. In fact, when the high school burned on New Year’s Eve in 1925, the church served as the temporary replacement until a new school was built.

When the Methodist congregation moved to a new church on Erringer Road in 1969, the old building was leased to a local mortician who used it as a funeral home. A few years later, it was sold to a Jewish congregation and converted into a Jewish temple.

It remained a temple until Mitchell bought it in 1986. Through the years, Mitchell has allowed local theater groups and social organizations to use the building free of charge for performances. The Santa Susana Repertory Company used the building in December for its production of “A Christmas Carol,” and the Simi Valley Jaycees sponsored a Halloween haunted house in October.

Mitchell, whose monthly mortgage is $7,000, said he hopes that he can strike a deal with the city.

“I feel better about it,” he said. “I really would like to see the building preserved.”


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