Will Pool's Landmark Status Sink or Swim? : Santa Barbara: Proponents say 1939 seaside structure has historical value. Opponents say it stands in the way of possible harbor expansion.


In a state where older buildings are often treated as if they were disposable stage sets, Santa Barbara is different.

Over the last decade, more than 50 historic structures--ranging from the world-famous mission to a pair of bandstands, fig trees and watering troughs--have been declared official municipal landmarks, making it illegal to alter or demolish them.

These days, however, a proposal to add the seaside Los Banos del Mar Pool to the roster is making waves.

Friends of the pool, who have gathered more than 6,500 signatures, make the case that Los Banos is the last remaining outdoor municipal pool of almost two dozen grand pools, plunges and bathhouses that once dotted the California coastline.

But with the City Council to decide after a Tuesday hearing, Mayor Sheila Lodge questions whether the Depression-era outdoor plunge, located a stone's throw from the Pacific, boasts the architectural grace to qualify as a city landmark.

"I've had dozens of letters from people saying it should be declared a landmark because their mothers and grandmothers and everyone else learned to swim there," Lodge said. "But it's an undistinguished building. And I see no reason to protect it."

Other city officials say landmark status would remove the option to pave over the pool to provide a new roadway entrance to overcrowded Santa Barbara Harbor.

That, in turn, causes proponents of landmark status to raise the T and D words--charging that city officials are gradually becoming more interested in tourism and development, and the lucrative revenues they can provide, than in the wishes of residents.

"If the pool was gone," said Herb Barthels, past president of the city's summer sports festival, "it would turn the waterfront into another Redondo Beach or San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf."

The Olympic-sized pool, built under the auspices of the federal Public Works Administration, is the third public swimming facility to be located next to the city's marina and fishing harbor.

The first two pools, constructed in 1901 and 1915, were destroyed by fire and earthquake. Both were gaudy, two-story enclosed bathhouses with viewing balconies and water slides.

At the time, extravagant oceanfront pools were a common sight in seaside cities from San Francisco to San Diego.

Most bathhouses were eventually destroyed or replaced by parking lots. The last indoor pool is San Diego's largely renovated 66-year-old Mission Beach Plunge.

The outdoor Los Banos pool, opened in 1939, is a more modest, one-story structure combining 1930s' Art Moderne styling and Spanish architectural features.

Heated to 80 degrees and offering a compelling view of sailboats and foothills, it is frequented by hundreds of daily visitors ranging from tots to seniors.

Grace Altus, 68, has been a regular since the opening.

"At night you can do the backstroke and watch the moon come up against the palm trees," said the retired school psychologist.

Leading the efforts to win landmark status is recreational swimmer Cheri Savage, who became indignant after reading a draft master plan for the harbor that said a new entrance to the 1,800-slip marina could be designed if Los Banos is demolished.

Savage, whose support extends to beach area business leaders and harbor denizens, said the pool is too high a price to pay for better traffic circulation and parking.

"It is probably one of a dozen landmarks in the city that the majority of the population can identify with," said Savage.

If too much of Santa Barbara's old-time charm were sacrificed for waterfront development, tourism--now responsible for 10% to 20% of the city's economy--could suffer, said West Beach Merchants and Homeowners Assn. spokesman Tony Romasanta.

"The bureaucracy of the city wishes to commercialize the waterfront by putting in more restaurants, parking and retail," Romasanta said. "But we like the quaintness, the smallness of our harbor. We are not interested in making it a Long Beach or a Marina del Rey--that's why the tourists come here."

City officials bristle at insinuations that they are interested in making the waterfront--which generated $5.8 million in revenues in fiscal 1989--more glitzy.

"We believe that tourism is important--just as the local people are or as boaters and commercial fishermen are," said waterfront director Richard Bouma.

Bouma said the city's Harbor Commission opposes landmark status for Los Banos because it "would preclude any future planning for that site, whether an entrance to the harbor or who knows what."

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