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Supporters Hope to Get Landmark Status for Museum : Preservation: A bid to protect the facility would buy time until money is raised to finance much-needed renovations.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The South Gate Historical Museum is the keeper of the city’s pride as well as its past, curators say.

The low building with dormer windows just south of City Hall is easy to miss, but inside are the makings of city lore, such as the fact that aviator Amelia Earhart learned to fly here and that the city helped raise a Nobel Prize winner.

Museum supporters want to have the building itself declared a historic landmark. Built in 1939, the structure was first a county library. The ceiling is crossed by hand-carved wooden beams and the walls boast muted murals painted as part of the Federal Art Project of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. In 1980, the museum moved in, sharing the structure with an art gallery and a tiny theater.

But in recent years, the building has lost its luster and the museum’s future is uncertain. Termites, a leaky roof and public apathy are all problems.

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The structure can’t meet modern building and safety codes, and to bring it up to date would cost more than a new building, said City Manager Todd Argow.

Six years ago, the museum association organized a fund-raiser to pay for a new building to house the museum and art gallery. Five hundred invitations were mailed, but only a few people attended. Today, the schematic of the proposed building hangs in the museum meeting room, a reminder of a dream.

“It was a great idea,” said Sam Echols, 70, president of the museum association. “We had the perfect spot for it. . . . But now, we don’t even think about that anymore.”

For years, city and county officials have discussed moving or demolishing the building so the property could be used as a parking lot, Argow said.

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Echols said he is concerned about such proposals. “It would be catastrophic to lose this building. You can’t replace this,” he said.

The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. each Wednesday (or by appointment), and the fading sign out front draws few visitors.

Inside, an eclectic assortment of archival photographs, collectibles and artifacts crowds cases and shelves. A buffalo-hide coat from 1870, turn-of-the-century farm and carpentry tools, the first and last tires to roll off the Firestone plant assembly line--all tell of the city’s past.

A wall is dedicated to Earhart, and a glass case is reserved for the papers of Glenn T. Seaborg, who won the 1951 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his discovery of plutonium and who was chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission under President John F. Kennedy.

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“We have very few historical sites left in the city of South Gate,” said City Clerk Nina Banuelos, who is responsible for helping preserve city history.

“We’d like to hold on to something. . . . If the building museum is left the way it is, it will fall apart unless the state names it a historical landmark and we can raise money to refurbish.”


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