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COVER STORY : Scrapping History : Preservationists Fight to Keep a Vestige of City’s Past as More Buildings Face Quake Retrofitting Deadlines

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Barker Brothers furniture company decided to open a main branch in Long Beach, the company erected a solid, eight-story Art Deco hulk that was made to last. The 78-year-old building, a local historic landmark with understated accents of zigzags and octagons, sits empty now, boarded up, lifeless.

The furniture store went out of business years ago. The downtown building, a relic from a golden age of prosperity and architecture in Long Beach, faces demolition.

The structure is one of at least seven landmark buildings that may tumble because they don’t comply with the city’s seismic-safety ordinance, one of the toughest in the country.

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These buildings generally weathered the devastating 1933 Long Beach earthquake--and later quakes--with little or no damage.

But they weren’t built to comply with modern building codes. Most of the buildings are under a June deadline to be “retrofitted,” that is, strengthened to withstand a powerful earthquake. Otherwise, the buildings must be torn down. City officials said they would like tosave all the old buildings, but that it is more important to save lives.

Should the buildings come down, they will join a long list of local landmarks that remain only in residents’ memories or as images in faded black-and-white photographs.

“It’s a terrible crisis,” said Kaye Briegel, a local historian. “If they tear down all of those buildings, downtown Long Beach is going to look like the area around the Los Angeles airport--just a whole bunch of new buildings that don’t have much character.”

“All these buildings can be saved,” she added. “I don’t know what the rush is.”

Longtime residents and preservationists see these landmarks as vestiges of a glorious era, from about 1915 to 1935, when Long Beach was a vibrant boom town fueled by the lure of wide, sparkling beaches and an oil strike in nearby Signal Hill.

A mini-metropolis grew up around beachside resort hotels and oil company headquarters. Developers built office and apartment building condominiums, a pioneering concept on the West Coast. The office buildings included locker rooms where businessmen could shower and change for lunchtime ocean swims before returning to their boardrooms. The middle class strolled along the Pike, a beachside amusement park, and patronized vaudeville and movie theaters.

The boom coincided with a highly regarded period in American architecture. The downtown became an interwoven fabric of whimsical Renaissance revival structures, bold Art Deco buildings and later, Depression-era art moderne. Noted architects left their mark not only on schools, veterans memorials and auditoriums, but also on bathhouses, automobile showrooms, dance halls and even skating rinks. Julia Morgan, the famed architect who designed the Hearst Castle, designed the local YWCA.

Many notable buildings, like the YWCA, fell victim to later development. Preservationists want to save what’s left, including buildings threatened by seismic-safety concerns, such as the Barker Brothers building on the Promenade, the S. H. Kress building on Pine Avenue, and the Masonic Temple on Locust Avenue.

The Barker Brothers building was doomed when its owners decided that demolition was a better alternative, financially, than preservation. The city has already issued a demolition permit.

The Kress building probably has been saved, thanks to city assistance and a creative owner with an interest in preserving history.

The 67-year-old Masonic Temple faces destruction because its cash-strapped owner cannot afford the required repairs. Jack Simmons needs about $100,000 to strengthen his 120,000-square-foot building. The problem is persuading anyone that he could repay the money.

Simmons, a retired actor-producer-investor, has already missed a Feb. 2 deadline for submitting to the city retrofitting plans for his monolith--a block-shaped building with seven stories above ground and two stories below. Simmons, who is battling cancer, can’t even keep up with changing all the light bulbs.

Shattered bulbs sit in their sockets under the frayed red canopy where he greets visitors near the once-grand entrance. The imposing facade is studded with six granite columns that rise 50 feet.

Two rows of columns line the three-story lobby, with its doors and door frames of Honduran mahogany. Brass trimming is built into the floor. The building contains seven massive ballroom-theaters, each covering at least 7,000 square feet; each with a different theme. In one ballroom, a mural of a South American village covers all four walls. Another room has Art Deco styling, a third is more Roman in flavor.

The fifth-floor theater could accommodate a full-scale production, with a loft that rises at least 30 feet above the stage. A pipe organ is in the balcony. Its massive pipes rise from the floor to the ceiling in two anterooms on each side.

“When I first bought the building, my engineer went down below and checked the foundation,” Simmons said. “When he came out he says, ‘Damn, the Masons must have thought they would live 10,000 years, because this building will last 10,000 years.”

After the decline of the local Masonic movement, the building became home to a succession of dance halls, dance schools and catering operations.

Simmons purchased the property in 1976 with the dream of creating a nonprofit community arts center dedicated to the memory of actor James Dean. Simmons, 60, played a small role alongside Dean in the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause.”

But Simmons has rarely unlocked the boarded-up front entrance the last two decades, except for when movie producers call. Simmons estimates that 70 to 80 films, mostly low-budget productions, have been shot there.

The basement theater still features the bandstand and Egyptian-style facade used for the dance-hall scenes in the 1985 movie “Swing Shift.” In the corner of another ballroom is a movie set draped entirely with brown and black plastic garbage bags, one director’s notion of hell.

When vandals began to hit the building, Simmons arranged for around-the-clock security. But he concedes that the building has received little care in other respects.

“This building could be used for a college, an elementary school, an undertaking parlor, swap meet, antique mall, movie theaters or playhouses. I have a list of 40 uses,” he said.

His fear is that the building could become a pile of rubble.

Developer Peter Janopaul has probably saved the building he owns, the old S. H. Kress department store, at the southwest corner of Pine Avenue and 5th Street.

Janopaul has begun an $8-million renovation of the 107,000-square-foot building into 49 condominium lofts, the first such conversion of an old commercial building in the city. The lofts will be priced from about $150,000 to $600,000.

The 71-year-old Kress building was facing imminent demolition when Janopaul acquired it in November, 1992. The building had no windows and no roof. Most of the partitions were down. A 1957 “modernization” had stripped the terra-cotta statues, columns and other prized architectural details from the first three floors. In the late 1980s, a different owner virtually gutted the building during an aborted renovation.

And the superstructure needed more than $1 million of seismic retrofitting. That process required building a steel-reinforced, basement-to-ceiling support wall and providing horizontal bracing on each floor for the brick side walls.

Janopaul thought the Kress could and should join the list of Pine Avenue landmarks that have been saved, including the Farmers and Merchants Bank building (1922), and the Enloe Building (1906), where seismic bracing has been incorporated into the design of a ground-floor restaurant.

Janopaul’s track record for successful historical renovation in Denver finally persuaded Long Beach officials to help him.

First, the city allotted Janopaul $1.4 million from $20.5 million in bonds issued to help Long Beach building owners retrofit their properties. The bond money must be repaid like a loan, but such a loan would have been nearly impossible to obtain from private lenders, Janopaul said.

For a fee, the city also was willing to insure 30% of Janopaul’s construction loan, making the investment less risky for a private lender.

But not all investors have found a formula to save their structures.

The next step for the Barker Brothers building is the wrecking ball.

The building never particularly impressed property manager Richard F. Brewer. Its simple Art Deco lines seem too plain and the building bears the scars of an ill-conceived first-floor modernization and the removal of a rooftop cornice.

But economics, not aesthetics, is the driving consideration for Brewer, who manages the property for Long Beach Plaza Associates, a Switzerland-based investment group. Plaza Associates purchased the property 12 years ago at the end of a real-estate boom, but was never able to develop the site.

With his investors unwilling to pay for retrofitting, Brewer has to tear down the building or face criminal charges. Brewer estimates that the seismic retrofitting would cost about $250,000. The city’s latest estimate is $150,000.

In cities with less-stringent seismic standards, the Barker Brothers building might pass muster, city officials said. It is made of steel-reinforced concrete--much sturdier than unreinforced masonry buildings that have been the main targets for retrofitting.

A 1990 engineer’s report said that the building needed only “minimal strengthening”: cleaning and patching cracks in the concrete and installing support walls on the first floor.

“It rode through the 1933 earthquake in Long Beach beautifully,” Brewer said.

That earthquake killed more than 100 people and caused more than $40 million in damage. It also prompted Long Beach and other cities to adopt sweeping seismic safety standards for new construction.

During the 1960s, the Long Beach building department used the building code to strengthen older buildings by citing them as substandard, said Building and Safety Supt. Eugene Zeller. This practice became official city policy in 1971 with passage of the city’s seismic-safety ordinance. The ordinance was modified later to apply to all buildings completed prior to 1934.

The regulations established a 20-year timetable to strengthen or tear down 936 buildings with seismic deficiencies. To date, 467 buildings have been strengthened and 353 demolished.

“It has been a heroic effort,” Zeller said. “After an earthquake, interest in seismic safety decays over time. And to put buildings out of service is costly and sometimes politically sensitive.

“We fully expect the Barker Brothers building is going to be demolished,” Zeller added. The seismic safety program “is causing the owner to make a decision because he’s under a mandate to do so. Without the program, the owner may have let the building sit for an extended period of time.”

Across the Promenade from Barker Brothers sits the Insurance Exchange, a landmark of a similar size and age. The building has terra-cotta sculpturing on two sides, including a treatment of children playing sports. The Middoughs family, which erected the building, were sports enthusiasts who installed a gym on the top floor. The Middoughs operated their men’s and boys’ clothing store on the ground floor.

Because of its own seismic-safety problems, the Insurance Exchange also is nearly empty, save for basement and ground-floor tenants. The seven-story building also faces demolition unless its owners can secure financing to strengthen it.

The Insurance Exchange and Barker Brothers buildings stand at the intersection of the Promenade and Broadway like portals to an earlier era. Broadway and nearby Pine Avenue were once the heart of a thriving commercial center. Barker Brothers needed not only its eight floors, but a basement and an annex across the street to hold its merchandise. Banks erected high-rise monuments to commerce while department stores and five-and-dimes constructed expansive, multilevel showrooms. And everyone thrived.

Most of the buildings from that era have disappeared.

The 1933 earthquake rattled many to the ground, but perhaps the greatest loss of landmarks occurred between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s. City leaders razed some structures to make way for civic buildings that critics describe as functional but less striking. To revive a slumbering downtown, officials allowed developers to clear away old buildings to make way for new projects including a convention center, an expanded harbor and a modern, high-rise skyline of hotels and office buildings along Ocean Boulevard.

But not all the plans panned out. The Barker Brothers and Insurance Exchange buildings loom like lonely sentinels over an intersection with all the life of a ghost town. Parking lots occupy most of the surrounding parcels.

If the Barker Brothers is demolished, that land too will become a parking lot.

The prospect worries Ruthann Lehrer, the city’s historic preservation officer.

“The more vacant lots you have, the more desolate and abandoned your downtown looks,” she said. “When you have an existing building, you can put something in it in a year or two if you have the money. Once you have a vacant lot, it takes an awful long time to put something on it.”

But her concern is more than economic.

“In an architectural guide to Southern California, printed in the mid-1970s, almost all of the buildings identified as architecturally significant in Long Beach are gone today.

“We’re at a critical point. If we were to lose these buildings now, we’d lose a sense of the city’s development over time. We’d lose our roots, our history.”

Vanished Long Beach Landmarks Pike amusement park, bathhouse (1902). Demolished early 1960s Rainbow Pier. Demolished in early 1970s Public Library (*1908). Demolished early 1977. Old City Hall (1934). Demolished 1978. Buffum’s Department Store (1924). Demolished early 1980s Fox West Coast Theater (1924). Demolished in mid-1980s. Pacific Coast Club (1926). Demolished 1988. Jergins Trust (built in stages 1917-29). Demolished 1988 Heartwell Building (1925). Demolished 1988. Wise Department Store (1929). Rebuilt in steel and glass. Landmarks Facing Possible Demolition Building: Barker Brothers Address: 215 Promenade Plaza Year Built: 1926 Features: Eight stories, austere Art Deco styling. Where Long Beach bought furniture in old downtown’s heyday. Building: Nippon Pool Hall Address: 213 E. Broadway Year Built: 1917* Features: Two-story former billiard parlor. Decorative cornice, sculpted bears. Building: Office Building Address: 312-5 Elm St. Year Built: 1930 Features: Three-story Art Deco structure with well-preserved ornate facade. Building: Hancock Motors Address: 500 E. Anaheim St. Year Built: 1928 Features: Relic of old auto row. Two-story Art Deco showroom for the Hupmobile make of autos. Building: Masonic Temple Address: 835 Locust Ave. Year Built: 1927 Features: Seven stories, massive six-column facade, seven large theater/ballrooms. Building: Insurance Exchange Address: 205 E. Broadway Year Built: 1925 Features: Seven stories, two sides of terra-cotta sculpturing. Housed Middoughs men’s clothing store, courtrooms. Building: Harriman Jones Clinic Address: 211 Cherry Ave. Year Built: 1930 Features: Two stories, Italian Renaissance style. *Estimate. Sources: Long Beach Public Library, city officials, local historians.


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