Santa Ana artists worry about church buying building at creative core

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There was a time when Hollywood mainstays like Lucille Ball and Jack Benny would come to the Santora to be seen at Daniger’s Tea House.

More recently, people like Joseph Atilano Molina have been drawn to the 1920s-era building in downtown Santa Ana for its appeal as a haven for artists, who set up studios and galleries in the warren of lofts that filled the place.

Now the Santora — a civic building block when Santa Ana was Orange County’s undisputed downtown — is about to be purchased by a church.

And not everyone is happy with the conversion.

“I don’t own the building on paper, but I feel like I own it because I love it and want to stay here forever,” said Joseph Hawa, known as the “godfather” of the Santora. The 76-year-old occupies a narrow second-story suite cluttered with his paintings — a zebra, a sunflower, landscapes.

Molina also views the Santora as his personal sanctuary. He showed his first painting in the basement of the Spanish Colonial Revival-style building in 1994. Ten years later, he opened a gallery in the mezzanine where he displayed his vibrant paintings and sculptures, in the same space where he styles hair.

“I want this to be here for other people the same way it was for me,” Molina said.

In a city that has struggled to find an identity for its urban core, the Artists Village is one area that seems to work, alive with restaurants, galleries and monthly art walks. And the Santora, with its ornate architecture, rich history and drafty basement suites, is at the center of the movement.

But now, Molina and others are concerned that the area’s creative vibe could be muted when Newsong church completes its purchase. Some of the artists have protested to City Council members and the mayor, who has appointed a committee to review the sale.

Others are concerned that having a church as a landlord, no matter how well-intentioned, could stifle Santa Ana’s artistic movement.

“You cannot separate the church from the vision of God and spreading the word of God and the message of Jesus,” said Alicia Rojas, the president of the United Artists of Santa Ana, a group concerned about any changes to the building’s flavor.

The Rev. Dave Gibbons of Newsong church, however, said he intends to embrace the community. Gibbons is a 50-year-old Arizona transplant who defies the traditional big box church model by preaching a ministry “without walls.”

“We’re kind of an anomaly,” said Gibbons of his Irvine-based church, where about 2,000 people — mainly singles in their late 20s — come to worship on Sundays.

Gibbons, who calls people “dude” and inserts Bruce Lee references into sermons, said his ministry is about integrating with existing communities to make them better.

“If you think of a typical church scenario, you think of a religious institution coming in and forcing their will and belief on the people,” he said, sitting in a modern meeting room with brightly colored couches at his Irvine church. “We roll really quite differently.”

Gibbons envisions the $6.2-million investment as “common creative space” for the community. He said the Santora won’t be used as a traditional church since it’s not roomy enough for his congregation, and he doesn’t plan to gut the building.

Gibbons also dismisses talk of censorship. In a letter to the city, he said Newsong’s churches elsewhere help build schools and medical clinics, projects meant to integrate with an existing community.

“It’s not going to be used as a typical church,” he said.

But there is more than a hint of distrust in the air, partly fueled by developer Mike Harrah’s decision to sell the Santora to help finance development of a 37-story tower he plans near downtown.

Skeith De Wine came to the Santora in 1995, when the art scene was just starting to unfurl, opening what he calls “The Smallest Art Gallery in California.” He estimated he’s presented the work of about 100 artists, including one who intentionally cut herself and painted demons and butterflies, among other images, with her own blood.

De Wine is convinced that artists need a space where they are allowed to push boundaries. A church, he said, is no place for that.

“This church coming into town puts the entire Santa Ana arts scene in extreme peril,” he said. “It seems like it is almost imminent that the artists are going to leave.”

Don Cribb, one of the founders of the Artists Village, blames the city for not stepping in and acquiring the building.

He grew up shopping downtown and hearing stories about the Santora’s golden past, but when he returned from New York in the mid-1980s, the once-vibrant downtown was run down and eroded with crime.

“The mantra was: anywhere but Santa Ana,” he said.

But Cribb had visions of Manhattan’s SoHo and thought a miniature version could work in Santa Ana. So he started trying to persuade artists to come work in the area. In 1995, he and local developer Gil Marrero held a grand opening for the building. Soon after, the city invested in a building next to the Santora, and more galleries and businesses followed.

“It is to the artist movement in Santa Ana what Gettysburg is to the Civil War,” said Tim Rush, who serves on the advisory board for the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society.

Rush sees a bright spot to the controversy.

“It has forced the artists to come together,” he said. “And at least speak with one chorus instead of being 50 people singing in the dark.”

Back in the Santora, Molina is between appointments, painting on an easel parked in the corner of his studio, not far from a styling chair and tubes of hair color.

Though he’s been involved in the building for more than a decade, he’s not sure if he’ll renew his lease once a church takes over. Maybe, he said, it’s time to move.