Renovation irks architects

When Costa Mesa architect John Linnert discovered recently that workers had ripped out a strip of florescent lighting at the historical Mariners Medical Arts center to replace it with fixtures, which he calls fit for “a cheap bathroom shower,” he fired off letters to Newport Beach city officials and fellow architects — anyone who would listen.

“Every little bit of this building is important,” Linnert said. “It’s like a symphony. If you take out a violin, it suffers.”

To his horror, Linnert also discovered that a crumbling exterior staircase on one side of the building had been completely ripped out.

The building at 1901 Westcliff Drive was designed by prominent 20th century architect Richard Neutra. The white, mid-20th century cluster of doctor’s and dental offices on a bustling street next to a small shopping center features an atrium and exterior stone walls.

Newport Beach declared the building a historical resource last year, after Linnert and other Neutra admirers pushed the city to save it from the wrecking ball.

The distinction means that any significant changes to the structure must undergo an environmental review by the city.

Peter Buffa, a governmental consultant who represents the buildings’ owner, real estate investor John Bral, said Thursday that his client is working with the city to restore the building.

Buffa also is a columnist for the Daily Pilot.

“The property owner thought he was doing some basic maintenance that was badly needed and didn’t realized there was a precise way to do that,” Buffa said.

The building’s owner intends to replace the staircase, which was structurally unsound and needed to be rebuilt, Buffa said.

He said his client also maintains the light fixtures were not part of the original building design and needed to be replaced.

Although the property owner did not obtain the necessary city permits to replace the lighting or remove the staircase, he has cooperated with city officials looking into the matter and has vowed to follow guidelines for restoring historical buildings, Newport Beach Planning Director David Lepo said.

“We’re very positive at this point we can reach some agreement on this whole property.” Lepo said. “It’s not the owner’s desire to take the building apart piece by piece.”

Architects and history buffs intent on preserving Mariners Medical Arts argue that even the slightest changes to the structure can ruin the integrity of its sleek, modern design.

“It’s like having a Picasso in your dining room, and you’re picking away at it and changing the color scheme — you don’t do that with art, so why would you do that with a building?” said architect Dion Neutra, Richard Neutra’s son, who still carries on the firm his father began 85 years ago.

Dion Neutra now worries about whether the building — hailed by many as a premier example of mid-century architecture — will truly be preserved.

Richard Neutra, one of the most important architects of the 20th century, designed the center that was completed in 1963, Linnert said. Richard Neutra once graced the cover of Time magazine and designed a number of architecturally important buildings in Southern California over the course of his career. He died in 1970.

The building was slated to be torn down and replaced with a two-story office building before Linnert and a few other architects and residents intervened.

The group eventually persuaded Newport Beach city officials to halt demolition plans long enough to study the historical significance of the Neutra site. A 2009 city report calls Mariners Medical Arts center a “historical resource.”

The building’s owner still plans to build a new office building next to the Mariners Medical Arts center, but is still navigating the complicated maze of government restrictions on renovating a historical building, Buffa said.

“It would basically be very complementary to the existing building in a way that is organic and makes sense with the Neutra building,” he said.

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