The story of the Baldwin Park Chamber of Commerce building sometimes sounds like "The Perils of Pauline" combined with a Horatio Alger novel. It even had its own dramatic last-minute rescue from mortgage foreclosure.
In the final chapter, which is being written this week, we learn that the hardy little building may live happily ever after.
The story begins in 1906, long before the building came into being. According to legend, Elias J. (Lucky) Baldwin, owner of the vast Rancho Santa Anita, bestowed his name and his blessing on the area that had been known as Vineland, creating Baldwin Park. According to recorded history, businessmen first met that year as a chamber of commerce to promote the unincorporated agricultural area.
In the 1920s the chamber regularly met in the local pool hall where, according to one historian, "the rent was $10 a month and the accommodations impossible."
So the members did what was commonly done in those simpler times--they pitched in to build their own meeting place. The uncommon result was an architectural gem that still stands as a landmark at 14327 E. Ramona Ave. in the center of town. The distinctive mission-style building has endured for almost 60 years with its thick white walls, round turret, tile roof and big arched windows.
But the Great Depression hit just a year after the building was completed in 1928. Chamber members had to borrow money to pay off a loan for the building's construction materials, and then couldn't raise the money to pay off the second loan.
"Finances were low and foreclosure was threatened," wrote long-time resident Lena Taylor in a vignette about the chamber in a history of Baldwin Park that was published in 1980. "I was shocked and said, 'We will not let it go.' "
To save the building, Taylor and concerned citizens staged a big community barbecue at which "enough money was raised to pay off not only the $3,000 mortgage but to paint the building and fix the cesspool."
During its 57 years, the Chamber of Commerce building has functioned as the town's cultural and social center, according to Henry Littlejohn, Baldwin Park's first mayor, and Aileen Pinheiro, a Historical Society officer who edited the 1980 history entitled "The Heritage of Baldwin Park."
When Baldwin Park incorporated in 1956, the chamber building served as a temporary city hall until a permanent one could be built. Littlejohn remembers conducting the first council meeting in the main room.
"The chamber had always been like a town hall, so this was the logical place to serve as a seat of government," Littlejohn said. "The chamber always played a unifying role here."
The building survived floods, earthquakes, recessions and Baldwin Park's growth from an agricultural sprawl to a city of about 50,000. But it stayed the same size, even as the chamber grew to a membership of more than 600. The chamber long ago began running out of space for its expanding staff and its accumulation of supplies and memorabilia that fills every closet, cabinet and cubbyhole.
But chamber and city officials believe that although the building has been outgrown by its original occupants, it is a perfect site for a historical museum.
Pinheiro says she has collected more than 350 Baldwin Park historical items and records that should be be housed in a museum. Littlejohn, a one-time chamber president and Citizen of the Year, is now president of the Historical Society.
So a trade has been worked out. The Chamber of Commerce will move into larger headquarters in a new community building constructed by the city in its downtown redevelopment area and the city will convert the old chamber building into a museum to house the Historical Society's artifacts and records.
The place is a shambles this week as the chamber prepares to move.
The move will be completed "when we get it done," said executive director Seymour Holtzman.