PASADENA — Claiming that reports of structural problems at the Huntington Sheraton are exaggerated, city officials and preservationists have launched a united effort to reopen the landmark hotel's main building.
City staff members, aided by preservationists, are working to obtain federal grants to help finance repairs to the main building, which closed Sunday because its owners said a seismic study revealed that the 79-year-old inn could not withstand a major earthquake.
But a seismic engineer hired by the city to review the study said this week that based on his preliminary analysis, the decision by hotel management to shut down the main building was premature.
"If I were to do that I'd have to say let's close every building on Spring Street and on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles," said John Kariotis, an internationally known seismic engineer based in South Pasadena.
"I cannot find anything in this report that says you've got to move everybody out because the liability is so great," Kariotis added.
Sheraton Corp. officials, who manage the hotel for Japanese conglomerate Keikyu USA Inc., refused to comment this week. They have said that their decision was based in part on legal advice that they would be responsible for damage incurred during an earthquake because they knew of the possible danger. The hotel was bought from Sheraton in 1974 by Keikyu but Sheraton continues to manage it.
The seismic study was commissioned by hotel management as part of a $10-million renovation project begun in 1980. Results of the study, done by Brandow & Johnston Associates, a Los Angeles engineering firm, were given to Sheraton Corp. officials on Oct. 2. The building's closure was announced one week later.
The fate of the six-story structure has not been decided. Hotel officials have also said that they closed the building because it would cost too much to make it seismically safe. Sheraton Corp. general manager Denis McDowell said last week that repairs would cost about $20 million, a figure disputed by city officials who have read the seismic study.
"The report estimates the basic cost for correcting the seismic deficiencies to be less than $4 million, not the (figure) that has been suggested in hotel briefings," Mayor Bill Bogaard said in a speech at the closing ceremonies Sunday evening.
"The seismic deficiencies are not nearly as serious as management has indicated. The structure's condition does not appear to be substantially different to that of hundreds of other buildings in Southern California," he added.
Although the report estimates that basic seismic repairs would cost $3.8 million, hotel officials have said that figure does not include costs of renovating the interior after structural repairs are done, architectural fees and electrical work. The total price of making the building seismically safe would be about $20 million, hotel officials said.
Bogaard, who said he has met with representatives of the hotel several times since the closure was unexpectedly announced last week, said Wednesday that hotel officials are agreeable to reopening the building if funds can be obtained to make needed repairs.
Christle Balvin, hired to temporarily handle public relations for the hotel, said Wednesday: "Nobody, I think, wants to tear this down. The question will be can it be restored and what the costs will be."
City staff members are seeking funds through the federal Urban Development Action Grant program. Bogaard said it is too early to tell how much funding might be available.
Claire Bogaard, the executive director of Pasadena Heritage and the mayor's wife, said her private preservationist organization is working closely with city officials to get the building reopened.
After reading the seismic study, Bogaard said she, too, was surprised at its content. "It was not nearly as ominous as I had been led to believe," she said. "It was not at all negative. The tenor of the report was that there were some problems with the structure and the solutions were laid out."
Built in 1906, the Huntington is the last of a handful of lush, magnificent hotels that established Pasadena as a resort haven in the early 1900s. It has become a social fixture in the area, housing presidents, royalty and Hollywood celebrities over the years.
Last week's abrupt announcement took many by surprise, including some city officials. Closure of the main building, which houses the lobby, 280 rooms and dining and banquet halls, prompted an outpouring of concern from across the country. Another building, with 105 rooms, remains open.
Hundreds of people, some coming from as far as Boston, flocked to the hotel Sunday for one last look. On Monday morning, a chain-link fence was erected to close off the main building and the massive lobby doors were locked.
Ironically, the hotel had just been recommended for listing on the National Register of Historic Places by Pasadena Heritage.