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Whittier Sidetracks Demolition : Old Depot Gets New Lease on Life

November 10, 1985|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — A century-old Southern Pacific railroad depot that the city's historical society fears may wind up as a pile of scrap lumber and nails is now protected by city law.

The City Council has adopted a 45-day moratorium on demolition of any city building on the National Register of Historic Places, including the decaying depot, which was built in 1888 and has been on the register for seven years. The action prevents anyone from tearing down or even modifying the aging station until mid-December, when council members could extend the emergency measure for a year.

Although no immediate plans exist to raze the two-story, wood-frame passenger and freight station, history buffs believe a decision by the rail company to abandon a 2 1/2-mile stretch of track through Whittier could lead to the depot's demolition.

If the Interstate Commerce Commission grants the abandonment request following a hearing later this month, the railroad would be free to sell the line and depot. It is one of the last train stations of its kind left in California, railroad researchers say.

Meanwhile, Southern Pacific officials have agreed to give the Whittier depot to a historical society, if the group moves it to a new site.

Marti Ann Draper, president of the Los Angeles-based Pacific Railroad Society, said the group wants to keep the station in Whittier and restore it for use as a museum.

10 Railroad Cars

Since the society was founded a half-century ago, she said members have stockpiled hundreds of railroad artifacts, books and period pieces dating to the mid-1880s in warehouses and private homes. As part of the museum, the group wants to restore and display 10 passenger cars it owns and currently stores on a track in East Los Angeles.

"We have been searching for a home--a place to bring railroad history to life--for more than 50 years," said Draper, who says her organization is the state's oldest railroad historical society. "The Whittier depot could be the home we've sought for so long."

When the city's demolition moratorium ends Dec. 19, the council is likely to extend the ban to give city officials time to complete a permanent historic preservation ordinance that would establish a stringent, 6- to 12-month review process of any plans to modify, move or demolish buildings considered historic. Without such an ordinance, the city is essentially powerless to stop a developer from leveling a historic structure, even if it is on the national register.

City planner Mike Burnham said council hearings on the preservation ordinance may begin by the end of the year.

Because of the moratorium five other city buildings on the national register are now protected, including the Bailey House, built a year before the depot by Whittier pioneer and Quaker leader Jonathan Bailey.

The others are the Pio Pico Mansion, the Orin Jordan House, the seven-story Bank of America building in Uptown Village and the former Standard Oil building, which has been converted into an office and shopping complex known as Mission Court.

'A Big Step'

"We are delighted at the council's action," said Joe DaRold, executive director of the Whittier Museum. "It is a big step toward protecting our history."

It was the Whittier Historical Society,

which operates the museum, that led the push to save the depot by pressing the council for the moratorium. Some members in the group say they believe the city has not done enough to protect its many old buildings. As evidence, they point to the loss of the Spanish-style Union Pacific rail station, which was leveled a year ago without public notice. That demolition prompted protests and angry letters to City Hall.

"Except for the Bailey House, this city has not made any real efforts to protect Whittier's historic buildings--until now," DaRold said. "But hopefully that's changing, particularly as the city prepares to celebrate its centennial."

DaRold and others say efforts to save the Southern Pacific depot and plans for a gala celebration to mark the city's 100th birthday in 1987, will "galvanize" historic preservation efforts in Whittier, much the same way that the American Revolution Bicentennial celebration in 1976 recharged interest in the country's heritage.

Abandonment of the 3-mile Whittier Branch is part of Southern Pacific's master plan to eventually sell more than 450 miles of rail lines in California, said James Loveland, a company spokesman in San Francisco. Abandoning the lines is an attempt to consolidate Southern Pacific's operations as a result of its pending merger with Santa Fe Railway, he said.

Holdings Worth $5.3 Million

Currently, there are no specific plans to develop or sell any of Southern Pacific's real estate holdings in Whittier, including the depot site, Loveland said. The value of those holdings is about $5.3 million, he said.

While the council's moratorium buys time for the society to find a new site for the depot, Draper admits it won't be easy or cheap to relocate and refurbish the structure.

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