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Venerable Breakers Now on a New Roll : Long Beach Hostelry Restoration Caps Years of Ups and Downs

July 13, 1986|TERENCE M. GREEN | After 24 years at The Times, Terence M. Green has retired. and

Most new hotels reach their peak at opening or shortly thereafter, and eventually decline and die--victims of changes in taste or neighborhood.

Not so the Breakers, which overlooks the ocean in downtown Long Beach. Its 60 years have been a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, prosperity and penury, bright lights and gloomy emptiness.

Just now, its direction is up. The present owners and management completed a three-year, $15-million restoration and renovation last year that made the hotel, in the management's words, "European in look and service (combining) the sophistication and amenities of a deluxe hotel with the warmth and friendliness of Southern California."

It has 242 guest rooms, including 20 flexible two- or three-room suites, a restaurant-cocktail lounge-night club occupying its top floor, smaller lobby bar, a ballroom resplendent in the decor of the 1920s and other meeting rooms and services. Its meeting and banquet facilities can accommodate groups up to 400.

Queen Mary Operators

A signal of the hotel's future course was contained in the announcement last month that Breakers Associates, the hotel's ownership entity, and Wrather Port Properties Ltd., a subsidiary of the Beverly Hills-based Wrather Corp., have signed an agreement for Wrather to operate and manage the hotel.

Wrather Port Properties manages and operates the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose, the Hotel Queen Mary and the Londontown shopping area adjacent to the ship and airplane attractions in Long Beach harbor.

Adding to the Breakers ownership's cause for optimism is the fact that the present renaissance is occurring during a veritable explosion in Long Beach of new office and hotel construction--completed, under way and planned--with an inevitable secondary boom in the business traveler and convention-goer market. The rejuvenated hotel is expects to share in the bonanza.

The Breakers Hotel was built in 1925 by Fred B. Dunn for the incredible sum--in comparison to present costs--of $900,000--and is considered an excellent example of 1920s' Romanesque architecture.

Hit by Double Disaster

It survived until twin disasters forced it into bankruptcy. First was the Depression, starting in 1929; then the hotel, along with many other businesses in the city and throughout the area, was rocked by the devastating March 10, 1933 earthquake.

In Long Beach alone, it killed 58 people, injured hundreds more and inflicted damage estimated at $40 million.

Structurally, the hotel was almost unharmed--a small cupola and some decorative projections were lost and there were a few cracks--and served as American Red Cross relief headquarters. But the destruction in the city gave it a near mortal economic wound.

In 1938, it was bought for $150,000 plus $35,000 in back taxes by Conrad Hilton, who modernized it for about $200,000 and operated it as the Hilton, the eighth in his growing chain.

During World War II, Navy officers, housed a few blocks away in the Villa Riviera Hotel (now condominiums)--frequented the hotel's Sky Room which was also official Airwatch headquarters for the harbor.

Pillbox Still There

One memento of that time still remains, a gun position on the cupola. It was one of two pillboxes that held machine guns for harbor defense. The guns were removed after the war and one of the pillboxes disappeared, but the other is still there, with its gun-mounting pedestal still intact.

In 1947, Hilton sold the hotel for $1.5 million to Frank Fishman, who changed its name to "Wilton," initiating a chain of sales at ever-increasing prices. It had risen to $3 million in 1961, when a reported $1.5 million was spent on renovation and its name was changed to "Breakers International."

But it went bankrupt in 1963--a local paper quoted a "local hotel expert" as saying, "There isn't enough business here to draw commercial travelers . . . no rail or air service to Long Beach. . . ."

For the next three years, it was empty, sometimes referred to as "the West Coast's largest pigeon roost."

Senior Citizens' Residence

Then another chain of purchases began, in the course of which the hotel became a senior citizens' residence with very limited overnight guest business. The firm of Goldrich & Kest was the owner from 1974 until it sold it to a partnership, Breakers Associates, which operated it primarily for senior citizens until 1982.

In that year, the partners, William Bloodgood and John Wertin, were joined by Mike Harrison and the current renovation was undertaken.

In December of 1982, Dennis Hawley joined as general manager. He had won his spurs in the Stanford Court renovation and addition in San Francisco, polished his skills in the rehabilitation of the Parker House in Boston and was executive assistant manager of Boston's Colonnade Hotel.

The $15-million restoration began with the addition of reinforced concrete shear walls for seismic strength. Electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems and the elevators were restored or replaced. Sprinklers were installed.

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