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Sam Hall Kaplan

Huntington: Need for City Action

August 24, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN

Pasadena is a community with one of the nation's richer architectural heritages, and thanks to local preservationists, a relatively sophisticated recognition of how well that heritage serves the city's pride and real estate values.

The heritage includes a wealth of distinctive California Bungalows, gracious Spanish Colonial mansions, a smattering of dainty Queen Anne Revivals, a delicious wedding cake of a city hall centering an exuberant civic center, and a few remnants of the era when Pasadena was one of America's posh resorts.

Among the more revered remnants are the gilded Hotel Green, a Moorish concoction that perseveres as an apartment complex, and the palatial, rambling Huntington Sheraton Hotel, the fate of which now lies in the hands of the city it so graciously served for 80 years.

The Pasadena Planning Commission is scheduled to make a decision Wednesday on a request for a zoning change that would permit the demolition of the landmark structure designed by Charles Whittlesey and Myron Hunt. The request comes from a fledgling group of local investors currently in escrow to purchase the property from Keikyu USA Inc., a Japanese conglomerate.

Last year, in the wake of the Mexico City earthquake, Keikyu closed down the main structure of the hotel, claiming it was seismically unsafe. But while stating loudly that the structure would have to be demolished, Keikyu quietly retained a land-use consultant to see how the 23-acre site might be redeveloped.

Now we have the local group, headed by Lary Mielke, claiming the same thing Keikyu did, and adding, for good measure, that it is also economically infeasible to renovate the landmark--as if--just because they are local--their plea should have any more merit than Keikyu's. And in the shadows, as before, is the Sheraton as the potential operator.

The time has come for the city to become a little more responsible in this melodrama and order for itself, impartial, thorough engineering and economic studies.

The city should not have to depend on the obviously prejudiced good will of the potential developers, who in footing most of the bill for the studies, also have interpreted them to their obvious benefit, and not necessarily in the interest of the preservation-minded community.

The city also should not be swayed by the promise that if the developers are allowed to demolish the hotel, they will replace it with a replica. At this point in the debate, that is like saying let the patient die so we can use a few limbs and organs to build a better model.

No thank you, Dr. Frankenstein.

There is no question that the Huntington desperately needs help; indeed that sections of it might have to be demolished. Certainly, the tacky renovations it suffered over the last few decades at the hands of the Sheraton should be excised.

But before whatever major surgery is allowed to be undertaken, let us be sure that it is necessary, and that the hotel cannot be treated more kindly and restored.

The Huntington is just too entwined with Pasadena's heritage to be abandoned on the basis of partial studies and the good will and slick public relations efforts of neophyte developers.

Also being debated these days in Pasadena is the fate of a proposal to declare a select neighborhood studded with some classic bungalow-styled houses in the city's first official Landmark District.

Known as Bungalow Heaven, the neighborhood bounded by Lake and Hill avenues and Washington and Orange Grove boulevards, still retains much of the flavor of when it was developed in the 1910s and '20s.

However, in recent years in response to maintenance problems and bad advice, a few owners not knowing the historic value of the bungalows, have stripped the exteriors of detailing and covered the outside walls with stucco.

The result has been a loss of charm and, ultimately, a loss of value for not only the individual house, but for the whole neighborhood. In addition, a rare enclave of architectural interest and character has been diminished.

As a district, design guidelines most likely would be established, restricting what an owner might do to the exterior of his or her house facing the street. Along with the restrictions will come city advice and possible aid.

While obviously an infringement on the prerogatives of ownership, such guidelines certainly are in the best interest of neighborhood pride and value and preserving and protecting a piece of Pasadena's history.

One of the events that raised the city's consciousness of its rich architectural heritage was the stripping of the valuable fixtures of the Blacker House by an out-of-town collector who had purchased the Greene & Greene- designed and crafted landmark.

Since that sad time, there have been various successful attempts to discourage the cynical sale of the fixtures and unsuccessful attempts to both buy back the house and to have the fixtures returned.

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