ALHAMBRA — The City Council has temporarily blocked demolition of one of Alhambra's oldest buildings, the imposing four-story main building and twin towers at the Ramona Convent Secondary School.
"It's one of the true historic structures in the city," said Mayor Michael Messina. "We don't want to see it torn down."
The building, erected in 1889 and expanded twice, most recently in 1913, is scheduled to be razed in June. Officials of the Catholic girls school said the main building could be hazardous in an earthquake and its rehabilitation, which would cost $3 million or more, is beyond the school's resources.
But City Council members said this week that they believe the building can be saved.
Ordinance Forbids Demolition
The council adopted an ordinance that prohibits for 45 days the demolition of any non-residential building constructed before 1933.
Assistant City Manager David Carmany said the moratorium will give the city time to develop permanent regulations to control the demolition or alteration of historic structures. He added that the moratorium could be extended by as much as a year.
The ordinance would apply to non-residential buildings citywide but the immediate concern is Ramona Convent.
Mayor Messina said that alumnae, parents and others connected to the school have been expressing their concern ever since the demolition plans were announced last summer, and many had asked the city to intervene.
Councilmen J. Parker Williams and Talmage V. Burke, both of whom have daughters who attended the school, said they believe a strong stand by the city may persuade the religious order that governs the school to reconsider the demolition decision. The school is run by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, which has headquarters in Canada.
"We have to get the message to Canada," Williams said, explaining that he believes that those who made the decision to raze the structure may have looked at the financial figures and not understood the building's importance to Alhambra.
"This may be a replay of Cathedral High," Burke said, alluding to a Catholic school in Los Angeles that had been targeted for closure but was saved when parents and alumni mounted a protest campaign.
Burke said he doubts that the building is in any danger of toppling in an earthquake and questions whether it would cost $3 million to repair it. The building, he insisted, "is solid as a rock. It rode out every earthquake for 100 years."
However, Sister Annunciata Bussman, the school's principal, said the building does not meet the state's seismic safety standards for public schools. She said she feels a "moral obligation" to meet those standards even though they may not legally apply to parochial schools.
Bussman said the conclusion that the building is "potentially a serious hazard in the event of an earthquake" was based on studies by structural engineers.
The walls are unreinforced brick covered with stucco. The estimated rehabilitation cost of $3 million, she said, would include not only making the building structurally safe but also making needed improvements in plumbing and electrical systems.
Rather than attempting to rehabilitate the building, the school's board of directors, made up of local Catholics, concluded that it would be better to tear the building down and replace it with a much smaller structure that would cost about $1.5 million.
Bussman said the decision was reached locally, even though it is subject to review by higher authorities in the religious order because it involves major capital improvements.
Only the main building's first floor, which includes an auditorium and administrative offices, is now in use. The upper floors of the building have not been used since Ramona Convent ceased operating as a boarding school in 1983.
The new building would provide offices, but not an auditorium.
At one time, the convent included all elementary grades. It currently has nearly 600 girls in the seventh through 12th grades.
Bussman said the school operates on a $1.5-million annual budget and is still in debt from a $2-million building program that added 16 classrooms and a multipurpose room a few years ago.
Sold for Development
Part of the original campus was sold several years ago for a condominium development. The 17-acre campus has another small parcel--less than two acres--which could be sold for condominium development if the property were rezoned, Bussman said. The sale could help finance the new building, she said.
Alumnae opposed to the demolition of the main building have offered to help raise money to restore it.
Sue Coad, an Pasadena alumna, said she sent letters to 3,225 alumnae urging them to write to the sisters asking for reconsideration of the demolition decision. More than 800 people responded to the appeal by signing a form note that Coad had enclosed or writing letters of their own.
Coad said the school's graduates "have been calling me from all over the United States. They say they would be happy to raise funds."
Bussman said she believes that Ramona Convent is much more than just a building and that whatever the fate of the structure, the school itself is alive and well.
But Coad said that what alumnae are telling school authorities is that their memories of the school are very much tied to the physical campus.
"They are fond of that building," she said. "There's a special feeling."