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Preservationists Hope to Save La Cienega Park Waterworks

November 16, 1986|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

Admirers of an abandoned waterworks in La Cienega Park in Beverly Hills hope to save the Spanish-style building despite plans to wreck it to make way for new athletic fields.

"It's part of our heritage in the city," said Pauline Stein, chairwoman of the city's Architectural Commission. "I think it could be rehabilitated and there could be some adaptive re-use of the building."

Park department officials, local residents and leaders of youth athletic leagues have said they favor clearing the site.

But Stein said, "One or two more baseball or soccer fields are not going to add to the city as much as converting what we have left."

The concrete building, completed in 1928 at a cost of $147,882.73, was the first municipal water treatment plant on the West Coast, according to a study conducted for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

'Outstanding Achievement'

The society has listed the building as "an outstanding architectural and engineering achievement."

Ruthann Lehrer, director of the L.A. Conservancy, a preservationist group, said, "From our perspective it's a very unique structure that has both architectural and engineering significance. . . . We'd hope the city of Beverly Hills would recognize the unique significance of the building and agree to fund some feasibility studies . . . there's nothing like it in Los Angeles."

Designed to resemble a Spanish Colonial hacienda, its cathedral-like rosette window, flying buttresses and 130-foot-high, Moorish-style tower have led generations of passers-by to believe that the structure is a church.

In fact, the gray concrete walls and red tile roofs hide a warren of laboratories, treatment rooms and settling tanks that have fallen into disrepair since 1976, when the city began taking all its water from the Metropolitan Water District, a regional agency.

It was news of a proposed renovation of the park that moved Stein and others to take a tour of the structure, which is closed to the public.

The Beverly Hills Architectural Commission later proposed that the City

Council sponsor a study to determine whether the building is worth saving, but city staff said such a report could cost as much as $60,000.

No action was taken, but Sally Sherman, a member of the commission, said she has since discovered that a study could cost significantly less. She said the commission would discuss the matter again and probably recommend that the City Council, too, take another look.

"I don't think the issue is dead yet," she said. "The city needs to start with Step 1 (a study) so that at a later date nobody will say, 'Sorry, we didn't do the proper research.' "

"It looked pretty solid to me," Stein said after the recent tour. "There is beautiful space inside."

But Councilman Max Salter, who went along on the tour, called it "a monstrosity."

Converting it for any other use would be prohibitively expensive, he said, recalling its "narrow hallways, terrible staircases."

'Need Open Space More'

"I think we need the open space more," Salter said. "This is not to say that stuff with historical meaning shouldn't be saved, but I don't believe this is of that nature."

Although Vice Mayor Benjamin H. Stansbury Jr. said he was "really fond of it as an architectural edifice," he said city staffers have told the council that the building may not be strong enough to withstand an earthquake.

"I'm not sure we have a quorum of enthusiastic people," he said, noting that only "a small group of people concerned about historical buildings" have spoken out on the issue.

He said it would be worthwhile to spend thousands of dollars on a study that concludes a building worth several million dollars should be saved, but the money would seem ill-spent if the conclusion is negative.

"We need to have a large group of people who come forth and say this is an architecturally significant building, part of the landscape of buildings we'd like to save," Stansbury said.

Although the building's southern end, where water was once sprayed into the air as part of a process to remove hydrogen sulfide from it, shows severe damage, the rest of the waterworks appears to be in good shape, said John Kariotis, a consulting structural engineer.

He said the hydrogen sulfide weakened the concrete and exposed the steel reinforcing bars to rust.

'Other Parts in Good Condition'

"The other parts are in good condition," said Kariotis, who toured the building with Salter and members of the Architectural Commission.

"The configuration of the building, of course, is planned for water works," he said. "The building is not easily adaptable to other uses, but it could be."

He said a renovation study could cost as little as $10,000 for a brief look to determine what direction to proceed in, or as much as $60,000 for a complete testing program and engineering analysis.

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