Plans are under consideration to convert Beverly Hills' historic Greystone mansion--once the proposed site of Frederick R. Weisman's multimillion-dollar contemporary art collection--into an annex of the County Museum of Natural History.
The Exposition Park museum is expected to submit an official proposal to the Beverly Hills City Council within a month to use the mansion as an educational and exhibition facility.
Several neighbors of the mansion on an 18.6-acre hillside next to Trousdale Estates had objected to converting the mansion into an art museum because of anticipated traffic and parking problems. Proponents of the new plan say they have circumvented this objection.
"The museum would bring to Greystone a nationally important collection in the biological sciences, a unique public program of environmental education and a series of scholarly conferences of public concern in the natural sciences," according to a statement prepared by the natural history museum. "In addition, through its history division, the museum would maintain and interpret Greystone as an important historical entity in Beverly Hills," the statement adds.
"We don't envision this as a major exhibition facility meant to draw thousands of visitors," said museum director Craig Black. Though some proposed museum educational programs will take place at the mansion, he said that "we do not at all expect" to attract the number of visitors that the Weisman collection plan may have.
Weisman, head of Mid-Atlantic Toyota, won a lease in February, 1986, after almost two years of political wrangling and delays, to convert Greystone and its grounds into a showcase for his collection of Abstract Expressionist, Pop and recent contemporary art. But last November, facing growing community opposition, Weisman decided to look elsewhere in greater Los Angeles to house his art collection, launching a search that continues.
Some opponents of Weisman's plan also felt that the Greystone estate should be broken up into residential lots and sold to create what some estimate would be a $40 million-$50 million endowment to help Beverly Hills' ailing school district, which has an annual operating deficit of about $3 million.
The preliminary plan devised by the natural history museum officials has received unanimous support from the Greystone Foundation and Friends of Greystone. The foundation is a group appointed by the Beverly Hills City Council to determine the best use of Greystone; Friends of Greystone is a grass-roots support group which, fearing the estate's sale after Weisman's withdrawal, generated the idea for the museum satellite, according to Rudy Cole, who acts as a chairman for both groups.
The three-pronged program envisioned would involve creation of a natural history research library and collection center, a model environmental education program designed initially for Beverly Hills High School students and a community facility for lectures and small science and history exhibitions, said museum director Black.
Exact terms of the museum's lease for Greystone have not been worked out, Black said, though a 30- to 50-year lease with an option to renew will probably be proposed to the City Council, he said. A more detailed plan for use of the site still has to be developed as does a proposed budget for operating, restoring and refurbishing Greystone, occupied from 1969-1980 by the American Film Institute, he added.
(Weisman, whose lease was for 55 years, at $1 a year, had agreed to pay $1.5 million a year in operating costs and up to $8 million for restoration. The city of Beverly Hills has appropriated about $3 million to bring the mansion up to safety code.)
"This is the most exciting plan we have ever had for Greystone, because it will be an extremely passive use," Cole said. "It will involve our (Beverly Hills school district) educational system, restore and preserve Greystone and provide for a continuing relationship with our whole community.
"There will be some low-use exhibits," he added, "but not the massive kind of exhibitions that really concerned some of our neighbors; and this will still be an important cultural aspect for our city and give our city a new sense of place."
However, Beverly Hills Vice Mayor and Councilwoman Donna Ellman, a staunch supporter of the Weisman lease, said, "I think it's too premature to discuss this. I'm always anxious for a worthwhile use for Greystone, and I will certainly give this proposal consideration when it's formally presented to the city, but any comment now would only be conjecture."
Councilwoman Charlotte Spadaro, who led the city council opposition against the Weisman proposal, also said she can't comment until all the elements of the Museum of Natural History proposal are finalized.
She added, however, that she was most concerned about the city "giving up control of such a valuable asset," and that while "it certainly sounds like it might be a very exciting proposal, any lease we enter into has to give us a lot of financial flexibility, so that if we have to get the Greystone property back, we can."