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Repairs Under Study : Future of Waterworks Still Cloudy

October 04, 1987|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

The long-abandoned Beverly Hills waterworks survived Thursday's earthquake with no visible damage, but its future remains as cloudy as the sulfurous well water it was built to purify 60 years ago.

Threatened with demolition earlier this year, the building, at 333 S. La Cienega Blvd., was spared in May when a Superior Court judge said that the city would have to prepare an environmental impact report before proceeding with plans to tear it down.

As a result, the city agreed last month to preservationists' demands for a study to show whether the building could be repaired. The city further agreed to seek bids to determine whether private developers would be interested in doing the job, if the study showed that repairs were feasible.

'Looking at Alternatives'

"The city's doing what we said they should be doing, which is to look at the alternatives before demolishing the building," said Ruthann Lehrer, former head of the L. A. Conservancy and a member of Friends of the Waterworks, a preservationist group.

"The city's doing good and we're very happy with them," she said. "The problem all along has been getting the horse to the water. Now, at least, they've stuck their tongue in."

However, the taste may not prove any more tempting than the well water.

Even Mayor Benjamin H. Stansbury, who opposed the decision to tear the building down, said Thursday that he is pessimistic about finding anything useful to do with it.

"Ultimately, I'm afraid that the analysis will show that it's a structure which is not economically feasible to repair," he said.

"There's a limit to how much you'd invest in a structure strictly because of its historic value."

Built in 1927 at a cost of $147,882.73, the 12,000-square-foot reinforced concrete building was the first municipal water treatment plant on the West Coast, according to a study conducted for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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

Designed in the Spanish Colonial style, the building's flying buttresses, cathedral-like rosette window and 130-foot-high Moorish-style tower led generations of passers-by to believe it was a church.

In fact, the gray walls and red-tile roofs hid laboratories, treatment rooms and settling tanks that once freed Beverly Hills from reliance on Los Angeles water.

Damaged in the 1971 earthquake, the waterworks were not abandoned until 1976, when the city began taking all its water from the Metropolitan Water District.

Stansbury said preliminary studies by city staff indicated that years of corrosion may have weakened the underpinnings that hold the concrete structure together.

The corrosion is especially noticeable in the building's southern chamber, where hydrogen sulfide was released from the water. As a result, some of the concrete was eaten away and the steel bars beneath were exposed. Stansbury said the same process may be at work elsewhere in the structure.

City Councilman Max Salter, who voted in March to demolish the building, was also pessimistic, saying that it would be a mistake to put any new development on La Cienega Boulevard given the existing level of traffic congestion. Even so, he said he would consider the results of the study.

"I don't think it's do-able economically, but I still would be willing to look at it," he said. "If somebody said we can do this and this and this for almost no money, it would be wrong not to approach it on that basis. You can't go in with a closed mind."

Preservationists Confident

Cheered by the agreement forced by their lawsuit, preservationists said they are confident that the building can be preserved and that suitable tenants can be found for it.

"Our experience is that the market today is very interested in adaptive-use projects," said attorney William Delvac, who represented Friends of the Waterworks. "The current private-sector interest in historic buildings is very strong."

He cited the transformation of the old Pacific Stock Exchange into a trendy nightclub and the impending renovation of a surplus downtown fire station as offices as examples of the strong market for old buildings.

"The main problem in Southern California is pre-1933 buildings with unreinforced masonry, but this building isn't of that type," he said.

"There may be structural damage in the area that had been used to aerate water, but we anticipate the structural engineer will conclude the building is strong and very usable."

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