The argument on whether to preserve the downtown "Jesus Saves" church escalated Wednesday at a meeting of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission over how badly damaged the old building was left by the Oct. 1 earthquake.
In a related development, the Church of the Open Door, which owns the landmark structure, confirmed that it has entered escrow for a sale to a would-be developer.
Before an overflow audience in a small City Hall meeting room, Joel Klevens, attorney for the Church of the Open Door, argued that the earthquake and its aftershocks caused "serious cracks" in the building's Italian Renaissance Revival facade. The danger prompted the city's Building and Safety Department to issue an order Oct. 6 that the building be vacated, Klevens said.
But preservation-minded rivals, inspired by controversial TV preacher Gene Scott, argued that the fractures were minor and that the building should be repaired rather than destroyed. Mark Travis, Scott's chief of staff, asserted that the damage was "similar to what was encountered at City Hall."
Scott's fervent flock and the Church of the Open Door have been engaged in an acrimonious battle over the fate of the property ever since mid-1986, when Scott's Glendale-based Wescott Christian Center halted payments on an attempted $23-million purchase, ultimately defaulting. The Church of the Open Door, which occupied the building for more than 50 years, has been trying to sell the prime Hope Street real estate to finance its new quarters in Glendora.
The City Council is scheduled to decide in February whether to extend a prohibition on demolition. The City Council in July declared the building a historic monument, providing a ban on demolition for at least six months and as long as a year. The Cultural Heritage Commission's judgment could have an effect on the council's decision.
The firm that has agreed to buy the building, the Ninth and Grand General Partnership, joined in arguments that the earthquake damage has made the building unsafe. "The building is a menace," James Lucero, general manager for the holding company, said in an interview.
Lucero, whose group entered a 90-day escrow on Oct. 6, said the intention is to raze the building and develop the property. Lucero refused to reveal the purchase price or to identify his partners, saying only that the source of their capital is "a family trust."
According to some reports, the offer was $20 million in cash. Pastor Dale Wolery of the Church of the Open Door confirmed that the amount was lower than that of Scott's abortive effort, and higher than a recent bid of $16 million.
The Church of the Open Door and its partner on the property, Biola Hotels, retained about $7 million in a down payment and the early payments from the Wescott deal. Courts have denied Wescott's efforts to recoup the money.
On a recent tour of the building, Lucero and Church of the Open Door officials pointed out several cracks in the veneer, walls and foundation that they said were caused by the earthquake. On the south wall, a one-inch separation could be seen between a concrete veneer and the structural wall. Several chunks of concrete, including one weighing more than 20 pounds, fell off the building during the quake and its aftershocks, they said.
The jolts also broke pipes attached to a rooftop water tank. Three thousand gallons of water seeped through the building, worsening the damage, church officials said.
No Major Damage
In an interview, Art Johnson, a spokesman for the Building and Safety Department, said the inspectors found several cracks in the building but no major structural damage.
Despite the order to vacate, two people remain in the Hope Street building--holdovers of a group of Scott devotees who had refused to leave after the Church of the Open Door foreclosed on Wescott. David Lipscomb and his wife, Pam, accused the Church of the Open Door of stripping the building of its fixtures and of causing extensive damage, both through deliberate actions and neglect.
Klevens said that the Lipscombs have evaded eviction by "filing a spurious bankruptcy." He then suggested that such legal tactics were typical of Scott and his allies.
Efforts to learn from city officials why the couple had not been evicted were unsuccessful.
Klevens' remarks prompted quick retorts. Travis suggested that the meeting was "being utilized to slander Dr. Scott," while David Lipscomb asserted that his bankruptcy is not spurious.