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Museum Brightens Future of Anaheim's Past

December 28, 1987|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

In a cultural field that dwells so much on the past, the 4-year-old Anaheim Museum is a Johnny-come-lately.

It doesn't have the longevity of other Orange County museums such as the Laguna Art Museum, whose organizational roots go back 70 years.

Its fund-raising efforts pale beside more prestigious museums such as the Newport Harbor Art Museum, whose corporate donations are in the millions.

Its historical collections are still relatively sparse, contrasted with the hundreds of artworks and thousands of artifacts amassed by Santa Ana's Bowers Museum.

But backers of the private, nonprofit Anaheim Museum , while admitting to a tardy start, believe it's better late than never.

"The need for a major historical museum in this city--the county's biggest and oldest--has long been obvious," said the museum's director, Herbert Pruett. "This city and its surrounding region have been at the vanguard of agricultural and urban development for so long. The full telling of this story is our mission."

Right now, that mission is comparatively modest: a 1987-88 operating budget of about $135,000, a paid staff of four and locally mounted exhibits that so far are small-scale.

But the Anaheim Museum's permanent home is impressive: the city's 79-year-old Carnegie Library Building, still a commanding structure despite all the modernistic downtown redevelopment that now surrounds it.

On Nov. 14, the Anaheim Museum officially reopened in the renovated two-level, gray-red brick structure. The ceremony was complete with bands, singers, dancers and a time capsule.

"The Carnegie is history, the last of the city's major civic buildings," said Pruett of the rent-free building at Anaheim Boulevard and Broadway, across from City Hall and other high-rise offices. "Our museum is at the city's historic crossroads--where the original settlement was, where El Camino Real passed from Santa Ana to Los Angeles."

Anaheim has always had at least one museum-related distinction: the Mother Colony House, the oldest historical-exhibition facility in Orange County. But that city-run operation, housed since 1929 in a tiny 19th-Century dwelling, is small and geared to family artifacts.

Anaheim's city fathers, known for aggressively developing industrial and housing tracts, wooing Disneyland and constructing Anaheim Convention Center and Anaheim Stadium, had never undertaken a major museum-building effort.

By the 1980s, with widely publicized cultural developments taking place in other cities--including Fullerton, La Habra, Garden Grove and particularly Costa Mesa--Anaheim arts boosters decided it was time for a full-size private historical museum in their city.

With city encouragement, Anaheim Museum Inc. was formed in 1984, housed first in a little dwelling on West Broadway, then in 1986 in a large storefront on South Anaheim Boulevard--both provided rent-free by the city.

Pruett, former director of the Mendocino County Museum, was named Anaheim Museum's director in 1986 (he succeeded Mark Hall-Patton, who left to become curator at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum).

To Anaheim Museum backers, the Carnegie Library Building was the obvious choice for the museum's permanent home. The city had decided to preserve the building as a historical oasis amid the new downtown offices and shopping centers.

The Carnegie's credentials were impeccable. It was built in 1908 with a $10,000 grant from the foundation formed by steel mogul Andrew Carnegie to build hundreds of public libraries throughout the United States. It was designed by John C. Austin, whose later projects included the Shrine Auditorium and Los Angeles City Hall.

And until 1963, when Anaheim had grown from a small-town agricultural center to a freeway-based metropolis, the Carnegie served as the city's main library.

To support their case for the Carnegie, Anaheim Museum boosters could point to a more recent trend in Orange County development: the use of restored landmarks for visual-arts centers. The most prominent were Fullerton's Muckenthaler Cultural Center, housed in a 1924 mansion; the Children's Museum at La Habra in a 1923 train depot, and Garden Grove's Mills House Art Gallery in a 1922 home.

By 1987, the Anaheim Museum campaign fell into place. In March, the City Council allocated $563,000 in redevelopment funds to restore the Carnegie, which had been vacant since 1980, when the city personnel department moved out.

In September, the Anaheim Museum closed its storefront facility and moved a few doors away to the revamped Carnegie.

"For exhibit purposes, it (the Carnegie) isn't completely ready--there are a lot final touches, like railings and certain exhibit equipment, still to be installed," Pruett said. "But the idea was to get in there as soon as we could before the holidays."

Now, says Pruett, Anaheim Museum backers can pour their energies into program expansion and fund raising.

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