WHITTIER — The oldest building in Whittier joined the earthquake fatality list this week after a last-ditch effort to save the century-old Harvey Apartments fell through.
Demolition had been under way for about a week when historic preservation activists persuaded owner Jack Ashley to stop the destruction Feb. 3. But last week, Ashley refused to sign a letter agreeing to accept liability for the half-demolished building and provide the wrecking crew with severance pay, said City Manager Thomas G. Mauk. The city then ordered demolition to resume on Tuesday. Ashley did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
The Harvey Apartments was the last of Whittier's "four bricks," four buildings constructed simultaneously in 1888 on the corners of Greenleaf Avenue and Hadley Street. Damage sustained in the Oct. 1 earthquake forced the destruction of another "brick," the Lindley Building, but city officials plan to eventually rebuild it using original materials salvaged during demolition.
Earthquake damage has forced the destruction of nearly 30 unreinforced masonry buildings in the Uptown Whittier business district.
Demolition of the Harvey Apartments, which were evacuated and declared unsafe after the Oct. 1 earthquake, had been delayed while Ashley considered restoring the building. The structure has been owned by Ashley's family since 1910, said Michael Sullens, president of the Whittier Conservancy.
Ashley sought a demolition permit in late January and wrecking crews removed the roof and part of the second floor. But preservation activists remained optimistic about saving the structure because most of what was destroyed was a wooden expansion of the building added in 1914, Sullens said.
The unreinforced masonry core of the original building was mostly intact and had survived last week's 5.0 aftershock. Sullens said he had hoped the Harvey Apartments could be converted to an office building.
"It's been very disappointing," he said. "There are a lot of people who wanted to see it saved."
The conservancy had found a buyer, an agent willing to provide liability insurance for 90 days and volunteers to erect scaffolding to shore up the crumbling building until restoration plans could be considered, he said. Nevertheless, Ashley apparently "was afraid of the liabilities that could be incurred," Sullens said.
Meanwhile, Mauk predicted it will be at least two years before the Lindley Building can be reconstructed. The property owners are interested in including the Lindley in a larger office and retail complex, Mauk said.
The City Council voted in October to commit public money to restoring the Lindley Building after Whittier Conservancy members staged a rally the night before demolition was to begin. The city has stored bricks and window fixtures from the building and is willing to invest public money into the project, he said.