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Preserving the Best of the Past Is Her Mission

February 05, 1989|CHRIS WOODYARD | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — When wrecking balls crashed into the Jergins Trust Building and the Pacific Coast Club last year, they might as well have been tearing into Ruthann Lehrer's heart.

Lehrer tries to save old buildings. She has devoted her career to it. And she knows all too well the pain of losing landmarks.

They are not just old buildings, she said, they are history.

"Buildings are like taking a trip into the past. They bring you to an era when the building was first created," she said. "Historic buildings take you on trips--time travel if you will."

When a building is gone, it's gone, she said, with no bringing it back, but Lehrer gets up, dusts herself off and looks forward to fight another day.

"We mourn the losses, but you can't get stuck. . . . You win some, you lose some," she said last week.

However, she believes that she might have found a way to save the Jergins Trust, a highly ornate office building on Ocean Boulevard. "I think the Jergins Trust Building could have been saved if there (had been) more time," she said, noting that its destruction was made doubly worse in that nothing has replaced it. The site now is an empty lot.

On the day she was introduced to the City Council, Lehrer marveled at historical treasures that still mark Long Beach. Toting a heavy briefcase as she walked along Ocean Boulevard, she remarked at the beauty of the Enloe Building, an old Bank of America branch on Pine Avenue, with its huge clock tower. She spoke wistfully of the Farmers & Merchants Bank, also on Pine Avenue, which has its original teller windows and scrollwork dating from the 1920s.

She said she was already familiar with some of Long Beach's preservationist battles before she took the job. Among them, Lehrer recalled attending the farewell party for the old Fox West Coast Theater, one of the city's grand movie palaces of the silent screen, which was demolished to make way for the Sheraton Hotel and Shoreline Square project.

Residential Areas, Too

While the focus has been on downtown Long Beach, Lehrer said she will be joining efforts to promote historically significant neighborhoods. Rampant apartment development and downzoning have been major issues in neighborhoods once entirely composed of sturdy, well-maintained, California bungalow-style houses.

Her arrival is being welcomed by local historic preservationists.

"She's fantastic," said Planning Commissioner Nancy Latimer, founder of the Coalition to Preserve Historic Long Beach. "I've known her and known her work for five years. She did so much in Los Angeles and has the best reputation going."

After receiving a bachelor's degree from Radcliffe College, Lehrer earned separate master's degrees in art history at New York University and in urban planning at UCLA. She lectures in a graduate-level course on historic preservation at UCLA.

She is known as an innovator. During her tenure at the conservancy, the organization's membership grew tenfold, to 4,000 people. Lehrer organized popular walking tours of old movie houses and other architectural wonders in downtown Los Angeles that created a new awareness of historic preservation.

She pointed with particular pride to the preservation of the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, a fascinating building crammed with sculpture, mosaics, tile and inscriptions above the major entryways--not to mention shelves and shelves of books. Lately, it is best known for having been burned in two separate arson fires. It is being renovated.

The first employee hired by the conservancy, Lehrer said she had become so busy that three people have been attending to her former duties.

She has every expectation of diving into Long Beach issues--and controversies--as soon as she is on the job.

"I'm sure there are going to be a lot of urgent needs . . . for my services," Lehrer said.

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