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Pan Pacific Should Rise From the Ashes

June 18, 1989|SAM HALL KAPLAN

The Pan Pacific Auditorium had always been near the top of my list of quintessential Los Angeles landmarks.

With a distinctive facade of four flagpole pylons shaped like giant fins hinting of machines and speed, the Streamline Moderne-style structure in the Beverly-Fairfax District exuded an energy and optimism that marked the city in the mid-1930s.

That certain structures can capture the spirit of a time is what makes them landmarks, to be cherished not only for their design, but also for their ability to lend a city a sense of place and history.

I was saddened to learn, when I returned from vacation, that the Pan had been ravaged by fire, its distinctive pylons collapsed in a pile of ashes. But I was not surprised.

For nearly a decade, the Pan, despite a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, had been a ward of the county, suffering from neglect and vandalism. That's what happens when a building is left vacant.

There were repeated calls in this column for protection and preservation through a reasonable adaptive reuse of the landmark Pan, which was designed by William Wurdeman and Welton Becket in 1934.

At long last, help seemed on the way. After a few false starts and a protracted review process, a plan to renovate the Pan as an entertainment center, with an ice rink, a gymnastic center, two restaurants, five movie theaters and assorted community facilities was approved. Rents would go toward the cost of maintaining a neighboring park.

The plan, by the firms of Kornwasser/Friedman and Goldrich & Kest, with the aid of Gruen Associates, architects and planners, and blessed by preservationists and county Supervisor Ed Edelman, was wending its way through the bureaucratic maze when the fire hit.

Happily, that plan is still viable. The distinctive detailing of the Pan can be recreated and the rebuilding can move ahead--if not thwarted by officials intimidated by recalcitrant residents. It was such delays that left the Pan so vulnerable in the past.

While an arsonist might have started the recent blaze, the real culprit was bureaucratic inertia, lack of civic vision and will and, in particular, a few vocal, short-sighted local residents.

Fearing that an entertainment-oriented use would generate traffic, late-night noise and crime, the residents have fought the project, and other similar, previous proposals for nearly a decade. This fear, tinged with parochialism, has been fed by some gang-related violence in the neighboring park.

But the crime did not involve drug-crazed ice skaters, mugger gymnasts or maniacal movie buffs. If anything, by generating a positive, active pedestrian use, the plan to rebuild would make the area safer and more attractive for residents. It would certainly be better than the Pan lying a vacant and deteriorated curiosity behind a chain-link fence.

And beyond the engaging aspects of a reconstructed Pan generating new life and needed style to the neighborhood, there is the consideration that the community has an obligation to preserve the landmark. After all, the Fairfax District is not an island, and as part of the city, has responsibilities to the Pan and its history.

Of course, if it is law and order that the community is so concerned with, a compromise might be to scrap the entertainment center, and instead build a maximum-security prison on the site--decorating its exterior with a reproduction of the Pan's distinctive facade.

Such facilities, however disguised, are said to discourage traffic, late-night noise and crime.

However, if all responsibly concerned do not want to spend another 10 years debating various alternatives while the site festers, then it is time to move forward with the existing plan reworked to take into consideration the damage done by the fire, and to rebuild the Pan.

The Pan is too much a part of the city's history to be paved over. Enough of Los Angeles already has been.

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