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Whittier Votes to Raze Historic Theater


WHITTIER — The City Council voted unanimously last week to demolish the historic Whittier Theater, closing the final curtain after two years of emotional public debate over whether the city can afford to save the crumbling, Depression-era film palace.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge may save the building by refusing to lift an injunction that for two years has prevented the city from demolishing the movie house. The court will examine a recently completed environmental impact report. City officials said the report clearly supports the demolition.

Two years ago attorneys for the Whittier Conservancy obtained the injunction after successfully arguing in court that the city must conduct an environmental impact report before razing the theater, which was damaged in the Oct. 1, 1987, earthquake and then partially bulldozed by a city wrecking crew.

The Spanish-style theater was built in 1929 at Whittier Boulevard and Hadley Street.

Members of the Whittier Conservancy, the group fighting to save the old theater, said the environmental impact study is inadequate because it does not explore ways the theater could be rehabilitated. Members said they will try to persuade the judge not to lift the injunction.

"Hopefully the judge will recognize that the EIR is incomplete," said Helen Rahder, spokeswoman for the Whittier Conservancy. "The EIR could have been a McDonald's menu and the City Council would not have known the difference."

But, in the end, Rahder said she believes the theater will be demolished anyway. "It's simply a city policy decision," she said. "The theater is going down over our dead bodies."

After listening to two hours of heated public testimony from historical preservationists, officials said privately that the decision to destroy the building was based on one thing: money. To rehabilitate the theater, the city would have to heavily subsidize the project.

"Do you want to subsidize this project or put the money to some other use?" City Atty. James Markman asked the council. "It comes down to public money."

For two years council members have said that they would not subsidize the theater, which could cost the city $1.6 million to $3.4 million for acquisition and rehabilitation, plus an additional $500,000 annually to operate.

"We are not in the business of spending a lot of money to restore a badly damaged theater," Councilman Gene Chandler said. "We have better places to spend our money."

About 20 people--including historical enthusiasts from Los Angeles, Pasadena, Santa Barbara and San Bernardino--spoke out on the importance of saving the theater.

"The theater could be a jewel in our crown," said Peter Holliday, an art and architectural history professor at Cal State San Bernardino.

He said that the film palace, designed like the court of a Spanish hacienda, is one of a few remaining examples of a once-popular style of theater architecture in Southern California.

"Interestingly, it is the kind of theater that some developers are now trying to re-establish," Holliday said. "We have a chance to keep what other cities are trying to imitate."

In addition to historical value, the theater also has emotional value as well, Holliday and several other people told the council.

"I grew up in Whittier and the Whittier Theater is where many of us first saw certain movies," Holliday said.

Some residents reminisced about the interesting design of the inside of the theater. Painted clouds and lights that looked like stars decorated the ceiling.

"If you got bored with the movie you could always look up at the ceiling," one resident told the council.

NEXT STEP The city attorney will ask a Superior Court judge to review the EIR and lift an injunction prohibiting the demolition of the historic theater. If the injunction is lifted, a wrecking crew will raze the building. City officials said it could take several months for a judge to rule on the matter.

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