WHITTIER — Just when it looked as though wrecking crews would flatten the Whittier Theatre, a reprieve has arrived from an unexpected source, a state law passed last November to protect historic structures damaged in last October's San Francisco-area earthquake.
To abide by that emergency statute, Whittier officials had asked the state Office of Historic Preservation in May to sanction the theater's demolition.
"I am unable to approve your request," wrote preservation officer Kathryn Gualtieri in a letter June 8 to Whittier Mayor Thomas Sawyer. "The building appears to be one of Whittier's major architectural landmarks. Although damaged, it still retains sufficient integrity to qualify for listing in the National Register of Historic Places."
The ruling marks the first time that the law has been applied in Southern California.
The state has the authority to halt the demolition only because the building was damaged in a "natural disaster." Had the building been unharmed by Whittier's 1987 earthquake, it would be ineligible for such protection.
Ironically, developer Peter Doerkin cited earthquake damage as a major reason why the theater should be demolished.
Months before the 1987 earthquake, the city allowed Doerkin to purchase the property when hesubmitted a proposal that included restoring the theater, which featured in its heyday a cloud machine, a planetarium-like ceiling and three-dimensional, hacienda-style architecture on the side walls. After he acquired the 1929 structure, Doerkin said subsequent study showed that restoring the theater would be unprofitable. He had asked for permission to raze Whittier's most famous movie house even before the local temblor.
Shortly after the Whittier quake, wrecking crews, armed with an emergency safety ordinance, knocked down walls in the theater complex for about four hours until local preservationists obtained a restraining order.
Court battles delayed further demolition for more than two years and forced the developer to submit and abide by the conditions of an environmental impact report. Nonetheless, until the state intervened, Doerkin had every reason to believe his long-delayed project would soon go forward.
"We're dismayed because we think (the state's ruling) is inconsistent with the environmental impact report and the court's ruling in litigation and the City Council resolution authorizing the demolition," said Gary Kovacic, the developer's attorney. "The decision was made without an inspection of the interior of the theater."
The inside of the building has not only deteriorated from more than two years of vandalism and neglect, but from approved demolition procedures already begun by Cleveland Wrecking Co. The theater's famed planetarium-like ceiling, which contained cancer-causing asbestos, has already been dropped. And the auditorium's 982 seats, many with their metal legs snapped at the bottom, now sit stacked in a parking lot outside the theater.
Preservationist David Dickerson, an attorney for the Whittier Conservancy, said that the gutted interior would add to the difficulty of reviving the theater. He wants the city to "see if there can be incorporated into the landmark structure of the theater a project of larger scope, and use the theater for a purpose other than a theater" such as retail or restaurant space.
No developer has stepped forward, however, with an offer that the current owner considers fair. "Our client has been sustaining substantial costs," Kovacic said.
Dickerson suggested that the city use its power of eminent domain to acquire the property at a fair market value.
Yet in the past, the city has been unwilling to commit city redevelopment funds to the theater. A narrow majority of the current City Council has gone on record favoring demolition, and the developer's attorney hopes for continued city support.
However, City Manager Thomas G. Mauk, who once called the vacant theater an eyesore, now appears reluctant to have the city dragged further into the dispute. "It seems that the decision of the state office is one that is going to have to be dealt with by the owner of the building," Mauk said.
Mauk said his staff has not had an opportunity to bring the matter before the City Council, and any potential council action could be months away.
In all, a total of three earthquakes have had a direct bearing on the theater's fate. Whittier's 1987 quake appeared to set the stage for the theater's demise. Then, laws passed after the 1989 San Francisco quake created a mechanism to block the theater's destruction, but only because an earthquake had damaged the movie house. Finally, the Upland temblor Feb. 28 prompted the state to notify Southern California cities about the new preservation law.
Shortly afterward, Whittier City Hall staff members concluded that the theater's razing would have to be state-approved. The state said no.