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Theater Artifact Prices Become Source of Controversy


WHITTIER — If or when wreckers dismantle the historic Whittier Theatre, pieces of the exterior, interior and furnishings are likely to survive. The project's environmental impact report requires the developer to make available at cost specified features of and objects from the building.

The price of removing these artifacts, however, has now become a source of controversy. Cleveland Wrecking Co., a demolition contractor with experience in this process, set the costs. The specified artifacts include stage rigging, neon lettering, a display case, marquee letters, plaster columns and theater seats. Interested parties were supposed to have paid fees by June 1.

But a dispute has erupted over the amount of these charges, which include $10 for a round-top trash can and $20 for a pair of easels.

"The prices were exorbitant, outrageous and embarrassing," said Jill Dolan, managing director of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation. "I said to them, 'Ten dollars for a trash can? I thought you were giving this away.' You see, it has to be carried across the street by one of the workers. Can't I carry it myself and save $10?"

Dolan said the removal charges include $8,900 for stage rigging and $10 each for 26 pieces of lighting equipment known as resistance dimmers. Dolan said she has volunteers who will sign insurance waivers and remove artifacts such as the stage rigging and dimmers without charge.

Not everyone has balked at the fees, said attorney Gary Kovacic, who represents the developer, Doerkin Properties Inc. He said several parties have paid the required costs without complaint.

But representatives of the Whittier Conservancy were not among the satisfied customers.

"I think they're out of line," attorney and preservationist David Dickerson said of both the fees and Cleveland Wrecking Co. "If you had certain iron railings, and if they were bulldozed and had to be ripped off and carted away and dumped, there would be a cost. If you permitted a group, such as the (Whittier) Conservancy, to unbolt those railings and remove them, there would be no cost. Thus, there would actually be a savings to Cleveland Wrecking in this and a number of cases.

"When you balance all these things out, the total cost for the removal of all the artifacts should be relatively low."

Not exactly, Kovacic said. "It's one thing to assert that a charge is unreasonable. It's another to provide concrete evidence that it is unreasonable. Nobody has submitted any documentation that leads us to believe the bids supplied by Cleveland Wrecking are inappropriate."

Kovacic added that the developer would still accept checks for the artifacts even though the deadline has passed. Dickerson said preservationists are compiling alternate cost estimates.

To complicate matters, there is an unanticipated problem with saving the prize artifact, a fire curtain with a hand-painted Moorish cityscape. The fire-proofing material in the 61-year-old curtain is asbestos, a carcinogen. Because of safety concerns, its surface may have to be coated with a clear, impermeable seal, an expensive proposition.

No demolition permit will be issued "unless and until all the artifacts have been made available at a reasonable and affordable cost," Whittier City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said. As of now, "the developer has not met the conditions of the environmental impact report."

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