WHITTIER — The number of protected historic structures in this city has increased more than fourfold, from four to 18 buildings.
The City Council's unanimous decision last week to expand the number of historic buildings culminates three years of research, lobbying and debate involving city staff, commissions and preservationists who examined the merits of more than 75 local buildings.
The designated structures include the First National Bank of Whittier, where former President Richard M. Nixon had a law office, and the Whittier Boulevard Packing House, which was the heart of Whittier's once-thriving fruit-packing industry.
The residences singled out include the 1892 home of Simon Murphy, a lumber dealer who developed Whittier's water supply system, and the 1887 Dorland House, one of the last area homes with its original barn. The Dorlands started the first city cemetery after a local diphtheria epidemic. The cemetery eventually was abandoned and later became Founders Memorial Park.
Local historic preservation leader Michael Sullens called the city's decision a good first step toward protecting the city's rich heritage. Sullens, vice president of the Whittier Conservancy, said he would like to see many more buildings added to the city's list.
But the acclaim is not universal. Resident Barbara Light persuaded city officials to leave her 103-year-old home off the historic register, even though a city report termed the house "a fine example of Victorian architecture, possibly the best in the Whittier area." The city has the authority to include a house on its list of historic buildings without a property owner's consent.
Under Whittier's 1986 historic resources ordinance, changes to the exterior of a historic structure must be approved by a city commission. The ordinance also delays the demolition process.
Light said the historic designation would have interfered with her property rights.
"I could not get up Saturday morning and paint my front steps without getting a permit to do so," she said. "I'm very concerned that they would make us paint our house four shades of blue, and I don't like blue. And it would be at our cost."
She said it would be unfair for owners of historic homes to lose rights their neighbors enjoyed. "I believe the landlord is lord of the land," she said.
At the same time, "I would never want to see historical structures bulldozed and destroyed," said Light, a member of the local historical society.
Light said she has every intention of maintaining her home's historic integrity, but worries that its resale value would plummet if the house were inscribed on the list.
Other homeowners expressed ambivalence about the honor being given their homes, Planning Director Elvin Porter said.
In many cases, historic designation can enhance a home's value, said Ellen Poll, the president-elect of the Los Angeles Board of Realtors. If the area is zoned for single-family homes--an area in which a historic house could only be replaced by another house--the home is not likely to lose value, Poll said. In addition, designated historic houses are eligible for property tax reductions.
On the other hand, Poll said, if the designation "is merely done as an obstacle to development, then probably the owner has lost value on the property. Where an owner can put up six condominiums and sell them for half a million dollars apiece, then there's a considerable loss of value."
Some property owners supported the city's action. The president of a local women's club, the East Whittier Woman's Improvement Club, was delighted over the recognition being given to the club's turn-of-the-century building. "It's what saved us," said Betty Wilkinson. Because the building was eligible for historic recognition, the club received prompt financial assistance after the October, 1987, Whittier earthquake damaged the building, Wilkinson said.
The earthquake, which led to the demolition of about half of the historic downtown, was the catalyst behind current preservation efforts. After the earthquake, the city tore down numerous potentially unstable, but arguably historic buildings. Had there been a list of designated landmarks, this demolition might not have happened, conservancy member Sullens said.
Such recognition will not automatically save a landmark, however. The ordinance provides for a 180-day moratorium on any demolition permit. During that time, the city and property owners are supposed to explore other options to demolition.
The ordinance failed to protect completely the 1929 Whittier Theatre, which was designated a landmark in 1986. No alternative to demolition was found during a 1987 protective moratorium on the theater, Planning Director Porter said.