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A Moving Idea : Preservation: Long Beach officials hope to save historic building by relocating it and turning it into a museum.

December 02, 1990|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For nearly 80 years, the Looff Building has stood in Long Beach like a silent sentry over a slowly deteriorating neighborhood.

During its heyday from 1911 to 1932, the odd, dome-shaped building housed the city's first hand-carved carousel, which served as centerpiece to the then-bustling Pike amusement park. For a time it was the home and workshop of Charles Looff, world-renowned creator of the Long Beach merry-go-round and other carousels throughout the country. And later the building became host to Lite-A-Line, a game resembling bingo and pinball that was at the center of a 20-year legal battle in the 1940s and '50s over the issue of gambling.

"It's tremendously significant in the history of Long Beach," said Ruthann Lehrer, the city's historic preservation officer. "That building (houses) the single remaining (concession) of the Pike, which was so important to the city's history and economic development."

It is also directly in the path of a $900-million commercial development expected to break ground in 1991.

So city officials and historic preservationists have come up with a plan to save the old building. Their idea: move it a third of a mile closer to the ocean and turn it into a local history museum, a proposition expected to be discussed by the City Council as early as next week.

"People need a place to bring their children to show them what Long Beach was," said Louis Skelton, chairman of the city's Cultural Heritage Commission. "How can we learn from our mistakes if the mistakes are not recorded, or springboard from our successes if we don't know what they were?"

Said Mayor Ernie Kell, who recently asked the city manager to look into the feasibility of the proposal: "We need to save a bit of our past. It would give us a lot of pride in our heritage."

Built in 1911, the Looff building reigned over the Pike during its glory years and through the gradual demise until it closed in 1979.

Since 1941 the building has housed Lite-A-Line, which after a protracted legal battle was declared in 1961 to be a game of skill rather than chance. Critics had contended that the game was a form of gambling prohibited under California law, an argument that was ultimately rejected by the courts.

Located in the middle of what is now a shabby-looking redevelopment area parking lot, Lite-A-Line is still open for business seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., making it the last living vestige of the Pike.

Those who support converting the structure into a museum say that, in addition to saving the Looff building, the plan would give the Historical Society of Long Beach a place to store its considerable collection of historic documents, photographs and memorabilia, which for 28 years has been kept in various cramped offices, garages and lockers throughout the city.

"It's basically unavailable for use," said Bill Harris, one of the society's founding members and its president from 1984 to 1988. "If you wanted to see (something), it probably would be a week before we could make (it) available to you."

Founded in 1962 by the local Kiwanis Club as a private, nonprofit group dedicated to collecting and preserving the history of Long Beach, the historical society operated for its first several years out of people's homes. In 1969 it moved to a small cottage at Rancho Los Alamitos, a Spanish rancho once occupied by the original owners of the land on which Long Beach now stands. A decade later, when deterioration forced it to abandon the cottage, the group moved to the historical Rancho Los Cerritos, where it remained for five years before settling in the cramped 700-square-foot office it now occupies at the Long Beach Senior Center.

Stored in that office are portions of the society's collection, which, according to Harris, consists of about 25,000 historical negatives and photographs; a handful of paintings; many file cabinets full of biographical material, and thousands of maps, newspaper clippings, old city directories, scrapbooks, city trophies, plaques and other memorabilia.

Some of the collection, Harris said, is being held in rented storage units throughout the city. Having a museum, he said, has "been a dream of mine ever since I've been involved in the society. We simply need a place to put our collection."

At a recent party honoring his 80th birthday, Harris was presented with a gift that, he says, gave him hope that the dream may soon become a reality. It was a large artist's rendering of the Looff building remodeled as a museum.

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