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Its Job Is to Return the Splendor : Fire: Har-Bro Inc. is charged with restoring one of Los Angeles' fanciest apartment buildings. It's taking time, care--and about $25 million.

December 23, 1990|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Jim Franklin arrived at the Wilshire Terrace the day after the big fire, he found wet, stinking masses of rubble in the ruins of what had been some of the fanciest apartments in Los Angeles.

"The fire was so devastating that we didn't know what was where," said Franklin, vice president of Har-Bro Inc., a contracting firm that specializes in cleaning up and restoring fire-damaged buildings.

But the files of Gruen Associates, the architectural firm that designed the 1959 building, helped make sense of the mess, and now, one year later, the first tenants are ready to move back in.

It was not a simple process, Franklin said.

The job started with the careful bagging and removal of debris. The building's original pipes and other fittings had been wrapped with asbestos, meaning that the detritus could not simply be dumped down a chute.

The decision to put in a modern alarm and sprinkler system also made for extra work.

To install the system's pipes and wiring, workers broke through, then rebuilt, the walls and ceilings of apartments that had not been damaged by the fire itself.

They also broke through lath-and-plaster coverings to spray two coats of chemical encapsulant over the structure's concrete inner walls, which were permeated with the smell of smoke.

"You've got to seal the smoke smell in, because you can't remove it," Franklin explained during a tour of the building.

At some spots on Wilshire Terrace's eastern end, where the fire burned as hot as 1,200 degrees, the concrete underpinnings of the structure actually flaked and split off because of the heat. Those points were reinforced with metal beams.

Although the building was originally designed to have 120 units, residents acquired extra apartments over the years and knocked down the walls to make extra-large living spaces.

Eighty-seven units remained at the time of the fire, many of them customized with individual touches that had to be restored, duplicated or improved upon, including the gently curved soffits that one tenant installed to give his ceiling a 1930s look.

Another tenant decorated her 5,000-square-foot duplex with pecan wood cabinets, 18th-Century wall coverings and a set of 16-foot Ionian columns, while a third flaunted a built-in saltwater aquarium.

"It was like having 80-plus jobs going at the same time," Franklin said. "It's been a real nightmare."

James E. Kenney, a director of the corporation that runs the tenant-owned building, said the work is going along well, but "we're all impatient to get back into our homes."

Bob Corbin, an official with the CNA Insurance Co., said the building had ample coverage but that matters were complicated because individual residents carried additional homeowner's insurance.

"When you take 15 companies, they don't all write policies the same way," Corbin said. Ten meetings and frequent telephone talks were required to coordinate coverage, he said.

Although Corbin declined to say how much the fire at the Wilshire Terrace would cost CNA, other sources said the price tag for the renovation has gone up to $25 million from an early estimate of $10 million.

"We have, fortunately, an insurance company that was very responsive," Kenney said.

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