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Activist Caught in the Middle on Southwest Museum : Mt. Washington: The architect serves on a panel that will help decide whether the institution will move from its landmark building.


For the past five years, Highland Park activist Richard Barron has fought hard to keep developers from moving into his community to tear down historic houses and replace them with large apartment complexes.

Now he's facing a different sort of challenge: how to keep an important cultural institution--the Southwest Museum--from moving out of the neighborhood.

Barron, a 44-year-old architect, has agreed to represent the surrounding community on a museum panel that will help decide whether Southwest and its world-famous collection of American Indian art will stay in its landmark Mt. Washington building or move elsewhere.

Although he wants the museum to stay, Barron has vowed to keep his bias at bay while reviewing three upcoming studies concerning Southwest's future. He discussed his mixed emotions with Michael Heumann, chairman of the museum's long-range planning committee.

"I think I will be caught a little bit in the middle," Barron said last week. "I've told Michael Heumann . . . that I was open-minded about this issue. But, at the same time, I perceive the museum and the collection as being culturally connected to one another. The building is an important monument to this neighborhood and the whole northeast" section of Los Angeles.

Barron will serve on a subcommittee that will oversee preparation of studies on architectural, engineering and marketing issues. Consultants will compare the cost and feasibility of expanding the crowded museum at its present site versus building a new museum in another community. Barron will represent Save Our Southwest Museum, SOS, a community coalition that launched a vocal campaign last fall to keep the institution in Mt. Washington.

The lobbying effort began after the museum said it would consider relocating because its site, opened in 1914, had inadequate exhibit and storage space, insufficient parking and structural problems. Museum officials said a new location, closer to a freeway and other cultural centers, could lead to greater attendance and more revenue.

SOS initially responded by contacting Southwest's corporate donors and saying the proposed move could be seen as "a racial, cultural and economic insult." The group also persuaded elected officials to speak out against relocation.

But in recent months, SOS has toned down its attack as the museum has allowed the community greater access to its decision-making process. In April, Heumann asked SOS to nominate a member to sit on the long-range planning subcommittee. The coalition proposed Barron.

"He appears to have the base of professional experience that will make him a valuable participant in the process," Heumann said. "We have no interest in a study that's slanted in any direction. The role that I think SOS can properly play is to make sure the experts are aware of all the facts they should have in determining whether the museum can have a viable future at its present location."

Barron said he wants to make sure that the hired experts do not base their recommendations on cost factors alone.

"If the feasibility study is based only on dollars, I think it's safe to say the off-site location will be less expensive," he said. "My interest is that the building and the collection are given a fair evaluation of their ability to stay on the site. . . . I believe there's a sensible solution to staying at the existing site."

Still, Barron acknowledged that the museum must overcome serious hurdles to expand at its present location, including unstable soil and zoning restrictions. At the same time, he said, a new wing might require major changes in the museum's distinctive white building and tower, which are visible from the Pasadena Freeway.

"At some point, their desire to expand may jeopardize the historic significance of the building," Barron said. "We could lose what we're trying to keep."

The architect said he didn't hesitate to accept the seat on the museum's subcommittee. "I felt I had the credentials and background to do it," he said. "I've worked on large-scale projects and I know what's involved. . . . And I'm an activist in the community."

Barron is a Long Beach native who earned a bachelor's degree at Cal Poly Pomona and did graduate work at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Santa Monica.

He has done design work on such projects as the Universal Amphitheatre and the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. More recently, he has been involved in renovating a historic masonry building for artist David Hockney and restoring the 83-year-old Sanborn Building in downtown Los Angeles.

Barron is also chairman of the Highland Park Neighborhood Assn.'s architectural review board and has lobbied for special zoning that would protect historic neighborhoods in Highland Park. He moved to the community 15 years ago and, for the past 12, has lived in a house built in 1896.

"One of the things that attracted me here was that Highland Park had been overlooked by developers and was close to downtown," Barron said.

He became a community activist to help ward off "greedy developers" and to form closer ties with his neighbors.

"People in small towns have always been active," Barron said. "A lot of times, people in Los Angeles are overwhelmed by the size of the city, and they feel they can't accomplish anything. I used to feel that way."

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