A steel claw began reducing the historic Whittier Theatre to rubble Wednesday morning, smashing the landmark's 79-foot tower to splinters and ending a four-year struggle to save the 62-year-old structure.
The long-delayed demolition began less than 24 hours after a final proposal to rescue the once-grand movie house collapsed.
Owner Peter Doerken, a Santa Monica-based shopping center developer, had offered to sell the theater to the city for $1.3 million cash, his attorney said, but the City Council turned down the deal at a specially called meeting Tuesday.
Council members would not comment about their action, but sources close to the negotiations said city staff advised that the purchase would be too risky an investment without a firm plan to develop the theater property.
The city had been trying to negotiate a deal to turn the property over to OSF International Inc., the Portland, Ore., company that builds and operates the international chain of Old Spaghetti Factory restaurants.
OSF specializes in putting its restaurants into landmark buildings, but the company was reluctant to take on a project as large as the Whittier Theatre without multimillion-dollar assistance from the city or another developer, senior vice president David Cook said this week.
Although City Manager Tom Mauk denied the existence of any negotiations within the last week, it was no secret that the theater's fate was the sole topic of Tuesday's 90-minute, closed-door meeting. A provision of the state Ralph M. Brown Act allows councils to meet privately to give instructions to real estate negotiators.
"It was kind of like put up or shut up," attorney Charles Cummings, who represents Doerken Properties Inc., said of his client's final offer to the city.
Last Friday, workers from Cleveland Wrecking Co. carefully removed the Whittier Theatre sign from the theater tower. The city had asked that the sign and some wrought iron be saved.
Little else was salvageable from the cement shell of the once-glamorous theater. The famed ceiling was brought down last year. It once featured a simulated night sky complete with pinpoints of starlight and a cloud machine. Architect David Bushnell had crafted the theater walls to suggest the outside patio of a hacienda, with three-dimensional balconies, tile roof overhangs, arched doors, pillars, turrets and chimneys. Orange bulbs bathed the scenery in a perpetual sunset. Much of the decoration already has been reduced to rubble as a result of neglect, vandalism, earthquake damage and past demolition work.
General demolition was to have begun Monday. A crew from Cleveland Wrecking Co. was clearing debris from the theater courtyard and starting up a 100-foot crane when City Council member Helen McKenna-Rahder picked up the telephone to call Doerken, in a last attempt to save the structure.
"It was right down to the wire," Cleveland Wrecking Field Supt. Ron Allen said of the demolition. "It was like 30 seconds from starting.
"A guy from Doerken drove up and said, 'Hold it!' "
McKenna-Rahder was trying to revive the deal by saying that Doerken would do better financially if he sold the building to the city than if he tore it down for a new development, said sources with the city and Doerken representatives.
Neither McKenna-Rahder nor other council members would comment on what happened behind the scenes. But McKenna-Rahder reportedly advised Doerken's representative that the city had adopted tough development standards since Doerken bought the theater in July, 1987. The new codes require more parking, landscaping and architectural detail. The standards would make it difficult for Doerken to erect the type of shopping center development he once envisioned and could make the parcel more difficult to sell, she reportedly said.
According to various sources, Doerken's side immediately offered to sell the site for $1.5 million, a substantial reduction from previous asking prices that had ranged as high as $2.5 million a few months ago. McKenna-Rahder asked city staff to resume negotiations, and the price reportedly had fallen to $1.3 million by the time of Tuesday's meeting.
Doerken's offer was the city's last chance to save the theater, attorney Cummings said. The theater closed in 1986 after years of declining business. In the last four years, the building weathered a major earthquake and four partial demolitions. The roofs of both side wings had been knocked down, and the property was a tangle of rubble, broken glass, beer cans and loose strips of film.
McKenna-Rahder admitted this week that the building had become an eyesore, but she insisted that it was worth saving.
"Historic structures are only eyesores when not maintained and given their due respect," she said. "They are a reminder of the stability of the community and respect for what's gone on in the past.