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Cultures Clash Over Glendale Church Building : History: Large Armenian congregation wants its historic structure, built by Christian Scientists in 1926, off protected list. Preservationists oppose the move.

April 18, 1995|STEVE RYFLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church is one of Glendale's most recognizable buildings. Built in 1926 for the First Church of Christ, Scientist, its stark white exterior, sharp angles and columned entrance project a stately image that helped put it on a list of local historic landmarks.

But inside that classic American exterior worships one of the largest Armenian congregations in Southern California. And the group's long-held wish to erect an eastern-style dome, among other changes, has given rise to a classic culture clash with preservationists.

"Every Armenian church has a dome on top of it, but we can't have one because of city regulations," said Vahik Satoorian, the church's treasurer.

"The city is afraid we want to change the building, and it won't be considered historic anymore. But this is our church; we love this building. We just want our rights, like any other property owner."

Church leaders have asked that the building be the first ever removed from a list of 34 protected sites in the city's general plan, a request that was recently discussed in the first of several expected hearings.

If approved, the church's new lack of special status would eliminate the need for construction work to be approved by the city's Historic Preservation Commission--a layer of red tape that delayed past efforts to reinforce the church against earthquakes, install stained-glass windows and repaint the exterior.

For now, church officials say, the city's preservation law is thwarting plans to move the altar, build a choir loft, enlarge the sanctuary and possibly even build a parking garage. Long-range plans to add a traditional dome to the church--which for now remain unfunded--seem all but doomed because of the city's strict stand on smaller changes, leaders of St. Mary's say.

Members of the Glendale Historical Society are opposing the church's request to take the building off historic rolls, saying that doing so will invite all properties from Glendale's early days to be altered or even razed. The society is dedicated to preserving structures designed by Alfred Priest and other architects important in the city's history.

City planning officials also are wary of the move because they hope the church will one day be placed on a state or national register of historic sites. At a hearing earlier this month, the city's Environmental and Planning Board ordered the church to prepare an environmental impact report on its plans, a step both costly and time-consuming.

"We just want the city to stand by its historic preservation policy," said Andrea Humberger, a historical society member who spoke at the hearing. "There is a common good that comes from retaining these buildings. It gives us a sense of our past."

Humberger also said church officials are incorrect in asserting that historic-preservation laws are scuttling their plans for the building. "All they have to do is submit their plans and go through the process," she said.

St. Mary's is by no means the first historic building to have construction plans questioned by local officials--or the first religious group to believe its traditions are being unfairly opposed.

The Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group, is trying to persuade the Roman Catholic Archdiocese to rebuild, rather than demolish, St. Vibiana's Cathedral in Downtown Los Angeles. A designated "cultural heritage landmark," the church suffered major damage in the Northridge earthquake.

In 1990, the Islamic Center of Northridge received the Los Angeles City Council's approval to build the first mosque in the San Fernando Valley--but only after 44 conditions were imposed, including a requirement that the mosque have Spanish-tile roofing so it would blend into the surrounding neighborhood.

Like the Armenian church, the Islamic Center also wanted to build a dome on the roof, but it was barred from doing so. St. Mary's officials and their lawyers contend that in creating such restrictions, Glendale's historic preservation ordinance violates church members' 1st Amendment right to practice their religion freely.

"The way it is right now, the city is telling us, 'Don't touch that window, don't touch that brick.' They're dictating to us where and how we practice our religion, and we don't think that's right in a country like America," Satoorian said.

Glendale officials cited the St. Mary's building's neoclassical style when they first listed it as historic in 1977. The building was designed by the firm of Meyer & Holler, the architects responsible for the Egyptian and Chinese theaters in Hollywood. Today, it houses one of four Armenian congregations in Glendale.

Six months after the building was purchased by St. Mary's in 1985, the city enacted the historic preservation ordinance. Even within Glendale, the congregation is not alone in its resistance to the special label.

A 1993 city inventory of properties that might be considered eligible for state historic designation was loudly opposed by many building owners who ultimately persuaded the City Council to abandon a plan to create several historic districts. Opponents successfully argued that a historic designation would diminish their properties' resale value.

"Once your property is declared a historic landmark you can't make any changes without going through an additional process, and the standards are more strict," said Martha Feutz, who fought the designation for her 1908 Craftsman-style house, which is just a block from the Armenian church.

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