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Arcadia Council to Decide Future of Founding Family's Historic Mansion

December 21, 1999|RICHARD WINTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the last links to Arcadia's colorful founding family, a historic Italian Renaissance-style mansion, may soon be demolished to make way for a gated community if a developer wins city approval.

The 50-room Anoakia mansion, built by the daughter of the city's founder and first mayor Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin, has sat empty for nearly a decade behind its towering walls.

It's Arcadia's own version of Tara, a little tatty but still complete with wood-paneled rooms, a bowling alley turned library and a huge gymnasium that resembles the Parthenon.

Much to the indignation of preservationists, an Orange County developer is seeking the City Council's approval to replace the estate built in 1913 by Anita Baldwin with 31 luxury homes.

"We need to preserve the Anoakia mansion, not let it fall prey to a bulldozer mentality," said Mary Dougherty, an Arcadia school board member, who wants to save the structure, which is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. "Demolition is forever. Once that building's gone, it's gone."

Preservationists said they understand the need to develop the 20-acre estate but believe any project should incorporate the existing 17,000-square-foot home.

But city officials said that is impossible with the mansion in the center of the estate. The city's Planning Commission recently gave its approval to the wrecking ball. Council members also have tentatively approved the project and are slated to make a final decision today. If the council gives the go-ahead, the estate could be flattened by April.

"I would love to save the mansion. But there is no proposal that would pay for it," said Councilman Robert Harbicht. "To bring it back to original condition would cost $5 million and the place would cost anyone another $15 million to buy. . . . Unless it becomes Getty East, it's rubble."

The tussle over Anoakia, according to preservationists, illustrates how officials in the San Gabriel Valley city of 52,000 tend to dismiss its past with an eye to developing its future. "If you live in any other city, this doesn't make sense," said Sandy Snyder, a historian at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County in Arcadia. "There are few buildings of more historic significance in the San Gabriel Valley."

But city officials say land is decidedly scarce in this wealthy suburb. Thomas Hover, of Newport Beach-based developer Arcadia Oaks, said the Anoakia estate is the last prime piece of real estate in Arcadia.

"We're talking luxury homes on half an acre at more than a million dollars each," he said. His firm acquired the estate last July from McCaslin Properties, its longtime owner, for more than $11 million.

Anoakia was originally part of the 8,000-acre Baldwin Ranch that Anita Baldwin inherited from her father, Lucky, a tycoon with a succession of wives and an affinity for young women that made him a regular in the courtrooms and gossip columns. His name can be found on an avenue, a school and a dam. Named for Anita and the oaks that dot its landscape, Anoakia was a white concrete palace with Maynard Dixon murals on the walls and window glass etched with a peacock motif. After Anita Baldwin's death in 1939, it became a girls school that was purchased in 1944 by Lowry B. McCaslin, Baldwin's former personal secretary.

McCaslin operated a school at the site until 1990. His efforts to develop the property into a village of homes with the old mansion as its centerpiece were rejected by the city.

Last week, however, the council voted 3 to 2 to approve an environmental report on the latest project, clearing the way for a final vote tonight on demolition of the estate few have seen.

"For the last 10 years, this estate has been hidden from public access, so it's not a part of people's daily lives," said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. "I don't think enough people know about the beauty of this home."

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