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Memories of Old Pan Pacific Resurrected in New Center

Architecture: City park building incorporates design elements from the landmark theater.

April 21, 2002|LIZ F. KAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 10 years after fire destroyed the Pan Pacific Auditorium, a new building on the Park La Brea site will pay homage to the landmark theater's distinctive architecture.

The new Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center's 45-foot-high spire recalls the auditorium's fin-shaped towers, a noted example of Streamline Moderne design.

The 1930s style, defined by curving shapes that hint at motion and the machine age, is also integrated into the new center's gymnasiums, stage and classroom space.

When it opens Monday on the north side of the park, the center will house city Department of Recreation and Parks programs from the West Wilshire Recreation Center, located in the southern half of the park. That center, planners hope, will eventually be replaced with a larger facility to provide more programs for senior citizens in the area.

The centers are among a series of projects revitalizing the area surrounding Farmers Market in the Fairfax district. The park is across from the Grove, a new $160-million retail complex.

Farmers Market was spruced up as part of that effort, and new housing in the area is planned. There also are plans to expand the Los Angeles Public Library's Fairfax branch, next to West Wilshire Recreation Center.

Money from county Proposition K and city Proposition A paid for the new $5.8-million center. The parks department also used funds that residential developers pay to provide recreation space near their projects.

Honoring the auditorium was important, said Gat Lum, the parks department's regional superintendent. "The Pan Pacific has been a long-recognized landmark of Los Angeles," she said. "When we had the opportunity to build a building there, especially a public building, there was a lot of call from the community to really put back some of the pertinent features that were part of the Pan Pacific."

Photo tiles in the recreation center's entryway offer a pictorial representation of great works of architecture, including the Pan Pacific, said Jeffrey Kalban, whose firm, Jeffrey Kalban & Associates, designed the project.

"We want the kids to see the architecture," he said. "How else do we express to future generations what the Pan Pacific was?"

The auditorium stood out against the backdrop of fields and oil wells that surrounded it when it was built in 1935. Later, the area became known as Gilmore Island, an entertainment destination with a go-cart racetrack and a baseball field where the Hollywood Stars once played.

The auditorium's facade, illuminated against the night sky, drew California's newly established car culture from miles around. "These towers were a signal to people that something was here," Kalban said.

During its 37 years, the Pan Pacific hosted car shows and concerts, ice skating and roller derbies. Presidential candidates held rallies there. It was even the site of Elvis Presley's first West Coast appearance in 1957.

But the Pan Pacific closed in 1972 after venues such as the Forum started to take its share of entertainment events. Debates about restoring the building as a hotel and entertainment complex or a museum ensued as it suffered neglect, vandalism and periodic fires. In 1989, a final fire destroyed the building's facade, essentially eliminating any chance of saving the landmark.

Today, the new recreation center faces west on Beverly Boulevard at Gardner Street, just as the old building did. But the new building was not built on the ashes of the former.

Debris from the demolished Pan Pacific had mixed into the soil, making it an unsuitable foundation for the new building. Construction also disturbed soil contaminated by oil, pushing back the new Pan Pacific's opening date several months.

The parks department spent almost $1 million to remove the soil, which officials said posed no danger. They hope to recoup some of the money from state and county authorities.

The parks department wasn't sure if the oil was an undiscovered "Beverly Hillbillies-style" pocket or if it spilled from an old well, said Maureen Tamuri, the agency's assistant general manager for planning and construction.

Once naturally occurring oil is disturbed, it is classified as a contaminant and must be removed. "We're under obligation only to remove what we touched and hit," Tamuri said. "And believe me, we didn't go looking for it."

Unlike in the old Pan Pacific, the architects chose to carry the Streamline style inside the new 17,000-square-foot building, less than a fifth the size of the original. White stripes cut into the brick-red and forest-green building on the outside. Inside, the colors are reversed, with colored strips of uneven concrete blocks contrasting with smooth, white-block walls. Glass blocks allow light to illuminate the entryway and adjacent classrooms.

A double-sided stage opens into one of two gymnasiums and a classroom. Fire walls can be used to block off one side of the stage for smaller performances or left open to accommodate larger events. The dressing rooms are professional quality, Kalban said.

Outside, a basketball court stands ready while a sandpit awaits the arrival of playground equipment. The remaining area was landscaped to match the rest of Pan Pacific Park.

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