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Museum Files Suit to Block Its Ouster by School District

Land use: Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified wants site for special education program. Historical society says it has nowhere to go.

July 18, 2002|ERIN CHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly popping out of a mural with his fiery red shirt and stern stare, Juan Jose Dominguez surveys a 1784 land grant while eyeing a roomful of South Bay artifacts. By his expression, it's as if the Spanish soldier knows about the fight between two institutions for the space in which he stands.

The dispute between the Rancho de Los Palos Verdes Historical Society Museum in Palos Verdes Estates and the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District escalated this week from a verbal tussle to a courtroom battle.

The school district told the museum in mid-June that it had until Saturday to vacate its 3,800-square-foot facility and make way for the school district, which wants the space for its special education programs.

The museum, which sits on school property and houses a large display of Peninsula history, has refused, prompting the school district to file a lawsuit Monday seeking to force it out.

If the school district gets its way, Dominguez and the rest of the mural would be protected by a plexiglass shield--or be destroyed--and the items surrounding the painting would change from plows and swords to dry-erase boards and desks.

The rest of the museum's 2,500 artifacts, including fossils of a baleen whale's head, a mammoth's tusk and a floor-to-ceiling mural of a Gabrielino Indian village, would have to move.

"I'm just dumbfounded," Sylvia B. Thompson of Rolling Hills Estates said while visiting the museum this week. "I'm going to go home and tell all my neighbors about this. How could you move a mural?"

Museum founder Mary Roderman said that besides an ownership issue, the murals would be useless without the items they enhance. "What's the point of the murals being here without the artifacts?" she said.

But because artists painted the murals on public property, the paintings belong to the school district, said Milan Smith, the district's attorney.

He said the district may preserve the murals, which took artists Violet Parkhurst and Rodrigo Benitez about three years to paint. If a chemical analysis shows lead in the paint, the district will destroy the murals. Society board members say the paint does not contain lead.

At the core of the controversy are documents interpreted differently by the school district and historical society board members. The district says it allowed the society to use the property on a yearly basis, but the historical society board contends the agreement granted the museum a permanent site.

An initial document, for example, grants usage of the space "beginning September 1991 through August 1992" for a "permanent home and museum for the Rancho de Los Verdes Historical Society."

The society was "led to believe" that the annual renewal agreements were "formalities," said Doug Foster, the museum's attorney. But according to Smith, the language used to describe the museum was written by Roderman and approved by a "low-level clerk."

"These good folks," Smith said of the society board, "have the preposterous legal argument" that a private person can condemn public property.

"We've never given them any kind of long-term assurance that they could stay in that facility," said Supt. Ira Toibin. "We're a little frustrated that we let them use the space for free.... It's small thanks for the help we've given them."

Toibin said the museum pays $49 a month for electricity, but no rent. Capped by a tower with a seven-point crown, the museum is free to the public and is run entirely by volunteers.

The school district has tried to find the museum space in nearby Rolling Hills Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes or on property owned by the Palos Verdes Library District, but the society board "won't hear of it," Smith said.

Roderman said there is "absolutely not an alternative" for another museum location, noting that the museum sits atop an old excavation site for American Indian artifacts. "We hold the whole history of the Peninsula in this very small space," Roderman said.

The museum building is on the site of a closed intermediate school. The property also is home to two private schools: the International Bilingual School and Rolling Hills Preparatory.

The school board has filed suit to evict the International Bilingual School. Rolling Hills Preparatory also will have to leave eventually, Smith said.

If the issue is resolved soon, the district will open its special education school in September, Toibin said. It will serve 40 to 80 students from the Peninsula to Manhattan Beach.

On Tuesday, Geoffrey Lowe, 9, of Rancho Palos Verdes visited the museum to get an early start on Peninsula history for his upcoming fourth-grade class. He glanced at rusted horseshoes, Spanish swords and Juan Jose Dominguez. "It's really nice," he said of the museum while staring at an embalmed rattlesnake. "It should stay here."

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