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Project Has City Up in Arms

Philanthropist wants to build a military memorial in largely liberal Santa Barbara.

August 04, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Pierre Claeyssens left Belgium for the United States in 1938, two years before the Nazis swept across Europe. The former Belgian Army corporal moved to California and spent the war years as a young architect, helping to design the Liberty ships that supplied the Allied forces.

Now 94 and one of Santa Barbara's most influential philanthropists, Claeyssens is still grateful to the American GIs who fought and died to free his native country. To ensure they are never forgotten, he wants to build a World War ll museum to honor their memory.

"To be killed in a war is not the worst that can happen," he said last week. "To be lost is not the worst. To be forgotten is the worst."

Claeyssens and other supporters proposed putting the project on the site of the Veterans Memorial Building overlooking the Santa Barbara harbor, just a couple blocks north of Stearns Wharf. He already has pledged $1 million to begin renovations on what would be a third-floor addition and a second building housing World War II memorabilia.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Military museum -- An article in Monday's California section incorrectly reported that backers of a proposed military museum in Santa Barbara had not talked to county officials about plans to renovate a county-owned Veterans Memorial Building. They had discussed the plans, but had not begun seeking county permits. The article also described T-28s used in a flyover ceremony as World War II planes. They were not flown until 1949.

But there is one big problem. The Veterans Memorial Building is owned by the county of Santa Barbara. And nobody told county officials about the plan; they found out in an e-mail protesting plans that the writer considered a "glorification" of war in a city known for its liberal politics.

The e-mail was sent to Supervisor Susan Rose by Robert Potter, vice president of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace. As supporters of the museum planned a "formal ribbon-cutting ceremony" for Thursday, Rose passed the e-mail along to Ronald S. Cortez, director of the county's General Services Department.

Cortez's response was blunt. "Please be advised the county has not authorized such a project, and we object to any representation made as such," he wrote. "Therefore, we request you delay any such ceremonies until proper procedures have been completed."

There was no way to delay the ceremony, however. The invitations were out. A flyover by three World War II T-28s had been planned. The Marines were providing a mounted honor guard. Old military trucks and jeeps were being loaned. And members of the UC Santa Barbara ROTC were going to dress up like World War II soldiers.

So there they all were at noon Thursday, with Claeyssens braving the hot sun in his wheelchair and the ROTC troops shading him with an umbrella. Former television news correspondent Sander Vanocur, a Santa Barbara resident since 1995, delivered a brief speech, paraphrasing a line traditionally part of a Navy warship's commissioning: "Please bring this museum to life."

As the week ended, some were suggesting that it could easily be years before the museum is approved by both the county and the city as a proper use of the veterans building. There also was talk that supporters of the museum would be wise to start looking for another site, maybe one not quite so conspicuous and valuable.

Hazel Blankenship and her husband, former Navy pilot and World War ll buff John Blankenship, have been the primary movers behind the museum. She saw it as the start of a political battle that might be fought with extreme discretion by the city's liberal establishment, eager to step softly because of Claeyssens' position in the community. As president of the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, he annually distributes about $3 million to 200 charities in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

There really isn't any hidden agenda, though, said Alissa Hummer, executive aide to Supervisor Rose. She said it was a simple matter of jumping the gun.

"There simply are certain steps that have to be followed," she said. "There are also concerns from other veterans groups about whether space will be available for their normal activities. We will give this the same hard look we would give any major project. Keep in mind, we own the building."

John Blankenship has a collection of 1,100 military books, now locked in a room at his Montecito home, that would be part of the museum. Also included are guns, flags and assorted war gear and some model Navy ships that he built as a child.

It was the former Vietnam pilot's idea to build the museum. But Claeyssens liked it so much that he was quick to promise the first million of the estimated $10 million it would take to renovate and expand the existing veterans building.

For his part, Claeyssens just seemed happy to be out and about on a nice sunny day, later pausing for a brief lunch served in the memorial building's courtyard. Recalling his days cranking out Liberty ships at a Terminal Island shipyard in the Port of Los Angeles, he said his main task was keeping track of all the small changes as original blueprints turned into actual ships.

The Santa Barbara harbor would be a wonderful site, Claeyssens said. But wherever the museum might be located, another issue for him is how long the county and city planners will take to make a decision. He wants to see it in his lifetime.

"I hope so," Claeyssens said.

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