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Project will let Pasadena venue shine

The city's convention center expansion includes a restored ballroom and designs that showcase the 1932 Civic Auditorium.

February 21, 2007|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

The $121-million expansion of the Pasadena Convention Center will include new buildings but will also showcase one of the city's treasured landmarks: the 1932 Civic Auditorium.

The ornate Italian Renaissance building, which opened 75 years ago this month, is the centerpiece of the current expansion project. It is expected to be completed in the spring of 2009.

The expansion will add 55,000 square feet of exhibit space and include new entrances on each side of the auditorium that will better frame the building.

"These new ... flanking buildings will lead the eye and draw your attention toward the Civic Auditorium," said Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, which promotes historic preservation. "The current buildings are these bunker-like, very low-scale odd buildings. So getting rid of those is definitely a plus."

Some see another bonus in the plan.

The project calls for relocating the city's ice rink from the rear of the auditorium so the original ballroom that graced "the Civic" until 1976 can be restored, said Michael W. Ross, chief executive officer of the city organization that operates the site. During the big band era, dancers glided across the ballroom's wood floors.

"Saving it was a high priority for us and a low priority" for others at the start, Mossman said of the old ballroom, "but it has ended up being a high priority for everybody now, so that's cause for celebration."

Over the years, the Civic has served as the city's cultural anchor.

The 3,000-seat theater, whose walls and ceiling are adorned with hand-painted murals of mythological Greek figures, has played host to concerts, Broadway musicals and numerous Hollywood awards shows. Live radio broadcasts of ballroom dances in the 1940s made Pasadena a household name across the country.

On Tuesday, TV host Don Cornelius met with Richard Barr, general manager of the auditorium, about the March 10 taping of the "Soul Train" awards show.

From the beginning, the building has been a source of great pride.

On its grand opening on Feb. 15, 1932, The Times noted the devastating economic period in which the Civic was dedicated.

"This city scored a hit on old man depression's jaw tonight when more than 3,000 residents celebrated the formal opening of Pasadena's new $1.3 million Civic Auditorium," the newspaper story stated.

The article goes on to say that "the completion of the auditorium culminates a twenty-year fight on the part of local organizations to obtain an adequate convention headquarters."

The city's need for more convention space is what drove the current expansion project, Ross said.

As Pasadena competes with cities such as San Jose, Sacramento and Long Beach for more lucrative conventions, he said, it must have larger and more modern exhibition and meeting spaces. A Sheraton hotel is on the site.

In addition to two new exhibit halls, the expansion project will include a new 25,000-square-foot ballroom and the restored 17,000-square-foot ballroom. A new parking garage also is planned.

The city hopes the project will generate an additional $24 million annually for local merchants.

"It will allow Pasadena to grow stronger as a destination both for work and for tourism," Mayor Bill Bogaard said.

Preservationists are pleased with how things turned out. Early expansion plans were far too modern, Mossman said, and Pasadena Heritage strongly objected.

The current project will better spotlight the Civic, she said.

"There is very little Italian Renaissance architecture in Pasadena from that time, which is one of the reasons [the auditorium] is so exceptional," Mossman noted. "So keeping that a showcase is what makes sense for the whole project, makes it worthwhile."

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nancy.wride@latimes.com

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