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City demands hold up offer to restore and move old church in San Pedro

A cemetery in Rancho Palos Verdes wants to rescue the deteriorating St. Peter's Episcopal Church, which has been unoccupied for decades, by moving it onto its property and restoring it.

August 24, 2009|Gerrick D. Kennedy

Donald Scott spent much of his youth attending services at old St. Peter's Episcopal Church, which now sits in the Harbor View Memorial Cemetery in San Pedro.

So it saddens him that the tiny, white wood-shingled building constructed 125 years ago and deemed a historical landmark would end up in the condition it is now. The church, which has been locked for more than 20 years, long ago fell into disrepair and has become a target for vandals.

"I hate to go into this church," said Scott, 78, whose two older sisters are buried on the cemetery grounds. "I spent the first 30 years of my life here. It's painful to go inside."

Scott and others are hoping the building can be saved.

Green Hills Memorial Park in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes offered to rescue the deteriorating church more than a year ago, volunteering to spend $300,000 to move the building onto its property on Western Avenue. It would be restored and reopened as a chapel for funerals, weddings and other services.

But the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources has informed Green Hills that it must work with a city-appointed architect to refurbish the old church, and also submit to annual inspections to ensure the building is properly maintained.

The city's demands have upset Green Hills officials, who have stalled the project amid concerns about increasing costs. They point out that the church has been the property of the city of Los Angeles for decades and that it has failed to keep up the building.

"We don't have a problem taking the church, but we don't want to be held to a different standard than the city," said John Resich, chairman of the Green Hills cemetery board. "We don't want someone telling us how to do it. That's our concern. We don't want to be in the position of being an open pocket."

The church is in desperate need of a makeover. Vandals have spray-painted graffiti on some of its walls and damaged four of the building's seven stained-glass windows, which are covered with metal grates and bulletproof glass.

Resich said there are a number of missing artifacts from the church and that for more than a year a homeless man lived inside -- evidenced by an obscene carving on one of the neatly lined mahogany pews that identified the pew as his bed.

"It's sad that no one is able to use it," Resich said of the building. "It's sad that a historical church is being deteriorated just out of neglect."

It wouldn't be the first time the church has moved.

Mary Jo Walker of the San Pedro Bay Historical Society said the building was given to the city of Los Angeles in 1965 after St. Peter's built a new facility on 9th Street.

When it was moved to Harbor View Cemetery, the care of the church fell under the responsibility of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

St. Peter's looks dramatically different today compared with the photos Walker and the Rev. Art Barlett show from more than 50 years ago. Barlett was a member of the governing body of the church at the time of its transfer of ownership.

He points to where his signature appears on the document authorizing the city of Los Angeles to take possession of the church. He said he assumed it would be maintained.

"It's just been stripped," he said, noting that the cemetery also has gone largely ignored. Tombstones that have fallen over have been removed, never to be replaced. "It's such a shame."

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn said that she has worked with Resich to move the church, but that the process has been frustrating. Given the church's current state, she said, some of the city's demands are an insult to the generosity Green Hills has shown.

"This was deeded to the city. I'm sure today the city would never accept it," Hahn said. "I don't know what made us think in the '50s that we would be able to take care of a church in the proper way."

Hahn said she jumped at the chance for Green Hills to take over the church because she knew it would be well-maintained. She said the city is struggling with its own budget problems and doesn't have the money to restore it.

A meeting is scheduled Tuesday between Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and officials from Green Hills to try to work out a solution, Hahn said.

"I want it to have a nice final resting spot where it will be taken care of," the councilwoman said of the old church. "I hope this gets solved before they walk away, and I think they are close."

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gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

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