Historical preservation in Downey

DOWNEY - In the last 10 years, residents in Downey have taken a more grassroots approach to preserve historic places that are or were being threatened with demolition within the city limits.

Cities continue to struggle with what to do with their historical properties within their communities. During difficult economic times, cities like Downey have to make decisions on saving or demolishing historic places while hearing concerned residents in the community.

The question of saving or demolishing places are continuing conversations in the city, which has not only seen its share of historic places and had historical events, but also deep preservation efforts by the community to save places that are facing demolition.

Both the city and residents have been met with challenges on saving historic places and maintaining them for their historical value.

Several historic places in Downey are currently seeing issues with preservation efforts by the community and that includes the NASA site, Rives Mansion, Casa de Parley Johnson House and the Avenue Theatre.

The city has shared in some of America's greatest achievements, including the Apollo and space shuttle program, which were both birthed here. Downey even shares this great achievement on its city emblem by having a space shuttle fly across the city.

Downey is home to a lot of aviation history; the Vultee Aircraft plant created jobs and played a crucial role in making airplanes during World War II. The property has taken different shapes throughout the 70 years of aviation in the community. Several major aviation companies such as North American Aviation, North American Rockwell, Rockwell International and Boeing developed planes and aircraft. It is where the components for the Apollo capsules and space shuttles were built when the plant received major NASA contracts.

ROCKWELL: The home of where the Apollo capsules and shuttles were built is now rubble as the city makes way for a new retail development called The Promenade at Downey. In its recent years, before being demolished, the buildings on the property were turned into Downey Studios, a movie studio that helped keep movies in California and generated revenue for the city.

The one building that remains on the site is the Kaufmann wing and the Rotunda. The city, along with the Aerospace Legacy Foundation and the Downey Historical Society, made efforts to save this building in particular because of its historic value for what happened there. It was designed by the famous architect Gordon Kaufmann, who worked on the Hoover Dam.

Downey Councilman Mario Guerra said the city knows it is a historic site and plans on reusing the one building that remains.

"It is a historical building and we will respect it," Guerra said. "We are working with a developer on that - it's going to be really cool and beautiful. There will be offices and some retail in there."

Residents like George Redfox, who is the head of the Downey Conservancy, said they are upset to see the city knocking down such historic buildings to make room for retail, which Redfox feels the city has plenty of already.

He loved Rockwell International, the site of where airplanes and Apollo and Space Shuttle components were built.

"Even to this day, when I drive by there it's hard for me to look at it. It just kills me driving by there and seeing the dirt...That probably was my favorite place just because of what happened there and I went through those buildings before they tore them down," Redfox said, adding that he "can't help" but to think of the engineers who worked there and built the space shuttle and planes.

The city built the Columbia Memorial Space Center in 2009 on a portion of the NASA property to preserve space history of the city and build a memorial to those lost on the Columbia Space Shuttle.

But the CMSC is not the only thing that will preserve Downey's contributions to the space program. According to Guerra, when The Promenade opens on the old NASA site, there will be historical elements on the site to signify where historical events took place.

"The history of mankind changed there from the space shuttles to the Apollo capsules," Guerra said.

The city also has the handprints and signatures of astronauts because when they came back from their missions, they would come back to Downey to thank the workers.

Currently, the concrete handprints and signatures are located on the second floor of the CMSC. The most famous one that visitors can see is Commander Eugene (Gene) Cernan, who was the last man on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission.

Redfox disagrees with what they are doing with the property at the site.

"They should at least have preserved Building 290, that's the one that said Downey Studios on the outside of it," he said. "That's where they built the command module component and they built the space shuttle components in there and that was a super historic site."

He also believes that would have been a good site for the mock-up space shuttle that the city currently has sitting outside under a plastic tent. Redfox feels the city should have done more to get a place like the Smithsonian involved with the mock-up and create a museum in Building 290 and even possibly get the Space Shuttle Endeavour to be placed in the building instead of at the California Science Center.

"They had a good facility that actually had the element of history with it because it was all built there," Redfox said. "That would have been the coolest thing ever to go inside of a building where they built all this stuff and then see the Endeavour...So I really think they (the city) dropped the ball on that one."

According to Guerra, the Space Shuttle mock-up is dusty, but others have a different opinion.

Redfox said he went inside the white tent about six months ago and it was not in good shape.

"This is just typical of how they (the city) treat the history of the city right here," Redfox added. "I don't expect anything more from these guys because that is how they do it."

Larry Latimer, vice president of the Aerospace Legacy Foundation and the Downey Historical Society, agrees with Redfox about the city's management of the CMSC and The Promenade.

Latimer recalls when the city council was excited about the opportunities for the CMSC but recent news articles about management issues have him concerned about the future of the center. He also feels that preservation issues are not a priority for the city.

"One of my biggest gripes with the city is that the Public Arts Funds are being given to other groups and I believe a certain amount of money should be allocated for preservation of historical places and support efforts," Latimer said.

Still, Latimer said he is confident in the city in the long run and believes the CMSC has lots of potential.

THE AVENUE: The NASA site is not alone in having preservation issues.

The Avenue movie theater, built in 1922, sits vacant in the heart of downtown on Downey Avenue. In 2009, residents put together a Save the Avenue campaign, as some residents would like to see the theater restored and reopened as a theater venue for showing old movies or live performances.

The city owns the property, buying it with housing money.

After the campaign lost steam for a couple years, residents have restarted the movement on the Downey Conservancy's Facebook page. A petition has more than 700 signatures from supporters who would like to see The Avenue come back to life.

Fond memories of going to The Avenue movie theater in Downey are just a few of the things that Downey resident Malia Phillips recalls about growing up here.

She has lived in Downey for her entire life of 32 years.

While she has not been active in the historical preservation of specific places in Downey, she said she finds value in preserving places that have had significant importance for Downey.

"It makes (the city) more interesting. Otherwise we would have a boring city with not a lot going on," Phillips said. "It makes it interesting for people who are visiting and when you have friends who come visit you to have places to show them."

"I think there are places like The Avenue movie theater, that are sitting empty and could be refurbished and being used. I think they try, I know like with the Bob's Big Boy they helped to get that going and the McDonald's that are open now," she added..

Phillips is one of those residents not happy about the new shopping center being constructed on the land where the Apollo capsule was built.

"I don't think we need another shopping mall, so it's kind of disappointing," she said. "I am glad to see they are doing something with the property 'cause I really hate see buildings sit empty and wasted space like that...That space could probably be used differently and to better serve the community. I really don't think we need more shopping in Downey."

According to Guerra, Downey had plans for The Avenue when the city bought it in 2009. Any development requires a housing element since it was purchased with housing money.

"If anyone wants to buy it, we will gladly sell it to them but the city is not in a position to run theaters," Guerra said. "We subsidize our Downey Theatre only a couple hundred yards away. We have no problem subsidizing something, when it's being used."

The city added a mural of "West Side Story" on the front of The Avenue to beautify it for the downtown area and it will stay that way until someone buys The Avenue or the city finds something to do with it.

Redfox still would love to see The Avenue restored and brought back as some type of live entertainment mixed with vintage movies showing.

"I just think it's worth saving, it would bring people downtown and people would go there and frequent the business around there which would be good for the whole downtown economy," he said. "It's a draw for people to go downtown. We already have enough other malls and stuff around here that suck the people away from downtown and we need something to bring them back and I think that is something that could bring them back."

PARLEY JOHNSON HOUSE: A national historic registered property, the Casa de Parley Johnson House at 7749 Florence Ave., is currently facing a preservation issue. The L.A. Conservancy sent a certified letter to the Assistance League of Downey, owners of the house, in July notifying them that the old carriage house doors need to be placed back on the carriage house. The carriage house doors were taken off years ago and replaced with new doors.

Luckily, the Assistance League still has the original carriage doors.

Florence Towers, president of the league, found the doors sitting on the side of the property. The doors are intact but appear to have termite damage and are in need of restoration before they can be placed back on the carriage house.

The LA Conservancy was contacted for comment but was not able to respond before publication. According to Towers, the Assistance League was given the home when Gypsy Johnson passed away in 1986.

"We have a caretaker that lives on the property and takes care of the home," she said.

Well-known architect Roland E. Coate designed the Monterey-style home for Parley Johnson, a prominent local citrus farmer according to the LA Conservancy.

"Every room is kind of unique; it has different tiles on the walls and on the floors different patterns. We still have the original stove and it works," Towers said.

Her favorite part of the house is the breakfast nook.

Towers is working on taking photos and measurements of the carriage house doors to send to the LA Conservancy.

RIVES MANSION: The Rives Mansion is a home that once belonged to James C. Rives, who was a pioneer in Downey and was a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge. The mansion was built in 1913 and still stands today on Paramount Boulevard and Third Street. The property has seen several owners since Rives and his family lived there.

Possibly one of the most controversial issues with the Rives Mansion is that this 100-year-old home is being transformed into the Rives Mansion Steakhouse and Wine Gardens. Ralph Verdugo, owner of the restaurant, is currently leasing the property with hopes to buy it.

For years the Rives Mansion sat on the corner looking as if it had no more life in it as the home started to look old and vacant.

Verdugo has been a resident of Downey for more than 25 years and has restored three historic properties around the Los Angeles area. He said this project has really required him to put some elbow grease into it.

"I have always said it's a lot more expensive to restore than to build new," Verdugo said. "To restore it, if we removed a piece of redwood we put a piece of redwood back. There were no shortcuts. It would have been a lot cheaper for me to buy new hinges, buy new doorknobs, and buy new doors, new windows."

One of the challenges he and engineers faced was restoring the old water tower that was leaning in the back portion of the property. It is no longer leaning anymore after it took three engineers, three mappers and a whole crew to restore it. The tower was leaning about eight inches, according to Verdugo.

"When they got close to one and a half inch, all you could hear in the tower were crumbling (sounds) - that was the worst feeling you could get in your stomach," Verdugo said. "It was 'Oh God."

The three other historic properties Verdugo has restored include Richard Nixon's first law office, the Globe Theater and the first Bank of America in the world, which is now a brewery in Los Angeles.

"One thing I say is you can have the best contractor in the whole wide world building whatever you are building but it takes a special kind of contractor and a special kind of person to guide and lead in a restoration on a historic project," he said.

Verdugo and his team of contractors are still not done with the restoration of the property and preparations for the restaurant. He said he has about 15 people at a time working on parts of the house and will probably have about 25 people working on the outside at one time, every single day for six days a week until the project is complete.

Verdugo has so far spent more than $300,000 on the mansion, most of that for labor.

After the restaurant is open, Verdugo plans on having community events and tours for people, especially for children and schools.

Redfox said when he first heard about the Rives Mansion restaurant, he wasn't too happy about it. But he has since changed his mind.

"From what I understand, I have had friends of mine from the conservancy that have been into the house I guess they have really restored it nicely on the inside, they have kept it like it should," he said. "I am thinking, 'Well, if we can go in there and check out this piece of history and he keeps it the way it should be, that's totally great with me because I am going to be able to go there.'"

BOB'S BIG BOY: In the last 20 years Downey has seen two other historic properties threatened with demolition.

Johnie's Broiler, previously known as Harvey's and now known to the community as Bob's Big Boy, was illegally partially bulldozed on a Sunday in January 2007.

Guerra recalls when Johnie's Broiler was illegally demolished two days before his first council meeting. It resulted in the largest crowd he has ever seen at a city council meeting.

"We wanted to make sure we prosecuted anyone that broke the law for starters, and we did, and number two, we figured out how we could rebuild it," Guerra said.

According to Guerra, the city had to find the right player for the possible rebuild and restoration of the diner. The city partnered with restaurant owner Jim Louder and Bob's Big Boy to bring the diner back to life with its original Googie-style architecture.

"You also have to have the finances to do it and we had some redevelopment money that we could put into place," Guerra said. "We also looked at it as what kind of jobs it could create by having it rebuilt."

With efforts by residents and the city, and partnerships with L.A. Conservancy, Johnie's Broiler was saved.

MCDONALD'S: Another well-known historic site in Downey is the world's oldest operating McDonald's.

In 1994, after the Northridge Earthquake rocked the Southern California area, the world's oldest operating McDonald's became a hot point of preservation within the community and world. Built in 1953, with its famous Googie-style architecture, the McDonald's was so badly damaged by the earthquake that it had to close its windows to the community.

It was listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of 11 most endangered historic places in 1994.

Through the efforts of residents, the city council and Los Angeles Conservancy, the restaurant reopened in 1996.

The McDonald's now has a museum that takes residents and tourists through the history of the restaurant. It remains the only McDonald's in the world that still deep-fries its apple pies.

HISTORIC BRANDING: Future projects for preservation include branding some of the city's historic places.

The city council took action on an agenda item on Tuesday, Oct. 22 that would allow the city to officially name some of the areas within the city like "Orange Estates."

"We are looking at signage designation of historical elements or branding between itself," Guerra said. "Everybody knows what Orange Estates was and other parts of the city we could do the same thing. We are always looking at preserving our history and identifying our history."

WHAT RESIDENTS CAN DO: Residents can help the city identify places that need to be preserved or looked into for historical purposes.

"Downey has so many aerospace workers here and living here. There is a treasure in peoples' garages not only here, but passed down to another generation outside the city of the Downey that people don't realize is there," Guerra said. "Check out what you have and get in touch with us we would love to preserve it and show it off in the Columbia. That's one easy way because people don't realize what treasures they have."

Some people, like George Redfox, are not confident in the city's ability to run cultural facilities. He cites the Columbia Memorial Space Center as an example.

Groups like Downey Historical Society, Downey Conservancy and the Aerospace Legacy Foundation continue to educate the community through events and meetings about historic places and history of Downey. But while residents have made an effort to preserve historic Downey properties, they still have a long way to go in saving the community's history.

Alicia Edquist is a multimedia journalist who has lived in Downey most of her life. She graduated last week with a master's degree in New Media Journalism from Full Sail University in Florida.

********** Published: Jan. 2, 2014 - Volume 12 - Issue 38