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A small town—not small-town ideas

by John Pixley

Whew! That was a close one. We almost went back to the days when the “sidewalks rolled up at 5” in the Village. We almost went back to the days when Claremont went dead after the Colleges had their graduations and closed down for the summer.

That’s what those who didn’t want Pomona College to build a new museum on the property behind the Claremont Library, property that the college owns, wanted. Or it seemed like that.

Sure, preservation is important. That is one thing I love about Claremont. I love how Claremont tries to save its trees and its lovely homes and buildings.

I love the little cottages on the corner of College Avenue and Bonita Avenue. I love their charm and funk, with generations of students lucking out and setting up digs there. They always make me think of Nick Carroway in his humble cottage among the East Egg islanders, looking over at Jay Gatsby’s big mansion and even bigger dreams.

Yes, it will be sad without these white cottages on the lawn, but will they be missed? Is having them there, even with their charm and the memories and sentiments they evoke, worth more than a dynamic, enriching museum?

The Renwick House, which is also on the property where the college wants to put the museum just south of the cottages, would be missed. The house is a fine example of Victorian architecture and has a significant history in relation to the college and to Claremont.

But the Renwick House won’t be missed, because it won’t be gone. It won’t be razed, as the cottages will be, to make way for the new museum. The house, which the California State Historical Resources Commission unanimously approved for placement in the National Register of Historic Places, will be moved just across the street. It has been determined that the move won’t negatively alter its historical significance.

Isn’t this the best of both worlds? Doesn’t this allow for our treasured preservation while also encouraging the Village and the Colleges to be even more attractive and alive? Won’t this enable us to have our unique Claremont cake and eat it too?

Or maybe—as some argued in the months, weeks and hours leading up to the city council’s 3-2 decision at its May 23 meeting to adopt the zoning change that gave Pomona College the green light for its museum plan—we just want to have that cake but not indulge in its special taste.

“It’s impossible for me to understand how anyone could think that inserting an institutional building on College Avenue between Second and Bonita would not disrupt the grace and beauty of that street.”

Impossible? Really?

Denise Spooner is on the board of Claremont Heritage, so it is perhaps understandable why she said this during the meeting’s public comment period, which went on for more than two hours with 55 Claremonters speaking, the line at the podium stretching outside the building. After all, preservation is her bag, even more so than for the rest of us who also love Claremont.

Even so, why will “an institutional building…disrupt” that block? And does “disrupt” in this case, I wonder, mean destroy or ruin? Will having the museum there ruin the street?

Carnegie Hall, an institutional building just two blocks north on the same side of the street, doesn’t mar or destroy College Avenue. In fact, I think it makes the avenue not only more attractive but more stately, more grand, more collegiate. It fits right in with Marston Quadrangle, as an answer of sorts to Bridges Auditorium. What’s more, Carnegie Hall completes the scene. Pierson Hall, another institutional building just to the north, only adds to the picture.

Why is having an institutional building on the west side of College Avenue so bad while having institutional buildings on the other side of the street okay? Just across the street between Second Street and Bonita Avenue are dormitories. These dormitories are fairly nondescript. In fact, while one may or may not call them ugly, they look pretty institutional. But they don’t “disrupt the grace and beauty of that block,” do they?

Why is that block so special anyway, when there are institutional buildings, including bulky modern science buildings, on both sides of College Avenue as it heads north? These buildings haven’t been a blight on the street. Why is this little area so different, so sacrosanct?

Finally, it’s not like the institutional building that Pomona College wants to construct on this site is a maintainence yard or a sports facility. It’s not even another nondescript dormitory, like the one just across the street: It’s a museum.

Sure, there are some museums that are controversial with respect to their design—look at the debate over the proposed renovation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—but as a general rule, if not by definition, museums are meant to be attractive places that people want to see and visit, not just for the works they contain. At the very least, they should evoke and inspire thinking and talking about what it means to be attractive and beautiful or not attractive and beautiful.

Judging from the renderings and the model presented last fall at the college, it looks like the new museum, which will be about 35,000 square feet and feature public space and courtyards as well as galleries, teaching areas and staff offices, will only add to “the grace and beauty of that block.” Far from being institutional and nondescript, the design appears to riff on the So Cal Mediteranean look that makes much of the Scripps College campus, and the new stage and landscape at Shelton Park nearby, so inviting.

If nothing else, the museum won’t look like a bomb shelter, as the library up against it does—and which really doesn’t look so bad (maybe the copper turning green helps, and so do all the trees surrounding it). It should also fit right in with the newly-renovated Shelton Park on the other side of Bonita Avenue. Not only will the park and museum be simliar in design, but the new stage is a town-gown venture, with hefty funding from Claremont Lincoln University.

The new museum will definitely be a change—a big change—but will it disrupt anything? Will it disrupt Claremont, as some argued? If this wasn’t a change for the better, a change that preserves Claremont’s history and spirit and also adds life and even more of that spirit, it would.

But this change will add to Claremont’s grace and beauty, not disrupt and subtract from it. It won’t be things being the same but, rather, Claremont progressing more into the lively community, one including the remarkable set of Colleges, that it sees itself as being. 

Along with other changes, like the Gold Line rail coming and the Claremont Museum of Art moving into the Depot, it will make Claremont even more attractive. Maybe this is the change—not a house being moved for a museum but more people wanting to visit—that people don’t want.

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