Adaptive reuse—the friend of preservation

by John Neiuber

What does Claremont have in common with San Francisco? Each had major adaptive reuse projects, respective to their size, long before warehouses were turned into lofts and breweries into artist studios, long before the transformation of abandoned downtowns, neighborhoods and industrial centers. San Francisco was home to the first major adaptive reuse project in the United States in 1964, with Ghirardelli Square. In the 1970s, Claremont adaptively reused the Old School House and the Village Theatre as its first projects of this kind.

One of the most significant historic structures in the Village is the former Village Theatre, now better known as Harvard Square. In her book, Claremont: A Pictorial History, historian Judy Wright referred to Harvard Square as “Claremont’s Ghirardelli Square,” and with good reason. The brick structure was reminiscent of the San Francisco icon, it housed a variety of businesses and it was saved from the wrecking ball by repurposing the building.

The Village Theatre was built in 1939 and was designed by Sumner Spaulding, a prominent Los Angeles architect, renowned for projects such as the Los Angeles Civic Center, silent-film legend Harold Lloyd’s estate, Green Acres, the Avalon Theatre on Santa Catalina Island and much of the north campus of Pomona College. The Reeves family purchased the land on which they built the theatre and moved the house that was on the site to 1223 Yale Avenue. The theatre became part of the Fox West Coast Theater group. The building was constructed of brick and stucco and had a cutting edge modern design that saw the lobby and shops jut out from the main structure with a sleek and uninterrupted roof line.  The undersized brick pillars and bench wall around the patio were also part of the character defining features of the building.

The theater opened with much fanfare in January 1940, and the COURIER carried a full page pictorial of the festivities on January 19, under the heading, “Gala Opening Night at Village Theater in Pictures.”  The theater operated continuously until 1979,  when it was renovated and reused to accommodate specialty shops and restaurants. The character defining features were kept intact, and to allow access to the second story, noted architect Everett Tozier designed the free-standing stair structure on the north side of the building.   

Currently, Harvard Square is undergoing renovations to accommodate a new restaurant, Bardot. Claremont Heritage has been involved with the city’s Planning Department, the building owners and the restaurant owners to ensure that the character defining features of the building remain intact, while accommodating 21st century usage. 

The owners retained The Tucker Schoeman Venture, local architects who have been involved in other adaptive reuse projects in the Village. They developed a plan that retains and restores  the original brickwork, including the columns, the seat wall and other elements that preserve the 1930s design intent, and ensures that any changes to the existing facade be reversible. Heritage also recommended  that the original marquee and signage design be considered when creating a new sign plan.

Adaptive reuse certainly deals with issues surrounding heritage policies, but it is also about conservation.  According to Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “More than one billion square feet of buildings are demolished in the United States each year, despite the fact that many of those structures could—and should—be put back into productive use.”

Buildings become unsuitable for current world requirements. Adaptive reuse is a sustainable option for the reclamation of sites. Adaptive reuse is an effective way of reducing environmental impact. By reusing an existing structure within a site, the embodied energy in the original space is saved, as is the material waste that comes from destroying old sites and rebuilding using new materials.

If we are concerned about preserving the past, and about issues of sustainability, rehabilitation and reuse of older properties must be our preferred approach. Adaptive reuse repurposes older buildings for new uses. In order for the process to work, we must first understand the character-defining features of a structure and then determine how the existing building might accommodate new uses. We must then seek creative ways to make alterations and additions that are sympathetic to the building’s original design concept. We honor the past but find new inspiration for old spaces, new purposes for historic structures and new life for neglected sites and buildings. Adaptive reuse projects address preservation issues, transform buildings and neighborhoods, bring new vitality to communities, protect  the environment and jumpstart economic growth.

We have come to know the simple truth in Claremont that adaptive reuse of our legacy buildings is the friend of historic preservation. We have seen that time and again with buildings such as the Packing House, the Padua Hills Theatre, The Back Abbey, the Old School House, Petiscos and the Village Theater. When buildings no longer serve the purpose for which they were built, we have a choice: do nothing, demolish and build new, or renovate and reuse. To renovate and reuse should be our preference, because it connects us to our past and protects our shared environment for the future.



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