Adrian Wilson and Paul R. Williams Administration Building, Roosevelt naval Base, 1941–42. Photo by Louise Ivers
By Peter Devereaux
Every spring for the past ten years sizable grants have been donated to various organizations in Long Beach for historic preservation projects- all told over $2,000,000. Where does the money come from and why is it given to preservation? The Long Beach Navy Memorial Heritage Association – the “Navy Trust” – was established when the Port of Long Beach was persuaded to compensate the people of Long Beach for the loss of the United States Naval Station, originally called Roosevelt Base.
Those who still remember that campus on Terminal Island, designed by Adrian Wilson and the African American “architect to the stars,” Paul Williams, know what an outstandingly beautiful place it was. It was anchored at one end by the Administration Building with its striking tower and at the other end by the recreation complex. Along the flanks were such facilities as the swimming pool, the bowling alley, the navy legal building and the fleet landing, all fine examples of the International Style of architecture. At the far west end was the Allen Center Officers Club, which hosted many family events, weddings, and the like. Trees were abundant, principally towering olives at one end and ficus at the other. The latter were the nesting place for the largest colony of black-crowned night herons in Southern California. The fleet landing, where many sailors said goodbye to their loved ones, never to return, reminded the community of values beyond grounds and buildings.
The Navy was set to close the base in 1997; the Port had a plan. Many resisted the complete removal of the campus in favor of a dock and a massive container parking lot – the present Pier T. The Port of Long Beach prepared a memorial program and an Environmental Impact Statement as required. There were meetings and public events, the largest of which attracted a crowd of over 4,000 people and television coverage. Many shared the wide-spread negative reaction to demolition plans.
Long Beach Heritage, originally surprised by the richness of this massive historical asset it its backyard declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, was eager to explore avenues for adaptive reuse. Consultants said the Environmental Impact Statement was deficient and Long Beach Heritage at the urging of its Advocacy Committee, led by Nancy Latimer and Peter Devereaux, decided to slow down the demise of the base and engaged a law firm led by Jan Chatten Brown. The State Historic Preservation Office and the National Trust for Historic Preservation were involved and helpful.
Various members of Heritage with city and legal connections advised that there was no prospect of success in resisting the Port of Long Beach plan. The Port offered memorializing activities and projects, possibly at a cost of $200,000, but Heritage insisted on exploring adaptive reuse possibilities, and their lawsuit prevailed. Experts hired to present reuse possibilities came up with alternatives to the Port’s plan. One of the ideas was to refit the Administration Building as the headquarters of the Port of Long Beach.
The Port turned down those suggestions but was faced with further litigation. Prominent attorney George Wise helped greatly with negotiation. The Port had the upper hand, but there was no clear sailing yet. The Advocacy Committee and Heritage still had to be dealt with. At this point Port offered $4,000,000 as compensation. One last meeting with George Wise added half a million more. Was this selling out, some asked? We said no, the inevitable would happen, but preservation activities under the auspices of a “Navy Trust” would benefit Long Beach projects far into the future. Members of the Trust would be chosen from the Cultural Heritage Commission, Willmore City Heritage Association, Long Beach Heritage, and Long Beach Historical Society.
The fund was put under the management of the Long Beach Community Foundation and, in general, the policy was established to use the interest on the fund to distribute to projects around the city deemed worthy of support. Some examples of the beneficiaries of the grants are: the Long Beach Navy Memorial, located near the Aquarium of the Pacific; Bembridge House; Art Theatre; Community Hospital; St. Luke’s Church; California Heights Historic District; Rancho Los Cerritos; Rancho Los Alamitos; and Lafayette Hotel.
Preservation circles around the country said this was the largest settlement an historic preservation group had ever achieved. The legacy of Roosevelt Base will go on and on. We regret the loss, but we are gratified by the grants to notable buildings and projects in our community.