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Landmark Status Ensures Funds for Historic Hall, Life for Big Tree

By Jorge Casuso

Dec. 10 -- When the curtain rises at newly refurbished Barnum Hall next week, it will literally be a landmark event. On Monday night, the Landmarks Commission designated the 64-year-old SAMOHI auditorium, which has been under renovation since 1998, a City landmark.

In a separate action, it unanimously designated as a landmark "The Big Tree" that has stood on the property at 918 5th Street since the mid-to-late 1800s. The status will ensure that the Cedrus Deodara -- the city's largest and oldest tree -- will not be chopped down or uprooted by developers.

The designation for Barnum Hall -- which also was approved unanimously -- paves the way for the funding needed to completely restore the Depression-era Streamline-Moderne structure, including a painting on the fire curtain by renowned artist Stanton McDonald-Wright.

"It's a treasure," said Commission Chair Ruthann Lehrer during a tour of the building shortly before the meeting. "It's a great union of art and architecture, a beautiful example of art moderne architecture which contains very significant art… It's an amazing facility."

"I think it's wonderful, and it's so wonderfully intact now," said Commissioner Roger Genser. "And it's a good space to be utilized."

Judging from the reactions of the commissioners as they stood inside the 1,200-seat auditorium -- which is slated to be used next Tuesday and Thursday for Samohi's winter concerts -- there was no question as to how they would vote later that evening.

They admired the McDonald-Wright mosaic at the entrance, walked on the carpet with the its faithfully recreated Art Deco design and stared at the sweeping stage bathed in lights. When the fire curtain with McDonald-Wright's colorful, swirling depiction of a Viking world slowly descended from the risers, the silence was broken with praises.

"Wow," said one member of the entourage.

"It's beautiful," said another.

"The colors are so much more vibrant than I thought they'd be," said Commissioner Nina Fresco.

Constructed in 1938 by the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), Barum Hall was never fully completed before funds ran out. Ironically, history repeated itself, and the nearly $8 million restoration was forced to cut out some features, including the marquee, landscaping, upstairs restrooms and balcony seats.

"We too ran out of funds before we finished it," said Jean Sedillos, the chair of Restore Barnum Hall, which raised $1 million for the effort and monitored the restoration.

Once again, funding ran out before the donated Victorian seats in the balcony, which were originally installed when funding ran out more than 60 years ago, could be replaced.

"Fifty of the seats are toast," Sedillos said. The rest are unusable. "They are for little Victorian rear ends."

The renovation, which has taken five years, was a painstaking process. "We went for historical accuracy," Sedillos said. "We agonized over colors."

Over the years, the condition of Barnum Hall -- which served as the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium when it was first built -- deteriorated significantly, particularly in the 1970's and 1980's.

The major rehabilitation effort -- which includes the addition of a vestibule at the rear (west) elevation that connects the auditorium to a new Music Building -- was mounted by the school district and supported by community activists, Prop X construction funds and a $1.15 million contribution from the City.

After designating Barnum Hall as a landmark, the commission turned to a much older staple of Santa Monica's past -- the 48-foot-tall Cedar of the Gods, whose 59-foot canopy has shaded generations.

After the death of the property's owner, Dorothy English, five month's ago, the giant tree, which served as a constant companion throughout her 90 years, was bequeathed with the land and two houses to a church group.

The church subsequently sold the property and admirers of the tree mounted a lobbying effort to protect it from the potential development of the property.

The Landmarks Ordinance permits the commission to designate a landscape feature as a landmark if it meets one or more of the designation criteria. "The Big Tree" -- which may be as old, or perhaps older, than the Moreton Bay Fig planted by Santa Monica's founder, Senator John P. Jones in front of the Sheraton Miramar Hotel just a few blocks away -- met three.

It exemplifies, symbolizes, or manifests elements of the cultural, social, economic, political, or architectural history of the City.

It has aesthetic or artistic interest or value, or other noteworthy interest or value.

It has a unique location, a singular physical characteristic, or is an established and familiar visual feature of a neighborhood, community or the City.
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