In the still-quaint hamlet of Claremont, a showdown is under way between Pomona College and preservationists over a proposal to significantly alter the town's signature College Avenue, destroying two historic buildings and moving a 115-year-old Victorian to make way for a new 40,000-square-foot museum.
Pomona College, the 128-year-old cornerstone campus of the elite Claremont Colleges, wants to build a massive new structure into which to move its Pomona College Museum of Art, one of the showcases for the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative.
But in the wake of attacks on the plan by preservationists and residents, the Claremont Planning Commission split over a zoning change the private college needs to build the museum on College Avenue, famous for its stately vintage homes including President’s House, Seaver House, Renwick House, Baldwin House, Cook House and Sumner House.
The college wants to raze a cluster of cottages, move the circa 1900 Renwick House somewhere else, and demolish the Thatcher Music Building, an important example of Brutalist Architecture in the region. Under the college’s plan, the Museum of Art's current 8,200-square-foot building would be demolished. The new museum would rise across the street, running the length of a full city block in the historic core called the Village.
David Shearer, director of Claremont Heritage, a nonprofit organization that consults with the city on historic preservation, says, “We would love to see a new museum. Our concern is that putting it where they want to put it is going to destroy the residential feel and the buffer zone” that College Avenue was meant to guarantee between the college and the city.
Shearer says that while Claremont has done a fairly good job of preserving historic structures, it hasn’t been easy. Claremont's iconic citrus-packing house, train depot and storied Padua Theater might have all been lost if not for the efforts of the preservation-minded community, he says.
Earlier this spring, as word of the museum expansion plan went viral around this college town known for its “trees and Ph.D.s,” college officials seemed to sense they may have miscalculated. They canceled their planned presentation at Claremont City Hall and instead held a community meeting on campus. Then some of them began claiming their museum plan enjoyed wide community support.
“Although the college remains committed to the museum, the misinformation that has gone viral through the process has been disheartening,” Steve Comba, associate director of the museum, wrote in an email to community members on April 28. “This delay puts the museum project in jeopardy, but it is not over by any means.”
K.M. Williamson, vice chair of the Claremont Planning Commission, said that last November, the commission reviewed Pomona College’s preliminary plans and asked college officials to consider other campus sites for the proposed new museum.
“What they came back to us with was an identical master plan proposal,” Williamson says. “We didn’t see any flexibility on that, and I think it was pretty obvious to us that they do have other options.”
For example, Williamson says, Pomona College could develop a plan for the adaptive reuse of the current museum facility or demolish the existing structure and rebuild instead of moving across the street where historic buildings would be destroyed. “Do they have options other than the one they are really focusing on? Yes, they do.”
Leaders at the college, whose nearly $2 billion endowment places it atop Amherst, Wellesley, Oberlin, Vassar, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr, have also repeatedly asserted that the structures across the street could not be adaptively reused. They have described the Thatcher Music Building as “a mistake” — albeit it one that is now architecturally significant.
The museum’s Comba told community members in his April email:
“As baffling as it is that the vast majority of both the artistic and village marketing communities support and believe in the idea, there seems to be undue weight given to a vocal and uninformed minority.”
Brian Desatnik, director of community development for Claremont, says the fate of the Renwick House and the future of the bunkerlike Thatcher Music Building could be the determinate factors as to whether the city allows the new museum.
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“The only way for us to approve their plan is to find that there are overriding benefits,” Desatnik says. A Pasadena architectural firm consulting for the city has determined that the Thatcher Music Building exemplifies Brutalist architecture iconic of the Cold War period of the 1950s to the 1970s. “We don’t disagree with that determination,” Desatnik says.
The Los Angeles Conservancy was solicited by the city to comment on a preliminary Environmental Impact Report for the college’s 2013 Campus Master Plan, and wrote in a November 2013 letter to Claremont's planning department, “For relocations proposed as a form of mitigation, affected structures should be evaluated for their ability to retain California Registry eligibility if removed from their original physical context on campus.”
Of the 14 buildings identified in the 2013 EIR as facing fundamental renovations or demolition, the Renwick House was not listed.
Williamson, of the Claremont Planning Commission, put Pomona College on notice about that omission, saying, “They never mentioned the word 'Renwick House' in their master plan. Now we see that they’re entertaining the possibility of moving it. There is no question that Renwick House is a historic resource. … So that is a bit of a red flag, because moving a historic resource is an impact. It does change the historic resource. That is a real issue and I think that is not going to go away.”
Mark Cromer is a writer in Claremont, Mrcromer@aol.com. Chris Michno is a writer in Claremont and was the associate director of financial aid at Pomona College, Clamichno@msn.com.