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Preserved to Death 

Could a fight to save a beloved building leave its nonprofit owner in ruins?

Wednesday, Aug 9 2000
When the Young Men's Hebrew Association decided to expand the scope of its secular activities in the early 1930s, the organization pushed forward with an ambitious plan to build the city's first Jewish Community Center, despite considerable adversity.

In the depths of the Great Depression, it was not easy to find the $650,000 needed to build the center in Laurel Heights. To make matters worse, the weather wouldn't cooperate. When construction finally began, workers laid the building's foundation during a freak blizzard.

Almost 70 years later, the Jewish Community Center's current directors can only wish they should be so lucky.

Once again, the community organization has decided to branch out, this time by demolishing its old home to build a new, $50 million, state-of-the-art facility in its place. And once again it has hit resistance. Only now it's not a lack of money or the climate standing in the way. Rather, several architectural preservationists have taken it upon themselves to save the Jewish Community Center's building, though it could spell financial ruin for the historic institution. And nothing can halt a project more quickly in San Francisco than an organized collection of people clinging to the city's past.

Led by architect Arnie Lerner, this preservation group has launched its crusade based on the fact that the building was designed by the late, great architect Arthur Brown Jr., who also drew the plans for San Francisco City Hall and Coit Tower. And though the community center features an ill-fitted mishmash of Moorish and art deco styles (and is hardly representative of Brown's best work), the preservation group has applied for the building to become a landmark protected by federal law. The city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board is scheduled to consider the matter next week.

"There are memories in those walls," Lerner says. "When you tear down a building like that, all those memories are gone, and you lose something that gives the city a sense of place."

Nate Levine, executive director of the Jewish Community Center, says he is willing to sacrifice a few of those memories for the sake of the organization that provided them. Five years ago, he says, the Jewish Community Center was literally days away from closing its doors, simply because the constraints of the building wouldn't allow the nonprofit to generate enough income to support itself. The organization borrowed $12 million to stay afloat, but the problems with the building remain. There is still no room for a restaurant or a bookstore facing the street, still not enough space to offer a top-flight gymnasium. A major renovation is the only way to generate more revenue, Levine says. "We're living on borrowed time," he says. "And while some folks want to save their memories, they would destroy the institution that made those memories possible. It's like a cure for a disease that kills the patient."

To its credit, the building has a certain character, evoking an era before World War II when California architects fell in love with Spanish colonialism. Many of the original details, such as the wrought-iron balconies and hand-painted tiles, have remained intact. A little courtyard outside the lobby still has a faded and chipping mural called The Wedding Ceremony by Bernard Zackheim, dating back to when the community center opened in 1933, which the center has promised to keep in the renovation. But after years of use, the building also has a drab, almost waterlogged look, as if the steam from the boiler room in the basement has leached the color from the walls.

In June, staff for the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board studied the building in detail and, after noting many of the building's well-preserved features, decided that the structure doesn't meet the criteria for protected status.

Still, Lerner and his group have kept the faith, hoping the landmark board will reject the staff recommendation. The city's architectural preservationists tend to be a stubborn lot and have come from behind to win these battles before. Just a few years ago, some of the same members of the group fighting to save the Jewish Community Center beat back a similar plan to demolish a dilapidated Victorian to make room for a lesbian and gay community center. When the dust cleared, the preservationists walked away victorious, having convinced the organization to integrate the old Victorian into its plans. But the dispute delayed the project by three years, and the cost of the new plan skyrocketed by millions of dollars.

Gary Goad helped lead the charge in that battle, and he says he believes the same thing can be done with the Jewish Community Center. He says he doesn't buy the nonprofit's claim that a demolition and rebuild is the organization's only path to self-sufficiency. "You can fulfill any mission when you set the guidelines to fit your needs," he says. "My sense is that these are smart people, and if they wanted to they could figure out a way to include the original building in their plans."

Lerner's architecture firm has drafted just such a plan, though the Jewish Community Center has rejected it, claiming it would cost $19 million more than the current design. Lerner says he has not studied the cost of his plan. But he has worked diligently on the drawings without any expectation of payment. He has spent hours pulling people together into a coalition called the Committee to Preserve the JCC, recruiting the San Francisco Heritage Foundation and members from the Art Deco Society to help him fight for the cause.

This collective passion for the past has, for better or worse, left a deep impression on the city's landscape. As Mayor Willie Brown said last year at the groundbreaking of the lesbian and gay community center, "I frankly had never been exposed to the width and breadth and tenacity of people who like very old things."

Some say this commitment to history, however, has unintentionally robbed the city of its vitality. "When efforts to preserve the city's architecture get in the way of a historic institution's survival, I think people have gone too far," says Kevin Starr, the state librarian, whose family goes back four generations in the city. "Any kind of lock-step antiquarianism leads to a cultural dead end."

Lerner does not necessarily enjoy his role as a preservationist gadfly. He says he has kept a civil relationship with Levine and the other directors at the Jewish Community Center, "though underneath they're probably pretty pissed at me," he admits. His only purpose, he says, is to keep the nonprofit from making a "terrible mistake."

About The Author

Matt Isaacs


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