August 11, 2016

Photo Essay: The Academy Library at Beverly Hills Water Treatment Plant #1

For whatever reason, I spend a lot more time exploring the former ranchos outside of the city I live in, rather than devoting myself to really understanding my own backyard.

Yes, Beverly Hills was once part of a rancho, too.

In fact, "Rodeo Drive" is pronounced "Roe-day-oh" instead of "Roh-dee-yo" after the Spanish rodeo, as in Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas—or, "The Ranch of the Gathering of the Waters."

Yes, Beverly Hills also has its own water supply—though, when it was originally claimed in 1822 by Mexican settlers Maria Rita Valdez and her husband Vicente Valdez, the water took mostly the form of  swamps (a.k.a. cienegas).

And some of that former swampland is now La Cienega Boulevard—and there, in the vicinity of the trail and campsite of the 1769 Portolá Expedition (which brought the first Europeans to Beverly Hills), you can find Historic Civil Engineering Landmark No. 31: Beverly Hills Waterworks.

The facility was not just the first municipal water treatment plant on the West Coast and the first civic building of Beverly Hills. Its construction (and the formation of the Beverly Hills Utilities Corporation) allowed one of the earliest planned communities in southern California to stay independent of Los Angeles.

Because Beverly Hills had its own water—and, though it was sulfurous, a supply that could be filtered, purified, and used—it wouldn't need to be annexed into LA.

Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, LAPL

This was a big deal—pushed through, in part, by silent film megastar Douglas Fairbanks—that required a building that lived up to its reputation of "Independence Hall." The resulting landmark incorporated Romanesque architecture with Moorish influences into an ecclesiastical facade (a "cathedral of water," as it were) with an industrial interior.

Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, LAPL

The Waterworks opened in 1928 to much fanfare, and it successfully processed water for Beverly Hills for nearly 50 years. But it closed 1976, when Beverly Hills began buying its water from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District.

Just five years after having been damaged by the Sylmar earthquake, the Waterworks building was rendered obsolete. And for 10 years, it stood abandoned—and vulnerable to vandals and vagrants. In 1987, way before the establishment of its historic preservation ordinance, the city approved the site for demolition, considering it a safety hazard.

It was only when an organization was willing to "pick up the tab" that the city government stood behind its preservation—and so it reopened in 1991, the 25th anniversary year of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 that created the National Register.

So, who ended up picking up the $5 million tab to rehabilitate the place?

None other than the organization founded by Douglas Fairbanks himself, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences  (for which he also served as president).

The Academy's library—founded in 1928, the same year the Waterworks opened—had already outgrown a couple of other spaces and was looking for a new home.

The grandiose concrete block construction in an L-shaped footprint with terra-cotta roof tiles, archways, gables, and other architectural embellishments seemed to fit the bill.

Even vandalized, the property had retained integrity from its period of significance—including the bell tower, which hid the chimney that burned off the sulfur in the purification process.

The new library facility (which included the addition of a new west wing) opened in Beverly Hills just five years after being saved from the bulldozer... named after Douglas Fairbanks and Margaret Herrick, who was the Academy librarian from 1936 to 1943 and its executive director from 1945 to 1971.

It's actually open to the public—not just to Academy members, actors, film students, or film scholars—although when you go, you have to really know what you're looking for. Because it's a non-circulating library (that doesn't loan out its materials), much of the archives contained herein aren't just out on the shelves. Instead, you've got to request that they be pulled.

But fortunately, the Academy was offering a tour to the library...

...which provided a special opportunity to peruse the building and its collection...

...without looking for anything in particular.

It doesn't matter whether or not you're interested in movie history, because the restoration work on this building is stunning. It's hard to believe it's the same place as in those old photos.

It's worth a visit—just to be able to look out that rose window from the inside.

The view has changed a bit, and the swamps are gone, but fortunately the area surrounding the old water treatment plant still feels like parkland.

The palm trees are a little taller now, but there's really nothing else obstructing the view.

Beyond the various tomes on the shelves...

...the library also houses 12 million physical images...

...including many production shots, promotional stills, costume and makeup test shots, and behind the scenes photos (in the form of prints, slides, and negatives).

They've also got storyboards from movies like Ghostbusters...

...Silence of the Lambs...

...and Grease.

There's an array of costume sketches...

...other one-of-a-kind illustrations done by hand... well as scripts, periodicals, press releases and clippings, letters, pamphlets, posters, and production art.

And then, of course, are the items that have yet to be restored or digitized. The Academy has 30 years left of their 55-year lease, so hopefully, they'll get to it all.

But their collection continues to grow, as donations come in from the estates of passed directors, producers, actors, and other crew people. It's hard to turn anything down, although they do. There just isn't enough room for multiple copies of things, or for archives of items that aren't very unique.

At some point, they might grow out of this space, too. Nothing is saved forever, so the time to appreciate it is NOW.

You can see another construction photo here and the complete architectural details of its historic significance here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Los Angeles Central Library, Twice Threatened, Twice Saved
Photo Essay: Wilshire May Company Building, Miracle Mile
Photo Essay: Geisel Library, UCSD Campus
Photo Essay: The Power Plants of the St. Francis Dam Disaster

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