When the City of Long Beach was legally required by the state to pawn off its RDA properties following the dissolution of Redevelopment, there was one property which most of Long Beach was emotionally and historically invested in: The site of the former Jergins Trust Building and, in particular, the Jergins Tunnel which ran beneath Ocean Boulevard and was the main mover of bodies between the beach and Downtown.

The site was sold to American Life—the China-owned, Seattle-based developer which plans to build a massive, 36-story hotel tower on the property—and the city required that the developer include the historic tunnel in its plans.

And it has come up with its initial proposal, set to face the Cultural Heritage Commission Monday, Sept. 10.

The Jergins Tunnel as it was during its prime. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Public Library.

The Jergins Tunnel as it was during its prime. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Public Library.

“The conceptual plans highlight the opportunity to not just re-open access to Jergins Tunnel but also share the history of the tunnel, the Jergins Trust Building, and the historical seaside resort culture of [Long Beach],” said project manager Anita Juhola-Garcia in a letter from City Staff recommending that the commission move forward with the plan.

Headed by Portland-based GBD Architects (the firm behind the hotel’s overall design) and assisted by the San Francisco-based historic preservation firm Page & Turnbull, the interpretative plan for the space—design-speak for the initial step in special projects such as this—will, first and foremost, return the tunnel’s access to the public via a street-level entrance on Ocean that descends two levels.

Plans for new access into the tunnel show an entry point on the southern side of Ocean Blvd., followed by two levels of entry via escalators. Courtesy of GBD Architects.

Plans for new access into the tunnel show an entry point on the southern side of Ocean Blvd., followed by two levels of entry via escalators. Courtesy of GBD Architects.

This has long been the request of Long Beach locals and visitors alike: “How can we access the tunnel?”—even Long Beach Heritage President Cheryl Perry noted this in her letter of support in re-opening the tunnel.

And the answer to that was always complicated after the tunnel had closed because it was not up to code in terms of fire escapes and ADA requirements—and that’s because, well, it’s an extremely old space.

The building was initially dubbed the Markwell Building between 1915 and 1919, with three stories facing north on Ocean and six stories facing south of Ocean due to the fact that it was built on the bluff that lines our coast. Around 1925, A.T. Jergins of the Jergins Oil Company purchased the building and, thanks to the work of original architect Harvey Lochridge, constructed three additional stories and a penthouse by 1928.

Each phase of the Jergins Trust Buidling, including its original state in 1919 [left], construction during 1925 [center], and completion in 1928 [right]. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Public Library.

Each phase of the Jergins Trust Buidling, including its original state in 1919 [left], construction during 1925 [center], and completion in 1928 [right]. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Public Library.

In between the purchase and the construction of the additional stories, then-Councilmember Alexander Beck was concerned about pedestrian safety. Not only were 4,000 people crossing Ocean and Pine every hour but pedestrians deaths were increasing significantly with the advent (and lack of laws concerning) the automobile.

Hence, Beck’s proposal of the tunnel in 1927, which became quickly filled with merchants, passersby, and an assortment of history—some of which still exists today, even after the building was controversially demolished in 1988.

Some of those very artifacts will be incorporated into the renovated Jergins Tunnel, including:

  • Four 23-foot-tall columns that appear to originally flank the building’s main entrance doorways on Ocean Boulevard
  • Three 11- to 12-foot-tall decorative pieces from the building’s parapet, with shield, cherub and other designs in polychrome terra cotta
  • One, 3-foot corbel-like terra cotta piece from an unknown location
  • One four-by-two-feet terra cotta/stone piece inscribed with “1930” from an unknown location

Each of these, including multiple historic photographs like this one, will be at various levels.

As of now, the first level, dubbed Landscape & Entrance, will most likely include some type of totem or kiosk that would “provide information on the history of Long Beach’s tunnels, the Jergins Trust Building and the historic location of the entry and skylight of the Jergins Tunnel.”

The Corridor Gallery on the second level is part of the story dedicated to public meeting rooms for the hotel. Given this, the corridor that leads to the tunnel’s lobby “offers an opportunity to provide wayfinding and pique interest in the tunnel with simple graphics and text,” including the overlay of historic images. The tunnel’s lobby, meanwhile, will be entirely dedicated to the history of the tunnel, including interpretive boards, artifacts on display, the re-creation of wood paneling used from original wood pieces, and video displays.

As for the Jergins Tunnel itself, which Page & Turnbull call “the star of the show,” existing casework from the 1960s will be removed to show off the full volume of the tunnel. However, the larger portions of the proposal include:

  • Sense of Skylight: The hope is to “partially re-open—if feasible—or raise the infilled ceiling to re-create the sense of the skylight void. Showcase a parapet terra cotta piece with the added height. Ideally, it would be lit with natural lighting, but the raised ceiling is an opportunity for more lighting.”
  • Supergraphic/Projection: At the north-end concrete wall, “an enlarged photograph or mural of the original conditon–with the center fountain and side stairs–could be installed on the concrete wall. Alternatively, it can be used as a screen for projecting slideshows or video.”
  • Glass Gate: Located at the southern end of the tunnel where it meets the lobby, this gateway “allows visitors to see into the tunnel when it is not open for tours.”

Moving forward, Page & Turnbull will make minimum recommendations that include cleaning and stabilizing the historic materials with the gentlest means and appropriate treatments; re-using terra cotta molding for cove lighting, as it was historically; and conform all work with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.

The interpretative plan will be discussed and voted on at tonight Cultural Heritage Commission meeting, taking place at 5:30 p.m. at the Council Chambers in City Hall (333 W. Ocean Blvd.).

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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