Self-described history nerd and preservationist Katie Rispoli was sitting in her office when then-boss and adaptive reuse puppeteer Jan Van Dijs came in and posed a very dire question:
“Hey, do you want it to be Christmas?”
Without much of a hesitation, Rispoli nodded.
“Okay,” Van Dijs said. “Let’s go move a building.”
Long before arriving in 1936 at 1475 San Francisco Avenue, just east of the Los Angeles River, the Southern Pacific Depot was located along Broadway in order to connect people with City Hall. Completed in 1907, it replaced the former “ramshackle structure” that was the previous depot and sat on the block opposite Los Cerritos Park between Pacific and Cedar Streets along the then-Second Street (now Broadway). It was, for lack of a better way to explain it, a competitive and civic response to the Pacific Electric Depot, which ended at Ocean and would become part of the oceanfront “shithole,” as a Long Beach resident so lovingly referred to it, known as The Jungle during the 60s.
Moving a building was common back in the day. In fact, Magnolia Avenue was specifically structured for this purpose, providing Long Beach an easy route to do away with buildings it wanted to replace while preserving them at the same time.
When the Depot had been moved, it was shortly after the 1933 earthquake, a quake that had left its mark on not just rail depots—it had ruined the famed Moorish dome of Santa Fe’s red brick La Grande Station in Los Angeles—but City structures in general. The Depot, upon arrival on San Francisco Avenue, then acted as a testing lab for building materials, like concrete and other products of the industry, to assure that City buildings wouldn’t face the destruction they faced during earthquake.
It acted as such a laboratory until 1989, when it then was transferred to the Public Works Department and acted as a yard/offices for the crew until the early 2000s. It was then that the City did a land-swap deal, handing over the land—including the depot itself—to a private entity who wishes to create a new warehouse.
Long before we began coursing through the air, tourists and emigrants alike came to Southern California by way of train—Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles remains a testament to this. Though it wasn’t as iconic as Union Station, this is why the Southern Pacific Depot is so special: it acted as a destination point and a hallmark of Long Beach history as well as transit history.
Larry Rich, Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Long Beach, understood the depot’s importance.
In fact, during the many talks that surrounded the restoration of the Willow Springs Park wetlands area, Rich questioned creating an entirely new community center on the already-sensitive 47-acre parcel of land. With a knowledge of both the danger of the building being demolished (given it was now owned privately) and the fact that the creation of an entirely new center (with its dust, construction, and pollutants that come attached to creation of new buildings) comes with environmental consequences, he proposed a reuse of the depot.
His suggestion? Turn the depot into the Willow Springs Park community center, overlooking what will eventually be an entirely restored wetlands, and connecting it to Long Beach’s transit history by placing it near the former Union Pacific Railroad line.
Of course, there is the concern of moving the actual structure: with two fault additions (which means extra time), Rispoli and her team at her nonprofit, We Are the Next, have had to stick to preserving the original building to make sure that anything is saved at all.
A Mediterranean/Spanish mission revival style building with deep influences from the Caribbean and Dutch Colonial era, the 107-year-old depot itself is gorgeous (and, aesthetically speaking, acts as a mirror to the Northwestern Pacific Depot in Petaluma built in 1914). Detailed quatrefoils, now filled with stucco, once acted as windows and revealed teal as part of its color scheme. Decorative rafters grace the ceiling. The parapets have unique points in their lines that, at least for the time, were daring and irregular. The front ticket window, made of beautifully detailed concrete casts, lack any resemblance to revival style at all (hence the Caribbean influence).
The two aforementioned additions—one from the 1950s and another brick-and-mortar addition added at an unknown time—are not particularly the highlight (not to mention they act as impetuses to the moving process, which is already a delicate issue give the fact that the private land owners could have easily demolished the thing rather than patiently waiting for a preservation crew to figure out how to move it).
“These additions weren’t of significance for the period of the building,” Rispoli said. “Given we are trying to be as sensitive as possible when it comes to time as well as environmental concerns, our focus is on the depot itself. We want to use as much material from the additions—clearly. It’s about creating as little footprint as possible and understanding the framework of the building.”
Working with Newport Beach-based Thirtieth Street Architects and other contractors, Rispoli and crew will—quite literally—lift the building and move it, almost entirely in one piece. There’s one room that is too large to move in one piece, with the walls being laid flat onto trucks. The roof will be disassembled piece by piece and numbered since the building it too high to fit under the power lines along its route to its new home, where it will be rebuilt.
“The building is in surprisingly good condition so it will be a sight to see,” Rispoli said. “I mean, half a building with no roof rolling down the street…”
The building will make quite a trek on 15th to Magnolia, south to Ocean, east to Atlantic, north to Willow, toward California and then into the park. Due to costly manpower should the building cross the Metro’s Blue Line, Rispoli has taken the more scenic route.
It’s new home will be just south of Farm Lot 59, with the elaborate ticket window facing the inside of the park and a veranda being constructed around the depot. You will be able to go in and out of the depot with sweeping views of the park.
“I hope it’s this spot where people gather for farm-to-table dinners or even just a stroll,” Rispoli said. “They’ll be able to look out from the entrance and see this huge, now-grown forrest of willow trees that are now babies but, in fifty years, will hopefully be stronger and larger and encompass this entire walkway. We hope to not see dirt of a former oil field but a wetland, a wetland in a healthy state that the people of Long Beach can enjoy.”
Being as environmentally conscious as possible and intervening with the building’s integrity as little as possible, the depot will have a full restoration of its front façade while the rehabilitation of the rest will be conducted through close examination of historical photos, not “from just our imagination.”
Details, in this sense, matter.
“Some of the decorative rafters are in poor shape and will have to be reconstructed,” Rispoli. “The quatrefoils look like they’ve always been filled with stucco but they actually acted as glass-less windows with carved, wooden bars; they were essentially vents… We’re bringing back some original elements that have been hidden for 75 years.”
What the tale of the Southern Pacific Depot ultimately reveals is that buildings are saved because they are used. No one wants abandoned buildings and though many proclaim a love of and for history, utility acts as a protective layer amongst our oldest structures.
Oh, and it revealed one more thing: “This was the best Christmas present ever.“
The Southern Pacific Depot will be moved in December. For more pictures, check out We Are the Next’s Instagram, @next_nonprofit.
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