A vote to approve the temporary removal of the historic Dolly Varden Hotel sign from the building, which could be demolished to make way for new housing, was postponed by the Long Beach Cultural Heritage Commission on Tuesday as the panel sought another opinion on the historic status of the building itself.
Commissioners voted unanimously to request city staff to reassess the historic nature of the building that dates back to 1929 and has been capped by the historic Varden Hotel sign that advertises a “bath in every room.” The sign was designated as historic in 1995, but the building was not.
“Maybe it will turn out that it will not be historically significant, but it’s something I need to go through to be comfortable with making a decision on the sign,” said Commissioner Amy Bodek, who requested a study session be presented to the commission at a later date on the building.
The commission was only being asked to approve the temporary removal of the sign, which would be stored away until a new eight-story, 141-unit housing development is completed.
The Varden Hotel building would be demolished, but the sign would be placed on top of the project once it’s complete, according to the developers.
The city’s Planning Commission and City Council have the authority to approve or deny proposed developments, but Cultural Heritage commissioners took issue with the potential demolition of the building, which survived the 1933 earthquake, and also the loss of two prominent murals that are painted on its exterior.
The two murals are on the north-facing wall of the hotel and were installed during the 2015 Pow! Wow! event in the city. The larger of the two was painted by the urban artist Tristan Eaton and was inspired by a 1937 photograph by Margaret Bourke-White.
The smaller, monochrome mural is closest to Pacific Avenue and was painted by James Jean.
“You’d be surprised how many people visit that wall to see those murals every day,” said David Taylor, a resident of a building next to the Varden Hotel. “They are definitely bringing tourism to the town.”
Commissioners asked how those murals might be salvaged and if the developers had reached out to the artists to let them know their works could be demolished.
It’s unclear when the commission will hear an update on the historic status of the hotel. The commission had an opportunity to set a date for the study session it requested but did not provide a target date for city staff.
If the commission ultimately approves the removal of the sign, the project would advance to the Planning Commission, which could have the ultimate approval power on whether the plans can move forward, unless an appeal is filed against the project.
The 141-unit development would incorporate micro-units, a new type of housing the City Council approved last year. The entire building would be a mix of micro-units and compact one-bedroom designs with 16 of those units being reserved for low-income households.
Ryan Caldera, a senior project manager at Studio 111, which is representing the developer of the proposed project, The Agency, said the firm is already taking into account some public feedback it has heard about the sign’s placement.
Caldera said the sign could be moved to the southeast corner of the building to allow it to be more prominently seen from Pacific Avenue when looking south.
While the building is eight stories, the sign would be placed on top of the seventh story, where a rooftop deck and kitchen would be located for residents.
“We think it’s kind of a stage for the sign to be placed on,” Caldera said Tuesday.